Friday 30 January 2015

interview: James Shanks and Neil Craske

This email interview with Jim and Neil was conducted in January 2015, just after I reviewed their terrific film Stag Hunt.

What did you set out to achieve with Stag Hunt, and to what extent do you think you were successful?
Neil: "The original concept behind Stag Hunt was simply to make something... anything. We'd just bought a camera, a computer capable of handling the editing process, had a bit of money in the bank and to be blunt we were film-makers who weren’t making films, so it was time to make something."

Jim: "Yeah, it had been a while since our last feature, which was Devil’s Harvest, and we thought it was about time we got our act together and made a new one. And why make a short film when you can make a feature and potentially sell it!"

Neil: "Really, the main aim was to get off our backsides and create again."

Jim: "Originally, Stag Hunt was a straightforward horror film, with very little if any comedy and based on a dream I’d had one night. And there were a lot more deaths in it, it was so much darker. It was still essentially a bunch of guys on a stag do on Dartmoor, but it was a very different film. Neil’s stroke of genius was to make it funny, which is when it started to really come alive, as our instincts as writers is comedy. So that’s how it became a comedy drama thriller with scary bits."

Neil: "Well, it is, after all, a stag do and by the very nature of the beast (pun may be intended) stag dos are supposed to be fun. Also the comical aspects of the film bring out the sides of the characters that we'd hope people will care for. And having characters that people actually like makes the audience root for our heroes when it all goes bad."

Jim: "Ultimately I think our main goal at the end of all this is to just entertain people for an hour and a half. We don’t have any serious messages to get across, but if we can make people laugh and hide behind their popcorn then that’s great. And judging by the reaction we’ve had so far at the screenings it seems to be working. We also, obviously, wanted to make a bit of cash too, as the film was totally self-funded, so it was our own money at stake and it’d be nice to see it back."

How did you assemble your cast?
Jim: "We got so lucky with the casting as the four actors fell into their roles completely. Mackenzie Astin and Neil Cole just hit it off on their first day, you’d think they’d been best mates for years. And they all still keep in touch, even though they’re often spread over four countries."

Neil: "We'd known Mack since 2001 when we all worked together on a film in Ibiza."

Jim: "It was called Welcome 2 Ibiza, starring both Mack and Gary Busey, but sadly never really saw the light of day. But we kept in touch with Mack as he’s just so good and the nicest guy."

Neil: "It was not necessarily something that shines out on our IMDB profiles but if nothing else we did at that time make a promise that 'one day' we'd be working together on something better."

Jim: "And Mack being so good kind of encouraged everyone else to raise their game a bit. Neil Cole and I were working on a shoot at Silverstone around about the time we were finalising the screenplay and after just five minutes with him I knew he was our Pete. So, after a short meeting between the two Neils we knew we had our best man. And he really surprised me with the emotional stuff too."

Neil: "Neil was the perfect choice."

Jim: "Donald Morrison and Chris Rogers we hadn’t worked with before and we found through good old fashioned casting and they were both perfect. Donald is completely crazy when you get to know him, and is just hilarious – miles away from the brooding and disturbed Jason you see in the film."

Neil: "We arranged to meet him in a pub, had a half hour conversation detailing who he thought the character was, where we'd written that he was coming from, and the mix of good vibes from Donald and the intensity he had for the character of Jason left no doubt that he was our man."

Jim: "We had a secret code word – Anthony Hopkins – which we could each say to each other if we thought he was the man for the job. He got two Hopkins within the first five minutes. And I’ve never met an actor who’s done so much homework as Donald, he really works his socks off, and it shows."

Neil: "Chris was cast in much the same way: online, pub, Eureka! So by the end of casting we had our four leads and a drinking problem."

Jim: "Chris was interesting because he looked the part, had a fantastic body of work and a great showreel, but, unlike Andy Bossoms who he plays, Chris is part German, part American, and has a very deep American accent. So we played around with regional British accents, cos we didn’t want to let a little thing like that stop us, and Chris pulled off such a good Yorkshire accent that people are genuinely shocked when they hear his actual voice. It helped that Terry, our sound man, is from Yorkshire too, so we had an expert on set. Of the four characters, Andy is the one people seem to root for and worry about, and that’s all down to Chris’ excellent performance."

What were the practicalities of shooting on Dartmoor like?
Neil: "We said from the very beginning that Dartmoor was going to be as much a character in the film as the four leads, and it turned out to be the most unpredictable and demanding of the lot. But in truth there was only one day when the weather got so bad we had to re-schedule and head back to base. I had created the schedule to be all day shoots in the first week and then a week of nights in the second, and as luck would have it the first week had some lovely dry, sunny weather during the day and the second week had grotty weather in the days but clear, albeit freezing, nights. Well no one said filming in Dartmoor in October would be glamorous."

Jim: "I love being outdoors and much prefer natural light to studio lighting, so I had a lovely time, especially as DoP. Dartmoor did all the hard work for me really. Most low or no-budget films are usually set in self-contained locations, pubs, living rooms, etc... I always try to use the landscape and scenery if I can, it just adds such scale and that all important production value. And we got so lucky with the weather, considering that it was late October. Spielberg had just finished shooting Warhorse when we arrived, so we share the same dramatic clouds and sunsets. Actually, several locals approached us during the time we were there asking if we were Warhorse, which considering we had a crew of seven people was quite funny. Maybe you had to be there..."

Neil: "Dartmoor was stunning and with shooting locations everywhere you looked. We went out on the day after everyone arrived, which was supposed to just be a rehearsal day, and within a couple of hours had shot one of the opening montages, including the shot that you see on the poster. There is one sequence in the film that was all shot within a 360 degree angle of the same point, but depending on which way you turn depends on the style of the landscape. Truly breathtaking."

