Monday, 12 May 2014

interview: Jake West (2005)

My first epic interview with Jake West was done in the company of Rob Mercer and Eileen Daly, talking about Razor Blade Smile in 1998. Seven years later, in September 2005, Jake gave me the full rundown on Evil Aliens as well as all his other projects from the intervening period.
Whatever happened to Razor Blade Smile 2, which was going to be your next film?
"What happened is that I did write the script for it and spent about a year writing seven drafts which were commissioned by Manga or Palm Pictures as they are. Basically, the upshot of it was that I delivered a script to them which they said they liked but, in terms of actually putting money up for it, they didn’t seem to be very forthcoming with the cash. So my feeling was that the size of the project scared them."

Was it more ambitious than the first one?
"Oh, way more. It would have cost a minimum of a million quid and the budget could have gone higher than that. It started off in 1850 and you saw Lilith as a teenager and how she became a vampire, her interminglings with a few interesting historical figures. Then the story picked up in the Second World War and some events which took place then were impacting on her in the present day. So you had these three time periods. It was kind of a funky script, but to do it justice you would have needed to spend money on it, and I would have recast the lead as well.

Eileen was fantastic in the first one but I always thought the part was a bit like a James Bond role in the way that it could be essayed by different actors. The part was bigger than the actor playing it - that’s what I thought anyway. As a vampire character, you could interpret it differently with different actors which would have been quite interesting. But unfortunately that didn’t happen so that just exists as a script. Maybe one day when I’m successful they’ll phone me up to say they want to do it."

When did you actually start work on Evil Aliens?
"After the Razor Blade 2 project, when nothing was happening in terms of the financing and nothing was coming together, I was a bit demoralised. Being a director and a writer and an editor, I have to keep myself afloat with other work. Writing a script takes a lot out of you when you’re not a professional writer, in terms of doing it day in and day out. So I basically had to go back to the drawing board and start thinking about other script ideas. It took me a while to come up with something which I was really pleased with. I was thinking of doing a zombie film but then I noticed that there were a lot of zombie movies coming up and I thought well, if I start mine now it will come out at the end of that crop.

“So I thought perhaps it would be better to steer clear of zombies and go for something more unusual which hasn’t been done. Then it was like: ‘Ah yes, aliens. They would make fantastic bad guys.’ Because you’re quite happy to see them slain and not feel emotionally upset about it. Much like zombies. You want evil bad guys that you can kill with complete impunity and the audience cheers when they get theirs. So aliens struck me as a really cool idea. They can just be evil; you don’t have to look much into why they’re evil. They’re defined by their actions and they sort of do what it says on the tin."

The film was shot two years ago in 2003. The digital effects that can be done now are very impressive.
"That’s also one of the reasons why it took so long."

When you wrote it, were you planning a smaller scale movie or did you think: ‘I’ll put these effects in and work out how to do them later.’
"When I did it, it was very important that, if we started it, it could be finished properly. If I was going to do it, I wanted the effects to be of a certain standard. I had worked with the visual effects supervisor on a few other jobs, who’s a guy called Llyr Williams who’s a really amazing 3D artist. We had done a few bits and pieces together like the exploding head in the Shock Movie Massacre title sequence, and we had done a few other bits and pieces. I saw some film work he had done and we did a few tests and we thought: ‘Yes, we can do this now but we’ll need to set up our own effects facility to do it.’ We weren’t sure how long it was going to take us to do it. Initially we were quite optimistic and hoped it would be about six months. As it was, it was double the time so it actually took a year. We basically set up our own miniature effects facility with six computers, all networked together in my flat. It was a pretty intense year of work."

How were you able to find the financing for the film?
"I tried shopping it round the industry, as you do, initially - hoping that I would get some industry finance. One company I worked for, there was a producer there called Will Jeffrey who was quite interested but then he got cold feet about doing a gory splatter film. He liked the idea of the alien abduction and stuff but he wanted to make it a lot more serious. Okay yeah, you could take the film in another direction and do a rewrite but I originally wrote the script because I really wanted to return to the fun, gory splatter stuff that I saw when I was a teenager. Because no-one was doing that sort of stuff now. I felt that the more serious stuff had already been explored in The X-Files and those kinds of things. It had been done and it didn’t lend itself so much to being a low-budget independent movie either, going that more serious route.

