Sunday, 26 June 2016

interview: Edward R Pressman

I interviewed legendary producer Ed Pressman on a double decker bus at Shepperton Studios in June 2006 when I was visiting the set of Mutant Chronicles.

When did you first become attached to Mutant Chronicles?
"I think it was 1990. I was introduced to the property back in 1990 and started developing it. I don’t know the exact years but I think in 1992 or so we were supposed to start doing it with Fox. Steve Norrington was supposed to direct it. We had it set up right after The Crow came out, but that came out in 1994 so my years may be a little mixed up. But we had it set up at Fox and Steve wanted a young actor named Russell Crowe. Fox said no way. He’d just come out of a film that Brett Leonard directed at Paramount that didn’t do very well so they didn’t want Russell Crowe.

“I was feeling pretty bullish about the project and when Fox said they wanted to cut the project by five million dollars I said we didn’t really want to do it. We’d set it up elsewhere which I thought we’d do easily. Maybe a bit over confident. We didn’t set it up elsewhere very quickly and while we were trying to do that, New Line offered Steve Blade.

“So we lost our director and it remained dormant for many years. Then I met Simon Hunter five years ago and we talked about it but it didn’t go anywhere. Then a year and a half ago Simon said he had a way of doing Mutant Chronicles that was very different from what we’d talked about in the past and very different from what we’d talked about with Steve Norrington. He would like to show us a sample of what the film might look and feel like if we would sponsor a seven-minute presentation using the new technology which he’d become familiar with over the intervening years.

“He used a lot of the technology that Rodriguez had used in Sin City but Simon hadn’t seen Sin City. This was his own version of that but applied to a very different genre than Sin City was. So he did this seven-minute trailer which was very impressive. Based on that we were able to attract Thomas Jane and John Malkovich and even before we had the full cast, Nigel Green came in and other distributors around the world which enabled us to make the film purely based on Simon’s vision as presented in that seven-minute trailer."

Do you think it’s to the film’s advantage that it’s being made now, rather than the 1990s, given how effects technology has advanced?
"Absolutely. From what I’ve seen so far, the film has a very original look. It’s not derivative of so many films that came after Blade Runner and looked at the future in a certain way. Even after The Crow, there was a kind of cinematic vision that was often imitated. Simon’s vision is quite original and to make a science fiction film which is like the opening of Saving Private Ryan with mutants is a very striking, new way of doing such a movie, which wouldn’t have been possible to do back then."

Shooting an advance promo is something that micro-budget films have done but hasn’t really been tried in a film of this size before. Do you think that’s a sales model that will become more popular?
"I think it certainly should be. I guess it depends on the kind of film being made. This had a very distinct, immediate effect. Just by seeing one minute of it you got the point. Certain other films may not have such a visual sensation that a few minutes would clearly indicate. For a certain kind of movie where you’re trying to show a certain style and visual approach that’s something different, I think it is a good idea."

How has the script changed?
"Oh, the script changed radically. After the Mutant Chronicles script was first done, there were things from that script which got used in other movies like Pitch Black and its sequel. They almost seemed derivative of what the original Mutant Chronicles script was. So we had to really reconceive it and Simon wanted to reconceive the story and the script so that it wasn’t derivative of itself or the films that followed it. A lot of work was done, ironically with the original writer because Simon went back to Phil Eisner after going through four other writers. In the intervening years there were five writers that took a hand in doing versions of the script and in the end it came back to Philip who was not attached to his original words and made some major changes under Simon’s guidance."

When you met Simon, had you seen Lighthouse and what did you think of it?
"I thought Lighthouse was a very impressive first film with a very modest budget, a successful job. With Simon himself and getting to know him, the biggest impression was seeing his command of the technology which was very impressive. Again, that was through the process of working with him on this little seven-minute trailer. It wasn’t simply talking about what he could do but actually executing it and coming in under budget, and getting to know him. When we first met, I remember that the director he most admired was David Lean so he was actually bringing a storytelling element to a different kind of genre and I think that’s a great combination, to not just be about the effect and the appearance but also to know about good storytelling. As a film-maker, I think he’s going to have a very bright future."

There’s a very long post-production schedule and it’s not out until 2008. How can you maintain the interest of distributors and audiences in something that takes that long?
"That’s an interesting challenge and that’s something that we’re wrestling with right now. My initial impulse is to announce with a teaser ad in the trades that production has begun on the Mutant Chronicles but it doesn’t make sense to say ‘coming spring 2008’. Do you want to start laying the groundwork on something that’s so far away or does it make sense to lay low until further down the line?"

Do you see Mutant Chronicles as a potential franchise?
"Yes, I certainly do. The world of Mutant Chronicles is very rich and there are many stories that could be told. It’s something we’ve always felt and I think Simon agrees. The first film is going to be very bold and R-rated and tough, something that’s not trying to compromise in any way on what a film should be. Down the line we could soften it up and appeal to a broader fanbase but right now we’re going for the hardcore audience."

You seem to have a lot of interesting projects in development. What’s coming up next?
"From an effects point of view we have an interesting movie coming out in November which is called Fur which is a film Steve Shainberg directed, the fellow who directed Secretary, with Nicole Kidman playing Diane Arbus and Robert Downey Jr paying this very hairy man. Kind of a compilation of all the freaks that Diane Arbus photographed are in the person of this almost wolfman character that Downey plays and the relationship between the two. We just finished shooting a film called Sisters which is a remake of the Brian DePalma movie."

That’s Douglas Buck’s film, isn’t it?
"Doug Buck is the director and he’s done a splendid job. We’re seeing the first cut, the director’s cut in two weeks. It stars Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Rae and a young French actress named Lou Doillon. We hope to have that ready to show the world at the end of the year."

A lot of people have been waiting a long time for Doug to do a proper movie because his shorts are so extraordinary.
"We were introduced to him through another film-maker named Larry Fessenden who was executive producer on the film. He told us how Doug was such a fan of Sisters and introduced us to his shorts, so that’s how that got going."

