Saturday, 28 December 2013

interview: Neil Jenkins

I met production designer Neil Jenkins at the UK premiere of Evil Aliens and subsequently interviewed him by e-mail in October 2005.

How did you first come to work with Jake West?
“Jake and I have been friends since we were sixteen. We both grew up around Tunbridge Wells where a good chunk of Razor Blade Smile was shot and we share a lot of similar attitudes toward music, film and philosophy of life in general. We happened to do our degrees - his in film, mine in fine art - at the same college and he asked me to design his degree film, Club Death, which was this extremely ambitious and elaborate death fantasy about the battle for a man's soul between Death and a nightmarish corporate 'Devil'. He must have liked what I did because he asked me back to do his first feature.

Club Death was the blueprint for Razor Blade Smile in many ways. It starred Chris Adamson as the Corporation Magus and Louise Edwards as Death, both of whom returned for RBS. The crew was pretty much the same and it definitely had the same 'lack of budget is no obstacle to entertainment value' attitude, which has become a theme of Jake's work.”

When Jake approached you about doing Evil Aliens, what sort of brief were you given?
“I had read the original pitch for Evil Aliens. It was amongst a few other ideas Jake had been asked to come up with after RBS 2: The Devil’s Vendetta stalled but it was rejected because of its frivolous tone. Somewhere along the line, Jake must have warmed to this little slapstick Night-of-the-Living-Dead/Evil-Dead-with-aliens. It cropped up more and more in conversation and he began seriously considering it as a possible second feature. He wrote the treatment - pretty much exactly the movie you see today - and commissioned some concept art from me of the aliens and their UFOs to illustrate the package for potential investors.

“The brief for the look of the aliens was quite simple, I think it just said 'DEMONIC' in capital letters! Jake's quite a prolific writer and has a number of scripts that remain unmade and he's fond of plundering them for interesting characters and set-pieces. Evil Aliens has a few elements from a script that Jake wrote - even before RBS I recall - about an occult group that raises a vengeful demon named Lirion. Jake really liked the design I did for Lirion so I dug it out and alien-ed it up a bit and that became the basis for the aliens. Jake was initially very keen to emphasise the aliens’ physiological differences, with jutting bone structure and elongated limbs coupled with a very heavy fetish aesthetic regarding the costumes - lots of moulded rubber.

“From the treatment it was clear that Evil Aliens would be homaging every sci-fi/horror/splatter/slasher film we loved and that was reflected in the initial concepts. Giger's Alien set the bar pretty fucking high, a nightmarish creation both utterly demonic and seductive, so it would have been rude not to have referenced such a design classic. Our aliens were more like primitive warriors than animals though, so they became a sort of tribal S&M version of the Predator, covered with ritualistic tattoos and wearing black rubber.”

From your point of view as production designer, what are the biggest differences between Razor Blade Smile and Evil Aliens?
“The 'production designer' credit on RBS was really just a tidy way of saying 'the entire art department for the movie shoot'. It was the same for all the departments: Jim Solan was the camera department etc. We covered the whole shoot pretty much with something like eight crew. As far as design in the traditional sense, there really wasn't much at all. Jake had been ruthlessly practical during the scriptwriting to make the film achievable on next-to-no money.

“Props-wise, if it didn't exist already and we couldn't borrow it, steal it or make it for nothing, it got cut from the script. It was the same with the interiors and locations - they were all places we either lived at or knew someone who did and was foolish enough to let us film there. I used a large amount of my and Jake’s personal property for dressing and re-vamped (if you'll pardon...) some of the props from Club Death. The only thing I hired for the whole film were a pair of flintlocks for the duel. It still amazes me that we achieved so much with so little, and shot on film too. Razor Blade Smile should be required viewing for aspiring filmmakers.

“The biggest difference between the two films is the CG. People think the dreams in RBS are CG but they aren't. Aside from the razor blades in the title sequence there is no computer generated imagery in RBS, it's all actual footage composited together. Evil Aliens has 150 CG shots including gore, fully CG aliens, the UFOs, digital mattes etc. That lets you take the design to entirely new worlds. We also had sets constructed for the mothership interior and the farmhouse interiors, designed by Jon Bentley, who was on exactly the same page as Jake and I regarding the film's tone. In short, the scope of Evil Aliens was much larger than RBS but the attitude and approach were exactly the same: take what you have and put it all up on the screen.”

What was the most difficult part of your work on Evil Aliens?
“I'd say the hardest part of Evil Aliens was realising the schedule. Although we had a lot more money than we'd had for RBS we were certainly in no position to squander any. Principal photography was five weeks: three weeks on location in Cambridge at the farm, mostly night shoots; one week on the coast in Dorset; one week on set in Halifax. There was no money to go over schedule at all and some optimistic planning on my part left the art department a little understaffed, so at times the shoot was quite arduous. But even during the low times it was a ridiculous amount of fun. Hopefully you can tell from watching the movie that, as horror fans, we were having an absolute bloody riot.

“Letting things go was hard too. In the beginning I had dreams of utterly amazing alien costumes but the cold reality of the budget meant we couldn't take the design beyond the 'man in a suit' solution - to be worn all day, every day, for five weeks by actors doing action, fights and stunt work. For practicality it had to be a simple costume - trousers and a top plus alien hat with latex arms. It's all about turning limitations to your advantage though, so we used the low rent nature of the aliens to add to the film's High Camp Index.”

...And what was the most satisfying part?
“The most satisfying part of the whole thing is definitely seeing the film do well. Jake's not the sort of British film-maker that gets a lot of support from the industry (though hopefully that will change) and so hearing the buzz that's generating and reading the responses, particularly from the US screenings, for a film that has had virtually no coverage in the press is really exciting. There is a genuine affection for the genre among the people who made Evil Aliens and it's a real pleasure to have contributed to the splatter canon.

“On a design level, one of the things I was most looking forward to was the alien mothership coming over the headland. It was a very complex design that Jake and I had worked on for some time, basically a giant flying magick circle carved out of stone, and was from the beginning going to be entirely CG. I asked Llyr Williams, the 3D animator, not to send me key-frames of the mothership model because I wanted to be sitting in the cinema when I saw it first fly over. He did an amazing job.

“I wrote one of the scenes in the film too and hearing people laugh at the gags is nice. In fact, every time I think about the film I remember something that makes me laugh. We packed as much as we possibly could into a frantic 85 minutes. There are so many things to be proud of.”

What have you been working on since Evil Aliens?
“The most relevant thing to you guys that I have worked on since Evil Aliens is probably Adam Mason's new movie, Broken (the trailer for which was shown before the screening of Evil Aliens at this years Frightfest, curiously enough). It's a straight-out horror about a guy who kidnaps women and keeps them as slave wives in the middle of a desolate forest wilderness. The make-up effects for it were done by Tris Versluis, formerly of Life Creations who handled the gore and effects for Evil Aliens. It was great to work with him again. As for the future, I am looking forward to the follow up to Evil Aliens, a twisted haunted house shocker...”

interview originally posted 4th August 2008

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