Jim: "We rented a farmhouse just outside of Okehampton in which we all slept and ate together, Big Brother style, for the duration of the shoot. It even had an indoor heated pool, not that Neil or I had any time to use it, but the others made good use of it."

Neil: "I think the one defining factor that made filming a feature in a relatively short space of time was 'film camp', as the actors christened it. We were all living in what was basically a backpackers lodge, so at any time the actors could rehearse, talk through scenes or relax and bond together. This also meant that at all times myself and Jim were both on-hand to talk through any script issues that arose. It became a real collaborative entity."

Jim: "Yes, there was no going back to hotel rooms, we really were all in it together. But the best thing about it was that the farm had acres of land, which backed onto the moors, so we used that as our self-contained backlot for the night shoots. It meant we could leave the tents set up, not to mention the use of flame throwers and explosions because it was private land. But Neil did wonders with getting all the permits sorted for the Dartmoor stuff."

Neil: "As has been my experience in film, the West Country are far more obliging when it comes to filming. I worked with the Duchy of Cornwall, the Dartmoor National Parks Authority and the individual Dartmoor Rangers to secure the permits and to help deal with everything we needed during the shoot."

Jim: "I’ve spent a lot of time on Dartmoor, it’s the most gorgeous place. I’ve even organised a couple of stag dos there in the past, hence the idea. We didn’t see anything scarier than wild ponies though."

Was there a temptation to show more of the beast, given how much you’d spent on it?
Jim: "We’d always planned to not have the ‘shark jumping onto the boat’ moment and to keep the beast in the shadows. But yeah, it was a bit tempting, especially as how realistic it looked – Animated Extras had done a fantastic job, I think everyone had fun playing with it every now and again. But no, it was always designed to be used very fleetingly as, you know, that’s a lot scarier. But you see it just enough so that you can see what it is. A lot of the close ups were shot in a small studio at Shepperton but you’d never know. Neil cut those scenes beautifully."

Neil: "At the end of the day it's a head on a stick, a paw with usually my arm in it, or a bit of tail. We did shoot a lot more beast footage but I always felt that the scares or fear should come from how the guys react to the presence of the beast, seeing too much of the cat would always be likely to cheapen the effect we're aiming for. It's hard to be scared when you can see the wires or the operator in the background."

How has independent film-making changed in the two decades between Devil’s Harvest and Stag Hunt?
Neil: "Independent film has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, the arrival of the digital age has meant that we can do so much more with immediate results."

Jim: "The biggest change is just how much cheaper it is, thanks to digital. You could, if you wanted, shoot an entire feature on your phone or a GoPro and it’d look pretty good. We shot Devil’s Harvest on 35mm film, which looks lovely, but we had no monitor and often had to wait weeks to see what we’d got, which as we were mostly using short-ends and off cuts of unused film stock from Evita, you could never be sure what it would come back like. But now, it’s completely instant and looks incredible. Just be sure to make several back-ups!"

Neil: "We had an edit suite set up back at the farmhouse base, so within an hour of getting back in the evening once all the cards had been captured we'd be able to see results, even sometimes small sequences being cut together by Emma Holbrook, our local editor, who graced us with her presence whenever she could."

Jim: "Emma was cutting the scenes together while we were out on the moors, (because, you know, Neil was busy producing, building props, sorting costumes, taking stills, blowing stuff up, etc...) But that was a real confidence boost for everyone because it was looking so good. And, of course, there are no longer developing or processing costs. And you can re-use the memory cards."

Neil: "Also, the kit is now a lot smaller and lighter. This really matters when you’re transporting kit up a windy tor for hours at a time. We could not have shot Stag Hunt on any other format as digital, the timeframe didn't allow for it."

Jim: "Saying all that though, I still love film. It just wasn’t practical this time around."

And what have you been up to in the intervening period? Were there any ‘nearly’ film projects which got away? . 
Neil: "In the years between Devil's Harvest and Stag Hunt we have been plying our trade. We have been involved in a myriad of 'almost/maybe' projects that have each reached differing stages of reality."

Jim: "Oh there were several ‘nearly’ film projects, some that we can’t talk about, others that might still happen. We made some short films, one of which starred Kevin Howarth just prior to him shooting The Last Horror Movie. And of course the Ibiza film, which was great fun to shoot. We also worked with the band Hard-Fi and made their first video ‘Cash Machine’ which helped get them signed (Rich Archer and I go way back). The most annoying one was a film version of Randall and Hopkirk: Deceased which came really close and had some great cast lined up, but the BBC had the same idea and bought the rights before we could. It might still happen though, it’s an interesting take on it. And there’s also a Bigfoot movie which has been keeping us busy for a while, which could potentially be our next project."

What’s next? Will we have to wait another 20 years for another Dog Face Films feature?
Jim: "Hopefully the gap won’t be quite so long next time – we’d be in our sixties! We’ve had loads of interest from various big studios and production houses, thanks to Stag Hunt, who were all impressed with what we achieved with our budget."

Neil: "We have been fortunate with the reaction people have had to Stag Hunt. While in Cannes we had positive feedback from everyone we saw, they were all keen on our next project. We have irons in the fire the trick is to opt for the one that will be what the markets want at the time they want it."

Jim: "It’s been a great calling card. So, as soon as we have the next screenplay ready you bet we’ll be knocking on those doors. It’d be nice not to have to pay for it ourselves again too."

Neil: "The film industry can be a vicious beast. You can put your heart, soul and life into something and never know if you've done the right thing. So watch this space...."


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