Florian Habicht did not want to make Spookers. When the acclaimed documentarian first got the call from the film’s producers offering him the opportunity to make a movie about New Zealand’s most famous haunted house, he almost turned it down. He was too busy working on his own passion project, he said, a feature he was set to shoot last year. But fate – or whatever version of fate organises the production of films about affable New Zealanders who dress up as carnivorous clowns – had other plans.

“The Madman production company gave me a call out of the blue, to see if I was up for making Spookers as they wanted a New Zealand director,” Habicht explains. “Suzanne Walker from Madman dreamed up the idea to make a documentary about Spookers, the haunted attraction. I wanted to say no and focus on my drama project, but decided to go to Spookers and shoot a test, as I’d never been there before. But when I arrived and saw all the performers in action and getting into their make-up and costumes, I knew that this place was for me.”

Indeed, Habicht and the hard-working crew at Spookers – a family owned and run business that has been in the business of scaring paying customers for years – have more in common than one might necessarily think. “The fact that the performers were all amateurs is something that I gelled with. ‘Amateur’ comes from a Greek word that means to do something out of love. I make all my films out of love and discovered filmmaking at art school rather than at a film school where they teach you specifically how to make films. So I felt like we had something in common as artists.”

That kinship is evident in every single frame of Spookers. Whereas a lesser filmmaker might have poked fun at the Spookers crew, joshing them for their weird dedication to an even weirder job, Habicht treats them with respect, allowing them to tell their frequently moving stories of hardship and pain without judgement.

“I don’t like documentaries that make fun of their subjects and I can’t see how I would have made fun of the Spookers gang,” Habicht explains. “I’m a freak myself anyway. The Spookers gang come up with their own characters, and do their own make-up and prosthetics. I was blown away by their creativity, and was curious about what goes on behind the mask.”

I don’t like documentaries that make fun of their subjects and I can’t see how I would have made fun of the Spookers gang.

The film was shot in instalments over 30 days, so Habicht had the time to properly explore every facet of the Spookers story. “We edit[ed] the footage as we went along. That way the film evolved naturally, and the documentary was written during the edit. It’s what I’ve found to be a very organic way to make documentaries, so the films find themselves, but what’s a bit odd is that to get the funding to make the film, you have to pretend you know exactly what the film is about and what will happen. In our funding application, I [the filmmaker] was going to play a monster covered in slime that lands on Earth from outer space with a video camera.”

Although the finished project might be curiously devoid of slime-covered filmmaker monsters, what it does contain is a whole lot of hilarity, fake blood and heart – oh, and a bunch of nods to the world’s worst director.

Spookers has quite a few Ed Wood references,” Habicht says. “Did you spot them? I even wore a pair of women’s underwear when we shot the film’s opening title sequence.”

Spookers plays at Event Cinemas George Street on Saturday June 10 and Dendy Newtown on Sunday June 11 for Sydney Film Festival 2017.

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