Florian Habicht isn’t concerned that his latest film faces some ultralow-budget competition.
When we catch up with Florian Habicht, wild-child genius and the director of a new film about Spookers, Auckland’s hauntedhouse “scream park”, he’s about to go on TV to discuss a new film about Spookers, Auckland’s haunted-house “scream park”. Except the film isn’t his one.
“One of the guys who works at Spookers shot this two-minute video of people-scaring on his phone and put it on Facebook, and in the last two days, it’s had 50 million views.”
“Yeah, 50 million. Spookers have had to hire two people to answer all the fan mail.”
He laughs. “I can spend a year and a half making a film, and then someone spends two minutes shooting something on his phone... and...” He trails off into more laughter, and there is no shred of irony or bitterness detectable in his voice: he genuinely thinks it’s wonderful that someone else’s two-minute Facebook video is doing so much better than his film will probably do.
Although actually, of all Habicht’s films so far, this is the one that might draw a wide audience. He began experimenting with avant-garde cinema while he was at Auckland University’s Elam School of Fine Arts; six months after graduating, he had put together a successful Creative New Zealand grant application. (“Doing funding applications was actually one of the things we studied at Elam — it was super-practical.”) For the better part of two decades now, he has been continuously at work on a string of boundary-pushing drama/documentary fusion films,
As soon as I saw the actors getting into their characters I was like, oh my god, this place is for me.
including Kaikohe Demolition, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and
Supermarkets, and (my favourite before Spookers) Love Story, in which he roams the streets of New York asking the locals for advice on how to tell a love story, and then films their suggestions.
Spookers has its own moments of Habicht’s trademark whimsy, but by the standards of his previous work it’s a remarkably straightforward documentary. It isn’t the film Habicht expected to be releasing this year. “I was busy making another project; actually, I was just about to leave for Europe to work on it when Suzanne Walker from the Madman production company in Australia called me up to talk about Spookers. She’d never been there, but she’d heard about it and thought it would make a really good film, and then the company got excited about the idea, and they realised they needed a New Zealand director to make it.”
Habicht gets pitches to make one film or another reasonably often. “Every year, I get offered a couple of things.” He’s never said yes before — “It’s such a huge thing, to commit to a film; it’s years of your life” — and the film Madman was suggesting was not quite one he wanted to make. “They were thinking more of a film about scaring as entertainment, and maybe the nature of fear, and why people want to go and get scared at this place.”
But something about the idea of a Spookers film intrigued him. He made Madman an offer: he would go to Spookers with a camera, and interview the staff, and watch them working. “I’d never been there, so I really wanted to suss it out.” If he found himself wanting to make the film after that, they could talk about how to proceed, and if not, Madman could have his footage and use it to make a pitch reel to help raise funding to take the project further.
“As soon as I walked in and saw all of the actors putting on their make-up and getting into their characters I was like, oh my god, this place is for me. So much creative energy.
And the fact that they were these super-talented amazing performers, but they were all untrained — I mean, they’d taught themselves, they were what you call amateurs, meaning people who do something because they love it. It kind of reminded me of how I learned to make films at Elam, just through doing it with friends and discovering things. And then when I found out about the place’s history, that it was an old psychiatric hospital, that for me was just — oh my god. This is really fascinating. I could see the film I wanted to make, and Madman turned out to be really open to me doing it my own way.”
Habicht’s film does not neglect the fun to be had with Madman’s initial concept — we see people paying to be chased by chainsaw- wielding redneck zombies, and there are entertaining interviews with staff about the various ramifications of invoking your customers’ fight-or-flight reflex. But the film weaves another story into this narrative: the history of Kingseat, the former psychiatric institution whose buildings Spookers now occupies. Without giving too much away, the relationship between professional scaring and mental health turns out to be deeper and more positive than you might expect.
The film’s mix of humour and compassion has already seen it warmly received at several international festivals, though Habicht has stopped trying to guess how his films will perform overseas. “I thought Love Story was going to be a lot bigger — I thought it would go beyond the film festival circuit. And it didn’t. So I don’t hold my breath any more. But so far Spookers is doing pretty well.”
The film was one of six finalists for an award at the Sheffield Doc/ Fest in England that is given for films inspired by science. “Just to get that out of the 250 films there was pretty cool. So, you know, I’m hopeful. Always hopeful.”
ABOVE— Spookers staff in action in Florian Habicht’s documentary.