The Undertaker’s Son – Interview with the Affolters

Has anyone ever thought of what happened after every great western movie that was ever made? Who would be the most affected? Did anyone ever think of how it would impact the son if he saw his own father die? What would he do? 4 minds of the same family thought these questions over, turned it into a story and made it into an entry for Crazy 8s. 3 out of 4 Affolter brothers came to explain the whole backstory behind The Undertaker’s Son, an idea that nobody seemed to touch base upon. And just like everything else they’ve ever worked on, there’s not a single fault in the whole movie, just 4 Affolters with the same opinions. Who says having the same mindset makes life boring? These 4 clearly don’t.

HNMAG : Seeing as you all did the same jobs on set together (Directing, Producing, Writing), did you take turns or do the jobs together in a team effort?

Thomas : We don’t take turns, we all work together in a team effort, sharing one creative mind, and try to get the best possible result.

Heath : Jon is trained in animation, so he has a good visual eye, so he tends to be on the monitor all the time, making sure everything looks right, whereas Thomas and I will float back and forth from the monitor to the set and work a little more directly towards the actors. We’re usually looped all on walkies together so there’s easy communication between the 4 of us, but on this one was a smaller set, so we could get together and chat between every take to make sure that we all were happy with what we were getting.

Jon : Yeah, there’s times when we’re all together on the set talking to the actors planning out the scene beforehand and times when we’re all behind monitor if we’re filming. But often times, we’ll be spread out like one of us is working out the scene, one of us is talking to the camera guys, one of us is working with costume designers, so we kind of spread out if needed to tackle all the jobs at once. But like Thomas said, we all have a collected vision, a shared vision, so no matter what kind of department we’re in, we all share the same vision, the same idea.

HNMAG : What gave you the inspiration to make a Western story about the aftermath? Was this something that had been on your mind for quite a while? What makes it more unique than other western movies?

Thomas : When we originally wrote the script, it was just because we had the chance to make a western genre, and originally it was a different story altogether, something about a brothel… But then we thought it would be cool to explore the notion that violence is such a staple in the western genre. Shootouts, Sheriffs vs. bad guys, and all this other stuff you kind of see in the western genre. So we thought it would be cool to explore what happened after all that violence, sort of keep up a traditional western in terms of the setting and the costume design and all of that. Take the story and add sort of a unique twist to it where you have any kind of violence, instead the story is the aftermath of all of that. It’s an interesting way to tackle a tried and true genre. We had our grandmother pass away last year, so around this time last year while we making our other short film Counter Act, so when it came time to pitch something to Crazy 8s this year, it was something we had on our minds. She had an open casket funeral, so we all had that moment to see her embalmed body, and that was an emotional floor we tried to carry forward into the story and try to fill it with her memory. In fact, one of the main props in the film is one of our grandmother’s old pieces of jewelry we got from in our family, so we kind of have a piece of her memory in the film, which is cool.

Jon : Another aspect was exploring the undertaking of how not everybody wants to do it, it’s kind a of dark and eerie job, but at the same time, there’s kind of a beauty to it. Embalming bodies gives people a chance to see their loved ones at a funeral and say goodbye. So we thought that job at a funeral would kind of have an interesting aspect to explore and then all of the emotions behind it with the son, wanting to take over the business or not wanting to, and not follow in his father’s footsteps, not really fully understanding and comprehending what his father does, and not having the same appreciation his father sees.

Heath : Yeah. And just in the job of undertaking we just thought that time period was a really interesting time to look at that job because embalming was a very new kind of thing in that time. It didn’t really become a common place to embalm a body until after the civil war because families wanted their sons to get preserved long enough to get sent on the battleship home. It was more common that when they died, there would be a quick burial. It was like a new technology in the old west sort of thing, and we thought that was kind of an interesting thing to look at too. To us, we look at it like it’s the super old time and this is like a tried and true practice but to them it was almost like science fiction in a way, having bodies preserved so that everyone could go look at it…

HNMAG : What kind of methods and directions really helped the actors to get motivated for such an interesting setting of a western town?

Jon : We had a lot of discussions, beforehand in terms of rehearsals and talked it all out, made sure we were all on the same page, we did a bit of research writing the dialogue of the story, but a lot of the actors did the work themselves, the most important job of directing is finding a good cast because once you’ve cast properly, 95% of the work is already done. We were sort of able to join them for the ride. We try not to take too much accountability for the performances in the film because that credit belongs to the actors and we think they did a really good job. We just stand on the sidelines and try not to get in the way.

Heath : Yeah, we had a lot of discussions about character before we started, but yeah, like Jon was saying they’re all such pros that once we got onto set and they were performing, there were like little tweaks here and there, but it wasn’t some sort of ham-up thing where we had to use some sort of manipulation to try to get them into the moment, they were pro all the way.

HNMAG : Was it difficult to find the locations you were looking for? What made them ideal for the western town setting?

