Friday 22 January 2016

interview: Steve Lawson (2015)

It's the best part of ten years since I last interviewed Steve Lawson. That previous interview was about his early action movies. In 2015/16 he had three horror films released within a few months of each other, all very good in their own way but all very different. This flurry of activity prompted this new interview in December 2015.

It’s been quite a few years since your micro-budget action movies like Insiders and The Silencer. Why the long gap in your filmography?
"I think, like a lot of indie film-makers, my ambition had always been to be able to walk into my local branch of HMV and see my own movie on the shelf! When I produced and co-directed The Silencer, which was a riff on The Exterminator but with added kung fu, we actually achieved this and the film is still out there on DVD and occasionally acquires new fans and online reviews. So at the time there didn't seem to be any further you could go with indie film production, short of going the whole hog and attempting to raise serious money and shoot something on 35mm. We'd pushed the Mini-DV format as far as it could go."

How has independent film-making and distribution changed during that time?
"Well, this is what drew me back into film production. It's hard to believe but when we were shooting The Silencer in 2004 there was no Facebook or YouTube, and HD video was still only in the hands of high-end professionals. By the time I started to write Survival Instinct all of these things had become available, and digital SLR cameras that could shoot full HD video with a range of changeable lenses had totally transformed what it was possible to achieve on a low budget. And by the time we started shooting, things had progressed again, and we ended up shooting on a Panasonic digital cinema camera that was higher resolution than the cameras George Lucas used to shoot the Star Wars prequels! If you think about it, it's an absolutely astonishing situation when the likes of me can go out and shoot a movie that ends up showing in theatres. But this is the democratisation of film-making that has happened, and I think it's wonderful."

Survival Instinct is far from the first film to centre on a nutter chasing a girl through the woods. What do you think you could bring to this scenario that’s new or different?
"I've always been a fan of what's called the 'survival horror' genre, which goes right back to films like Deliverance. It's usually a tale of city folk who go out into the wilderness and end up fighting for their lives either against the elements, the wildlife, or crazy inbred locals. So I wanted to make something in that style, and of course it's always popular to have the lead character be a girl, so I set myself the task of writing something that would slot easily into that genre, but at the same time hopefully wouldn't suffer from the many lame clich├ęs that infect those types of films.

"So I watched an awful lot of movies that fitted this description, some good, many bad, and two things became very clear: in the vast majority of these films, the villains were random crazies who had no particular reason for attacking the protagonists, and the protagonists were incredibly annoying idiots who bickered with each other and usually caused their own downfall. The result was you didn't fear the villains and you didn't care about the heroes. So I was determined to do the opposite in Survival Instinct - have main characters that the audience could identify with and care about, and have a villain with realistic, plausible motivations. I wanted to create the kind of scenario the audience could believe might actually happen to them - if they just took that one wrong turn or made that one bad decision. The film has been compared by critics to Eden Lake and Straw Dogs, which are two films I admire hugely, so it's certainly in the right area."

How did you assemble your cast?
"Mostly by luck! The only cast member to actually audition was Helen Crevel, who plays the lead role of Stacey, and the audition process was frankly a bit of a shambles as I'd never auditioned anybody before. I was suitably impressed by the fact that she was willing and able to improv a highly tense scene from the script whilst sitting in my office car park! Also she has amazing eyes, really big, dark pupils, and I had already planned quite a few shots that would focus on the character's eyes, so that was what really secured her the part. That and the fact that I was too lazy to audition anyone else! Fortunately she was wonderful and I really can't imagine anyone being better in the role.

"The other key role was our antagonist Weaver, and by pure chance I had recently become acquainted with a local business owner who had a passion for films and was looking to get involved in something. Andy Coughlan had never acted in a feature film before but he was physically perfect for the part of Weaver and just something about him told me that he wouldn't let me down. I think his performance in the film is an absolute revelation and he really ought to be acting full time. Other cast members were people I knew from various places - Jay Sutherland had done a lot of corporates for me, Sam Smith was a member of a local stage school that I knew quite well, and there's even a cameo from The Silencer himself, Glenn Salvage."

The film was shot as Rites of Passage – why the title change?
"Whilst I liked the title Rites of Passage and felt that it had a ring of quality to it, the fact is when you're trying to get distributors interested in a horror-thriller you need a more hard-hitting title. It was always my intention to change the title at some point, in fact we even had a bit of a competition among the cast and crew to see who could come up with the best suggestion. Better Dead Than Queer! was put forward by one crew member who will remain nameless. It is actually a line from the film! But in the end Survival Instinct was my idea, and I googled it and to my surprise there was nothing else out there that had used that title so I jumped on it! And then they released the Walking Dead game..."

How did the distribution deal with Film Volt come about?
"Film Volt is a very new film distribution and sales company, and part of their plan has been to create a theatrical platform for independent films. They are releasing the last film Rik Mayall appeared in before he died, among other things. I had already agreed a DVD release with 88 Films but the release date got pushed back quite considerably so I started looking at what else I could do with the film in the meantime. As Film Volt are based in Derbyshire, and Survival Instinct is a Derbyshire-set film, I thought it might be a good match so I got in touch with them and they liked the film.

