Estonians heavily involved in US horror movie being filmed in Harju County

Shooting has begun in Estonia on US director Evan L. Katz's horror movie "Azrael," with a large number of Estonians among the cast and crew. "Azrael" is due for completion next summer, though details about the timing of its cinema release have yet to be confirmed.

Katrin Kissa, whose company Homeless Bob is producing "Azrael," said that a lot of factors had to align before the decision was taken to film in Estonia.

"The US team was apparently ready to commit to production in Ontario, Canada, but they were becoming slightly jaded with the production environment there, as it's become rather technical with enthusiastic crew members sometimes challenging to find," explained Kissa, adding that they then started toying with the idea of bringing the film to Europe.

"Somehow, as a result of this idea, talk in the US turned to Homeless Bob. The producer had seen both (Kissa's previous productions) 'November' and 'Captain Volkonogov Escaped', so he wrote to me," Kissa said. However, she explained, that she receives messages on a weekly basis from people interested in filming in Estonia, with some coming to fruition, but "most of the time they just fade away."

However, Kissa stressed that in this case, things were slightly different and her first meeting with the US team was extremely encouraging. "They had a clear plan to film in the fall. I had just finished shooting Rainer Sarnet's new film ""Nähtamatu võitlus" ("Invisible Fight") and had no concrete plans for the fall, so the timing was perfect," Kissa said.

"As Sarnet's film, with all its complexities, was still fresh, this genre film production seemed like an interesting way to continue. It was the ideal opportunity to approach things based on necessity rather than focusing on budgetary constraints. A genre film of this scale combines so many world-class skills - fight choreography, visual special effects and so on, that the process of doing it is the best way to learn. Having been involved in this process for some time now, I can also say that (working with) budget constraints and roadblocks often has its own charm, which I miss, when part of a such a big production."

Dozens of Estonians involved in "Azrael"

Details about the plot of the film are a closely guarded secret and, according to Kissa, all that can be revealed at this stage is, that it is a horror film. "If you compare it to typical European budgets, it's a big film, but if you put it up against Hollywood films, it's tiny," she explained, adding that "Azrael," is definitely not a B-movie. "It's still a very ambitious undertaking," she said.

"Funding the US is built on entirely different foundations to that in Europe - there, you can get full funding the basis of a script and if you get the green light, you usually have to produce (the movie) within six months," Kissa explained.

"In Europe, such a rapid process is quite rare. Here you have the 'softer' money, which doesn't have strict payback requirements, however, putting together financing schemes often takes years and requires agreements between lots of different parties. This makes the European production (process) slower. Sometimes the inevitable delays that happen as a result end up being to the film's benefit, but in other cases they can hinder the process. Both systems have their pros and cons," she said.

All of the filming, as well as part of the post-production work will take place in Estonia. "In addition to filming here, they have also decided to bring in Matis Rei as sound director meaning extensive sound work will be done in Estonia," said Kissa, adding that the filming will take place in Pärispi, Ihasalu and Koljunuk on Estonia's northern coast up until December 10.

"Around 70 percent of the 120-strong crew are Estonian, including key members of the creative team who will eventually leave a clear mark on the film. In addition to Matis Rei, Mart Taniel will be the cinematographer, Jaanus Vahtra the costume designer, Anu Konze the make-up artist and Gristina Pahmann. Only the head artist is from the US, with the rest of the art department from Estonia," Kissa explained, adding that the lead role in the movie is being played by Katariina Unt. "Rea Lest and Johhan Rosenberg will play supporting roles," she said.

The film also stars Australian actress Samara Weaving, who, between 2009 and 2003 played Indigo Walker in soap opera Home and Away. Weaving previously appeared in Martin McDonagh's double-Oscar-winning  2017 film "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Since then, she has been mainly been involved in genre cinema, including Netflix horror movie "The Babysitter: Killer Queen" (2020), horror comedy "Ready or Not" (2019) and action comedy "Guns Akimbo" (2019) alongside Daniel Radcliffe.

"Azrael" is the third feature film director Evan L. Katz has made in Estonia with his 2017 movie "Small Crimes" also screened at the Haapsalu Horror and Fantasy Film Festival. "Azrael" screenwriter Simon Barrett has collaborated on several projects with influential genre cinema director Adam Wingard, whose back catalog includes "You're Next" (2011), "The Guest" (2014) and "Blair Witch" (2016). Wingard is currently working on "Godzilla vs Kong 2," which is due for release in 2024.

The Americans were surprised by how fast Estonia's nature changes

"From the stroke of midnight until December, we're going into night mode and we're in the woods at night, so the long, dark November in Estonia is the perfect time to shoot," Kissa explained, stressing that team members who are used to the Los Angeles climate were not prepared for how cold it can get in Estonia

"No matter how much we said it's gonna be nasty, damp and cold, they laughed it off and in the July heat, they were happy to think of it as an experience of a lifetime. I have to admit, that it's only taken a few windy days in October for me to start seeing the terror in their eyes," Kissa said, adding that she hopes the American filmmakers get to experience at least some of those days when the Estonian climate is at its harshest. "Maybe the kind of day where there's nothing else you can do but laugh," she said.

"If they come from a place where the sun shines almost 80 percent of the day and the environment stays the same for long periods of time, our four seasons are difficult to get used to. Because they don't change over a period of months, but sometimes we squeeze several seasons into one day, or even an hour," said Kissa, adding that this hasn't always been a bad thing for the American team, because the lighting conditions in Estonia provide more variation, which adds a lot to the picture.

"They arrived in Estonia in July, when everyone was delighted by the unprecedentedly beautiful weather with its record-breaking heatwave. Everything was lush and green. Then, when we started shooting in the fall, when the same locations had changed beyond recognition - the greens had turned yellow, red and brown, some of the leaves had disappeared and the landscape became rather melancholy," Kissa recalled, adding that the American filmmakers are only now beginning to slowly realize the ephemeral nature of things.

"Our forest is living, breathing and even dying in front of our very eyes. Today it is this way, tomorrow it will be different. You can't shoot a scene in the same place twice. It seems to me that when I compare Estonians with other members of the crew, in a way it defines our people very well. There's a kind of inner preparedness for change that makes our people really pleasant companions. Maybe that's why people are so happy to come to Estonia to film," she said.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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