‘The Head Hunter’: How to Make a Year-Best Horror Film for Only $30K

If you had to place a number on the cost of independent horror, what would it be? Maybe you think of A24 titles like It Comes at Night ($5 million) or The Witch ($4 million). Perhaps you’re drawn to the efficiency of Blumhouse titles like The Purge ($3 million) or Sinister ($3 million). Maybe you’ll dig a little deeper and think of one-location horror films like Pontypool ($1.5 million) and The Invitation ($1 million). Absent the titles themselves, we might use the definitions provided by film research Stephen Follows, whose interviews with industry professionals found the upward limit of low-budget ($2.1 million) and micro-budget ($396,000) as remaining constant across trades.

The truth is, even the most no-budget of horror films are going to push seven figures, and that is often with an anonymous cast and a nondescript setting. So how is it that Jordan Downey, Rickey Fosheim, and Kevin Stewart were able to create a medieval horror epic for only $30,000? The Head Hunter made headlines on the festival circuit for its unbelievable low cost, but minuscule budgets work the same as blockbusters; just because you exist at one of the Hollywood extremes doesn’t mean yours is a film worth remembering. What makes The Head Hunter special is the care that the three producers put into making the movie something special. Add a zero – hell, add two – and it’s hard to imagine the film improving on its utterly concise storytelling.

Before there was The Head Hunter, there was ThanksKilling. Back in 2008, Downey and Stewart made their feature debut with the Thanksgiving-themed slasher. That film cost only $3,500 to make – placing it firmly below “micro-budget” into “no-budget” territory – but found an audience on DVD who resonated with its DIY aesthetic and its offbeat sense of humor.

That success was eventually parlayed into the crowdfunded ThanksKilling 3, a sequel that skipped right over the second entry and used every penny of its $112,000 budget on creating believable puppet effects. Which, of course, begs the question: how did the creators of these crass, supernatural puppet slashers decide to make an ambitious period piece for a fraction of their sequel’s budget?

It helps if The Head Hunter is the type of horror film you’ve always hoped to make. “With ThanksKilling, it felt more like I was doing something in somebody else’s realm,” explains Downey, the co-writer and director of both films. “We were always having a good time, and it was fun. We still have a wicked, warped sort of sense of humor, of course, but I would say that The Head Hunter felt more natural.”

Much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the film began life as an exercise among friends. “We hosted a very small little writers’ retreat at our family home up in the mountains,” reveals Fosheim, the film’s producer. “It was a very intimate weekend with four or five writers, and Jordan and Kevin were up there together, and they pitched this small group of people The Head Hunter. They turned off all the lights and they started a little fire in the house. It became this little spooky bedtime story, and we were all blown away.”

Not long after that, the two co-writers finalized a screenplay of the film, which came in at a whopping 40 pages. There isn’t a lot of dialogue in The Head Hunter – the film tells the straightforward narrative of Father, a medieval warrior who serves as the isolated monster hunter of his realm. After losing his daughter to a violent beast, Father proves to be relentless in his revenge, hunting myriad monsters at the behest of a local lord and bringing their heads back to mount on his wall. Using a mysterious elixir to bring himself back from death’s door after every battle, Father watches the slow collapse of his body but refuses to succumb to death until the creature who killed his daughter is found and caught. When their paths cross, Father learns all too late that this elixir works just as well on the inhuman as on himself.

On the first watch, The Head Hunter could not be more different than the ThanksKilling features. There’s an irreverence to those earlier films that border on the adolescent; the sequel, in particular, contains enough worm-fucking and chainsaw genitalia jokes to satisfy even the biggest Troma Entertainment fan.

Dig a bit deeper, however, and you will see a trio of filmmakers both pushing the boundaries of practical effects – ThanksKilling 3 features memorable puppet characters that would make the Jim Henson Company proud – and reaching for a sense of scale that most independent filmmakers would not dare approach. For all the film’s over-the-top jokes, Downey and company construct a narrative that links the first film and its nonexistent sequel with a grand universe full of action and mythology. Worldbuilding is often reserved for the nine-figure budgets of the world; not so for characters of these films.

“That’s something we’ve been aware of since ThanksKilling, when we were 21 years old,” explains Stewart, who both co-wrote and shot their latest film. “The world outside the world — the world outside the movie — is just as important.”

In other words, the more expansive the narrative, the more audiences will latch onto the pieces that aren’t explicitly shown on the screen. “You experience the movie a lot more than just watching it passively,” Stewart adds. “You become engaged. You may seek things out a little bit more, have tattoos, have ThanksKilling the Musical.”

In describing his films in these terms, Stewart is voicing an innate understanding of how fans interact with the properties they love. Creators aim to make a sandbox large enough for their fans to play in, but you must give them enough creative space to let them come up with their own stories. The more hints you drop at the world outside the film, the better.

For The Head Hunter, that meant wanted posters. While the severed heads nailed to Father’s wall demonstrate the trio’s skill with creature design and props, the wanted posters found in the film illustrate the thought and care that went into this character and this universe. Without those little touches, The Head Hunter would feel smaller in a way a bigger budget could never improve.

“All of my favorite movies growing up [had] these kinds of iconic characters,” Downey says, “and the stuff that I collected was RoboCop. I would have the toy, and then I would play the video game, and I’d have the poster and the comic. I’ve always felt more inspired to make movies that go way beyond the screen.”

While we may not see the creatures in all their glory, we see the posters, we see their heads, and we see the broken and bleeding body of Father as he patches up his wounds. That’s more than enough to spark an audience’s imagination.

