Welcome back to the Midnighter section at SXSW 2024, where the movies are fresh and funky and freaky, and that definitely Azrael from director E.L. Katz and You're Next scribe Simon Barrett.

The story takes place in a future post-apocalyptic version of the world where monsters roam the woods. The survivors, at least here, have formed a sect where no one is allowed to talk—forcibly, it seems, through some type of haphazard operation that leaves everyone's throats scarred.

Samara Weaving is the heroine on the run from this sect with her boyfriend, played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. And, as you've probably surmised, none of these characters speak in the film at all. So while you might not initially grasp what the sect wants, or what evil plots are afoot, the bloody ride makes it all worthwhile.

But silence was not on the docket for Katz and me. We met during the festival to chat about the film's challenges and how it all came together in a discussion that often had us both laughing about how dang hard it is to make a movie, especially one as fun and weird as Azrael. Enjoy.

Editor's note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: What got you excited about this project?

E. L. Katz: Yeah, probably a little bit of how weird it is, for sure. I think I've always been a fan of Simon Barrett's writing. We met on the set of his first movie, Dead Birds, which I also thought was a dope script. And I got into the horror industry in many ways, because I was like, "Oh, Simon is doing it professionally. He's making movies, and he's making weird movies."

And when I went to film school, my guidance counselor there, I told him, I was like, "Oh, you know what I want to do? I want to work in the horror industry." And the guy was like, "You can't do that. You've got to be more general." But I was like, "This is the shit I really love."

And meeting Simon, it definitely was one of those things like, "Oh man, this dude lives in LA, he's writing crazy shit." And I think reading some of the other stuff that he wrote over the years when I moved to LA, it was always such a joy because, sometimes, in contrast with the studio movies that were coming out, his stuff felt just so atmospheric and violent and surprising, that we became very close, and I would send him my scripts as I started getting into the industry.

One day we had this challenge because we were in a moment of maybe creative confusion or "where are we at in our careers," because the industry doesn't always make these crazy movies. And there's been times it's been more jam-packed than others.

And we're like, "Okay, well, you have to write something new. I have to write something new. Let's make a bet. We should just write a script this month that we would love to see." And he wrote Azrael, which was called The Lamb at the time, and I got distracted by some bad relationship or something and didn't write anything at all.

And I read it, and I was like, "Well, this is new." Which is very much a benchmark of his kind of work. It's always new. There's always something new going on because he does not want to do something that's been done. And at the time, reading it, I was like, "Oh my God, there's no dialogue. I don't understand what's happening completely, but I'm really immersed in this world. And it feels very real-time. And there's just not much like it."

And he tried to make it for a bit, and people were saying it was too weird. And then, years later, it came back around, and Dan Kagan asked if I was interested in maybe trying to do it. And I was like, "There's no way anybody finances this crazy movie. But yeah, it'd be a dream."

At the time, I was working on a studio development thing of something that I wasn't completely in love with because it felt very by the numbers. I'm not saying any names ... And then this being a potential, I was like, "Well, there's no way this will get financed, but yeah, sure. We'll give it a try. We'll talk to some people."

And then we went out with it, and some people were like, "Yeah, we'll pay to make this movie." So yeah, I was drawn to the challenge of it, I was drawn to the novelty of it, my relationship with Simon over time, and I love all the elements in the genre that are expressed in it.

NFS: When I was watching, I felt early on, within the first 10 minutes, "This feels almost like a Black List script because it has already swung so hard for the fences, and it's so weird, and I don't know where it's going, but I love that it got made."

Katz: Cool. Thank you.

NFS: So yeah, definitely excited from the opening minutes. And you mentioned it being a challenge, with no dialogue.

Katz: Oh, man.

NFS: So what was the biggest obstacle you found in the lack of dialogue in telling the story?

Katz: You work your way through each scene, really. I think you realize that there's some things that are very easy to be expressed with a performance, and then you find out there's other things that are maybe a little bit more obscure and, then it gets a little bit more tricky.

And that the really base primary stuff, yeah, we can kind of aim at that, and then there's nuance along the way. But if you sometimes get a little too intellectual with it or conceptual, it's hard for the audience to pick it up. So those scenes are no longer in the movie.

But yeah, I think that what it comes down to is you realize what is the actual part of the story that makes sense and matters to you, and it's the character's emotional journey. And I think that that was the thing that we would always hang our hat on. That was the thing that Sam, Samara [Weaving], was always really good at. And so it doesn't feel confusing when you're doing it in those very clear scenes.

You're angry, you're in love, you're confused. Those things come through, and you don't need more than the human face. You don't need words. If somebody says, "I'm scared." That's terrible. So if anything, this felt just more honest storytelling in that sense.

