Sunday, 14 April 2013

interview: Clive Dawson

It was December 2000 when screenwriter Clive Dawson kindly agreed to an e-mail interview about the war/horror movie The Bunker. Despite great acclaim from festival screening, it was nearly two years later, in September 2002, when the movie finally got a release. That’s the British film industry for you!

Where did the original idea for The Bunker come from?
“I’ve been interested in horror and sci-fi films ever since I was a child, so I suppose it was inevitable that I’d one day attempt to write one. The Bunker was an idea I began developing when I first started writing seriously, back in 1988, and the basic elements of the story originated from several sources. As a schoolboy on the island of Guernsey, I spent a good deal of time exploring (illegally!) the derelict tunnels and bunkers built by the occupying Germans in World War II. The tunnels, especially, are very eerie and evocative locations, and I’ve always felt they would make a great setting for a horror movie. The core of the story itself emerged out of a particularly lucid nightmare I once had, about a group of First World War soldiers who are extending their front-line trench. The soldiers inadvertently dig through an ancient burial pit, releasing a horde of the undead into their maze of military trenches.

“Having combined the German tunnel setting with the key elements from my propitious nightmare, I then had to create a group of believable characters to act as my protagonists. For this, I looked for inspiration from films such as Cross of Iron, and other war-related books and stories. I chose German soldiers for my characters, partly because I wanted to use the German tunnel setting, but also because they automatically carry more ‘psychological baggage’ than British or American soldiers.

“Undoubtably, though, the most difficult part of the whole process was giving the story some kind of meaning. After a great deal of thought, I finally solved this problem by interweaving a metaphor relating to the horrors of Nazi Germany. In The Bunker, the soldiers turn against each other - and in the ghost story told by one of my characters within the film, the local villagers turn against their sick neighbours during the Great Plague. Each of these elements metaphorically reflect the way the German State turned upon sections of its own people during the Nazi period.

“As I said, many influences fed into the writing of The Bunker, including the classic British ghost stories of MR James, and the ‘psychological horror’ films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s. I was also influenced early on by one particular ghost story, ‘The Toll House’, by WW Jacobs. Even with all this inspiration, the story evolved through a number of slightly different incarnations (I always write my stories in prose form before tackling the actual script, and in this case I attempted several versions) before I settled on one version and wrote the first draft of the screenplay.”

How did the team of writer, director and producer come together?
“I first met director Rob Green whilst he was making a short film version of The Black Cat, in late 1993. We found we shared an interest in genre films and literature, and he was keen to read my recently-completed first-draft screenplay of The Bunker. He liked it and wanted to direct it right from the start, but it would be many years later before we found a producer, Daniel Figuero, who was able to back up his enthusiasm with hard cash. Daniel knew of Rob’s short film work, and when Rob passed him a copy of the script he saw the potential and immediately put it into production.”

When you originally wrote the script, what sort of scale/budget were you envisaging for the film?
“I always intended The Bunker to be a low-budget project and I specifically designed the script that way, knowing the difficulties and limitations of getting films made in this country. Film lecturer and guru Dov Simens has a famous formula for making low-budget films: ‘Put eight people into a house, and chop them up.’ What he means, of course, is restrict yourself to a limited number of actors, and try to get away with using just one location. That’s pretty much what I did with The Bunker. I also studied Roger Corman’s films, to see how he had made use of restricted numbers of players and locations.”

How did the script develop through its various drafts?
“If you read the first draft of The Bunker from 1993, you’ll find it’s actually remarkably similar to the draft which finally went before the cameras: the structure and setting are the same; all the characters and inter-personal conflicts were defined in the first draft; the ominous back-story of the soldiers was in place, as were the flash-backs, Mirus’ ghost story, and all the major action set-pieces. Numerous scenes, in fact, survived completely intact from first draft to last.

“In the first draft, however, the soldiers were facing a much more tangible threat in the tunnels than they do in the final draft. Quite literally, the dead were returning in physical form and wreaking vengeance on the soldiers one by one - but it’s only in the last fifteen pages of the script that you find this out. In the final draft, the threat is much less physically tangible, and takes more the form of a ghostly presence driving the soldiers towards madness and self destruction.

“This change of emphasis on the climactic horror element came about during the writing of the second draft. Around this time, I attended Robert McKee’s excellent ‘Horror Genre’ lecture. His entertaining and thought-provoking analysis of horror enabled me to focus upon, and adjust, some of the elements I hadn’t been 100 per cent sure about the first time around. There were already many unsettling ambiguities inherent in the first draft so, in line with one of McKee’s formulas for artistic success, I developed these so that The Bunker now clearly fell within the sub-category of horror defined by McKee as the ‘super-uncanny’ (ie. events neither fully scientifically explainable, nor fully supernatural). Rob wholeheartedly supported this approach.

