“I’ve spent a lifetime obsessed with movies and educating myself from a young age, whether that’s through watching endless hours of behind-the-scenes documentaries or convincing my friends to help out with DIY short films,” Twenty-two year old Sydneysider Jack Dignan tells us when we speak about his feature debut, psychological horror After She Died, written when he was 19 and shot when he was 21.
“Being a filmmaker is all I’ve ever wanted to do, and I’ve spent so much of my free time learning. When I was a kid, during school holidays, I signed up for film courses at AFTRS, NIDA, Metroscreen and more. At the age of 16, I was fortunate enough to accelerate through high school and get accepted into a local film course at the Academy of Information Technology (AIT), where I completed a diploma in film and interactive media instead of doing the HSC. I was then free to get out into the world with like-minded people and create all that I could!”
You worked on international productions coming through Sydney – what did you learn from those?
“I honestly believe I learned more about filmmaking from one day on the set of a Hollywood production than I did from the entirety of film school. You can understand story structure, you can understand camera angles, you can understand acting, but it’s not until you’re running around the set as a PA, trying to find the third AD so they can talk to the key grip, that you really understand how a film is made. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some massive Hollywood blockbusters, from Marvel movies to Mad Max movies, and each one has been a unique experience with some of the best filmmakers, and most talented crew, in the world. Even in the downtime, I’d find myself learning so much about how a set is run just by watching people work and talking to them about their roles. There are so many jobs they don’t teach you about in film school, and not only are they viable career options but they’re integral to the way a set is run. I’ve tried to get all my friends onto these sets, in any role I can sneak them in, because I genuinely believe that even a small stint as a PA on a big set is the best way to learn how to be a filmmaker.”
After She Died has a fantastical element to it and is much more than just a slice and dice horror – can you discuss the inspirations for the story?
“I’m a self-confessed horror buff. I love everything about the genre and the endless possibilities of the stories you’re able to tell when leaning into the fantastical side of things. The main inspirations for this film stemmed from two categories – Stephen King books (particularly Pet Sematary and Misery), and Asian horror movies. Stephen King has had a big influence on my life, ever since I was thirteen years old reading The Shining while on vacation in a hotel that felt eerily similar to the book. I’ve spent nine years devouring his work and absorbing all of his character-driven descents into horror and madness. I’m also a big Asian horror movie fan. There’s something so visceral and violating about the types of horror movies they make in Asia, all the way down to minute details in the lighting choices and sound design. A big influence on this movie was Takashi Miike’s 1999 film Audition, which was one of the films I showed the cast and crew prior to working on After She Died, although, given the brutal nature of Audition, that recommendation always came with a pre-emptive apology. Other films I showed them were Hereditary, Midsommar, Misery, Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Us (2019). I tried to mix the unsettling nature of horror movies, like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Audition, with the intimate feel of character driven dramas, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Mash them together, throw in my love for the weird and wonderful, and you have After She Died, a movie where there’s a whole sequence dedicated to a man in a bloodied sheep-mask burying fetuses in the woods. Fun stuff for the whole family!”
There’s a subtext of grief in the film – is this something that you’ve personally experienced? How?
“Interestingly, the film never started out as an examination of grief. It certainly got there by the time I reached the final draft, but it wasn’t always the intention. After She Died is very much a coming-of-age horror movie. It’s about that time in your life after high school’s over, where you and your friends are all heading on different paths and you’re struggling to maintain the relationships you once held so close to your heart. It’s about fractured relationships and what young people, especially those just finding their independence, decide to do about the people in their life they don’t feel they need anymore. Everything changes when you reach adulthood. Your friends change, your environment changes, and you change. I wanted to depict that in the most unsettling way I could, which led to the decision to have a loved one return from the dead, and to explore how that would affect somebody emotionally.”
What did you shoot the film on, and how was the whole enterprise financed?
“The film was shot on the Arri Alexa LF Mini, with Zeiss Supreme Prime Lenses. All of our gear was rented through The Front thanks to our wonderful Cinematographer and Co-Producer Rhys William Nicolson and his production company Apostle Digital. Rhys and Apostle were a big help in getting this film made as cheap as possible, as they’d just come off Wyrmwood: Apocalypse, which also had to utilise a small budget – albeit bigger than ours. I was in talks with various production companies, both Australian and international, back in 2020, but when COVID hit, people closed their wallets. So, instead of waiting for money to come to me, I just started making the movie with what little budget I already had. I spent a year working for Marvel, putting aside a lot of the money I made there – which I believe, technically, makes Kevin Feige a key investor in this movie! Maybe I need to give him a producer credit… I asked for countless favours and IOUs from loved ones, and eventually raised enough money to get the movie made. We didn’t have a lot, but we had enough, and I’d like to think we put every dollar on screen.”
The film is really well cast for an Australian production – did this process take a long time, and can you discuss the process of casting?
“Thank you! I was quite anxious going into the casting process as I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had a very specific vision of these characters and what they’d look like/how they’d act, and I really wanted to find actors who’d not only embody that, but go beyond what was on the page. Thankfully, I found them. I put a series of ads online calling out for actors, as well as listings on sites like StarNow and Backstage, and to my surprise we got hundreds of applicants! I requested audition tapes for those I liked the look of, watched everything that was sent in, and then held a few rounds of in-person auditions – each time, culling away at the list of actors until I was down to a final few selections. I met up and had a chat with each of these final applicants to get a better understanding of them as people and performers. When I felt I found the perfect actor for the part, I called them up and gave them the role. The overall process took a few months, but I’m super happy with the cast and very proud of the performances they give in this film.”
How did your film sell to the US? What are the hopes for an Australian release?
“If I’m being honest, I never expected After She Died to sell prior to its premiere. In my mind, it was all about getting the film made and getting it out there so that people could see it for themselves and hopefully, if we were lucky, somebody would buy it. Then, as we were finishing up post-production, the strangest thing happened. A US company named Good Deed Entertainment reached out to us saying they were interested in the film and wanted to watch a work-in-progress screener. I sent them an unfinished cut, they loved it, and they bought it before it was even done. I was thrilled! Now the film is complete and we’re launching it on demand in North America on September 30. Around the same time, we’ll be premiering at various festivals and holding some special event screenings, which I hope will launch the film into other territories and secure a release worldwide. I’m always in talks with various global and Australian distributors, hoping to get the film sold, so fingers crossed an Australian release date isn’t too far behind the US.”
What’s next for you?
“I’m currently working on the set of George Miller’s Mad Max prequel Furiosa, which will wrap up around the same time that After She Died is released. I’ve got another script I’m currently finishing up and I’m hoping to pursue financing very soon. It’s a horror movie unlike anything you’ve seen before, and I’m excited to bring it to life in the near-future.”
Photos Credit: Behind the scenes images by Nicole Muñoz Ortiz