I notice that you’re also lining up a remake of Phantom of the Paradise.
"That’s right. That’s something which we’re looking for the right director because the original Phantom has a real cult following. There’s a convention every year in Vancouver now for Phantom of the Paradise fans and they invite Gerrit Graham and Bill Finley and treat them like kings. I think doing a film about the music business today could be a very exciting movie but until we find a film-maker it’s just an idea right now.”


interview: Catherine C Pirotta

After reviewing Catherine Pirotta’s feature Dreamkiller in July 2010, I e-mailed her some questions which she kindly answered for me.

How did you hook up with veteran writer Clyde Ware, and were there any problems in working with someone who has been writing for the screen since before you were born?
“I believe that stories and dialogues read more real when the team behind is mixed. Usually you can tell when a script was written by a woman alone as its male characters don’t quite act/react 100 per cent like a man would, and the same happens when a man tries to write the character of a woman. But when a man and a woman write it together, most of the time both sides are covered in a realistic way. The same applies when young and older work together, and it is only for the best of the story and script. In Dreamkiller we had a younger character (Nick) and an older character (Dr Stalberg) working together on a team.

“Collaborating with someone as experienced as Clyde was definitely a great learning experience and I was fortunate to have Clyde to guide me through various traps that lie in the path of first time directors. I was introduced to Clyde Ware through Dario Deak who was at the time under contract with Delaware Pictures. I had met Dario a year before though a common friend Nick Rish, the lead actor of my very first short film Adopting Change. Nick also plays Detective Barret in Dreamkiller.”

What was your original conception of Dreamkiller and how closely does the finished film match what you set out to make?
“The title Dreamkiller was conceived to carry a double meaning, the obvious being the person or an entity that kills within a dream or a dream-like state. But the second and more concealed meaning derives from the question of ‘What kills our dreams?’

“How many of us wanted to do and dreamed of doing something only to be discouraged by others, even those closest to us? And they are only acting out on their own ‘fears’, the ultimate Dreamkiller. Regardless of people, what actually kills our dreams is ‘fear’ because it paralyses the initiative or creates discouragement, which leads to quitting. And that gradually leads to regret and ultimately death of human spirit. Fear is the core of Dreamkiller the movie and it ultimately carries the title. That is the story that we were set out to make and in that aspect, I feel very accomplished.

"But the original screenplay was much more elaborate and convoluted and it was difficult to ultimately make sense of it in the movie. Our original cut was over three hours long and we contemplated on making a mini-series of it (I’m kidding, though actually we are currently in active development of Dreamkiller - The Series). There are elements that had to be cut out, partially or entirely to make sense of the complex story and still fit it in an under-two-hours cut. Originally each patient had his/her own back story about their fear, there was a fifth patient whose story had to be cut out completely, also Nick’s sister Natalia had a whole subplot story, and the mother issue and relation of it with Stalberg was more developed. But in the process, I had to decide what was more important, and in this case it was to resolve the mystery/case at the expense of other, less important ones.”

How did you assemble your cast and crew?
“Dario was under contract with Delaware Pictures at the time, and was an element from the very beginning. For rest of the cast, some parts I gave to actors I had worked in the past in my short films, others we held auditions, the conventional way.

“As for the crew, I had worked with the DP John O’Shaughnessy before on one of my shorts (5 Minutes) and we got along well so that was taken care of. Then I had a few friends, former classmates that came on board because they believed in the project and in me. Our crew was small, less than ten. I can say that our cast by far outnumbered our crew.”

What aspect of the film are you most proud of and which bit would you change if you had the chance?
“I am most proud of the movie’s originality, unpredictability and the fact that no-one I have ever encountered that has seen it, was bored with it. Many have liked, disliked, loved, outright hated or liked and disliked certain aspects of it, but no one that has given it a chance had been bored or walked out on it to my knowledge, and I have seen many. Anyone that had seen it through the first 15 minutes or so had to see it through the end.

“At this day and age of remake after remake, sequel after sequel, rarely do we get to see something original. And I think I understand why, original is the hardest and the riskiest thing to do. But where are we going to wind up if we just keep doing what’s been done? Some of the most appealing and attractive words when it comes to movie projects to me are: ‘It’s never been done before.’ Most business people shy away from it. How will they know that it will work if it was never done before? Would we ever have aeroplanes if the Wright Brothers felt the same? The fact is, they did feel the same, but they did it anyway. They were scared and did it anyway.

“What would I change if I had the chance? Aside from bringing up production value in various locations such as Ninex laboratories etc., I would have liked to have been able to explore the detective Annette’s fear further. Her fear is ‘trust’, particularly in a relationship. A common fear of so many people who have been betrayed or burned one way or another. Without giving away the ending I’ll try to explain: I wanted her in the final scene (when she finds Nick with a gun) to be confronted face to face with overcoming her fear and hates to trust Nick, despite all elements that were pointing at him she needed to decide to trust him or not. And see the consequences of her not trusting and letting her fear have control over her. But the scene didn’t quite work basically due to rewrite in post (by editing) and so it is more simple, the way that you saw it.”

How has the film been received by audiences and critics?
“The film was very well received by audiences. We held over 16 weeks in release, and people kept coming even though we had no marketing budget. I believe that majority of people were able to relate on some level primarily due to their own fears and the ones that responded most passionately were persons that actually identified and directly related to their fears.

“We held Q&A sessions some weekends and people just would keeping talking about their fears. Sometimes the time was up and we had to move to the lobby because the next show was starting. Many people even wrote to us about it later.

“The film offers no fancy answers other than what most of us already know, that the only true way to defeat fear (worst of all enemies) is to be brave. To face it squarely and act in spite of it. Yet so few of us are aware of this fact and rarely act out on it. I belong to this group myself but I’m trying hard to ‘do it anyway’ and I hope by bringing it up to others I will become more accountable and strong to practice it.