“Consequently, in the second draft of The Bunker, even the ending could now be seen as ambiguous: was there really something in the tunnels after all, or had the soldiers been suffering paranoid hallucinations? Making this change wasn’t really such a big step, nor was it difficult to achieve, since I was only developing and expanding on something which was already in place. After all, it’s essential to introduce the supernatural elements into a story gradually, giving the increasingly strange occurrences possible alternative explanations. And one of my very early approaches to the story, even before I wrote the first draft of the script, was to try to play the entire series of events in a completely ambiguous way, without any intervention from the supernatural whatsoever – having the soldiers think that something is happening to them, when in reality they’re just causing everything to happen themselves. One of my favourite films is Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I wanted to try to duplicate the tension and paranoia of the three gold-diggers turning upon each other. In the end, however, I don’t think there’ll be much doubt in the mind of the audience that our soldiers were actually being haunted by something supernatural.

“None of this is to say that the story wouldn’t have worked had we stuck with the physically undead as our ultimate antagonists. On the contrary, either approach could have made a terrifying, satisfactory horror film; they’re just slightly different approaches. Just as an example, Night of the Demon is a film rich in tension and ambiguity - but in the end, the demon of the title is undoubtably a real, physical entity. But the final version of The Bunker is perhaps a little more thought-provoking and artistically satisfying than it might have been.

“The only other substantial changes I made during development involved adding a couple of sequences. Because the soldiers don’t begin confronting the supernatural forces until a third of the way into the story, I added a pre-title sequence to set the mood and to whet the appetite of the audience for what was to come later. I also added a post-title combat sequence, which was later dropped.”

And how did it develop once the film went into production?
“Several changes were made to the script once it went into actual pre-production. Primarily, two main sequences were dropped, simply because we had to cut our cloth according to the budget and schedule. One of these was the above-mentioned combat sequence, which involved our central characters being caught in an ambush, prior to them seeking refuge in the bunker. Apart from the fact that it would have been fairly expensive to stage, Rob felt that the ambush would have clearly defined a tangible enemy, and that it might undermine some of the ambiguity which is apparent later in the story. The second sequence which was discarded, purely for reasons of schedule so I understand, was a chase through a series of ventilation shafts, towards the end of the film.

“Rob also made a couple of changes to suit his own visualisation of the film. Mirus, the crazy old man in the story, now becomes a victim of whatever is happening in and around the bunker, whereas in all previous drafts of the script, he survived. Rob also changed the emphasis of some of the flash-backs and dream sequences, relating to the back-story of the soldiers.

“A few less important changes were also made. For example, the story was originally to be set on Christmas Eve during a snow-storm - but since we had to film in the lush Black Park forest during August, this obviously had to be altered.”

I get the impression that the film is capitalising on its low budget by shooting nearly everything in one set, much like Cube. Am I right in this, and if so, how did that affect your writing?
“As I mentioned previously, The Bunker was devised for low-budget production right from the start, so the effect upon my actual writing was minimal; once I’d decided that the setting was the claustrophobic world of the bunker and tunnel system, there really was no need to cut back any further. The only sequence which might be construed as moving beyond the tight, low-budget arena was the exterior combat sequence which I added at third draft stage (later dropped) - and even this wasn’t too excessive when you break down the elements required to make it work.

“Of course, even defining a setting as limited in scope as a WWII bunker and tunnel system can pose problems; such underground locations are not easy to find, nor to access. In the end, however, the production designer Richard Campling built some splendid sets on the stage at Twickenham, which fulfilled all the requirements of the script.”

To what extent is The Bunker a horror film, and to what extent is it a war film?
“Although we’ve been referring to The Bunker as a horror film, I personally prefer to call it a psychological thriller. If it is horror, then it is very definitely psychological horror - the term usually attributed to Val Lewton’s films. But regardless of the classification, it is a finely balanced, mixed-genre piece. In the context of this particular story, the war element wouldn’t work without the horror/thriller element, and vice versa.

“In terms of marketing, however, the horror/thriller aspect must take precedence. It would certainly be wrong to try to sell the film to an audience as a war film. In addition, the horror/thriller genre has always utilised different settings and periods in history as backdrops to stories, so The Bunker is really just an extension of that tradition.”

I understand that you were trying to return to the Val Lewton style of horror, atmospheric rather than explicit: how do you create that sort of atmosphere on the page?
“You begin building it right from the start, with the choices you make at every stage of the writing process. For example, I knew from the very beginning that I wasn’t writing a gross-out movie like Zombie Flesh Eaters or whatever, and that I was trying to achieve a sense of fear rather than just shock, surprise or revulsion; no graphic blood and gore, and no simple reliance on making people jump every two minutes. The Haunting was much more a template for what I was trying to do, where the mood of menace builds gradually and inexorably - and right from the start I was pitching the project as ‘Cross of Iron meets The Haunting.’