NFS: There's a really impressive fight sequence that is one shot. And I want to ask about the ins and outs of that scene, and why you chose to do it that way, and how you accomplished it.

Katz: Yes. Well, originally, and this is a nugget just for No Film School, but there was a moment in time where we were like, "What if this whole movie was one shot?" Now, quickly in prep, that became clear to us that that was absolutely impossible.So I had created these hilarious storyboards that showed a single take version of almost the entire movie. And now they're just fun comic book stuff to look at.

But I was like, "You know what? We have to preserve one of these scenes. We need to do one of these scenes just because it was such a part of the conversation before, it has to still come through. I think that that's exciting." And this one, to me, philosophically it made sense because it was like, there was a situation that was a problem for her.

And to me, you're not cutting because the problem is not over. And that, to me, was the joke of the shitty scenario that she was in. And then it's about finding a location that has the grade, that helps with the rolling around, but we also need it to work for the actual other part of the set piece that sets it off.

And then Stanimir Stamatov, our stunt coordinator, was a genius, and he conceived of this story about the gun that I think really holds a lot of it together. And the back and forth of it, and just these two really tired, beat-the-fuck-up people, where it's like you have your John Wick kind of scenes where everybody's just such a fast badass, but it was kind of interesting going like, "Okay, what are two really fucked-up people flopping around like" And just that that's going.

Yeah, that was the thing. And that is one of my favorite scenes of the movie.

And it was very hard to do it in this single take because you realize if we tried to do the movie, we would've shot like 10% of the film, but every single thing to make sure you're hiding this cut, matching these things. It's incredibly technical. And sometimes those technical conversations at 3:00 A.M. in the morning in the woods in Estonia where the wind is blowing, and everybody is just at half capacity is very hard. But yeah, it's one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

NFS: You mentioned it being night, and I did also want to just say that I found the night forest scenes so beautiful. What were the technical aspects of that? How were you lighting it?

Katz: Well, we had a shitload of Big Bertha balloons. It was like a lot of lighting from above, which kind of does that soft diffusion, so it becomes this kind of weird, heavenly light. Yeah.

Mark Daniel was our cinematographer. He had done a movie called November, which I really liked, which was one of the reasons I was interested in Estonia. He'd won an ASC award for it.

But in a lot of productions that my friends have worked on or different ones that I've worked on, when you try to shoot night—because we were in Eastern Europe, our money did go a little longer, did go a little further. So we were able to get, you need big lights, quite big lights. Lights that are so big that when the wind got so bad, we'd look up and be like, this thing's going to come down and kill all of us.

But, at that point, yes, there's a craft, but it's also, it's a budgetary thing. Shooting night is very hard. It becomes two-dimensional, just mush very easily. You need really big lights, and that is anything that any DP will tell you. Yeah, that's a line item. You give me the resources, I can do it. If you don't, it's going to be mush.

NFS: What was your shoot schedule? How many days?

Katz: We had 30 nights and then nine studio soundstage days.

NFS: Oof.

Katz: So the nights were all in the woods, which was like the grueling marathon of it, and then we took our broken bodies and brains into a bunker. Basically, it was a military bunker that we had to outfit with giant heaters, which was the interior of the church and the tunnel and stuff like that, because it was not built to be a sound stage.

NFS: The finale is quite impressive. It looked very expensive. Was that the most complicated sequence?

Katz: It was all the most complicated. But yeah, practically burning down an entire village in the real woods was very complicated from a safety perspective. All that stuff, there wasn't a day that wasn't complicated. But yes, with fire, you're like, "Okay, we don't want anybody to get hurt. We don't want to burn down the beautiful Estonian forest. There's a lot of stakes involved in complexity." But yeah, it was all hard.

NFS: Yeah.

Katz: There was not an easy day on that movie.

NFS: Especially in the horror space, what advice would you give a new director?

Katz: Well, it might not apply for this movie, per se, but I feel like if you want to get stuff made, you have to be writing things. You need to have a good support system of creative people that will be honest with you.

You need to push yourself to create stuff that's exciting to you. You can't wait for somebody to bring something to you. You've got to build a community.

A lot of where we started, me and Simon and Adam and our friends, Ty and Bruckner and all these other people, we were a community, and we worked to stay connected and collaborate and give each other advice and push each other and constantly be coming up with stuff that we wanted to do. I think that it's really important to find people that you can connect with, and I think it can be a lonely job if you don't, and I think it can sometimes be an uninspiring job if you don't.

NFS: Is there anything that you wanted to mention I didn't ask?

Katz: No. I think I'm just excited for people to watch this thing. I think that I'm never going to explain the mythology, so enjoy writing your own version of it when you go onto Reddit. I just think that I'm very excited for a million versions of the mythology to come out, because I think that that's so much more fun than anything me or Simon could say.