“With critics we had mixed reviews. The very first reviews were great, stating that ‘this was the great beginning of several film careers’ etc., but then we got some bad ones, primarily focusing on our budgetary constraints and subjective feelings toward specific aspects of the movie. Sometimes there were personal issues, I guess we hit some nerve; and sometimes perhaps due to our perceived commercial genre or even title, they wouldn’t let themselves see more past that. A movie like Jurassic Park could be seen as a simple kid movie about dinosaurs destroying a place, or as an exploration (in an entertaining way) of how man likes to play God, and the potential effects of that. It depends on how much you want to see in it, you can let yourself go there or not. For me Dreamkiller was an attempt to do both, say something but also be entertaining. Not just pure commercial or pure artistic.”

What are your future plans?
“I’m working with Delaware Pictures on a whole slate of projects, some five completed screenplays and three more in active development. I’ll mention my two favourites, for the sake of time.

Ry is a fantasy/action/adventure adapted from the ancient Balkan folk tales where the hero goes on a quest to get a special sword, the only one that can defeat the tyrant who enslaved his village. Every trial on the quest is a lesson and a metaphor. I was attracted to it for its (once again) two sided quality. The movie promotes the basic character ethic and moral values while at the same time being entertaining and fun. Like the original Star Wars. And there are issues and aspects of this story that have never been done before on film.

“The other one is an adaptation of a book we acquired in turnaround from Disney (Buena Vista) titled Old Man in a Baseball Cap. A true story of an American bombardier who was shot down over enemy occupied territory during WWII and rescued by Yugoslavian partisans. He was assigned to a tough woman (freedom fighter) to guide him to safety for 31 days on foot. During this journey they experience many adventures and of course inevitably fall in love. They learn both about love and about war, hence the title of the screenplay, In Love and War. Aside from conventional aspects of this story that are appealing I was particularly drawn to some more controversial aspects of it as it sheds a light on some not so well known or publicised facts regarding the only ‘Good War’ as we often refer to WWII.

"Aside from our film projects we are also in active development and talks about production of Dreamkiller - The Series (as per the suggestion of many studio and audience members). This was not set from the beginning but was brought up over and over so we decided it’s worth pursuing.”


Friday, 24 June 2016


Director: MJ Dixon
Writer: MJ Dixon
Producer: Anna McCarthy
Cast: Adam Dillon, Becca Talulah, Nicholas Vince
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: online screener

Released in August 2016 alongside Cleaver: Rise of the Killer Clown, Hollower is the fourth entry in the Mycho Cinematic Universe, an ambitious shared world of loosely connected characters, scenarios and stories which began with Slasher House and continued with Legacy of Thorn.

Right, that’s the links out of the way.

Hollower is MJ Dixon’s most mature work to date, less cartoonlike than the previous three and more interested in using characterisation, narrative and atmosphere to generate fear than simply being scary. It’s principally a three-hander, or rather a brace of intercut two-handers. Our framing story sees Nathan (Adam Dillon) - battered, bruised and handcuffed – questioned in a police interview room by Detective Miller (Nicholas Vince: Hellraiser, The Day After Dark). A sequence of flashbacks visualise Nathan’s responses and show how he formed first a friendship and later a romantic/sexual relationship with his neighbour Isabelle (Becca Talulah, who was a cheerleader in Legacy of Thorn).

Nathan is the young man who worked alongside Eleanor James' Red in Slasher House (which means that my assumption that this would be about the third psycho, the one who isn't Cleaver or Thorn, was wrong - sorry). He is agoraphobic and hasn’t left his flat in two years, ordering all his supplies online. His life is repetitive and small, his only pastime (apparently) being the creation of slightly creepy dolls. Isabelle, on the rebound from an abusive relationship, moves in across the hall. She’s attracted to the shy, reclusive guy opposite, especially when he stands up to her angry ex (Joe Hughes, a barman in Cleaver).

Slowly, very slowly, Nathan starts to engage with Isabelle, gradually making progress in dealing with his own mental health problems. It’s a sweet, romantic tale laced with occasional moments of delightful humour (his attempts to cross the hall to leave a present outside her door are a hoot) and scored with a variety of faux-sixties pop songs.

But always we cut back to the interview room and Detective Miller. We don’t know what it is that Nathan has done (or at least, is accused of doing) but it’s probably not good. And it probably involves Isabelle.

Dixon employs his trademark colour schemes, albeit with less startling tones, to emphasise the contrast between the two stories. The interview room is a chilly blue while Nathan’s flat is a mix of orange and reds. It may just be my old, rheumy eyesight but I got the impression that the flat eased gradually towards more natural shades as the Nathan-Isabelle relationship progressed. Apart from the hall and a couple of scenes right at the end, these are the only two locations.

As the story progresses – at 90 minutes this is the longest MCU movie yet but it doesn’t feel stretched – we start to get clues about what this terrible crime might be. Nathan says he can’t remember anything, and Detective Miller doesn’t go into detail. But it’s in the flashback scenes that we start to get our first hints. Unremarked, in the background, just occasionally, we can spot something significant, something disturbing.

To say more would be unfair and spoiler-ish. I will note that, like the other Slasher House prequels, this works as a stand-alone horror film and you don’t need to have seen any of the others. Frankly it’s more than three years since I watched Slasher House and my knowledge of it relies almost entirely on the review I wrote at the time. (I’ve watched and reviewed a lot of films since then…)

The three leads give fine performances, especially Dillon who successfully portrays two very, very different versions of the same character. Bam Goodall provides special effects, as he did for Slasher House, Thorn, Cleaver and Dixon’s segment of eagerly awaited anthology Blaze of Gory.