Of course, when you only have $30,000 to spend on your self-financed horror movie, you’re going to be working within some pretty severe limitations. After deciding not to go the crowdfunding route for The Head Hunter – the trio was able to raise money for their film primarily with the proceeds they earned from selling ThanksKilling props to fans – Downey, Stewart, and Fosheim used what they had to make the movie.

Location was half the battle. Stewart had been raised in Portugal, and his grandmother’s farm proved to be the ideal setting for Father and his quest for revenge. “We knew we’d been wanting to go there for a while now,” Stewart explains. “And knowing that we would have resources and places to stay and things like that available to us, to a certain degree, we reverse engineered this idea.”

Perhaps the best cinematic parallel for The Head Hunter is Gareth Edwards’s Monsters. Released in 2010, Monsters was also produced on a minuscule budget by Hollywood standards ($500,000) and spends much of its runtime showing the impact of the creatures, not the creatures themselves. In both films, there’s remarkable confidence in what you’re not seeing.

It’s one thing to place the battles in The Head Hunter offscreen because you cannot afford to show them; it’s another to craft a monster movie where the monsters themselves are a distraction from the human element. That’s one of the biggest surprises: The Head Hunter movie is far better for what it doesn’t show, especially in an era where audiences have become numb to Hollywood spectacle.

“It just didn’t feel important,” Downey says. “A dragon? Well, we’ve seen dragons, so we’re just competing with who can do the better dragon.”

Even with a bigger budget, the director is quick to point out that The Head Hunter would never have featured more action than what we see onscreen: “I don’t think we really ever wanted to show anything else. We pretty much made the movie we wanted to make.”

What The Head Hunter lacked in budget, however, it made up for in effort. Even before the script was completed, the filmmakers had begun to work on the film’s props and explore different ways of making budget monsters. To create the decomposed look of the heads, the team would “corpse” old Halloween masks by staining and melting plastic over them until the faces appeared to have a layer of decomposing flesh.

“We went to a Halloween store the day after Halloween,” Downey recalls, “when everything was 75 percent off. And we just bought — it wasn’t even that much money, two or three hundred dollars — we just bought every medieval thing in there we could find. Every plastic sword or shield, skeletons, and skulls, anything that just looked kind of creepy, crawly, medieval, or metal. We bought it all.”

The results are incredible. The first time we see Father’s wall of heads, we’re struck by the variety of creatures captured on his mantle. There are trolls, demons, witches, and more, each of them in a distinct stage of decomposition. Like the posters, this wall of heads helps expand the world that Father inhabits; the heads hint at the different terrains Father has traveled and the fights he won along the way. These are the kind of production touches that Hollywood movies would spend months storyboarding and designing from scratch. Downey and company were able to accomplish the same effect with a little bit of plastic and a whole bunch of elbow grease.

“I think you need two things to make that happen,” Fosheim says. “You need to have a high bullshit meter and an attention to detail – you gotta care about what you’re doing and say, ‘No, that sucks, redo it’ – and then you gotta be prepared for every Friday and Saturday night for a year of your life to sit around ‘corpsing’ and making props.”

There were, however, a few aspects of the production that the crew did not feel comfortable handling in-house. For one, Downey is quick to praise Swedish costume designer André Bravin for creating Father’s iconic collection of armaments. “We did not design the actual look of the costume,” he admits. “We had references, but André came up with the look of that helmet. And that thing is on the poster! What sold the movie, basically, is that costume.”

While Downey admits that the filmmakers were feeling pretty confident in their design ability after creating the heads, Rygh’s costume was far too elaborate for the group to handle themselves. “We just cannot go on YouTube and watch a few tutorials, and read about something in a couple of days, and get that right,” he acknowledges.

Some financial considerations were baked into the production. Despite having minimal dialogue and a Norwegian actor in the leading role, the filmmakers never conceived of The Head Hunter as anything other than an English-language feature. “If it wasn’t an English-language film, that would have limited the audience a little bit,” Downey admits. “We thought it would make it unique and accessible too, especially considering that it is fairly inaccessible to a massive audience, [that] there’s not very much dialogue. So, we wanted to give ourselves the best chance for distribution and getting people to watch it down the line.”

That being said, those hoping for the full foreign-language experience with The Head Hunter may find themselves satisfied down the line. “Funny enough, on set — once we got the take right in English — then we did do a Norwegian take,” Downey reveals. “So, there is technically a Norwegian version that does exist.”

There is, of course, another concession you make when you create a movie this good on a five-figure budget: it’s the only thing anyone will ever want to talk about. Pull off the impossible, and every publication – this one included – will anchor the conversation around the money you spent on your production.

To their credit, the Head Hunter crew are remarkably transparent in discussing the budget of their film, even going as far as to provide a complete breakdown – including airfare and catering – on how the crew spent their $30,000 in a Reddit Q&A. “You hear so many conflicting things as an independent filmmaker,” sighs Downey. “Should you reveal your budget? Or, no, you don’t want to tell anyone how much it cost because then you’re going to get a lower offer. All of that noise gets annoying after a while, to be honest.”

In the end, this is the recipe for success that the Head Hunter crew has to offer. Lean into your limitations, stay true to your vision, and, when in doubt, make the movie you want to make. While the crew is aware that this film has and will open doors for them in the industry, they always approached it as the movie that they wanted to make, regardless of the audience. “If it didn’t have [an audience], we would not have felt like this was a failure,” Downey admits. “We’d probably just be still talking about, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ Nothing would change.”

Micro-budget, no-budget, whatever you want to call it, this is a group of filmmakers who make movies for themselves without putting themselves in debt in the process. That’s a Hollywood success story regardless of the zeroes involved.

Matthew Monagle: @labsplice Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.