Casting based on actors' similarities to or relationships with each other is a tried and true format in film at this point. The original Ocean's 11 brought together five members of the Rat Pack. ATL tapped multiple fixtures in the city's hip-hop scene. The Expendables series has an elite class of action stars from the past 25 years fighting on the same squad. Coen Brothers movies always feature actors who've appeared in past Coen Brothers movies.
Even with that trope in mind though, few could have predicted Dead 7, a Syfy channel original movie premiering on April 1. In the first moments of the trailer, we're presented with the exclamation, "To fight the undead, you have to resurrect 90s boy bands." In other words, it's a horror-western hybrid B-movie about a gang of post-apocalyptic, zombie-killing cowboys played by members of NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, and O-Town. It's also brought to you by the production company that did Sharknado.
The brainchild of director Danny Roew and Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, who co-wrote the script with Sawyer Perry, Dead 7 stars Backstreet Boy Nick Carter as a Man With No Name-style hero who unites the titular, ragtag crew in order to save their small town from a necromancer named, well, Apocalypta. Nothing about the movie is subtle, but it's one of those good-bad ideas that may come as delight to stoners and lowbrow culture buffs. Having all of these former pop musicians on the same team hammers home the "unlikely alliance" theme, as do scenes such as when NSYNC's Joey Fatone and Backstreet's Howie Dorough fight together in a Cassidy-and-Sundance-esque final stand. "They're everywhere," barks a harried Fatone, "And I'm running out of whiskey!"
Dead 7 is produced by "mockbuster" juggernaut The Asylum, who skillfully choose to release it while ensemble-driven Westerns like Quentin Tarantino's Hateful Eight and Netflix's Ridiculous 6 still linger in public consciousness. Unlike their many other fever dream B-movies though, Dead 7 features a cast of former heartthrobs living out their pulpy Hollywood dreams, which makes the over-the-top everything feel somewhat justified. With a trailer arriving last week, we wondered how this absurd vision was actualized, so we hopped on the phone with director Danny Roew to chat zombies and boy bands before the film premieres.
VICE: Can you explain how the idea for Dead 7 was hatched?
Danny Roew: It all started five or six years ago with this idea that Nick Carter had. I've known Nick for about 12 years, and we've always talked about teaming up and doing something along these lines, and this was what we ended up running with. He had developed a script that I would chime in on every now and then, and he wrote that with Sawyer Perry. That was called Dead West and it was more of a traditional Western.
We approached [production company] the Asylum, and they were on board. They brought it to SyFy, who were like, "We like a lot of the themes in this but we don't really do Westerns." So we threw out a lot of the script and catered it to a lot of the other talent we were bringing in. Honestly, a lot of this all came together a month before we shot.
How did you first meet Nick Carter?
Through mutual musician friends. It's been more of a friendship than anything else, but then he gave me the opportunity to do some video work for him, and then this movie… So he's been extremely loyal. It just kind of grew out of our mutual love for these kinds of movies.
Did you both always plan to fill the cast with members of other boy bands?
He knew he wanted to put some people in it, but that idea didn't really come about until the last year or so. He thought that maybe there'd be some parts that we could throw to other friends of his, but we were originally considering bringing in more traditional actors—which would have made it a completely different movie.
Do any of them contribute to music in the movie?
Bryan Shackle, who's worked on a bunch of Nick's recent music, scored it and produced a big theme song, which a lot of the guys got on.
Which actor surprised you the most?
Debra Wilson [Avatar, MADtv] was originally only in two scenes as Apocalypta, and we shot two days with her, and the studio came back like, "We love Debra, we need to really build up this whole character." So we rewrote the ending on the fly and gave her three or four more scenes. A lot of improv went into it.
Do you usually do this much of your work on the fly? Or was it unique to this project?
I do have a background in improv. The tricky thing about this was that it's an action movie with a plot, but we also maintained a level of comedy in it. Joey [Fatone] was a lot of fun because he could come up with stuff on the spot. A lot of things hadn't been determined about the universe we were creating, so after we shot something we'd bank it and be like, 'OK we've committed to this.' But we tried to be as flexible as we could.
There's a quote from a book by the first assistant director of Apocalypse Now that always stuck with me, "Look out for the fastball and watch for the curve." It was like that every day. The crew just had fun with it. We just had to tell everybody, "We're all 12 years old again making a movie in our parents' backyard." This is that kind of movie. And I think that really shines—everybody from the cast and crew really wrapped their head around that mentality.
So Joey Fatone was the most comfortable with improvising?
Joey was definitely the more experienced and probably the most natural. He even joked that he was being typecast because he's the heaviest drinker out of the cast and his character is Whiskey Joe in the movie. In the back of my mind, when we were shooting, I realized that there are actually several different drinking games you can play while you're watching the movie.
Take a drink every time there's a cameo. Take a drink every time one of the seven main characters are either introduced or killed. Take a drink every time a gun is cocked—creative sound design, that's its own drinking game. Or the simplest, whenever Joey drinks, you drink. That's probably gonna be the most effective one.
How did the less experienced actors among the cast deal with the improvisation?
Everybody had their own input on their characters, which was really cool and gave them a chance to own it, while it also took a lot of pressure off me. So we trusted what they wanted to bring to the table, and then we tweaked it from there. We wanted them to be able to be themselves rather than play themselves, because they all had various levels of acting abilities, and we didn't want anyone to have to overreach for what they were portraying.
A.J. [McLean] definitely wanted to be the villain right off the bat, he was very specific about his wardrobe and his character. Howie from Backstreet had never done anything like this before, but I didn't realize that until day three of shooting when he told me. I noticed by the end of the shoot with him that the confidence was there, he was riffing with Joey, and all of the sudden they were this comedy duo. His timing was just as natural as Joey's.
One thing I noticed with Nick, in particular, was that he worried how the script kept changing. I realized that all of his dance numbers for years have been so hit this mark at this beat, then turn and sing this line that you have memorized. So he was more worried about the improv until he realized that it was actually more freeing to do this looser take on it. He ended up having so much fun.
Was there any bad blood between members of the boy bands?
It's funny because I've seen several posts online wondering if this is an April Fools joke. Obviously it's not, we have a trailer, but I think the biggest joke is that there was never really any rivalry between these boy bands. They were actually all really good friends the whole time, and it shows. They've all toured together, or done joint shows—they all have histories with each other. It seems like it's a very small world.
'Dead 7' premieres on the SyFy channel April 1, 8PM EST.
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