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‘Heidi vs Zombies’ co-creator Jean-Paul Cardinaux on ‘directing’ a graphic novel, and projects which refuse to die

Many people might have turned away from a project trapped in development hell, following the withdrawal of a major financial backer. Sweet Girls director Jean-Paul Cardinaux had other ideas, though, and brought his latest project back from the dead by adapting the script of Heidi vs Zombies into a thrilling graphic novel. Following the release of the resulting book, Cardinaux spoke to Indy Film Library about the differences directing for the screen and for the page, and his future hopes for the book and film.

Heidi vs Zombies is much more than the graphic novel you released in 2020. Could you please explain the broader project to our readers, as well as its long-term goals?

Originally Heidi vs Zombies was a film script, which we were supposed to film in 2012, we found a producer willing to invest 1 million CHF in the movie, but eventually he pulled out as it often happens in the film business. We then tried to finance it with Swiss public money, without much surprise we failed.

In 2016, we decided to give it a new chance in the form of a graphic novel, so that the story ‘exists,’ and also to have additional support to convince producers.

During the creation of the comic book, we fell in love with the drawn characters and also as we like new challenges, we decided that the next step of the project will be an animated film!

According to The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, the best zombie stories aren’t just “the splatter fests of gore and violence with goofy characters and tongue in cheek antics” but “show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in society… and our society’s station in the world.” To what extent do you agree with him, and what are you hoping to say about Swiss or global society with Heidi vs Zombies?

There are enough problems in the world, why add more in my stories? If it was my desire, I would have made documentaries… Also, in our time, as soon as you speak about a sensitive subject, someone immediately tries to find a racist, religious or political connotation in it.

Zombies have the enormous advantage of not having religion, or political commitment, even their origin, their sex does not matter anymore, from the moment it is a zombie, you can blow it’s head off, and no one will blame you.

While in Heidi vs Zombies, the zombies do allow us to highlight certain absurdities of our political and economic system – and Swiss clichés on each are so present that they are an inexhaustible source of gags – it was not the primary objective of the script.

The zombie sub-genre is a rich vein of ideas and themes. What are the works which inspired you to tell this story, and in the way that you have?

To be honest, I am not a big fan of zombie/horror movies, but there are a few exceptions which mix humour and horror. For instance, on the horror side is Sam Raimi’s Crimewave, co-written with the Cohen Brothers, of whom I’m a huge fan. Meanwhile on the zombie side, it’s Shaun of a Dead which managed to reconcile me with the genre, again for the comedy/zombie mix.

The scope of zombie comics varies really dramatically – Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is driven by how a group of survivors interact with newly discovered parts of a massive space, while in contrast Brian Ralph’s Daybreak is a claustrophobic episode focusing around the often-wordless interactions between two survivors in a single space. In Heidi, we see snapshots of the wider world, but for the most part spend our time in a very small, secluded part of it. What was the reason for opting for this more local approach to the apocalypse?

It’s probably leftovers from the original script, which was a low budget movie, so we thought small, local, Swiss…

It is very ‘Swiss’ not to think outside the borders … we are a country in Europe, but out of the EU…  A small [landlocked] ‘island’ populated by peoples who think that they don’t need others to survive. Despite its small size, Switzerland is a very complex country, four languages, a mix of religions and a country very closed on itself. This may be the unwitting reasons to limit our history to the Swiss territory.

With a hypothetical 90-minute run-time, a film might allow more room for narrative intricacies or building moments of tension than a 90-page graphic novel. Are there any areas of the story you would like to elaborate on or add in altogether for the animated feature?

Yes, the original script is much more developed, and we have simplified it for the graphic novel. This new version is very action driven, there’s no real moments of suspense, of intimate dialogues between the characters.

Having said that, the story became more efficient, so when wen will go back to script, we will do it from the graphic novel, only picking up elements from the original script. There is a lot to do in the relationship between the characters, between Heidi and her Grandfather, and Heidi and Peter. We will also add scenes of suspense and tension, for example Peter’s Grandmother is blind, and in the first version of the script there was one scene where she eliminates zombies despite her handicap. This scene did not fit in the comic book story, but will be totally legendary in the film!