“Interestingly enough, one of the Blair Witch guys has just done some abduction thing which sounds a lot more the kind of thing that this producer was interested in. But I wanted to do a splatter movie! So basically we parted company and it was: ‘Oh God, that’s that financing option down the drain.’ There wasn’t any point taking it in to the Film Council. They would just have said, ‘You’re not making a splatter movie with our money.’ Then I was fortunate enough to get a phone call from Quentin Reynolds who managed a band that I had done a few pop promos for a few years ago. It was just after Christmas and he said, ‘Do you want to meet for a drink in the new year.’ I said yes, thinking nothing of it, just thinking it was touching base and saying hi.

“But during that meeting he said that he was quite interested in investing in film projects: I thought, ‘Oh okay. That’s cool.’ People don’t normally say that. He said, ‘Well, what are you working on?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been trying to get finance together for this script called Evil Aliens.’ I gave him a treatment and a load of artwork that we had generated. One of the things I had found out when we were taking the project round was that people always asked us what the aliens looked like and what did the spaceships look like. So it seemed like a smart move to just go and design them. That was also when I talked with Llyr the 3D guy and mocked up a spaceship so we could show people.

“Anyway he got really excited by these designs and he went away and read the treatment and he loved it - and then basically the next day he wrote me a cheque and said, ‘That’s it. Go!’ That’s what really got the ball rolling. In the industry I believe it’s what’s called an angel investor. We just had one investor who financed the whole film so there was no complexity of different investors arguing about how much they put in. It actually made the process very simple. Also he trusted me because he liked Razor Blade Smile. He knew that I could do a low-budget film and wouldn’t run off with his money. I got the most creative control that I think I’ve ever had which was a fantastic way of working. I was very lucky, despite the fact that we were still working on a fairly lean budget. But that’s the case with film-making."

Where did you find your cast and crew?
"There were a couple of people that I wanted to use definitely: Chris Adamson, who has been in all my films since my graduation movie Club Death, who’s my ‘lucky rabbit’s foot’ actor. He’s the guy with the scar. I really wanted to get him in there because he’s got screen presence and he’s a funny guy to work with. He always brings something to the party. I had worked with Emily Booth on the Shock Movie Massacre title sequence and I had known Emily for a couple of years at that point. Because she is an actual TV presenter it made sense to get her involved. Whereas everybody else in the film we did casting for, which took a long time. We sent our details to PCR, Production Casting Report, which goes out to all the agents. We just got thousands and thousands of people CVs through.

“Interestingly enough, that’s actually how we got the Norman Lovett cameo - because his agent sent his CV through! It wasn’t that we approached him or anything, it was just a bit of luck and - wow! We couldn’t believe that someone like him would be among the CVs. We wouldn’t have been able to afford him for longer but for a cameo it was fantastic working with him. The rest, we just did loads of castings. We did a couple of weeks of castings, saw everyone, and we did recalls and watched videos. Eventually we whittled the cast down.

“It’s an ensemble cast and there’s at least seven main actors in the film. Getting that blend right was very important because actors don’t always get on and also actors sometimes aren’t up for stuff. I explained to the actors at the castings that it would be a very difficult shoot: it would be a night shoot; there would be gore; it would be cold... All the things that actors don’t want to hear, so we could weed out anyone who really wasn’t up for it. Also anyone who felt themselves above the material. A lot of actors don’t really want to do horror films - and I can understand that. If that’s not something they’re interested in and they don’t want to get tarred with that brush, then that’s fine. The actors that you do choose do really need to have a respect for the genre, I think.

“I was delighted with the cast. They all got on really well and they all had a really great experience, and I think that some of that energy is transfused into the film. It’s the best feedback I’ve ever had from a cast. They all really enjoyed it and a lot of them said it was one of the most amazing experiences they had ever had. We were on location for five weeks straight and everyone really mucked in and got behind the project."

