Interview with J. Zachary Thurman, Director of Viral Short “Finley”

Virality seems to be the new aide to indie filmmakers these days. Especially with movie studios treating films like disposable products that they can use as a simple tax write off, many times the best way for filmmakers to get traction on their work is through viral means on the web. Among one of the more notable is J. Zachary Thurman’s short “Finley.” A horror comedy with a genuinely interesting story, “Finley” recently went viral on the likes of Youtube and apps like Tik Tok, the latter of which has inspired many horror tik tokers to post live reactions to Mr. Thurman’s short.

Genuinely funny, and downright fun, “Finley” is the tale of a haunted doll named Finley that comes to life to torment the owners of a new house. The problem is that Finley is really bad at trying to kill people, and eventually becomes an utter nuisance. Filled with great puppetry, a genuinely fun concept, and oodles of clever humor, “Finley” (now available on youtube) is a short film deserving of huge attention. J. Zachary Thurman took time out of his very busy schedule to discuss the short and his thoughts on horror comedies and filmmaking.

Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is J. Zachary Thurman. I’m probably best known for the horror-comedy short FINLEY and a ridiculous feature film I made (before I knew what I was doing) called FURRY NIGHTS (2016). I was born in Atlanta, GA where I founded Unplugged Films LLC – an Atlanta based production company. Recently, I moved to Los Angeles, CA to attend USC’s Graduate Cinematic Arts program. I graduated this past August and have been working as a cinematographer and director since.

Has filmmaking always been a goal of yours?
For as long as I can remember, it has been my only goal. I grew up in a slightly askew family where Halloween was celebrated just as much as Christmas and movies like Gremlins, Jaws, Creature from the Black Lagoon, etc. were shown to me at a very young age. We found humor in the horror genre and enjoyed it together as a family. As early as elementary school – I was making small horror shorts with the neighborhood kids. We started making feature length projects in middle school – but it wasn’t until after high school that I started to take filmmaking seriously.

Where did you come up with the idea for your short film “Finley”?
Growing up, I was terrified of dolls from famous franchises: Blade (Puppet Master), Chucky (Child’s Play), Slappy (Goosebumps). My parents would play pranks on me with replicas of these dolls and I love them for that. So, I (like many) grew up fearing these dolls and I wrote a short film called “Finley” that was dark and very serious.

It involved an evil doll, a ventriloquist with dementia, and a yard sale – it was VERY different from the film you know today, but the doll was the same in appearance. When I started the casting process – I kept seeing my production companies name on all the paperwork – UNPLUGGED FILMS. I thought about this evil doll trying to kill someone with an unplugged toaster and boom – Finley was born. I wrote the script within a few hours.

How long did it take to film “Finley”? And where did you film it?
I think principal photography (everything with the lead actors) took place within 3 weeks at a family members house in Atlanta, Georgia. Then, Keith Dowsett (who plays Mark) and I spent 3 weeks shooting all of Finley’s movements (green screen and puppeteering). After that, I quickly edited the film and then, spent 4 months doing the VFX on my own. I’d say the entirety of production lasted 6 months.

What do you think of “Finley” going viral on Tik Tok?
I can’t even begin to fathom it. The cast, crew, and I were so excited when Finley broke 100k views on YouTube – that was a huge win. Then all the sudden, the actors were getting noticed at malls and I would see people watching the short clips on TikTok at my local coffee shop – it’s a wild and humbling experience.

The fact that 5 million have watched it on YouTube and it continues to gain traction on TikTok just tells me Finley deserves a feature film and audiences want this type of content. I’m just so gratefully indebted to all the fans.

Did you set up a mythology for Finley before you filmed the movie?
I did on my own. I know his origins and how he got into the crate, but that really didn’t matter to the short. I have that backstory included in both Finley 2 (a short) and the feature version of Finley. Until those are finally made – I can only say that Finley was “rusty” when he came out of the crate. He didn’t always suck at killing.

Are there any movies that helped inspire the character Finley?
Oh yeah! So many! Child’s Play, Home Alone, E.T., Lilo & Stitch, and Goosebumps were the biggest inspirations for not only the character – but the film.

