FOREIGN HORROR: An Interview with John Cairns - Writer/Director of Schoolgirl Apocalypse

Part of why I love doing this Film Deviant thing is that it gives us the opportunity to shine a light on smaller films by independent filmmakers that deserve a little more attention than the usual soulless big budget blockbuster that comes out every weekend. Some of these little films stand apart from the usual Hollywood stuff and I am very proud to feature them on this blog. One such film is the awesome Schoolgirl Apocalypse. An atypical horror zombie film from Japan with deeper aspirations. Writer/director John Cairns is the kind of filmmaker the genre needs...and today, we ask him 10 questions!

Originally from New Orleans, John has spent the past 15 years living in Japan with his family. He has studied film all over the world, honing his skills shooting commercials and short films. But, it is his feature debut, Schoolgirl Apocalypse, that has caught the attention of Film Deviants everywhere. A film rich with strong feminine characters and traditional Japanese elements...and zombie gore. 

FILM DEVIANT: When I first discovered Schoolgirl Apocalypse  I was blown away with how deep the commentary is. I basically sat down to watch a zombie movie about a schoolgirl in a short skirt chopping down zombies and got all this rich symbolism about female empowerment. Was that your goal from the start? To make a thinking man’s zombie film?
JOHN CAIRNS: First off, thank you so much for the kind words about the film. It means a lot to me to find those who appreciate SGA  for what it is. Not sure if it’s your intention but your first question really cuts to the chase though.

Yes, I set out to make something of a metaphysical horror film, but it’s been a way bigger issue than I’d ever imagined. I really didn’t anticipate what a double-edged sword it’d be. There are some reviewers who are pleased to find it’s not just another schlocky J-schoolgirl exploitation flick and then there are those who are downright pissed off that it isn’t. But I shouldn’t dwell on that too much here.

I think the female empowerment aspect evolved at the script level as both myself and the producer, Yukie Kito, wanted the crux of the film to be the coming-of-age story of this sheltered high school girl who has to become a brave woman over the course of a few days. Since all the men go murderously insane, it also follows that all that’s left for compelling characters are the various women survivors. I wanted to examine how different women would react to this apocalypse so the plot grew out of that.

I’d never set out to make a feminist film though – just wanted to make the characters, who happened to be women, three dimensional and real. I’m very happy it gets labeled a feminist genre movie though.  
FILM DEVIANT: Where did you draw your inspiration for this project from?
JOHN CAIRNS: When I first came to Japan I lived in a remote village in the northern mountains. There wasn’t much to do up there but eventually I stumbled across some manga of this horror genius, Kazuo Umezu. To learn Japanese I began to translate his manga word for word. In all I think I collected about eighty of his horror books and translated quite a few of them. Many years later when I moved to Tokyo I got to interview him for a magazine article - a real dream come true! After that I’d see him from time to time and he’d give me advice on story-telling.

So the landscape of Northern Japan and the style of Kazuo Umezu were probably the greatest influences. Then some films such as 28 Days Later, No Country for Old Men, and Freeway  gave me a lot of context. I also have to say that Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a huge influence. I love his films Cure and Kairo almost exclusively for their atmosphere.
FILM DEVIANT: I’ve always been into Japanese culture…from the older film classics to everything anime and manga. I still read Blade of the Immortal religiously. In what ways did you extract those elements in creating the film initially?
JOHN CAIRNS: The scene where the schoolgirl is attacked by her own father comes almost straight out of an episode of Kazuo Umezu comic called The Floating Classroom where a teacher mysteriously turns on his students, killing them one by one. It’s not like I copied it frame by frame or anything, but the lighting and timing was definitely influenced by his manga art.

I’m also a huge fan of Junji Ito’s manga so the first fifteen minutes of my film is heavily influenced by manga such as Spiral that focus on macabre circumstances occurring in remote villages. His comics have such a sparse yet creepy atmosphere that reading them feels like being trapped in an empty hall with a VW-sized spider crouched silently on the opposite side.
FILM DEVIANT: What has the hardest part been in terms of putting a film like this together?
JOHN CAIRNS: This being a first film, the hardest part was getting the producers and investors to believe in me and trust my ability to even finish a narrative film. I really don’t blame anyone for not trusting a relative unknown. I know I got lucky (finally! after two decades of trying!) that such great producers, cast and crew actually took a risk with me on this project.

