Cargo directors sound off on Martin Freeman, their organic zombies, and elevated horror

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May 3, 2018, 7:01 PM EDT

Zombie movies have long been dominated by gory, gruesome spectacle, but a new Netflix film takes a less graphic look at the genre while delivering a gut-wrenching emotional wallop. In Cargo, Martin Freeman stars as Andy, a father seeking a safe haven for his infant daughter in a world overrun with the ravenous undead.

Ahead of Cargo's international premiere as part of the Tribeca Film Festival's Midnight slate, SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with writer/director Yolanda Ramke and her co-director Ben Howling to learn how this uniquely moving and frightening zombie film was brought to life.

Ramke and Howling's collaboration began after the two met working on reality TV productions in Australia. A shared interest in filmmaking led to the creation of their 2013 short, "Cargo," which won praise on the festival circuit and has garnered more than 13 million views on YouTube.

The success of "Cargo" encouraged Ramke and Howling to develop it into a feature-length film, which would stay true to the focus and feel of the short. "The love between parents and children, that bond is such a universal thing," Ramke said, "So we knew that was the heart of the short, and that's what resonated. And that's what we had to hold on to."

Specifically, Cargo focuses on father-daughter relationships, something too rarely captured in film. For Ramke, that choice came from a personal place. "I'm one of three girls, and we're all very close with both of our parents," She said, "But our father is very protective, and so I probably subconsciously was drawing on that."

Cargo expands Andy's original arc but also introduces a new character who cracked open the story's possibilities for Ramke and Howling. "How do we open the world up and introduce other people who were living in different ways and to varying degrees of success?" Ramke pondered. The answer was Thoomi, an indigenous girl who uses her wits and the wisdom gleaned from her tribe to protect her father from those who would destroy him. Her story is a sort of funhouse mirror of Andy's, and she becomes his unlikely and pivotal ally. 

Casting the role of Thoomi was a challenge. "It's not the biggest kind of acting community, amongst the indigenous community," Howling explained, "So our casting agent reached out to regional communities, and we had hundreds of young girls auditioning." In more remote areas, aspiring actresses were encouraged to shoot auditions on their camera phones. "Out of that, we whittled it down to four, ran a little workshop, and then selected Simone [Landers]. There was just a hunger there; she just enjoyed doing it."

Landers is sensational in the role of the headstrong and heartbreaking Thoomi, and she proved an impressive match to the presence and nuanced performance that heralded actor Freeman brought to the lead. The filmmakers marveled at her raw talent and credited Freeman with creating an environment where Landers could learn and thrive. "[He] just had a really great rapport with her,"Howling recalled. "Say if we were perhaps setting up a scene, he'd always be like, 'OK, cool, now let's get into work mode.' Because they're all mic'ed up, we can quite often hear them. So if we can kind of hear that he's already briefed her, we don't need to go in and muddy the waters. Once they're out there, Martin's just performing and making it feel so real that Simone buys into it, and gives it her all."

As two white filmmakers telling a story about indigenous people and their culture, Ramke and Howling felt it was crucial to get it right. "Still in development of script phase, we worked with an indigenous writer and script consultant named Jon Bell, who was wonderful and super helpful just in helping us understand the indigenous point of view and a way of looking at the world, and how those things can be different, particularly as it relates to how they see land," Ramke explained. "That it's not about owning land, it's about being a custodian of land. There are some really different ways of seeing things."

Once they'd chosen the location of South Australia, their research and outreach became more focused. "Because there are so many indigenous nations and language groups all over the country," Ramke explained, "You don't want to be generic in making big sweeping statements about indigenous culture as a whole. So we worked with local elders in the [Adnyamathanha] community where we were going to be shooting. We showed the script to them, we talked to them about that. Any concerns that they had, we addressed, and we sought permission to use the language in the film from those elders. We just really tried to do it as respectfully and authentically as we could. That was really important to us."

Beyond grounding their post-apocalyptic tale in an authentic Australian culture, the filmmakers also sought to construct a unique zombie mythos that felt rooted in the Outback's landscape. Rather than the ragged flesh and gaping wounds that often connote "zombie," Cargo presents a sickening yellow puss that blooms from bites and ultimately pours out the infected eyes, caking their face with a gross grime. "The kind of goo and stuff that comes out of their face, that comes from just textural things like sap, or insect chrysalises and things like that," Howling explained. "The procedure of them actually sealing over, that marks the death of a man, and then the birth of a zombie. It all just fed back into that organic [aesthetic]."

Keeping their story grounded meant keeping the zombies—or the "virals" as Howling and Ramke call them—to the fringes of the film. It's an unusual move on a zombie movie, so I asked if they considered Cargo horror. "Probably not," Howling admitted, "Obviously, it's got zombies in it. So it's going to naturally fall into that category for a lot of people. I think we've done our best to try and actually provide scares and those kinds of classic zombie moments for those fans, But overall, no, I think it's just a drama. It's a love story."

"It's like a survivalist drama," Ramke added. To which Howling pondered, " A survivalist love story? With zombies."

Still, Ramke thinks horror fans will thrill over Cargo. "It just goes back to that whole Jaws thing, right?" She asked. "What you don't see is—what's in your imagination as you're hearing those sounds—can be more pervasive and horrifying. So yeah, that was something we kind of wanted to play within this film, just to kind of play with that line."

Ramke recognizes some will label Cargo with the contested term "elevated horror" which doesn't bother her one bit. "If you look at some very traditional, classic horror films, like your [George] Romero stuff," Ramke said,  "There's huge social commentary in those, so horror's been doing [that for ages]. And no one sets out to make a depressed genre film, right? So I guess it's just taste. I think in some ways we really did rely upon, and want to touch upon some of those horror conventional moments within the film, and to pay homage to that."

"It was never a case of looking down our noses at the horror genre," she continued, "Because we love the horror genre. It's just a case of our personal sensibility. And the story that we wanted to tell was less weighted towards those elements. So, it was just walking that really thin line between rewarding pure horror fans in some way, so that hopefully they're getting what they came for, and also trying to attract people to that genre that maybe weren't used to or wouldn't typically come and see a zombie film. That was the goal, to kind of juggle the two."

Cargo will hit Netflix on May 18.

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