Sunday, 21 July 2013

interview: Ben Grass

When Pure Grass Films went into partnership with the reborn Hammer Films to make online vampire tale Beyond the Rave, Ben Grass became the producer of the first new Hammer horror production since, ooh, ages. I interviewed him about the project for Fangoria in November 2007.

Explain how precisely Beyond the Rave will be made available to people?
"What we will do is launch it on the internet, probably with an individual partner, either a social network or a portal. It’s looking like we’re going to do it with a social network in fact. We haven’t quite closed the deal yet. And they will probably release episodes - one or two a week - and make them available that way over a period of eight to ten weeks. Then you’ll be able to access the archive episodes that you may have missed online. I don’t know yet whether they will all be available at a certain time or not. What will happen then is that, after the online release, we’ll probably make it available on DVD as a compilation and in addition the goal is to try and make shorter versions of each episode available on mobiles,"

Will people pay per episode to watch it?
"I don’t know yet. It will probably depend on a case by case basis. Some of them might be supported with advertising, others may be paid downloads. We need to get into those discussions. But the main focus is on an internet release followed by a DVD."

I assume you’re resigned to the fact that as soon as you’ve made it available, somebody will stick it on YouTube.
"What we’ll probably do is we’ll give our chosen partner a little bit of exclusivity - that might be a couple of days - and then it will be able to go on the broader internet."

How does that affect the structure? Does it have ten acts with little mini-climaxes every few minutes?
"Yes, we’ve definitely written it as a serial rather than as a film. So we’ve been very conscious of wanting to give the audience some excitement and some cliff-hangers and some payoffs in each episode to keep them hooked. In the internet world, obviously you can click away so easily from stuff, we need to keep it going and keep it suspenseful and exciting. So that’s been at the forefront of our minds - and that’s actually been one of the tricker things to do because it’s a new medium."

Will it still work as a feature?
"I hope so. We may have to adjust the edit a little bit to make it work on the DVD. There is an overarching narrative arc so, fingers crossed, it will work there too."

You did this before with When Evil Calls, directed by Johannes Roberts - was that successful?
"Yes, it was very successful. We launched that on mobile, rather than on the internet, and I think it’s up in about ten countries at the moment, and in the UK it was available on three different operators: O2, T-Mobile and Orange. We’ve also just closed a DVD deal in the UK so it will be coming out on DVD in the next six months probably."

Have you any idea how many people watched that on their mobiles?
"I don’t have exact figures but I think it’s somewhere between fifty and a hundred thousand watched it. I think in the emerging world of video-on-mobile, it’s a good result. We were pleased because that series was a finalist in the Broadcast Awards for best mobile TV show last year. It was a good experience."

On a purely practical level, how is the direction and cinematography affected, shooting something which most people will see at the size of a credit card?
"We’ve tried to shoot it at the kind of quality level that will work on DVD. Mainly what we’re going to do is adjust for the fact that people will see it on mobiles by compressing the quality of the video. We didn’t so much make a conscious decision only to do close-ups. We’ve got quite ambitious shots with lots of people in them. So we focussed on making sure this would really work on the highest possible, biggest screen size, best quality resolution.

“If you do look now at the better mobile phones these days, and certainly the iPhone, the screen’s pretty good quality, isn’t it? So hopefully, more and more over time, these things will be able to be watched well. The difficulty is when stuff’s downloaded over the air on mobile. If you’ve got anything over two minutes, it becomes an enormous file and it’s not really practical. That’s why we’re cutting down the length of the episodes but we haven’t really adjusted what we shot, with mobiles in mind."

It’s a bit like the old 8mm copies of films where you would get the whole film in 15 minutes.
"Yes, exactly like that."

The reason why this is getting so much interest is purely and simply the word Hammer. How and why did you get hold of the right to call this a Hammer film?
"As I’m sure you know, Hammer was taken over six months ago by two entrepreneurs, Simon Oakes and Mark Schipper. They not only acquired the library but they also raised a lot of money with which to make new Hammer productions. I had met Simon nine months ago because he used to be at Liberty Global, which is the parent company of Third Media who financed When Evil Calls. So when the Hammer financing came through, we had a chat about some of the projects we had in development.

“I think what appealed about Beyond the Rave, as well as the story and what we were trying to do dramatically, was the idea that, because we can release it on-line - it’s designed to be released on-line and on mobile - it could be very useful in helping Hammer to reconnect with a younger audience on those new platforms. I think it’s hopefully a mixture of: they liked the content and also the delivery is neat in terms of helping the marketing exercise which they need to do to make people aware that Hammer’s back."

Why do you think they’ve managed to get something into production within six months of buying Hammer, when everybody who has owned it before has not got anything made?
"I don’t know what the Hammer of old was like well enough really to answer that question but I do know that Simon and Mark have made sure that they have enough money to be able to greenlight productions themselves. They’ve obviously got a good track record in the content business, both of them, and so far I’m incredibly impressed with them both. They’re incredibly ambitious, focussed and capable people and they’ve been incredible to work with. Very supportive. So I’m really encouraged."

Realistically, would Beyond the Rave have happened anyway, even without the Hammer connection?
"Well, we feel that it’s an incredibly exciting project because it mixes horror and vampires with music and a kick-arse soundtrack so we felt very excited commercially that it was something we’d be able to get financed. But there’s no doubt about it it, the addition of the Hammer name has given it a real edge and a level of profile that we would have struggled to reach otherwise."

Apart from Ingrid Pitt’s cameo, has the Hammer connection directly affected the production in any way?
"I think one of the most significant inputs that they have had is in terms of script development. Hammer have got a wonderful guy called Nic Ransome who played an important role as we were writing the script this summer. He’s continued to play a role in the editing process which has been incredibly useful. He’s got a big, encyclopaedic knowledge which has really been of value. I think otherwise we would all have wanted to make this as good as we could get it.

