Zach Gilford talks The Devil’s Due
In just his second TV job, 31-year-old Zach Gilford found almost instant fame when he was cast as Matt Saracen, the former backup quarterback of Dillon High Schools’ Panthers in the critically adored NBC sports drama Friday Night Lights.
During its four seasons, he became a series favorite, and managed to parlay the exposure into both film and television work. He starred in the 2009 romantic comedy Post Grad opposite Alexis Bledel and Michael Keaton, and with Emmy Rossum in the drama Dare. On television, he was a series regular in Off The Map, produced by Scandal/Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice producer Jenna Bans, and in Fox’s medical drama The Mob Doctor.
Now he’s back on the big screen working with first time feature directors Radio Silence in the horror drama Devil’s Due, a contemporary take on the Rosemary’s Baby horror story. As the newlywed Zach McCall, his life is turned upside down when his bride’s unexpected pregnancy may be the devil’s work, with each twist and turn captured on ‘home’ video. Once he’d seen a few pages of the script, he knew he wanted to take part.
“I got given a couple of scenes and I went in with all the guys from Radio Silence and the producers and I really liked them a lot,” he says. “They talked me through what the script was going to be, and I got to see the Radio Silence segment from V/H/S, and they just seemed cool and fun to work with. Going in, you think it’s either going to work and be scary or it’s going to not work: you have to roll the dice and take that risk. But based on everything they were telling me and the vibe I had for them, it seemed like it was worth doing.”
Did you know beforehand who Radio Silence were?
Just from V/H/S, and I was confused at first. It says ‘directed by’ and it had four guys’ names there! You’re like, ‘What?’
How does that even work?
Well you don’t want to go in saying, ‘OK, who’s the director, what’s going on here?’ You want to play it cool and try and suss out if one of them is the actual director. You’re playing this weird game where you’re trying to act real savvy when you’ve no idea what’s going on. But they’re all awesome guys and it was even clear during the audition process that they all work together; giving notes and suggestions – and they were all good suggestions and clear. Sometimes directors get very esoteric – these guys were really easy to work with and it was a lot of fun. The way they work together as a group is pretty amazing – I never saw a single ego throughout the whole process, and they trust each other: if it’s three against one, the one person just shuts up and goes with it.
Bearing in mind the route these guys had taken to helm a movie, was there any reservation on your part about their experience and on your getting involved?
Not at all. I’ve worked with a lot of first time directors before and sometimes it works out amazing and is a pleasure, and other times it’s an awful experience. You never really know, but these guys had a lot of work you could look at and I think it’s so cool the way they’ve gotten to where they are. It’s so easy to make a movie now and just put it online – I tell students who ask me, ‘Just do it.’ That’s exactly how these guys got to where they are – they just started shooting stuff together and made good stuff. Fox found them and asked them to make a movie.
Do you think similar rules apply for actors – just make stuff and get it online?
I think it does but it’s a different route. It’s better than just putting out your headshot to a bunch of agencies. On top of that, whether your work is seen or not, you’re doing something. You’re on some sort of set and learning to work it as opposed to sitting in an acting class.
What did you think of the Radio Silence and Chad, Matt & Rob YouTube movies?
I thought they were fun. Some are better than others, but you definitely can tell these guys were enjoying what they were doing and are not jaded and they’re excited to be doing it. Even over the course of this movie, they would always take a second and look around and start laughing… they were so thankful to be doing what they were doing. There’s no sense of entitlement – every step of the way they were like, ‘I can’t believe we get to do this!’ Which is how I like to approach my work as well.
This style of point of view (POV) movie… were you familiar with it and a fan?
I’m definitely familiar with it and, again, some are good, some seem like a gimmick. The thing for us throughout the shoot was trying to make it realistic, where you’re not going to be watching it going, ‘Why is this guy filming right now?’ So we found this way to justify it: early on in the movie a friend gives me this clip-on camera for our wedding, so later on when crazy shit’s going on it makes sense that I try and get proof by using it. That way my character doesn’t have to run around with a camera in his hand and we buy that things are being filmed. I was very happy that we were conscious of not making things seem forced.
Which movies in this style do you like?