The character of Heidi is probably not so well known outside of Switzerland. Would you mind explaining her origins in Swiss fiction, and why you chose her as a character to modernise and insert into a horror comedy setting?

Currently, Heidi is almost better known abroad than in Switzerland, particularly in Asia, but not the original work written in 1880 by Swiss writer Johanna Spyri. Heidi really rose to fame with her many Japanese TV and cartoon adaptations.

Our idea was actually quite simple, confront an innocent young girl with bloodthirsty creatures and surprise audiences by proposing an emancipated Heidi, who doesn’t keep her tongue in her pocket, and is no longer afraid to face her destiny.

Such an unconventional reimagining of a beloved childhood character has been known to ruffle the feathers of more conservative readers in the past. What has the response to your book been like so far?

The reactions are mostly positive; but I don’t think that given the book’s title and the cover that any “conservative” readers have dared to read our adaptation!

Your last film Sweet Girls was also darkly comedic, with its lead characters initially determining that reducing the number of retirees in their apartment bloc can help solve the housing crisis. What attracts you to projects which try to make light of horrific circumstances? 

My desire in film making is to entertain, and if I sometimes speak about serious topics, it is only by the means of derision or self-mockery. I don’t really know why, maybe this is my way of life, as I do it in my everyday life as well.

What was the artistic process for Heidi vs Zombies, working in collaboration with Xavier Ruiz and JP Kalonji?

Xavier is at the origin of the project, one day he came up to me saying, “We have to do Heidi vs Zombies.” “Ok, what’s the story?” “Uhm… Heidi vs Zombies…”

So, we made a teaser poster with a photographer friend, and his daughter. The poster was simple, a little blonde girl in a Swiss costume, with an axe in one hand, a zombie head in the other and a simple tagline “Switzerland isn’t safe anymore!”

Xavier left for Cannes with 200 flyers and a few days later “I have a producer; we need a script!” A month later, working days and nights, I had written the first version of the script… and we were going to shoot six months later… Well, you know the rest.

Afterwards, with Xavier we adapted the scenario for the graphic novel, simplifying the structure and adding all the things that we couldn’t do in film but which suddenly were accessible, such as blowing up a dam!

Based on that comic book script, we sketched a first version of the storyboard that we presented to JP Kalonji. Then JPK, worked on the characters, and gave us some inputs on the storyboard and started the drawings. In parallel, with Xavier we placed the speech bubbles and the dialogues, as well as the sound effects.

And here it is, four years after our first meeting, Heidi vs Zombies was there ready to meet its readers.

Kalonji’s art in particular seems perfectly suited to the story you were looking to tell – did you have to go back and forth to gradually build the characters and overall aesthetic, or was he broadly in tune with what you wanted all along?

I have known JPK for a long time and we approached him for his style, and the energy, the movements he puts into his drawings. He quickly found the characters, and we came up with a lot of references photos and films to feed his work.

What were the difficulties of adapting from the process of directing films to ‘directing’ the production of a graphic novel?

To our surprise, it was more a liberation because in the drawing there is no limitation but your imagination – as there are no constraints related to the budget of a film.

The only difficulty was managing our diaries, because given the very small budget we could only work on our free time and while we had thought that comic book would be done in a year, it took us four years … but again, these four years have allowed us to step back and for example to completely review the layout, to go from 64 to 90 pages by giving more space in the pages.

What is next for you and the Heidi vs Zombies project, and is there anything our readers can do to help?

Our goals are first to give a life to the graphic novel and above all move to the next step, making the film!

Copies of the book are already in the hands of producers and we are awaiting their feedback. Meanwhile, Heidi vs Zombies was released in November in Switzerland, and our goal now is to distribute it to the rest of the world.

We don’t have any international distributor, so as you ask, yes if your readers could convince their favourite comic bookstore to order our books that will be fantastic!

Booksellers can contact us at heidi.vs.zombies@gmail.com, and we are looking for distributors in England, USA, Germany, etc. You can also find out more about the project via the Heidi vs Zombies Facebook page.

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