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Q&A: Writer/Director Eli Morgan Gesner on His Unconventional Infection Shocker “CONDEMNED”

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A virulent pathogen turns people into killers in the new film CONDEMNED, but this is not your typical sickness/survival saga. Filmmaker Eli Morgan Gesner discusses some of the differences and more in this exclusive FANGORIA interview.

We spoke with Gesner, making his feature writing/directing debut after a successful career in the art and fashion worlds, during a break while visiting the movie’s blood-streaked location (see our previous report here). Arriving in select theaters and on VOD/iTunes tomorrow from RLJ Entertainment, CONDEMNED stars Dylan Penn (Sean’s daughter) as Maya, a girl who flees her wealthy, dysfunctional family to be with her boyfriend Dante (Ronen Rubinstein, from producers Jack Heller and Dallas Sonnier’s previous SOME KIND OF HATE). He’s the most normal of a group of squatters dwelling in a condemned tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the assorted druggies and deviants living there soon become afflicted by a virus that makes them go homicidally crazy. Yet for all the bloodshed they cause, they remain people too…

FANGORIA: One thing that sets CONDEMNED apart from other films of this type is that your infected characters do not become mindless killers; they retain their personalities, and they talk and they have monologues.

ELI MORGAN GESNER (pictured below): You know, I finally get to talk to somebody who will understand this! When I first saw Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD as a kid, there’s this scene that always bothered me. I was in the theater watching it with my dad, I was like 8 years old, and at the end, one of the SWAT team members claws his way into the elevator, totally alive. All the zombies are about to eat him, the doors close, and he goes down one floor and bing! The doors open, and now he’s a zombie. I got really mad in the theater, like, “That’s bullshit! [Laughs] His flesh is still warm! He’s not dead! What, he just suddenly joined the zombie club?” That’s something that always stuck with me.

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There were scenes we removed from the movie where characters who are infected don’t see the world as it actually is, which is sort of a metaphor about how people can’t get along. Originally, Tess [Lydia Hearst] had a kid, like a 5-year old girl, and there was this funny moment where she’s running around the building scared for her life, and frightens Murphy, this big monster bodybuilder guy, because he thinks she’s something else. It’s not like in any other zombie movie, where she would walk into the room and get eaten, because she’s fresh meat.

FANG: Jon Abrahams, one of your actors here, mentioned that you first wrote this script about 10 years ago. How did you eventually get it up and running?

GESNER: I had a movie greenlighted with two big stars at a major independent company—not a studio, but right below that; I’m not gonna say who it was. We had everybody cast and were in preproduction, and the idea hit me for this movie. We had to wait for an actor for a couple of months, so I had that time to spare, and I was like, “You know what? Let me write this script just in case, for a backup,” because I liked the idea and I’ve always loved horror; this other film was an action/romance thing. So I wrote it and promptly optioned it to another producer, and for whatever reason, it’s been optioned every year for 10 years, and I’ve just been distracted doing other stuff. There have been different people who have tried to do it, and then Jack Heller and Dallas Sonnier of Caliber Media, who used to be my managers, started their own film company, and they had been asking me to make it for I three or four years. But the time didn’t feel right until this past year, when I was like, “I need to just make a movie, finally.” I’d been doing a lot of art projects, and when those were over with, this opportunity came up and I was like, “Let’s make this, let’s just go right now.”

It’s very low-budget and we have very little time, but one advantage I have is my cinematographer, Richard Henkels, who I’ve known since I was 13. We grew up together, and he’s now a big commercial DP and does music videos and things like that, and we’ve always wanted to make a film together. We have the classic cliché of the unspoken communication thing, and he does great work. So I’m very fortunate and excited to be making this; it’s really fun, even though it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

FANG: Beyond Abrahams, whom you’ve also known for a while, how did the rest of the cast come together, and how did the makeup FX team come on board?

GESNER: First of all, Brian Spears did effects for Jack and Dallas on another horror movie [DARK WAS THE NIGHT] a year or so ago, and when this opportunity came up, they reached out to him to see if he’d be interested. He was, though nobody knows who I am in the film world, so I had to meet with him and Peter Gerner and show them that I know what I’m taking about. I’m as much a fan as they are, just not nearly as skilled—those guys are amazing artisans at creating makeup and gore and what have you. They’ve actually become caught up in the whole thing themselves; at first, it was probably half as much work as they’ve put into it, and every day they’re like, “How about we do this? How about we do that?”

As for the cast, Genevieve Hudson-Price came in and was literally the character I had in my head—same voice, same everything. It was like an out-of-body experience; she just walked in and I was like, “What the hell?” And you know, her father Richard Price wrote THE WANDERERS and SEA OF LOVE.

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FANG: You’ve got a lot of children of famous names in this movie, like Dylan Penn [pictured above] and Lydia Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst.

GESNER: That’s been really weird, and it’s not something I intended to do. But even Honor Titus, who plays Loki—his father is Drez from the rap group Black Sheep.

FANG: How did Dylan Penn wind up making her screen acting debut in CONDEMNED?

GESNER: Her manager, I believe, is a fan of things I’ve done, and Dallas reached out to her. She read the script and liked it, and wanted to talk. I have a very weird bond with Dylan, because I think she and I, even though we’re very different and from very different parts of the world, have mirrored circumstances of what we’ve gone through. But at first it was like, “Oh, this person’s unproven” for both of us, so instead of having her initially do a reading or anything like that, I just talked to her to kind of assess where her mind was and if she was capable of doing this. Just based on our first few conversations, I could tell she’s highly, highly intelligent.

That’s another thing—even Honor, who’s in the punk rock group Cerebral Ballzy, is incredibly well-read. One of my favorite books is NOTRE DAME DES FLEURS by Jean Genet, and he brought it up in our first meeting! It’s like there’s sort of this…I don’t want to say intellectual aspect to this film, but I feel like there’s so much more that can be said with the horror genre, so that was something everyone was excited about, like, “Oh, I see where you’re trying to get at, I see the references and the agenda we have in this movie.”

Anyway, back to Dylan: We started talking, and I knew she could do it and she knew I could do it, and we sort of made a pact, like, let’s just do this together and if we go down in flames, we go down in flames together. And Dylan works for her character, because Maya is out of place in this squat. She’s a rich girl from a good family not from New York, so Dylan’s inexperience and being from California really plays to the role. She seems like the odd girl out, a fish out of the water, which she’s supposed to be. So I trust her with my life and she trusts me with her life.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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