Were there any other horror comedies that helped inspired “Finley”?
Gremlins! Gremlins was pretty much the biggest horror comedy that inspired Finley. I just knew that Finley’s tone had to be similar to Gremlins.

Who designed the character of Finley? And as a Follow Up, who did the puppetry?
The puppetry was done entirely by Keith Dowsett and me. The shape of the face is based off old figures made by the talented and late Jerry Layne. I had found one of his puppets in auction (a female puppet) that I then was able to use as a starting point – completely gutting the doll — to learn how to make one before I designed the look of Finley. I built several versions of Finley – each with its own purpose. One to pick things up, one to run, one stunt doll, and then, the main puppet that can stand on its own.

Why do you think horror and comedy work so well together?
I think each subverts the other and so they form the perfect balance. If you’re expecting a jump scare and instead get a punchline, your body will release on the tension in laughter – likewise if you’re expecting a joke and then all the sudden have a monster comes popping out – you’re completely caught off guard. I enjoy watching my audience laughing one minute only to be hiding under their seat the next. It’s really rewarding to see that polar-opposite reaction to the same piece of content.

If you can tell us, are you perhaps planning a feature film version of “Finley” down the road?
I’ve spent the last 3 years dedicated to turning the short film into a feature and am determined to make it one – even if I have to crowdfund the film. The script is ready (even the sequel feature script is done). So, Finley will return! I’m hoping to begin production this year. I’m just hoping that the Finley feature will get the budget I think it deserves and can give the fans what they’ve been asking for. It has a ton of potential and I know it won’t disappoint.

Finley goes from a boogey man to a lovable underdog during the course of the movie, was that an easy transition to write?
Going into it I knew the “look” of the doll and the tone of the film would need to have a certain aesthetic that could walk a fine line between terrifying and comedic. The doll was very important – for instance, too ugly/scary and no one would root for him. Finley’s love for animals also had to come across because then he’s not “so bad.” It was all about withholding his nature – just showing him in the stereotypical horror conventions until we have a chance to pull back the curtain for the audience and reveal who Finley is. I’d say it was easy looking back, but I’m working on the feature now and still trying to find that perfect balance.

Guess I should also note that this transition is heavily influenced by Stitch and E.T. – both of which grow on you throughout the film, yet their initial introduction is completely opposite of who they are.

Can you tell us what projects that you’re working on next?
I just finished a project as Director of Photography for a new comedy feature called WHAT THE DOG SAW. Since wrapping, my focus has turned toward two big projects that I have written and will be directing. One is the biopic of scientist, Louis Slotin, and his time at Los Alamos (yes, same Los Alamos from Oppenheimer). I was lucky enough to receive a grant by the Sloan Foundation and will begin filming in March. The other is Finley’s feature film, which I hope will begin production in summer of next year – right now it is just about finding the right investors to bring it to life in the way Finley deserves.

As for short films – I have one or two cooking for the YouTube Channel.

What advice do you have for other filmmakers aspiring or otherwise looking to make their own short film?
I have this poster my mom gave me above my desk that says:

“Life is like a camera . . . focus on what’s important . . . capture the good times . . . develop from the negatives . . . and if things don’t work out, take another shot.””

I try to remember that constantly whenever I start a project and that would be my advice – keep going, fail, learn from it, and have fun doing it. Every film I’ve tried to make with success in mind has failed brutally – but films like Finley – ones I solely made to share his story to audiences has now reached over 5 million viewers. It’s incredible! And I hope it’s obvious it was made with love and no ulterior motives. Do that! Tell the story that you HAVE to tell or it will drive you insane!

Finally, do you think virality is becoming an essential tool to modern filmmakers?
Hmmm. Virality did serve to get Finley out to tons of individuals, which I’m beyond grateful for, but many of the TikTok videos don’t link back to the original film or my social, so a lot of people have no idea where to find it. There are also individuals that claim ownership over the film and remove its credits and replace my name with their own. YouTube has been great in helping combat this, but it is a daily battle. So, for me – virality is more of a platform for exhibition and has been essential!

I’m also very hopeful the viral aspect continues to grow and helps to make Finley’s feature possible!