“Our choice of director was instrumental in the look and feel of the series. He’s a guy called Matthias Hoene who’s a commercials director, a music video director. He brings a really nice sensibility about how to pack a punch in a short burst of time and how to make all these scenes at the rave look wonderful. We felt the weight of responsibility because we were bringing out the first Hammer production in a while but we would always have wanted to make this good, if you see what I mean."

Are you prepared for the inevitable nay-sayers for whom anything that isn’t a Victorian gothic romp with Peter Cushing in it isn’t real Hammer?
"I think everyone is attached to their own vision of what Hammer might be, but our view is that it’s right and exciting to make Hammer something new and to keep it evolving to bring it to fresh audiences - and that’s what we’re trying to do. If not everyone likes it, then at least we’ll know we’ll have tried our best."

You’re a young chap, you’re not old enough to have seen Hammer films at the cinema. What’s your knowledge of Hammer in coming to this?
"It’s largely shaped by the iconic images of Christopher Lee and the notion that it was instrumental in bringing Dracula to a mass audience. The classic movies like Quatermass and Frankenstein, and Ingrid Pitt. I’ve probably seen half a dozen but I can’t pretend to be a massive expert by any means in all of the Hammer catalogue. I think the horror films that shaped my sensibility are more Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining and The Ring, those sort of things. Those are the films that I’ve enjoyed more perhaps than the traditional Hammer films."

Speaking as somebody who has never been to a rave, is this going to be accessible to the older generation?
"I hope so. At the end of the day, a rave is just a party in many respects. People want to have a good time and dance to music. What we’ve put at the core of this series is a focus on character and motivation and drama. In that regard it should be interesting to anyone that likes horror and likes a fast-paced narrative. We’ve certainly not intended it to be isolating. The story’s a good story and that’s what should captivate people, I think."

How did you go about assembling your cast and crew?
"We have a large cast and crew. I think there are about forty actors overall with speaking parts and a pretty sizeable crew. So it took us a long time to put the cast together. I met Jamie Dornan, who plays our lead character Ed, at a wedding this summer. I’d enjoyed Marie Antoinette very much which he did for Sofia Coppola a few years back and I was aware that he wanted to do more acting."

It wasn’t Neil Marshall’s wedding, was it? I couldn’t help noticing that your PR girl is the new Mrs Marshall.
"Axelle, that’s right. She’s fantastic. She got married to Neil, I think it was a couple of weeks ago. But no, it wasn’t that one. Jamie I think has a wonderful ability to connected with young audiences. He’s got a real following as a model but also now as an actor, and he blew us away at the audition. Nora-Jane Noone has got a good horror following, as you know, from The Descent and she’s in Doomsday, Neil’s new film.

“And then Sadie Frost, of course with the Dracula connection, we were excited about casting her. We were aware that she was doing trapeze and there was a part where a vampire comes down, upside-down in the rave and gets someone. So we were excited about combining Sadie’s horror connection and her interest in trapeze. Tamer Hassan, we loved The Business and Football Factory and the role that he plays is the head of this drug gang, the Crockers. He’s the perfect guy to do nasty violence and give the vampires some of their own medicine.

“Then we have a host of other great people, some of whom have been in bands to work the music connection. We have the lead singer of the Kazals in this. And we have Jackson Scott who in fact is Christopher Lee’s great-nephew. Ingrid of course, we’re very privileged to have her in this. She plays Tooley’s mother; Tooley’s played by this guy Steve Sweeney that was in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. So we’ve tried to get a lot of great people that will be recognisable. A lot of online serials have got talented people but not name actors and we’ve tried to get a few recognisable people in there. They’ve really brought a lot of quality to the screen."

What about behind the camera?
"The director I talked about, Matthias Hoene. The director of photography is Ben Moulden who’s really done a wonderful job. He really has. Great guy. Tristan Versluis has done wonderful work on the make-up effect. Our editor is a guy called Lucas Roche, who did Dead Man’s Shoes, the Shane Meadows film which we all really enjoyed. I think when my brother Tom was writing this, it was a big influence, Dead Man’s Shoes. So the writer is my bother Tom Grass and it’s co-written by Jon Wright; script editor Nic Ransome from Hammer. So it’s a very good group of people."

What’s your own background?
"Well, I’m a relatively new producer. I was at Sony Pictures for four years. I was looking after their digital division so doing distribution of movies and TV shows on internet and mobile. That’s how I got interested in the opportunity to create content specifically for those platforms. So I started Pure Grass Films in 2005. We’ve produced three series now. The first one was a martial arts series we shot in Los Angeles, then When Evil Calls last year and now this one. I’d always wanted to be more creative and I’m having a lot of fun doing this now."

It was noticeable that news on this didn’t leak out until principal photography had pretty much finished. Was that a deliberate plan to avoid raised expectations?
"I don’t think it was particularly a conscious decision. The decision to finance this was taken at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and at that time we didn’t have a fully fleshed-out script. So our focus as the production company was just to get on with our job and make it. We spent about six weeks to two months with the script then moved into production and I just felt we had more than enough going on. Word trickled out but it’s only in the last six weeks or so that we’ve made more of a conscious effort to market this and get it up on IMDB and so on. I felt we had more than enough to do, just getting the production done."

Is this a one-off deal between Pure Grass Films and Hammer or will you be doing more with them?
"I hope that what we can do, if we get a good reaction with Beyond the Rave, is develop it as a property and maybe make a sequel or a prequel. And also we do have another idea which we’re discussing with them which is a werewolf project. So I hope we’ll certainly do more things. It’s been very good so far.”

interview originally posted 30th October 2009

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