The other challenge was making the film in Japan. It is crazy expensive to even breathe in Japan much less make a film there. We had less than two weeks to shoot the live action parts of the film so I thought the hard part was over when we wrapped the shoot. One month into doing the animation sequences, editing and sound, the big old 3/11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster hit. It gave a one, two, three pummeling to my hopes of finishing the film peacefully by the summer festival deadline. It was a real tough stretch to make the film’s intended world premiere at the 2011 Puchon Fantastic Film Festival in Korea. I won’t go into all the hair-raising details now but we barely made it in time.

When I finished the film it was weird how there’s a big scene with all these corpses lying on a beach. We had no idea that in a few short months this eerie fantasy would be a horrible reality. Also, since we were doing our audio after the disaster, there was one part of the film soundtrack I added as a result of my real life experience.

I was in Tokyo when the earthquake hit and I was running between all these weaving, wobbling skyscrapers to get to this big open-area park. People were screaming all around me and pointing above my head but I didn’t take the time to look up even though I heard the buildings cracking and pinging. (It was constructed to make that sound instead of falling apart but I had no idea about that at the time.) When I finally got to the park there was this loud siren and an announcement echoing between all the skyscrapers. It was in both Japanese and English but because of all the echoing you couldn’t make out the words at all. All I could hear was the word “tsunami”.

Much later, I heard the story of Miki Endo, a woman in her mid-twenties who saved at least 1000 lives by bravely staying behind in the town office and announcing to everyone to get to higher ground. Her voice echoed across the local loudspeakers until it was abruptly cut off by the huge black wave. If you watch SGA  to about the 15 minutes mark you’ll hear a woman’s voice (actually my wife’s voice) speaking on a loudspeaker telling everyone to stay inside and wait for further announcements. The decision to add this came after my experience in Tokyo and also learning about the heroic announcements of Miki Endo who gave her life to save so many others.
FILM DEVIANT: What is your favorite horror film and non-horror film?
JOHN CAIRNS: I would say the best horror film of all time is The Exorcist, but my favorite is a Japanese film called Onibaba.

As for favorite non-horror film – it’s a French film called Irma Vep, but that has much more to do with personal reasons than anything I could rationally justify. I studied film for a year in Paris so, in a funny way, that movie summed up a lot of what I saw going on there as well as elsewhere in the film world.
FILM DEVIANT: Who and what inspires you as a filmmaker?
JOHN CAIRNS: I think I’m most inspired by other filmmakers who, regardless of genre, go about making their films fearlessly. I love films that take risks and have some soul left in them, even if they appear a little flawed or broken sometimes. Conversely I feel depressed by movies, slick and mega-budget or otherwise, that make choices out of obvious fears – for example: fear of not being popular, fear of losing money, fear of critics hating them, fear of being whatever...
I think we all have these fears but have to try as hard as possible not to act on them. Each one of us must know a film or two that we love that were made fearlessly. I don’t want to spoil it by saying my own favorites here. I suppose everyone has their own list because the most fearless films are often very personal films too. We shouldn’t all have the same favorites or that would mean we’d be living in a dystopia.
FILM DEVIANT: What is your opinion of the current landscape of horror cinema in Japan and world-wide?
JOHN CAIRNS: I suppose there’s just too much “trending” going on.
I know there has to be some kind of system by which films get made and shown to audiences but right now we’re all running around like chickens with our heads chopped off chasing crowd-funding, twittering, youtubing, facebooking and so on - I don’t see an end to it all. It’s like we’re all working for free so these sites can have content and then trying so hard to get more views by making snappy-gimmicky punch-line films so a handful of people can “like” them into a penniless oblivion. Out of this system can emerge a handful of crowd-pleasing directors who have trended their way to stardom. I know this is old news but this whole “you have to be your own brand” thing is so disheartening and counterproductive to actually making good films in my opinion.
The funny thing is there’s still a fair amount of good horror films getting made every year despite it all. The problem is, I find it so hard to find them. The rating systems on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes seem so surreal to me. Half the time I find a real gem only to see it got slammed on those two sites. On those sites, a critic, who thinks the greatest film ever made is Armageddon, is giving a weighed review of one star to an amazing, brilliant film like DeadGirl. It’s like asking a vegetarian to rate steak restaurants or meat-lovers to review an Ayurvedic café. Thank God for sites like Film Deviant! Soldier on, man!
As for Japan, there is not enough domestic interest in horror to sustain a horror film industry, so most of the film producers try to “trend” something J-catchy with the words “Sushi”, “Ninja” or whatever and toss a bunch of soft porn at it so it can sell abroad. There are some great films like MachineGirl  and Zombie Ass  that are full of so much amazing creativity but most of the time it seems like distributors and production companies keep blindly hurling money at the same trendy stuff until they go bankrupt. Japan has so much more to offer.
I attribute this to a huge gap right now between producers and directors in Japan. There’s almost zero trust between the two groups and for this reason no real coordination toward interesting new work can really happen. Producers feel directors just want to have standing ovations at film fests and don’t care if the films make any money. Directors feel that the producers just want them as proxy-directors who stay within a fixed budget and do as they say. The funny thing is, both sides are right. Sadly, this is where things are currently at in Japan and why you’ll only get one or two interesting horror films per year.
FILM DEVIANT: I noticed that Schoolgirl Apocalypse  is much more story-oriented rather than an all out action/gore exploitation film, which ultimately makes for a much more cerebral and symbolic film. Was this a deliberate choice…or were there budgetary restraints that prevented more action-oriented set pieces?
JOHN CAIRNS: Ah, a very perceptive question that I can’t dodge!