Stylish, spooky, slick and seriously disturbing in its finale, Hollower is an accomplished piece of film-making that shifts the Mycho team of MJ Dixon and Anna McCarthy up a gear. Still to come from Mycho are Slasher House II, Mask of Thorn and Return of the Killer Clown, plus who knows what other delights. You don’t have to watch every entry in the Mycho Cinematic Universe – but I’m glad that so far I’ve been able to enjoy them all.

MJS rating: A-

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Cleaver: Rise of the Killer Clown

Director: MJ Dixon
Writers: MJ Dixon, Jason Harlow
Producer: Anna McCarthy
Cast: Stephanie Price, Andrew M Greenwood, Jimi Nix
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: online screener

MCU? MCU? Never mind the Marvel Cinematic Universe – here’s the Mycho Cinematic Universe!

Director MJ Dixon and producer Anna McCarthy burst onto the scene in 2013 with the stylish (if occasionally formulaic) Slasher House. The always terrific Eleanor James was Red, a young woman being chased around a mysterious prison by three hulking cartoon psychos: a psycho with huge swords, a psycho with power tools and a clown psycho.

Big-swords-psycho got his own prequel the following year: the very entertaining and ambitiously structured Legacy of Thorn. Now two other characters have also got their own films, released simultaneously in August 2016. The young man who helps Red stars in Hollower (which I will watch and review shortly [And which turns out not to be about the Power Tools Psycho as I originally assumed - MJS]) but first here comes Cleaver: Rise of the Killer Clown.

Whereas Legacy of Thorn was Mycho’s homage to Friday the 13th, this movie openly references Halloween. In a small American town, on 31st October 1995, student Carley Lewis (Stephanie Price) misses out on a Halloween party in favour of a babysitting gig because she needs the money to pay her course fees. Carley offers to take her young charge Mary-Beth (Holly-Anne Dodkins) trick-or-treating but Mary-Beth’s parents say no – because of a recent murder.

In a terrific prologue we saw another college student, Sara Allen (Kylie Slevin: Plastic Toys) getting brutally murdered by a clown-psycho. Her boyfriend Danny Jackson (Lewis Cooper) had just left – well actually he’s somebody else’s boyfriend which is why he sneaked out without being seen. Now he has disappeared and so he’s the prime suspect for the murder.

Sheriff Hatcher (Jimi Nix, a spear-carrier in The Hollow Crown) is on the case, assisted by his two deputies (Georgie Smibert and Gary Baxter). He thinks the killer could be Carlton Layton, a mentally unstable guy who became a children’s entertainer after he was laid off, then came home one day to find his wife being unfaithful. Well, of course it is Layton. He is Cleaver. And he is out for blood tonight.

Like Dixon’s two previous released features (I don’t think we’ll ever get to see his debut Creepsville), Cleaver is drenched in almost Bava-esque colour - reds and oranges and greens - making every scene a painting. It’s a distinctive, attractive style which doesn’t distract from the storytelling. In fact, I think it adds to the film not just aesthetically but in heightening the unreality of what we’re seeing.

Because although this is set in the USA, it was filmed in England. And although Dixon and McCarthy do a sterling job of trying to convince us it’s the USA (and the cast generally manage pretty good accents; Price actually is American) the fact remains that it’s not the USA, we know it’s not the USA, we can see it’s not the USA. What it is instead is a cartoon USA, a slightly exaggerated, slightly hyper-real version of small town America. So yes, it’s a give-away every time we see a front door with a letterbox; yes, it’s a clue when shots of the Sheriff’s car are actually extreme close-ups of a dinky toy. But That Doesn’t Matter. This is not being presented as the real world, any more than Legacy of Thorn or Slasher House were.

There is clearly some justification for setting this story in the States, although I’m not sure why it’s 1995. (Legacy of Thorn was variously set in 2008 and 2012). Again, I’m quite happy to say that It Doesn’t Matter.

Structurally this is less complex than Legacy of Thorn, limiting itself to flashbacks of Carlton Layton’s cuckolding – although all is not as it seems, even here. What appears at first to be a straightforward coulrophobic slasher turns out to have layers that are revealed in the third act. Not everyone is who we assume they are, or doing what we assume they’re doing. Plus of course there’s plenty of blood, decapitation and screaming. Interestingly, MJ doesn’t feel the need to play too much on Cleaver’s appearance. Where other clown-slashers might feel the need to show as much of their villain as possible, Cleaver lurks in the shadows. The prologue in particular is a very effective use of keeping clown imagery in the background and thereby actually increasing the horror.

Andrew M Greenwood, who played Cleaver in Slasher House, reprises the role here. The solid cast also includes Pat Higgins regular Cy Henty as Mary-Beth’s dad (in an impressive comedy Frankenstein outfit) and Emma Wilde as her mom, plus Vicki Glover (Killersaurus) as Carley’s room-mate. Dean Sills (The Railway Carriage), Chan Walrus (Terror Telly) and the mighty Jason Impey are among a small battalion of associate producers and co-producers.

Although I probably enjoyed Legacy of Thorn slightly more, I think Cleaver is a more mature picture, with MJ honing his craft as his career progresses. It's certainly a cut above what the basic premise - nutter dressed as clown stalks town on Halloween - would suggest. Onwards and upwards now to Hollower and, after that, Slasher House 2.

MJS rating: B+

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Seven Magnificent Gladiators

Director: Bruno Mattei
Writer: Claudio Fragasso
Producer: Alexander Hacohen (on screen), Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus (on box)
Cast: Lou Ferrigno, Sybil Danning, Brad Harris, Dan Vadis
Year of release: 1983
Country: Italy
Reviewed from: UK video (Guild, 1985)

The title, I Sette Magnifici Gladiatori, says it all really: this is The Magnificent Seven in Ancient Rome. The marvelously named Dan Vadis is the villainous Nicerote, all cape and codpiece, who holds a village in fear through regular raiding parties with his bandits. The local priestess (Nicerote’s mother) sends village girl Pandora (Carla Ferrigno) to Rome, equipped with a magic sword, to find one suitable to wield it.

