With his laid-back demeanor and easy smile, Zachary Hansen ’94C doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would make a movie about a serial killer.

Over dinner in a Cuban restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, Hansen leans back in his chair and admits as much. “A lot of my friends say they’re glad they met me before they saw the film,” he says. “I was a bit angrier when I was younger.”

The moody psychothriller Killer Me–which the thirty-two-year-old Hansen wrote, directed, scored, and edited–captures the inner turmoil of a troubled criminology student who carries a straight razor, lives in a small apartment with his goldfish, and experiences frequent blackouts and violent visions. Shot in eighteen days for $12,000, the film started out as Hansen’s thesis project at the California Institute of the Arts in 1998.

“I wanted to tell a first-person story about what was going on in someone’s mind,” he says. “Not much of the story is from my own life, except the goldfish. I have incredible luck with goldfish. They always live for two or three years.”

Killer Me, which recently has been released on DVD through Vanguard Cinema, received rave reviews from critics–the Los Angeles Times called the film “unsettling” and “beautifully realized,” Entertainment Today said it was “a moody, engrossing character study,”CineFiles called it a “rare find,” and Fangoria likened it to a “slow, compelling dance into dementia.” The Hamptons International Film Festival review compared Hansen’s style to the early work of Roman Polanski. Killer Me also was selected to be shown at Methodfest in Los Angeles and the 2001 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado.

“At Telluride, it was playing against Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow and a documentary about Jerry Garcia called Grateful Dawg, but I ended up with a full house, including Roger Ebert,” says Hansen, who waited in the lobby during the screening. “I watched [Gene] Siskel and Ebert’s Sneak Previews all the time on PBS when I was a kid, so it was very exciting but also a little nerve-racking.”

Hansen first started making films with a Super 8 camera when he was in grade school in Tucson, using claymation to stage animated space wars, and went on to crew feature films in Arizona and Los Angeles.

He got his bachelor’s degree in art history and film studies from Emory. “All the professors in the film studies program were exceptional. [Associate] Professor Matthew Bernstein probably had the most significant impact,” he says. “He had a very straightforward way of teaching and was very idealistic about the potential of cinema. Emory is more known for its professional degrees, but the liberal studies programs there are top notch.”

While pursuing his MFA at CalArts, Hansen reached “a personal dead end” with the experimental film format and began “to take out my frustrations by working on a small slasher film in which a film student snuffs out his professors one by one using various pieces of production equipment.”

That film evolved into Killer Me. Hansen enlisted cinematographer Neal Fredericks, fresh from shooting The Blair Witch Project, as his director of photography. Then he posted a brief casting notice in L.A.’s Back Stage West. Even though Hansen could offer no pay, just meals and credit, he was inundated with close to five thousand head shots and auditioned more than three hundred before selecting his actors. “It’s L.A.,” he says matter-of-factly. “The talent pool here is incredible.”

George Foster, who had a bit part as a guitarist in Wayne’s World, plays the male lead, Joseph Sturgeon, with a sublimated intensity, and female lead Christina Kew almost disappears into her debut role as Joseph’s timid yet persistent love interest, Anna.

The film was shot at sixteen locations–including CalArts restrooms and movie theater, the inside of a friend’s apartment, and the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles–in a little more than three weeks. “We had to work fast,” Hansen says. “I was constantly cutting scenes and simplifying my storyboards.”

And then there was the challenge of making realistic-looking blood. “We used a lot of corn syrup and food coloring, with Oreo cookies crumbled up in it to give it consistency,” he says. “You can buy fake blood, but it’s cheaper to make your own.”

Despite the blood, which appears on hands, clothing, and in an especially creepy bathtub cleaning scene, the film isn’t as gory as one might expect. In fact, Sturgeon is never seen committing a murder and may not even be a killer. Hansen won’t say either way. “I want to leave that open-ended,” he says.

The film’s eerie soundtrack, which has garnered a lot of attention among sound designers, was created when Hansen experimented with a FisherPrice PXL2000 toy camcorder than belonged to his younger sister. “The sound comes out completely distorted, slowed, with a low, repetitious hum,” he says. “I was curious if it could be used to create an entire music score. I recorded everything in my apartment–pots, pans, toy motors, rubber ducks, a water faucet, then played them back.”

While dark films about would-be murderers are tough sells to mainstream distributors, Hansen’s movie is moving well through on-line orders (www.killerme.com) and he hopes it will eventually gain a wider audience.

As for Hansen, he refuses to be typecast–he’s already written his next script, a martial arts comedy he describes as “The Karate Kid meets Rushmore.” If you think he’s gone soft, though, think again. “It will have what I hope will be the greatest arm-breaking sequence ever seen on film.”


L.A. Alumni:

Kai Ryssdal ’85C

Mark Goffman ’90C

Geoffrey Emery ’86L

Curley Bonds ’87C


© 2004 Emory University