Zak Hilditch dumps pandemic project but is keen to make body-count thriller

Zak Hilditch.

After trying to find ways to reconfigure Airborne, a thriller set during a mid-flight pandemic, Zak Hilditch has given up, conceding COVID-19 is far more lethal and scarier than the scenario he envisaged.

The filmmaker had been developing the project formerly known as Celestial Blue since 2017, initally with his These Final Hours producer Liz Kearney, later joined by US producer Ross Dinerstein.

Backed by XYZ Films, he planned to shoot in Bulgaria. At an Australians in Film webinar with Ben Young and Natalie Erika James in May, he said: “I’ve had to rewrite the entire film because the fantastical virus that happens on that flight is nothing compared to what has actually happened.”

Today, however, at a Director’s Spotlight session at CinefestOZ in Busselton, he said: “It’s too much of a minefield. The time is not right and I’m not interested in it any more.”

Interviewed by WA filmmaker Sam Lara, Zak said that earlier this year he wrote a thriller about an accident which leaves a huge body count. He was developing the project with Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions but they have since got cold feet, “understandably so.”

He is still keen to make the film which was to have been set in the US, following clean-up crews who deal with the mountain of corpses, but for obvious reasons will look to shoot it elsewhere.

Hilditch recalled that after his breakthrough These Final Hours premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, he secured a manager and agent in the US (Thruline and WME).

For the next two years he wrote scripts which got close to being funded but didn’t eventuate. His luck changed when he met Dinerstein on a “water bottle” tour of LA.

Dinerstein had a deal with Netflix to make genre movies budgeted at $US2-4 million. Hilditch was keen to turn the Stephen King novella 1922 into a movie so he and Dinerstein pitched it to Netflix’s Ian Bricke over coffee.

The next day they got the green light. It was shot in Vancouver with $US4 million from Netflix plus the 40 per cent Vancouver tax break.

After that they proposed to the streamer a movie based on John Grisham’s 2010 novel The Confession but were turned down and their option expired.

However Netflix then funded Hilditch’s Rattlesnake, a psychological horror film set in rural Texas which followed a mother who makes a desperate deal to save her daughter bitten by a rattlesnake. In return, she is forced to take the life of a stranger.

For the uninitiated, Lara asked the writer-director to explain the difference between the roles of manager and agent. He likened the manager to a “paid bro who is a defence shield between you and your agent.”

And the agent? “He helps you navigate the crazy world of getting films up.”