“Looking to Val Lewton, one sees that many of his films were about the inner fears of the characters, so I knew my characters had to be as real and believable as I could make them, with realistic concerns and inner fears of their own. The situation they are in also needs to be believable, at least initially - otherwise the audience won’t stay with you as you introduce the supernatural elements. And so it goes on. At each stage of the writing process you’re referring back to the stylistic template you’ve chosen.

“When you finally get down to the nitty-gritty of actually writing the script, you need to build the mood and atmosphere of a scene within the stage directions. It’s not easy to achieve in screenplay format since, by definition, you need to keep the script as tight and as terse as possible. But it can be done by a very careful choice of wording and phrasing, to hint at the mood you’re trying to achieve.”

As an independent British production (even more horrific - an indie British genre production!), what problems did the film face in getting made?
“Once Daniel Figuero arrived on the scene, the film pretty much sailed straight through pre-production and production as smoothly as you could imagine, so all credit to Daniel, and the co-producer David Reid, for making that happen. Prior to Daniel’s involvement, however, I’d spent several years in development hell, trying to get the project off the ground.

“Firstly, all of the work done on the story and script between 1988 and 2000 was done by me on spec, in my spare time; I never received a penny of development money, or even an option fee, from any of the companies and individuals who expressed an interest in The Bunker during that period. There is a definite reluctance among many UK producers towards parting with even a modest option fee - but my view has always been that, if a producer can’t find a few hundred for an option, how can he/she be relied upon to find a couple of million to make the film? I also had several false starts - I think my agent began contract negotiations with various parties on five or six different occasions - but each time the deal fell through, because the money couldn’t be raised for production, or people got cold feet, or whatever. Rob raised interest from a film development company at one stage but, again, that didn’t work out.

“On the plus side, I had a great deal of encouragement from many people. Tessa Ross, then at British Screen, was the first person to take the project seriously, whilst it was still at early treatment stage. Her thoughtful notes and response gave me a great deal of impetus. But I also had to cope with plenty of negative feedback, from people telling me, for example, that ‘nobody is making war movies these days,’ or that ‘horror films are out of fashion.’ (This was all, of course, prior to Saving Private Ryan and Scream). Also, along the way, I had a couple of people trying to pull a fast one on me to get their hands on the project.

“Even when I did get legitimate interest in the script, I often had to resist suggested changes which, although no doubt given with the best of intentions, would have radically changed the tone and nature of the project. For example, I had interest from Hollywood at one point, but only on the stipulation that I change the German characters to Americans. Another time, an interested director wanted me to introduce a few aliens into the mix! Bizarre suggestions came at me all through the process - but I never, at any point, made any changes which I didn’t want to make. Maybe that’s why it took so long for the project to reach the screen - because I wasn’t prepared to compromise my vision of the script just to get it made. In the end, fortunately, Rob Green visualised the project pretty much the way I did.”

To what extent did it help to get name actors with credible mainstream and genre credits, such as Jason Flemying and Jack Davenport, aboard the project?
The Bunker was a ‘go’ project before casting started; the financing was in place, thanks to Daniel Figuero, and we were pressing ahead regardless. However, it was obviously terrifically beneficial to the film to have such a fine cast showing interest in the script and wanting to be a part of the project.”

What is your background as a writer?
“I’ve been writing professionally now for the past seven years. Previously, I worked in film and TV production, in various capacities, and during much of this period I was teaching myself to write. I decided to go for broke and try to become a full-time writer when I was offered a place on the Masters Degree screenwriting course at the Northern Film School. Fortunately, it worked out. I got an agent, and soon began writing for television, on shows such as The Bill, Casualty and London’s Burning. Television is a great training ground for writers. More recently, I’ve been developing original projects for television and film.”

How pleased are you with what you've seen of the finished film?
“I’ve yet to see the finished, dubbed and graded film, but from what I have seen of it, it looks terrific. I do, personally, miss the ventilation shaft sequence which had to be dropped from the script, and I know a lot of us were sad to have to lose the snowbound Christmas Eve backdrop to the film. However, the characters and the story are obviously the most important elements; the other things would only have been the ‘icing on the cake.’”

What are the current plans for distribution of The Bunker in the UK and abroad?
“That’s a question which you should address to producer Daniel Figuero. I do know that there is already strong interest in the film, and that Daniel is well on top things in that regard. By the time this article reaches print, I imagine everything will be in place.”

interview originally posted before November 2004

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