Bound to a village's deadly curse, the living dead rise to punish those who would dare to disturb them in the new horror thriller series Betaal. A collaboration between Blumhouse Television, SK Global Entertainment, and Red Chillies Entertainment, Betaal is now streaming on Netflix, and for our latest Q&A feature, we caught up with the series' creator Patrick Graham (who also co-directed all four episodes with Nikhil Mahajan and co-wrote the series with Suhani Kanwar) to discuss the series' social relevance, the eclectic scares viewers can look forward to, and the visual influence John Carpenter's The Fog had on the series' zombies.
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, and congratulations on Betaal! How and when did you originally come up with the idea for Betaal?
Patrick Graham: Thank you very much for your questions! After Ghoul, another Blumhouse and SK Global show for Netflix India, I wanted to make another genre piece that was a little more accessible and fast paced. I felt, whereas Ghoul could be considered more "elevated horror," I now wanted to do something which a wider audience could enjoy, more of a fantastical adventure story. I had wanted to make a zombie story since forever and yet I knew the zombie genre was a rather crowded marketplace, so I felt like I should try and give it as unique and idiosyncratic take on it as I possibly could.
I knew I wanted to have redcoat zombies and I wanted them to have a specifically Indian flavour, I just needed a good piece of folklore that I could retrofit over the idea and hit gold with the "Betaal"/"Baital"/"Vetala" legend. Once I had found the mythological monster, the rules and characteristics of the demons fell into place. I felt a Night of the Living Dead siege horror would be ticking a box off the bucket list.
Where did filming take place, and how many days did you have in your shooting schedule?
Patrick Graham: We had two weeks of exterior shoots. These took place in various areas of Maharashtra, around a four hours or so drive from Mumbai. We built the village in a rather dramatic, mountainous area outside of a hill station called Lonavala and the tunnel was a real, abandoned railway tunnel in a place called Igatpuri, which was a beautiful area of green, lush, verdant hills. Then we did three weeks of interiors for our "barracks" set, which was built in two soundstages at Yash Raj Film studios.
In Betaal, you blend an ancient curse with zombified soldiers and a healthy dose of psychological horror. What types of scares can viewers look forward to experiencing in Betaal?
Patrick Graham: I wanted each episode to feel a little different from each other. I felt like three hours of zombies banging on doors might get a little monotonous, so the first episode is really about setting the scene and we enjoyed kind of flipping the genre on its head halfway through the episode, where we get our first attack of our cursed soldiers from inside the tunnel. In episode 2, I wanted to make it feel a bit more like they were trapped in a haunted house, with more slow burn kind of spook sequences. In 3 and 4, we go all out into action/adventure mode and they have more traditional zombie sequences, which hinge more on suspense than spooks and jump scares.
You got to work with a great cast for this miniseries, including Viineet Kumar, Aahana Kumra, and Suchitra Pillai. What was it like to work with such a talented group of actors to bring this story to life?
Patrick Graham: Honestly speaking, I’ve worked on two series now with amazing ensemble casts—first Ghoul and now Betaal. The cast were so committed, so passionate, and so positive that really on set they were my happy place! If I was stressed or whatever, seeing how excited the actors were always gave me a boost. As good actors will do, they each took the characters off the page and made them their own, like with Ghoul, what the actors did with their characters exceeded the depictions of them I had in my head while writing. It’s an extremely satisfying feeling to see good actors embody characters that you have only been living with in your head up to that point.
With their eerie red eyes, the zombies in Betaal have a really creepy look that reminds me of the crewmembers from the Elizabeth Dane in John Carpenter’s The Fog. Were you inspired or influenced by any other horror movies or TV series while making Betaal?
Patrick Graham: I’m so glad you mentioned The Fog!!! Yes, ABSOLUTELY, I wanted to make zombies that were memorable and unique to this show. It seemed done-to-undeath just to have the usual rotting corpses, so I took imagery from shows and films that had scared me as a kid and, of course, a lot of that stuff came from fuzzy, late-night VHS recordings of films like The Fog, Prince of Darkness, and also stuff like Salem’s Lot, where I always loved the glowing eyes of the vampires, also films that I loved growing up like the Evil Dead trilogy, where the reanimated corpses can fly, manipulate and trick you, transform, etc, etc.
The Fog is a good example, though, because I always loved how the glowing-eyed zombies/ghosts seemed almost like a cold, inexorable, unemotional force of nature, rolling in like the fog bank itself. They seem almost passive, they’re not killing you because they want to necessarily, only because they HAVE to. It’s why they exist. Similarly, I didn’t really just want the snarling or moaning, shambling, brainless Romero zombies, I wanted my own creation, a hybrid between mummified corpses and some of the snarling, bulging-eyed, curved-fanged demons you see in Indian and Asian folklore.
Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?
Patrick Graham: I think the exterior shoots were the most dramatic, as we were in these wonderful, evocative, locations. It all seemed so real. We were constantly fighting against the beginning of the monsoon, so we would be standing around for hours waiting in the cold and rain, in the middle of snake-infested forests or haunted old ruins from the Colonial era, waiting to be able to start shooting. As usual, the cast and crew were so patient, so committed, morale never flagged—the scene where they have to retreat through the forest, for example, we were standing in that jungle for 12 hours, out of which we maybe shot for about three! I loved choreographing the wide cable shot in episode 4, where they make their escape from the barracks, because we had our full complement of cast and crew all working hard together to make it work. Although on that day our Tent-Man got stung by a scorpion and had to go to the hospital!
Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from Betaal? Are there any societal messages you hope viewers take to heart?
Patrick Graham: First and foremost I want the audience to just enjoy and be carried along in a fast-paced, fantastical adventure story with strong elements of horror and suspense. It’s ultimately meant to be fun! I wanted to root the story in some kind of reality, so looking at the plight of some tribal communities that have been persecuted and intimidated in order to get them off valuable land seemed like a good starting point—comparing today’s unscrupulous industrialists with the equally unscrupulous East India Company. In these times of far-right, suppressive governments, I also felt quite passionately about showing a character who realizes over the course of the story that wearing a uniform doesn’t give one carte blanche to act like an arsehole!
What has it been like to partner with Blumhouse and Netflix to bring Betaal to the masses?
Patrick Graham: This is my second time working with Blumhouse and it just gets better and better, really. They know the genre so well that developing stuff with them seems so effortless, they really just "get it." Basically, I think they’re a bunch of horror geeks just like me! I very much hope to continue working with them in the future on more fun projects!
With Betaal now available to stream on Netflix, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers follow your work online?
Patrick Graham: This lockdown has given me an opportunity to really focus on putting a lot of ideas I’ve had pending onto paper. I’ve been developing a number of different stories that I wouldn’t want to give too much info about, but I can say I’ve got some sci-fi horror in there, some aliens, some serial killers, hopefully a bunch of ideas that will one day find themselves being made. I’d like to continue to explore the more kind of high-concept genre kind of stuff for the time being. I don’t have a personal website or anything like that, but you can certainly find me on Instagram at @jplgraham.