Director David Gelb goes from observing a sushi chef to re-animating corpses

Gelb, who directed documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, talks about his new flick on resurrected corpses

How did the director of an award-winning documentary about a Tokyo sushi chef obsessed with perfection end up making a horror movie about corpses coming back to life?

David Gelb, 31, the film-maker behind Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011), has a simple answer: He wanted to do it.

"I've loved horror movies since I was a kid. I thought it would be fun," he says.

After Jiro became a critical and commercial hit, he received a number of scripts. The one that would become The Lazarus Effect, now showing in Singapore, was the one he liked best.

But he still had to pitch his ideas to its producers, among them Blumhouse Productions, the indie house that has become an industry sensation for low-budget horror works that earn box-office figures many times their budget. The hits include the franchises for The Purge (2013, 2014), Paranormal Activity (2007 to 2014), Sinister (2012) and Insidious (2010, 2013).

"It took a lot of time to convince the producers that I was the right guy for the project. Like you said, why would someone who made a sushi documentary want to make a horror movie?" he tells Life! on the telephone from Los Angeles.

"As someone who had never done a narrative feature film before, I had to do a lot of pitching and communicating to convince the producers."

The graduate of the film school at the University of Southern California won the job, and the faith its backers placed in him seems to have paid off.

Major star Olivia Wilde (Rush, 2013), indie darling Mark Duplass (TV's Togetherness), Evan Peters (TV's American Horror Story) and Donald Glover (the comedy series Community) play researchers who devise a serum that brings the dead back to life, while fighting off administrators who want to shut it all down.

The film opened in the United States in late February and has earned US$24 million (S$32.8 million) on its tiny US$3-million budget. It is a bona fide hit, despite critical brickbats aimed at its cliched plot and wooden dialogue.

Blumhouse, like so many other low-budget and B-movie houses, has a production style that values speed and bang for the buck over all else, a style that suited the frugal documentary maker in Gelb.

He was used to working with small teams, and unlike narrative film-makers who redo shots over and over to get the scene as they had imagined it, he had learnt through shooting non-fiction subjects that it was better to work with what is given, then find the shot in editing.

"They (Blumhouse) make movies that don't cost much and that every dollar spent must appear on the screen," he says. So for stars like Wilde, this is usually taken to mean they have to make do with fewer of the creature comforts they are used to, such as plush trailers and other perks.

Gelb considers Wilde to be a professional and an actress known for parts in dramas and thrillers who wanted to stretch herself by taking on a lead role in a horror project.

In the story, a dog is revived and its bizarre behaviour is a harbinger of horrors to come. Working with animals is something else the fledgling director had to learn. Because the dog actor was so good-natured and relaxed, the animal wranglers had to trick the animal into growling and baring its fangs when the scene needed it.

"You train the dog into doing what most trainers want it not to do - to get excited about food. So there's a steak just off-camera and each time the dog steps up to it, it's pulled back," Gelb says.

He is now back to the world of documentaries. This time, the topic is cars. He is working with the Ford motor company on the film A Faster Horse, which deals with the iconic Mustang model.

Gelb is clearly excited by the project, especially in the sections that deal with the exacting nature of car design and production, and the level of dedication required to turn ideas into metal and rubber.

Others might say his three recent films - about sushi, scientists raising the dead and cars - have nothing in common. But Gelb disagrees.

"There are fans in Mustang clubs all over the world, and people have an emotional attachment to their cars. People told me that sushi is just fish and rice. But all of them are about creative people striving to make something, under pressure," he says.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

The Lazarus Effect is showing in cinemas.