That one turns out to be Barbarian slave, former Incredible Hulk and Carla’s hubby, Lou Ferrigno, who defeats Centurion Brad Harris in a chariot race but defies the Emperor’s order to slay his opponent. Lou and Brad gather five compatriots including the glorious Sybil Danning (also in another Magnificent Seven rip-off, Battle Beyond the Stars) whose costumes are worth the price of admission alone.

Once the seven arrive at the village, the film sticks slavishly (as it were!) to its source - which was of course itself an unofficial remake of The Seven Samurai - with Nicerote driven off then returning for a final showdown, resulting in the deaths of four of the seven.

An unashamed attempt by Cannon to recreate 1960s Italian pepla, this generally works and is undemanding fun. Stars Harris (The Fury of Hercules, Goliath Against the Giants) and Vadis (Triumph of Hercules) provide a direct link to the original subgenre, and both still stand up well, though they were 50 and 45 when this film was made (Vadis died a few years later). Director Mattei, though better known for stuff like Zombie Creeping Flesh (also written by Fragasso, whose later works include the dire Troll 2) and SS Experiment Camp, actually started out as an editor on films like Spartacus and the Ten Gladiators (which starred Dan Vadis).

Danning, Ferrigno and Harris worked together on another latter-day peplum for Cannon - Luigi Cozzi’s Hercules, shot the same year. Also watch out for Mandy Rice-Davies, of Profumo scandal notoriety, as the Emperor’s favourite.

With Ferrigno’s torso vying for screen time with Danning’s cleavage, there truly is something here for everybody to enjoy.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 20th March 2005

Thursday, 16 June 2016

interview: Francois Reumont

Francois Reumont directed the excellent short horror film Dans la Nuit (aka At Night) which played Leicester as support to David Cronenberg’s Spider in March 2003. This e-mail mini-interview was done a couple of weeks later.

How did you raise the funds to make this film? Did you have any assistance from any national or European funds?
“As it says on the last line of the French language credits, ‘this film has been made without any kind of support’ - which is true. This is a statement I wanted to spread, especially for those who love fantasy movies and who are desperately seeking money every year to make their own films. Maybe to give them hope, and to show that this is possible, and that you don’t always have to wait for money from French institutions to shoot your own project.

“Of course I tried to raise money from every one of these people like the CNC (National Centre for Cinema) or the different French regions, but no one was interested in the script. As I knew more or less how things were going to go (French commissions are always reluctant to deal with true genre movies) I decided first to shoot the film on my own money, which meant 10 years of savings, and professional relations with the movie industry (working as a DP). The final budget of the film was around 22,500 Euros.”

How has a short French film made its way to Leicester? This is very unusual.
“Because of the connections I made in festivals around Europe in 2002. To cut a long story short, I met a British TV producer (Howard Martin, who makes the TV show outThere) at the Malmo Fantastic Film Festival. He liked the film very much, and after a couple of days watching films and drinking beers together with the other guests, he suggested that I send a tape to Alan Alderson-Smith at Leicester Phoenix Arts for his short film program. Alan sent me his agreement, and the copy was sent to the UK for a week in March 2003.”

[outThere is a late-night show on Channel 5 which features clips of extraordinary movies available on VHS and DVD in the UK. It was presented by 'Eden' for one series and then by Emily Booth from series two. I had the pleasure of meeting producer Howard Martin at Phoenix Arts when an episode of outThere was shown as support to the UK premiere of Ghosts of Mars at the first Far Out Film Festival in 2001. - MJS]

Was your cinematography work on other films just a step to directing? Which do you prefer and why?
“As a matter of fact I don’t really believe in all the classifications people use in the movie/commercials/TV industry. I like to think myself as a movie-maker, exactly at the same level as a production designer, an actor or a producer. Of course you don’t use the same skill doing all these different jobs, but at the end you converge towards the same goal: telling an audiovisual story. So that’s why I still work as a DP, and I keep enjoying it, exactly as an actor/director can go back to acting in someone else’s film.

“For me, working as a DP was just one way of getting experience over a lot of critical fields in terms of movie-making: learning how to use a camera of course, and how to frame or to light a set, but also keeping as close as possible to the acting experience, and even how to get the best from the smallest budget. I must assume for example that working as a DP on more than 30 short films since I left school in 1991 has been a huge help in terms of production managing, and knowing how to control your expenses. Something that I used a lot on my own film, since I was spending my own money!”

I spotted some thanks in the end credits: J Carpenter, PK Dick, a few others - how have these men influenced you?
“Yes, I wanted to put a little ‘coup de chapeau’ (tip of the hat) on the end credit to these guys because they are surely one of the main influences in that particular script. First Stephen King - for the general mood of the story, and the character of the mum (the model was Cathy Bates in Misery, so that’s the reason her first name is in the movie). Then John Carpenter - when he works on the King theme on his masterpiece In the Mouth of Madness. The accident scene is definitely an homage to this film. Stanley Kubrick - for the ‘Bring a blanket-bring a blanket...’ book, another nod to King’s The Shining, and of course Philip K Dick for the multiple levels of reality, and altered perceptions of it, which lead us to all the nightmarish structure of the film (Ubik).”

What do you think of David Cronenberg's Spider?
“I saw it in Cannes last year, and I was very happy with it. It was one of the best films I saw there, along with Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (a Death Wish movie told in reverse). I was very glad and honoured to be presented as support to this film in Leicester, as Cronenberg is one of my favourite directors. What’s more, I just had the pleasure of conducting a very long interview about Spider with Peter Suschistky, Cronenberg’s British cinematographer, last September for a French magazine that I write for, Le Technicien du Film.”