And your crew?
"The crew were basically a lot of people that I had gathered in stuff that I had been doing over the last few years. Quite a few of the key people worked on Razor Blade: Neil Jenkins did the production design; Jim Solan was the same DP that I had worked with. Then others were people like Jon Bentley, who built the sets, who I had met in Cannes a few years ago. He’s a fantastic guy and I had been wanting to work with him on a project for ages. That’s why we built the sets up in Yorkshire; because he could get stuff cheap. He found a disused meat-packing factory and that’s where we built all the sets: the farmhouse interior and the spaceship interior."

You always get creative use of cardboard with Jon, I find.
"He is the cardboard king! But on this one he moved up from cardboard to wood. He did have a reasonable construction budget. Like that farmhouse front room: it has people coming in through the windows and the whole room gets smashed. It wasn’t going to happen in any real location. We also needed a trapdoor so the whole set had to be built off the ground. So the whole set was a raised set for that farmhouse room, just to get that trapdoor in there and the gag where Emily gets her pegs pulled off, because we needed half her body to be under the set. So yes, Jon did an amazing, fantastic construction job."

As well as a location, the other thing you needed was a combine harvester.
"The other absolute key to the film was: because it’s set on a farm, we needed to find a farm that would allow us to shoot. Because you can’t fake a farm. It has to be real. That was a search and I was very lucky to have a good friend of mine, Adam Mason, who is also a film-maker - he did Dust. He’s a really good guy and he’s somebody I‘ve known a long time. Although a lot of people slag off him films for being low-budget, the guy works really hard. He does a lot of work on pop promos and if he ever needs my help on the crew, we just try to help each other out.

“He lives out in Huntingdon and because he has always lived in an area where there’s lots of farms, some of the people he went to school with, their parents were farmers. So he said, ‘I know a few people and I'll get on the case for you.’ In the meantime, Tim Dennison, who shot Revenge of Billy the Kid on a farm, he had a couple of contacts. So we spread the net out and we went to see four or five different farms. The farm we used was Foxhole Farm just outside Huntingdon in a place called Leighton Bromswold. A very Olde English country name. It was the parents of someone that Adam had gone to school with. We met these people and the guy who owns the farm is a research scientist and his wife runs the farm - Bill and Jan Baxendale. She runs it more for fun. They live on it and they own the land and they harvest crops, but they don’t take it too seriously. Some farmers are very, very serious and they wouldn’t even entertain allowing film-makers on their property. But because they knew Adam and they know he’s a film-maker, they were quite excited by the prospect and they allowed us to use their farm.

“We bought a couple of fields of crops off them so we could make our crop circles and mow down aliens in the crops and stuff like that. We shot just after the harvest and we needed crops in the fields so they didn’t harvest the whole area for us - and we had to buy the crops at a reasonable rate! It was just amazing, this farm. It had a lot of outbuildings so they became the art department and make-up and half the crew stayed on the farm because they had a couple of extra flats. So it was actually like Foxhole Studios!

“There was one quite funny incident in the scene when the aliens are mutilating the cow. That was a big cow that Tim Berry and Tris Versluis had made from a big mould. We had been doing a night shoot and it got left out in the field with some real cows the next day because they forgot to throw a tarp over it. This farm inspector guy came along and nearly had a heart attack. He was disgusted because he thought it was a real dead cow just rotting with these other cows grazing around it. He was going to throw the book at Jan and Bill and we had to explain: ‘No, no, it’s a film. This isn’t real.’ The guy was so convinced. Because it had fake blood on it, there were loads of real flies and it looked pretty horrible!"