Yes, you are absolutely correct no matter how hard it is for me to admit. When I was writing the script, I’d done enough research to know that a horror genre film needs some action or thrills about every fifteen minutes to keep the majority of horror fans watching. Yes, my original script had some really good action and horror scenes at about this frequency and yes, we had to limit ourselves to three such scenes instead of six due to budget constraints. I still remember the line producer repeatedly saying, “I know this will hurt the film but we have no choice.” It was heart-breaking then, but I’m over it now.
In the end we decided on the “road less traveled” and put our limited production period into focusing on the psychological journey of our protagonist, the schoolgirl Sakura, rather than burning up our measly 13 shooting days on a roller coaster ride of thrills, spills and schoolgirl panty shots. (If you’re sensing any bitterness here then you’re not mistaken.) I know that I’d have claimed a larger audience with even just one more action sequence to spice things up but I’m still proud of our choices and the film we made on very limited resources.
FILM DEVIANT: I agree. Sometimes things happen for a reason and I very much enjoy the film that you ended up with. Any cool stories from the production of the film?
JOHN CAIRNS: I go into this a lot more on the “extras” you can find on the DVD but one of the most horrifying experiences actually happened while we were location scouting. The line producer, my wife and I would go out into remote places hunting for creepy beeches, abandoned love hotels and what-not. I got it in my mind that I wanted an elephant, escaped from a zoo, roaming past the schoolgirl Sakura toward the end of the film (it was supposed to be a foreshadowing thing). We ended up at a rugged reserve where old zoo elephants were retired and had to literally hack our way through dense jungle to get through to them.
When we finally got back to the road, we found we’d been attacked by Japan’s notorious mountain leeches, AKA land leeches or yamabiru. It took us a long time to painfully pry one of them off my wife’s leg. She kept bleeding for over an hour. I had one trying to claw its way through my jeans but didn’t find any others. These things live on land and inject their host with local anesthetic and anticoagulants and grow to ten times their original size before dropping off. It was just a fluke (pun intended) that my wife noticed an itchy feeling early on.
In the end, even after all that horror, just to have an elephant move across a shot, the zoo people wanted to charge us five thousand US dollars. Needless to say I didn’t get my big elephant money shot.
There were so many stories like this, so please buy the DVD and watch them on the extras or read about them on my blog (at On the DVD, I rendered some of them in short animations so I hope it’s entertaining enough to be worth the price.
FILM DEVIANT: I would actually love to see an eventual return to the world that you created with Schoolgirl Apocalypse. Any plans for a sequel…or spin-off? What is next for you?
JOHN CAIRNS: Not many people are aware but there is a Schoolgirl Apocalypse  book available on I plan to have a second book that picks up where this story leaves off but also follows the character Aoi more than the first one. I do hope there will be a second and even third film if possible.
I’m currently working on a suspense-horror film based in Tokyo that I want to shoot in 2014. It’s an entirely different story. Everything is going well for that project but I don’t want to jinx it so let’s pick it up at a later date.

John Cairns is a talented filmmaker filled with great promise. It is his approach as a director and his imagination as a writer that makes him someone to look out for in the coming years. If you are in the mood for something much deeper to go along with your gory zombie film, you need look no further than Schoolgirl Apocalypse...available at iTunes and AmazonAlso available in book form! For more info on his stuff...check him out HERE!

Thanks for reading,