What will your next film be?
Bonne question! I don’t know yet, but some French producers saw Dans la Nuit and asked me for a feature treatment on the basis of the same atmosphere. I’m actually working on it with my fellow scriptwriter. (I’m not the mythical French ‘auteur’; being director and screenwriter can work for the best but more often for the worst...) And so that’s why things take time. I never really learned movie-making from a writing angle, I work much more on the visual side of it, as I was explaining in the first answer. I would have liked so much to find a good, ready made horror/thriller script, but screenwriters are so difficult to find round here...!”

interview originally published before November 2004

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

interview: Mike Regan

In April 2006 I had a great time hanging out with Mike Regan, Mitch Coughlin and Blake Bolger on the set of Pumpkinhead III. I remember Mike saying, “Come and hang out in the make-up effects trailer - it’s the coolest place to be.” And it was. A couple of months later I did a phone interview with Mike.

Did you, Mitch and Blake volunteer for this or did you get assigned to go out to Romania?
"A little bit of both. All three of us were on the build at Gary Tunnicliffe’s shop. We’ve all worked for Gary before and we’ve all been out to Romania before. I was in mainly because I did the mechanics. Having worked for Gary before, he chose me because I could repair and I’d been out here before so he trusts me. I’ve worked for him for ten years. Mitch, same thing: he’s been working for Gary a long time and done a couple of projects in Romania. And Blake, just being an extra hand and being someone he could rely on who had been out here before. So those were kind of the criteria: people he was comfortable sending out here to take care of this."

Howe long were you out there for?
"I think Mitch was there a week longer than us but it’s been about two months. We flew out on 11th March, this is the end of May and we’re flying back tomorrow. Mitch was out the week before us so about ten weeks."

Let’s talk a bit about the suit. How heavy is it?
"That’s always kind of a tricky one because it’s different pieces. If you’re talking about the suit, the stilt variety, the stilts themselves are pretty heavy but it was made that way. You can’t really walk in them, they were bolted down long legs. Then the normal, walking around version, you have a foam suit and the head. I think the head is maybe six to eight pounds and the suit itself is about the same, maybe ten. It’s kind of hard to tell, the way it’s spread out over your body. The mechanical head is the heavy part. The stunt head’s not too heavy because there’s really nothing in it."

Are there several complete suits or do you just mix and match pieces?
"It’s kind of two complete suits. Basically we knew, this time around, that Romania wasn’t really going to give us the option of wire work for walking. The suit was built as one suit that’s a head-to-toe thing with the leg extensions and everything. There’s the option to have one leg free. You can take one step at the start of a walk. Then there’s a second suit that is right down to the performer’s feet and then basically you walk on a two-foot high platform that simulates the height of the legs. That allows you to frame the performer from his ankles to the top of the head. Of those two configurations, the hands could be swapped from one to the other, the head obviously could be swapped back and forth. It’s basically all overlapping pieces. There’s legs, a torso that fits from crotch to shoulders, hands that cover the arms - and a head. So two suits that are different configurations."

Is Pumpkinhead actually in the films much? How much use did the suits get?
"It was pretty active. I think the shoots were 25 days each or something. I know on Jake West’s film we pretty much shot every day with maybe just a day here or there off. And I think on Mike Hurst’s film Mike had a different shooting style and he tended to backload a lot of Pumpkinhead shots. There would be days when all we did was Pumpkinhead stuff and I think we had about a week off towards the end. That was to allow them time to shoot a lot of the dialogue stuff before doing the finale which was out in the rain so they wanted that to be the very last day, in case the suit was damaged."

Has the suit been knocked about a lot?
"It’s taken some damage but it’s survived enough. We have to take it back to LA and scan it. I think the CG guy Stephen is slated for about ten shots in each film of the CG Pumpkinhead, which will take care of things like emerging from a burning church, some walking shots or climbing up onto the roof. Things like that, we just couldn’t do in a suit. To the CG guy’s credit, I talked with him a lot about physical stuff and he’s in favour of using physical as much as possible or augmenting physical with digital. I asked him about how they do the digital and he said the model is basically going to be built the way we would do a suit. It’s going to be scanned from the suit so his hope is that, being based on the suit it should pretty much look like the suit. Hopefully you won’t be able to tell the difference." [You can. You really can. - MJS[

How do you actually go about shipping something like that from the USA to Romania and back? Any problems with customs?
"No, not really. A lot of the suit pieces were shipped out in crates, along with the other artefacts and supplies we needed. We took a couple of pieces with us but usually when they run them through X-ray machines it doesn’t show up because it’s foam. Occasionally they’ll ask us to open stuff, like the head could look weird because of all the wires in it. But you’d be surprised, usually when you open up stuff in an airport, people are kind of interested: ‘That’s cool. What’s that?’ It’s always fun."

Apart from Pumpkinhead himself, what other effects have you had to do?
"In both films we’ve done the new version of Haggis, the witch who resurrects Pumpkinhead. Obviously lots of blood and guts and killing. We did some transformation stuff for Lance Henriksen because in one of the films the idea is that, because he was the last one to summon Pumpkinhead then his remains are obviously used to bring it back to life. There’s an intermediate stage where it appears as Lance and then goes from there into Pumpkinhead. So we did transformation pieces for that. There’s a beheading, lots of things getting squashed."

How long did Haggis’ make-up take to apply?
"The very first application was three and a half to four hours and towards the end it was down to about three. It’s a three-piece make-up and then a hairpiece."

When I was out there you were burying skeletons in mud, which looked like the least glamorous thing you could do on a film set.
"Pretty much, yes. They always say that it never rains in June here and it seems that whenever we’re here in June it just won’t stop raining. We’ve had lots of wallowing around in mud that we really didn’t plan on doing. This morning, to celebrate the end of filming, I actually threw away the pair of shoes that I wore: they are just beyond repair. But burying skeletons in mud is part of the plotline in III. The doctor of the town, in order to subsidise his free medical care to the community, he’s harvesting organs and stuff from people in the town that die rather than giving them proper burials. Obviously, when a family member discovers this they decide to call up Pumpkinhead because they don’t realise it’s the doctor, they think it’s this family which owns the mortuary. They decide to get revenge for the improper treatment of their kin.