Did you shoot on DV?
"No, it was shot on High Definition, HD. We shot on the same cameras that George Lucas shot Episode II on. Not Episode III - he used the new upgraded version on that. But we shot on the same cameras that he shot Episode II on and that Rodriguez shot Once Upon a Time in Mexico on. So this is the real Sony HD stuff, proper full spec digital kit with film focus lenses. It’s pretty cool because you’ve got high definition monitors on set so when you’re shooting so you can see exactly what you’re getting. There’s so much detail. The hair and make-up and effects guys can look at that monitor and see exactly what they’re getting. There’s no: ‘It’s not going to look like that when it’s done’ - that’s what it’s going to look like.

“Obviously there’s some grading work and other things that you do but that’s just changing the colours a bit. The detail is incredible. If you see the film digitally project it looks almost three-dimensional, it’s so vivid. You saw it projected off 35mm film. If you saw a movie off DVD it would look a bit blurrier. It just doesn’t hold in the resolution. HD is a 2K film res output. George Lucas shot the last Star Wars on 4K, I think, which is the ultimate uncompressed. But this is HD-CAM which is Sony’s system, not to be mistaken with HD or DV. This is a different ballgame. The camera’s about £75,000."

I believe that your world premiere in San Francisco a few months ago was quite successful.
"It was an awesome success. It was the best audience I’ve ever seen in terms of a festival crowd. It was a 300-seat theatre called The Roxy in downtown San Francisco and the crowd just went absolutely ballistic for it. They were cheering and we got a standing ovation. They loved it so much that the film was scheduled to play twice but they asked me to stay another day and they put it on again. And we won the audience award at that festival which was just one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve ever had, the most enthusiastic response to a film that I’ve seen."

A lot of people compare the film to the early works of Peter Jackson. Are you happy with such comparisons?
"Of course. I set out to make a splatter movie and obviously I’m a huge fan of those kind of movies. Ultimately, if you’re being compared in that ballpark it means that at least people are thinking of it in the right way. That’s the kind of film that it is. Whether it’s as good as Peter Jackson’s stuff is obviously debatable and that can only be decided by history in the long term. Sometimes in the short term it’s dangerous when people compare it to the work of somebody that everyone already loves. I think that it has a nod to those films in an affectionate way. But I’m equally influenced by Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series and the early work of John Carpenter like The Thing. Every film-maker is influenced by the films that they love. This is also influenced by Sergio Leone. But I think that when people review a film there seems to be a need to compare it to other movies. Obviously I’m happy that it’s being compared to that and not to something really bad. If it was Xtro I might be worried!"

The standout scene is the combine harvester chase.
"That’s the signature moment in the film. That’s the coup de gras of the movie in terms of the concept and the payoff and the fact that you’ve got the Wurzels there. When I wrote it, I was giggling just at the thought of it. It kind of sums up the whole tone and mood of the film. If somebody told you that there’s a sequence with a combine harvester set to the Wurzels’ ‘Combine Harvester’ and it’s a splatterfest and you didn’t find that amusing, then I guess this really isn’t the sort of film that you should go and see. Because ultimately it says everything you need to say about the film. It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s trying to just be enjoyable and give everyone a good time. I was delighted with the way that the sequence came together. Obviously getting the use of a real combine harvester was actually quite a tricky thing. We had to use gallons and gallons of blood and gore. And it’s actually pretty dangerous as well."

You have stuntmen in costumes running in front of a very dangerous machine.
"Also people who can’t really see where they’re going. The guy driving the combine harvester actually operates this machine and he laid out the ground rules of what we could and couldn’t do. We had a radio in the cab. If any actor was even slightly in trouble, we would pull it. When you watch the scene, it’s hilarious but when we were filming it, it was deathly serious. There was this huge fucking thing there which will kill you if it goes wrong. I guess that’s the difference between making films and watching them. But I was incredibly pleased with the way that the scene came together.

“If I had had more money I would have gone even more to town. It would have been lovely to put some full bodies through the actual blades but we couldn’t afford to fuck up the combine. Crops are actually quite weak compared to prosthetics so there was a limit to what we could get into the blades without causing damage to the machine itself. If it was a Jerry Bruckheimer production we could have just mown stuff down and blown the combine harvester up! We couldn’t do that on the budget we were on. But I think that we did pretty good."