Jon : Hm, yeah, obviously with the period piece, it was kind of hard to do it, without a good location that has that old west style. We were looking at Bordertown originally, but they were booked up solid so there was no hope in getting that. Jamestown was our backup and we were lucky enough to get that location. It really helped sell the film and dress the outside and all that, but 99% of the work was done for us already. It looks just like the old west, so we just had to walk in, throw in a couple pieces of old furniture, and start shooting. We were really fortunate to have that as opposed to having to build all our film sets from scratch, or find something not quite as ideal.

Heath : Yeah, Jamestown was great. We were lucky to be able just to get it first of all to shoot there, but while we were there, they accommodated us and they let us have the run of the full town. We ended up doing our interiors there as well because we found interiors of buildings that we thought would work perfectly for what we wanted. We’re extremely grateful to Kevin McKinnes and Jamestown for giving us this opportunity.

Thomas : Yeah, we had 3 on-sight horses and horse wranglers which we were able to use to film. One pulling an old west style wagon, and another one being ridden and another one being hitched up to the side of a building. That really added to the authenticity, real live horses not CGI or anything like that.

HNMAG : Were there any major problems that you had to deal with while shooting The Undertaker’s Son?

Thomas : Snow beforehand. The week before shooting, there was a HUGE dump of snow and we did our tech survey on location the week before, we were wandering out and the location was knee-deep in snow making it impossible to film in those conditions… at least with the means that we had. We were basically hoping it would all pan out, even on Wednesday and Thursday before we were shooting, it was like severe winter storms, they said it was going to be freezing rain, and they were going to lock down the city, there was all this crazy weather stuff. We were fortunate that it didn’t pan out badly as thought, so we were able to get all of  our equipment and it warmed up a bit, even rained a little to help us out with the snow on sight, so by the time we came to film, load everything up and dress all our sets, it was at a reasonable level. And even more so on Sunday when we filmed our big exterior on the street. It was pretty much perfect, we had a nice warm sunny day so it wasn’t too uncomfortable for all the background that we had. There was still enough snow in the shot that we could use as winter, it gave a nice touch to the film without being too obscenely uncomfortable or difficult to make it all happen. Generally our problems happen in the pre-production phase, but once we have everything all set, it’s all a matter of crossing your fingers and hoping nothing goes wrong, but it was a pretty smooth shoot once we got into the first day of filming.

Heath : Yeah, little things that would pop up, that were issues, we had someone there supporting us to help take care of it right away. We had a great crew so that made the shoot fairly smooth for us.

Jon : I wouldn’t say this was a problem, more of a challenge. The third day, the outside was an exterior shoot where we wanted a lot of extras to fill a small, bustling western town so we managed to get 50 background performers out there but then the problem was how we were going to get costumes to make them look like the proper time period. We were lucky enough to have Presentation House Theatre in North Van, they basically gave us 50 costumes for men and women, pretty much just for free. Then Vancouver Props and Costumes, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre, they gave us a little bit of range, one or two pieces to a large variety of stuff. Some of them are Crazy 8s sponsors to begin with, and some of them we found and were lucky to get them to begin with. Everything turned out great, everybody looked great.

HNMAG : What would you say was your favourite part of this experience?

Thomas : It’s tough to pinpoint one exact thing, but definitely on our third day when we had that big difficult street scene and how everyone came together, everyone on our design team dressing the street up, our cinematographers doing an excellent job making it beautiful, and our actors giving us great take after great take, it really felt like we were in a fit rhythm and everyone sort of found their groove, it actually felt like we were standing in the old west. Y’know, part of the movie magic is getting to manufacture a reality and make you be there. There’s a great joy in getting transported to another place and you don’t get that unless you get a cast and crew who are all creating it and working at the top of their games and we were very very fortunate to have that all take place.

Jon : Yeah, I would just say, the overall Crazy 8s experience, because we’ve known about the Crazy 8s film society and the film contest for a few years and to have that challenge, to do it and be successful at doing that. It’s a very gratifying kind of thing, to say that we did it, and we don’t self combust or crash and burn in the midst of doing it. And just have this chance of working with such a talented cast and crew, just everybody doing it. They’re all super pro and super fun to work with. Some of them were new, who we’ve never worked with before. Everybody puts their best foot forward, and we were very fortunate and lucky to have this great final experience and have such a great final project.

Heath : Yeah, I would almost say the same thing as Thomas. That third day, because I really liked the prep period too, the meetings with people, and just like getting on the same page. Talking about the project, sharing it with other people, and brainstorming ideas. That’s really fun. But personally, I am a worrier. I worry about EVERYTHING. All the time. So even when we’re having fun, I’m still worried like, “Whoa, is this going to turn out the way we want it to??” And I think on that third day, because the exterior scene is our big production value moment, where there’s all these different elements. The heart of the film is the interior scenes, it’s all the performances between the father and the son. And because we already shot those on the first two days, we already had those in the can, and I was super happy and confident about how the performances went. So then it was like “Well, are we going to be able to pull off this big oner?” The third day was basically this big one-shot. And there was this moment around take 6 or 7 where I knew we had a good one in the can and it was just a matter of noticing. The steadicam operator was moving and the focus puller was moving, the actors were going one way, there were 50 extras, horses and wagons all around and it was just pretty awesome that we managed to pull this off. That was the icing on the cake of it all.

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