10 Apr 2022

The X factor - horror producer Jacob Jaffke

From Standing Room Only, 5:24 pm on 10 April 2022

Whanganui may not be Texas, but a humble family farm there has become the setting for a hot new horror movie described as Boogie Nights meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Right now the movie industry is increasingly nervous, with all the big Hollywood studios saying the only way to make a profit is huge and very expensive blockbusters.

But one company is going in the opposite direction - and doing very well at it.  A24 specialises in smaller movies aimed mostly at cinema releases - movies like The Green Knight, Lady Bird, Lighthouse - and an upcoming tongue in cheek horror film called X.   

It's an unlikely combination, an unabashed genre picture called X set in Texas suddenly transferred to New Zealand.

And not even mainstream backlot New Zealand - Auckland, say, or Central Otago. was mostly shot around Whanganui, Bulls and Rangitikei and nearly 300 New Zealand crew and actors worked on the movie.

Simon Morris talked to producer Jacob Jaffke in Los Angeles about the enduring appeal of horror movies, why they work so much better in a cinema, and why he was drawn to New Zealand.

Horror is sometimes sniffed at by critics, but Jaffke says ultimately, he’s trying to get a reaction from his audience. 

“I think what makes this movie interesting is it pulls from both the horror genre and the comedy genre. 

“I think both of those genres, what I love about them is they’re experiential in nature, and you’re trying to elicit a response from your audience. There’s not a huge difference between making somebody jump under their seat or jump up with a belly laugh.”

The movie follows a group of filmmakers making an adult film on a farm in Texas, who end up in a horrific situation out of their control. In addition to being filmed in New Zealand, it stars well-known kiwi actor Martin Henderson. 

There were financial and pandemic reasons behind X coming to New Zealand, but also admiration for local filmmakers. 

“Covid had a lot to do with it, but also the fact we were running out of summer in the United States to make the film,” Jaffke says. 

But both Jaffke and X director Ti West are also longtime fans of the local filmmaking scene here.

“The reason Ti makes movies is because of [Sir Peter Jackson’s early gory alien invasion epic] Bad Taste, that was the most influential film in terms of making it clear that he himself could make films,” Jaffke says. 

“I similarly have been in love with New Zealand films and the work of Peter Jackson forever.”

Jaffke and the rest of the X production team reached out to the Film Commission to see if they could make filming down under happen. 

“If we can find a farm that looks like it’s in Texas, we will bring this movie to New Zealand. 

“Our scout, David Curtis, who is an incredible location scout … he found a farm that checked every box for us.”

The farm is owned by elderly residents near Whanganui, which echoes the plot of the movie itself, which has mysterious elderly farm residents at its core. The farm residents weren’t too fussed about their home becoming the site of a splatter horror movie, Jaffke says.

“They loved it, they thought it was great. They wanted to be there when the blood and guts were going down. They’d come to lunch and it was like, ‘Are we killing anyone today?’

Jaffke says other New Zealand filmmakers like Jane Campion and Taika Waititi also inspired him.

“You just look at the movies that were being made here, and the level at which they were being made - the level of craftsmanship and what they were doing with their budgets and the landscapes… 

“Purely, it was ingenious, the stuff that was coming out of New Zealand, for a country so small to make movies so big that were landing at that level, I had never seen anything like it. 

“That was part of what really intrigued me about New Zealand was its crews, and getting to work with New Zealand actors.” 

X has had a great reception so far, including a shout-out from horror legend Stephen King on Twitter. 

“The response has been unbelievable, it really has.”

Jaffke is already working on a prequel to X, Pearl, and says New Zealand will definitely be in his future plans.

"I even applied for residency when we were making the movies. I don't think I did it right, so we're going to try it again some other time.

"I just think that what New Zealand offers you in terms of what you get back is unparalleled. ... The culture and the people we got to work with, they're the best." 

X has been showing in selected cinemas this week, and then will later stream on Google Play and iTunes before heading for BluRay/DVD.