You played San Francisco, you played Frightfest, you’re off to Toronto next.
"Toronto is ordered into sections and we’re programmed in the ‘Midnight Madness’ section. We’re going to be screening it in a 1,200-seat theatre which will be quite an incredible experience. I’m told that the Canadian Midnight Madness crowd are a pretty fun, wacky crowd."

Where have you got distribution deals?
"We’ve got distribution in the UK and US. Content Film are handling international sales and they’re doing the limited UK theatrical. In the States the film is being handled by Image Entertainment and they’ll be doing the theatrical and the DVD there. We’ve confirmed sales in Germany, France, I believe Japan. It should be right up the Japanese street. A few of the other major territories have sold but I haven’t got details. I think Spain, Italy, Benelux and maybe a few other places like Australia."

On top of all this, you have your day-job with Nucleus Films, which you run with Marc Morris.
"As you know, we’ve got our first couple of releases coming up which is two Spanish movies. The psychosexual thriller Between Your Legs with Javier Bardem and Victoria Abril which is a very Hitchcock-ian styled thriller, very intense. It’s a great movie with great actors. Then there’s The Ugliest Woman in the World, a more lightweight, sci-fi/horror fairy tale sort of film about a woman who looks very beautiful but she’s taking this serum to keep her like that and actually she’s this really deformed, hideous thing. She hates beautiful people so she goes out to kill all the Miss Spains."

What’s your and Marc’s rationale in terms of choosing films for the label?
"Our rationale is that we want to get films that we think are good movies, because we’re film lovers. We want to package them in the best way with the best covers and the best extras that are available - for the collectors’ market. And very much films which we think have longevity and which people want. Our next two releases are going to be Fausto 5.0 which is an absolutely breathtaking piece of cinema and we’re very pleased to have done the deal on that. That’s just gone through today. That won a lot of awards on the festival circuit and we really think it deserves a wider audience.

“We are also doing a reissue on Gwendoline which is not necessarily the greatest movie in the world, it’s a bit of an eighties curiosity. We’ve got it completely remastered in a beautiful 2.35:1 print, we’ve done an interview with Just Jaeckin the director, and we’re putting something special together. We’re doing a little bit more behind-the-scenes material like an exploration of the film and we might be using a few fetish models and things like that to make it interesting. As you know, it’s based on the John Willie artwork in the Perils of Gwendoline comic. It’s like Indiana Jones meets a fetish movie. It’s kind of fun; it’s an acquired taste but we think there’s a real collectors’ market for that film. And when you see the presentation, it really does look amazing. It has never been released on DVD before, it has only ever been available on VHS."

Are these discs going to be Region 2 or Region 0?
"I think we’re trying to do them all Region 0 for collectors because obviously Region 2 limits it."

And you’ll have good extras on there?
"Oh yes. On the Spanish films, obviously we’re more reliant on extras being created in that country. On both Between Your Legs and Ugliest Woman there were already Making Ofs done in Spain so we’ve just used those. Because obviously if we went to Spain we would have to have translators and everything and that would be a major chore. But wherever we can make extras we will do, like with Gwendoline we’re doing special stuff. Certainly with Fausto we might go over to Spain and interview Furia del Bau, the people who made it, if we can get hold them. But we very much want to target collectors; we respect that market because we feel that we are part of that. We’re both the sort of people who would buy these things anyway."

And you’ve been working on the Phantasm extras.
"I finished the Phantasm stuff yesterday and I can tell you the exact running time on the Phantasmagoria documentary is 97 minutes and 42 seconds. It’s a feature length documentary on Phantasms I-IV: new interviews with all the main players in the cast and crew plus a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that’s not been seen before. It’s a really in-depth exploration of that world. If you’re a Phantasm fan I think it will really delight you. I am a massive Phantasm fan and I had such an amazing time. I got to meet all my Phantasm heroes and they were all really nice people. We also did a location featurette with Reggie Bannister in character and there’s a few nice little things on there, like he’s being chased by a silver ball at one point and he goes through a space gate. So lots of really good, fun stuff.”

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