"The skeletons in the bog are the remains of the people; the furnace hasn’t worked so they bury them in the bog. So yes, my glamorous task was to hunker down and make it look like they’ve been buried there for a while. The problem was actually pulling them back out and cleaning them off. The worst part of it wasn’t even that. We had an actor on it who basically is submerged in it, to represent them disposing of bodies. They submerge him in it - and I can tell you, that actor was coughing up real bog water that got up his nose and into other places where you wouldn’t want water."

Did Jake and Mike both work well with you guys?
"They both have very different shooting styles. Mike tends to be very fast and have a very clear train of thought and vision. Jake tends to be a bit more artistic and sometimes it was tough to know exactly what he wanted until he was there and had seen something. I think maybe the short schedule hampered his style. He would have a grand vision of something and have to cut back to get it done in the time he had. But I saw a cut trailer for it and it looks fun so it will be interesting to see how they both turn out. I’m hoping they’ll be a lot of fun.”

Sunday, 12 June 2016

interview: Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray

Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray, son of Fred Olen Ray, gave me this e-mail interview in February 2007 after I reviewed his short film Time of My Life.

What circumstances led to the production of Time of My Life?
“Well, it actually was the most affordable short I could come up with. For a first time director I just wanted to see if I was able, ‘cause I am willing.”

What did you set out to achieve with this film and how well do you think you managed it?
“Wanted to show others what I could do. For a budget of 3K I feel like I accomplished exactly what I set out to do.”

What have you learned over the years from your dad and/or from working on his films?
“Patience. Lots of it. The willingness to adapt and overcome problems as they arise. But the key thing is to try and keep the cast and crew as happy as possible.”

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the ‘Olen Ray’ name, and any perceptions that might go with it, in trying to make it in the film business?
“Well that’s a good one. I have been asked recently if there was any relation. I guess the person I was meeting with was a fan of my dad’s. So I spent the next half hour talking about him. When I sit down and think about it there really isn’t any downside to it. He has been doing this for so long that people assume I have picked up something along the way.”

Why is now the right time for you to start making your own films?
“Well I have been trying to do something for the last two years. Just wasn’t happening. As a family, myself and my wife Robyn, we decided I needed some sort of reel to show. It wasn’t a matter of why now but why didn’t I do this sooner. I work for the government as an editor/photographer, so I travel a lot. That still is an issue but I am working it out.”

Now you’ve got my money, what are you going to do with it?
“We are working on a script now called Shadow of a Doubt. Don’t want to talk too much about it. As it stands right now we have raised a little over 2K. We are hoping to have raised enough money some time by this summer to start pre. We will see...”

Interview originally posted 4th February 2007

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Grave Matters

Director: Aimee Stephenson
Writer: Aimee Stephenson
Producers: Tim Jackson, Guy J Louthan
Cast: Kate Vernon, Steve Parrish, Tim DeZarn
Country: UK
Year of release: 2004
Reviewed from: US DVD

This early entry in the BHR has been on my wants list for a while. Eventually I got round to picking up a DVD off eBay and gave it a spin. Two things struck me. First, it doesn’t feel very British. Set in the American deep south, with an American cast, if you weren’t warned in advance that this is a British film, you wouldn’t know. The only clue is some London post-production credits at the end. That’s not a problem.

The other thing that struck me is that this is actually a bloody brilliant film. It’s a beautifully scripted, slickly directed thriller with an intrinsic supernatural element. From the brief synopsis I’d read I expected it to be something of a black comedy but actually it’s played straight, albeit with a jet-black streak of wry cynicism. It reminded me very much of the sort of thing that Joe R Lansdale writes, and fuller praise I could not give.

Christine (Kate Vernon, later in Battlestar Galactica) and Mike (Steve Parrish: Scanners III) are a young married couple, living in a small house in Shitsville, in the shadow of a huge chemical plant. They were in love once but now they mostly argue. She dreams of something better, he’s a sexist, arrogant pig. But they’re both equally concerned when they discover a dead body in their yard.

Christine wants to call the cops but Mike has been in trouble with the police before so they wrap the body in bin liners and bury it out back. Before they do so, Mike checks for ID and finds none but does extract an envelope from the corpse’s pocket, containing a list of names.

A little later, as tensions heat up between Mike and Christine, something snaps inside her and she goes crazy, battering her husband to death. Repentant, shocked and frightened, Christine wraps Mike in bin liners, redigs the hole and dumps him on top of the other corpse.

…So it’s a big shock when Mike reappears, clean and uninjured. As a ghost, he is no less abusive and mean than he was in life, perhaps even more so because he is now invulnerable. He has enough corporeality to grab Christine, but can also jump from place to place or change his appearance. He is also able to [spoilers on] converse with a silent, ghostly figure that Christine has glimpsed in the yard and hence he has discovered that this (ie. the first body in the impromptu grave) is a cop that she was having an affair with. This accusation prompts Christine to admit that she killed the cop when she discovered he wasn’t a nice guy who could take her away from all this but was just a lothario cheating on his own wife.

Before Mike died, he had picked up stories from work about a detective snooping around, asking questions. This is Chief Coveleski (Tim DeZarn, who played different characters in episodes of DS9, TNG and Voyager) who now comes knocking on Christine’s door. He suspects that she might be the woman his colleague was having an affair with before disappearing. Putting two and two together, he surmises that Mike probably found out about the affair, killed the cop and then did a runner. This isn’t true of course, but would exonerate Christine of the first murder. The results of which are currently buried underneath the body of her second victim.