"In fact I was told it really stood out amongst the indie films they had seen, and so it was selected as one of a small number of films they are putting out theatrically. Of course, it's what they call a 'limited theatrical release' in 'selected cinemas' so it won't be in your local Odeon, but as of now it's showing in independent cinemas in London, Birmingham, Nottingham and Portsmouth and we're still looking to add more locations during February or March 2016. Then the plan is that the DVD will follow from 88 Films in April or May. The latest screening information can always be found on"

Your sci-fi dino feature Killersaurus couldn’t be more different from the tense drama of Survival Instinct, and sexy ghost story Nocturnal Activity (which you produced for the enigmatic Georg E Lewis) is different to both. Is this a deliberate attempt to be diverse and avoid being pigeonholed?
"Not at all, I'd be happy to be pigeonholed if it meant I was at least known for something! Survival Instinct was something I really wanted to make and spent a lot of time planning, and I knew it was a quality film, so I was concerned about potentially signing away the rights to any old distributor who might just dump it onto VOD or do nothing with it at all. So the other two films were frankly quickies that I made specifically for two different distributors primarily to test the waters and see what kind of genres and distribution strategies might pay off the best. Turns out there was huge interest worldwide in Killersaurus and now I regret rushing it out as it wasn't as good as it could have been, I believe it was the second biggest-selling title of the year for our UK distributor 88 Films and it's been pirated everywhere. It's coming out in the States some time in 2016. So anyway, the different films in different genres were just horses for courses really - different films to appeal to different distributors."

How important was it that the dinosaur in Killersaurus was a puppet and not CGI?
"Well, it was never going to be CGI if I could possibly help it. The first version of the script was very different and concerned more of a raptor-type thing running around in corridors, and I planned to use one of those fantastic man-in-a-suit dinosaur costumes that you sometimes see performers using at live events. But due to the insane time-constraints involved in getting the film out onto DVD whilst Jurassic World was still in cinemas, everything had to be simplified and that's why you end up with a T rex that mostly just skulks around in a dark warehouse.

"One YouTube commenter announced that it was just the same old animatronic dinosaur from Carnosaur, but it wasn't! We didn't have the budget even for that! It was a hand puppet which we shot against green screen so I could scale it up to look huge next to the actors. Fortunately I had Helen Crevel again in one of the lead roles and she happens to be a very experienced puppeteer so it worked out well, but the puppet was pretty stiff and even she struggled to bring much life to it. But despite the limitations, I'd still much rather see a weak practical effect in a film than CGI, especially the crappy kind of CGI you see in low budget monster movies."

When we watched Nocturnal Activity, I turned to you afterwards and said, “Steve, you’ve made a Fred Olen Ray movie.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
"Funnily enough, I have vivid memories of watching the Fred Olen Ray episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show and thinking it must be great to do what he did for a living! It was certainly an attempt to get into that kind of B-movie territory with a mix of supernatural horror and sexy girls, but I don't think I quite got the tone right. In my mind it was very much a tongue-in-cheek affair, and I think some people get it but a lot of people don't. The 'name' star in that one was Jonathan Hansler who had starred in Axed which was released by Lionsgate, and he picked up on the humour in the script right away and played the gags very strongly, but I think overall it's played a bit too straight and we should have camped it up more, made the in-jokes and movie-references a bit more overt. But for a low budget quickie I'm pleased with the way it looks, the lighting and effects are pretty good and the climactic paranormal lesbian seduction scene is worth the wait! It's climactic in more ways than one..."

Creativ Studios’ three new features are all being released within about a year of each other. What can you tell me about your financing model and production process which enables you to be this productive?
"Oh, if only there was a financing model...! I am by no means a great film-maker, but what I do have is many years of experience running my own production company doing just about every type of video production there is, as well as by this point having directed or co-directed five independent features which have all found distribution in one form or another. So this means I am extremely well organised when it comes to planning and executing a shoot. I remember fellow director Dominic Burns asking about any trials and tribulations that occurred during the Survival Instinct shoot and he couldn't believe it when I said we shot the whole thing in ten days flat and it all went perfectly smoothly!

"People don't realise that making a film - whatever the budget level - is 90% logistics and planning. It's just about making sure that your cast, crew, equipment, props, costumes and whatever else you need are all in the right place at the right time. The creative part of if it is really quite small in comparison, particularly when you're on a tight schedule. So to get back to your question, I produced and directed three features in less than two years because each one was tightly planned and executed. I have never in my life had a shoot fall apart or a project that didn't get finished, but these seem to be common events for other film-makers."

Among the current UK indie scene, which films or film-makers have impressed you?
"Well, sadly I could name you any number of British indie horrors that I've switched off before the end, but not many that I've been impressed by to be honest. As I said before, I'm all in favour of the democratisation of film-making that's occurred, but it does mean that an awful lot of rubbish gets made. If we're talking about the micro-budget end of things, the only film that sticks in my memory is Stalled, which was a smart little zombie comedy. Not all of the ideas in it came off but it was a clever concept, well shot, and the ending was magnificent!"

What next for Creativ Studios?
"It depends on what comes of Survival Instinct's theatrical release. Obviously, the hope is that it might just come to the attention of someone with access to higher levels of funding who is looking for new projects to invest in. If that's the case, I've got a number of scripts in the £100k-£250k region that are ready to be developed. If not, then it's back to low budget horrors, and I think first out of the gate will definitely be Killersaurus 2 - Weapons of Mass Extinction. I can assure viewers it will have much more dino-action, craziness and gore than the first one!

"In addition to actual production, we now have quite a substantial studio facility in Leicester which I want to make available to other film-makers. Most indie producers aren't aware of the benefits of shooting in a studio, and end up spending a lot of time begging for locations and then shuttling their cast and crew from one place to another. We want to offer film-makers a base to work from with studio space, production facilities like lighting and camera gear, and comfortable, warm rooms for actors and crew to sit and have a cup of tea when they're not working - and all at a price-point that even micro-budget producers can afford! Details can be found on my website."


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