I think Chronicle did it well. It starts with the dude filming things and then he gets superpowers where he can make the camera float. After that they were able to get these cool shots – they’re crane shots, but you buy it. We couldn’t do anything that creative, but we tried to come up with ways to play with the style.
The Radio Silence guys said they gave you basic camera operator training….
They didn’t give me any training! They put a camera in my hand! That was it! I guess maybe at the beginning I would do the scene with the camera and just shoot it and they’d look at it, and then after a few times Tyler would step in and he’d film. When that happened I’d stand right behind him so he’d be shooting and making it look the way he wanted it to, and I’d act the scene right behind him. It was this funny awkward thing, but after a couple of days I think they realized I came up with good shots and understood where the camera should be, so in the end they let me shoot most of it.
What was the most difficult part of having to be in control of both shooting and acting?
Well the character is supposed to be filming, so that’s true to the scene, but it’s hard to find the balance, that point where you can let go of the realism of actually filming. There were times I’d feel bad for Allison, where she’d have a scene where she’s supposed to be breaking down and I’m trying to act with her and film at the same time.
On screen, it looks like you and Allison have a lot of natural chemistry. Did you know here beforehand?
I didn’t know her at all. They cast her first and then I had to do a ‘chemistry’ read with her, and any time you do a chemistry read it’s so awkward. You really have to turn up the charm in the room and make her like you. Then you get the job and you meet as normal people. But it’s funny – she has a lot of similarities to my wife, like being into the cartoon artist Edward Gory – random stuff. By the luck of the draw we just got along really well and have similar work styles where we’re pretty casual and easygoing. We both like to joke around.
A lot of what you were doing looks like improvisation – was it?
Yeah – the majority of it. We weren’t making up scenes but we were making up a lot of what we said in the scene, and that’s because of the nature of these POV things. It’s hard to have a super scripted dialogue. I kind of worked a similar way on Friday Night Lights – we got the freedom to improv a lot but it wasn’t like we’d show up on set and they’d say, ‘Make up a scene!’. It was more like, ‘OK, in this scene, this needs to happen.’ For example, they tell me that in this scene Allison comes into the room and tells you she’s pregnant, you’re excited and she’s shocked. It’s hard to write realistic dialogue with something like that – on the page it looks so silly. ‘I’m pregnant.’ ‘Oh my god!’ ‘I’m so excited’. It reads so unrealistic so they tell us the outline and we do it naturally.
Is improv anything they taught you in drama school at Northwestern?
No, not at all. I don’t even remember if I took an improv class – they were more sketch comedy based and I was never really funny. I’ve had people tell me I should do comedy, but it doesn’t translate to film. I might be funny in real life, but once the camera’s rolling…
That’s not entirely true – there are some funny moments in this movie…
But that’s because in this movie we got to play so much like real life. It’s real life comedy! I’m not a Jim Carrey and no-one’s wanted to put me on a sitcom. There’s a reason they keep giving Jim Parsons Emmys – what he does on that show is so hard. I cannot do it!
Devil’s Due may be a horror movie, but you and Allison almost play it like you’re doing a rom com, then this stuff just happens to you. Did it feel tense or spooky when shooting, or did it feel like you were just doing a romantic drama?
I think we were conscious of that the whole time. We didn’t think this movie worked unless you really liked this couple, otherwise it’s just another horror movie. But if you charm the audience into caring about them, then when all this crazy stuff starts happening it’s not just freaky, but heartbreaking. You don’t want this to happen to these people.
There’s clearly a Rosemary’s Baby element to Devil’s Due; were you conscious of it, and what do you think makes it different?
I was totally conscious of it. It’s funny, I’d only seen that movie a couple of months before this project came up. This is like a point of view Rosemary’s Baby – they all said it and everybody knew it, it was even part of the pitch of it. So it’s a similar story, but it’s not the same story: it’s 40 years later… inherently it’s different, so we didn’t have to make a huge effort to stay away from it. And there was never a moment where they attempted to make an homage to it.
What’s next for you? Would you work with Radio Silence again?
I would work with these guys again in a heartbeat. I told them that whatever they do next I’m in. I told them I’m the honorary fifth member of Radio Silence. ‘I filmed enough of this movie, I should be part of your group!’ It was such a good experience… I can’t wait to see it.