And that second victim, whom she can see and hear but Coveleski can’t, is distracting and unnerving her while she’s trying to concoct answers to the detective’s questions that sound plausible but aren’t either (a) true or (b) potentially incriminatory. Adding to the complexity is that Coveleski is operating outside of the law. He doesn’t want to bring the cop’s murderer to justice, he just wants to locate the corpse so he can get his hands on the envelope. (We never find out what the list of names means. It doesn’t matter. [spoilers off] It’s a MacGuffin.)

I debated whether I should spoiler protect the details of the plot, given that almost no-one has seen this film which is long out of print. And then I thought hell yes, because I really, really want you to see this film. I want people to get it off eBay or Amazon Marketplace. Ultimately it would be awesome if a distributor could pick it up and give it a really good reissue. It was only ever released in the States, Maybe a UK label could get the rights, give it a digital remaster and add a producer commentary and whatever extras they can generate. (All the US disc has is trailers for this and a couple of unrelated films.)

Throughout Grave Matters there’s a sense of oppressive heat, from the baking sun in the day and from the clouds of steam and smoke emanating from the chemical plant at night. This is a hot, sweaty, claustrophobic film: atmosphere in spades, pressing down on all the characters. Well, I say all, there’s really only three main ones. (Robert Firth provides a couple of phone voices.) I love the way the plot twists; I love the conflicting ideals and motives of the characters, none of whom are particularly nice; I love the integration of the supernatural with the criminal. Although it’s clear that Mike’s ghost is real, by the end of the film I found myself questioning whether it actually was real after all, or whether the whole thing is psychological in nature. That’s the sign of a good ghost story, right there.

A 1996/2001 dual copyright date suggests this was filmed (as Dead Dog Blues) in the mid-nineties and finally finished off in post five years later. There is mention of how Christine had a dog which Mike beat and kicked, and that this hound was hit and killed by a car. A cutaway later in the picture shows a dead dog by the side of the road but that is presumably just random roadkill. And in one scene two local dogs get into the yard and start digging up the grave. So it’s clear that dogs featured more prominently in an earlier version of the script, possibly even in an earlier cut of the movie.

And regarding ‘blues’, there is a fine soundtrack of old Lightnin’ Hopkins numbers which I absolutely loved – and not just because they added extra layers to the atmosphere and setting.

Experienced DP Sidney Siddell lit the picture under his occasional nom-de-screen Jerry Siddell (but is credited as Sidney in the cast list; he appears in silhouette as a nosy neighbour). Producer Guy J Louthan had been working since the mid-1980s as production manager, producer and sometimes 1st AD on a range of features including Doppelganger, Jaume Balaguero’s Darkness and Fear of a Black Hat (and later, Seed of Chucky). Production designer Jordan Steinberg is a set dresser whose recent credits include Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Parks and Recreation. Costume designer Esther Lee has Hollywood costumer credits on the likes of Bridesmaids and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Film editor Jennifer Mangan (aka Jennifer Spenelli) has subsequently amassed an impressive roster of credits including the first Harry Potter, the Italian Job remake, Ghost Rider and Divergent.

The legendary Gary J Tunnicliffe provided the special effects make-up. The almost as legendary Neill Gorton provided the dead dog.

The earliest screening of this film that I know of, under its original title, was at Exofest 4 in Detroit in November 2003. My BHR masterlist has a note of an unidentified screening in November 2001 but that could be my typo. March 2004 was the date of the one and only DVD release, courtesy of York Entertainment (under the new title, with a misleading sleeve image and hyperbolic blurb). Moviehouse Entertainment, who had (perhaps still have) the distribution rights also considered selling this as The Burial. The IMDB lists it as a 2004 film which is just plain wrong, but then it also says this runs 90 minutes when it’s actually 70. And director Aimee Stephenson’s name is spelled wrong: it’s a PH, not a V.

Now I may be wrong on this, but I believe that Dead Dog Blues could be the first ever British horror film directed by a woman. So this is a significant – as well as terrific – movie. But who is Aimee Stephenson? A little journalistic searching revealed that the question should be “Who was…” as Ms Stephenson is no longer with us. And her death was as awful as it was bizarre.

Born in October 1956, Janet Aimee Stephenson started out as a model and actress before moving into film-making. Do you have the 1980 Roxy Music album Flesh and Blood in your collection? If not, no matter because here’s a jpeg of the sleeve. The nearest of the two girls is Aimee Stephenson. In the 1980s Aimee and her boyfriend Tim Jackson (producer of Dead Dog Blues) worked in the States on some Roger Corman productions although I don’t know which ones. In 1991 they teamed up with a guy called Sean Manchester who had written a non-fiction book about the so-called ‘Highgate Vampire’. The plan was to make a documentary, and possibly a narrative feature film, about the subject but it never came to anything for various reasons.

Loser was a short film directed by Tim, produced by Aimee in 2000: “On the run and escaping the past, Eddie and Alice have to confront their future together.” Aimee is apparently credited as script editor on a 2005 drama called Mouth to Mouth but that script must have been in development for a while as she was no longer with us by then.

In 2001 Aimee and Tim were in Peru, researching a book. The luggage hold of the bus they were travelling on contained some illegal fireworks which caught fire and exploded. Aimee caught the full brunt of the flames and suffered 48% third degree burns to her face, arms, legs and torso. Tim and 17 other passengers were also very badly burned. Despite her appalling injuries, the ambulance which arrived would only take Peruvians with Peruvian medical insurance. A promised second ambulance never turned up so the attending doctor drove them in his car more than a hundred miles to the nearest hospital. After a week there, Aimee was flown home (via Switzerland) to Salisbury – where she shortly passed away. I can’t imagine the pain she must have gone through, or what Tim Jackson and her other friends and family must have suffered watching her agony.

Aimee Stephenson never saw the DVD release of Grave Matters. She joins Andrew Hull (Siren) and Charly Cantor (Blood) on the short list of directors who made one British horror film then passed away absurdly young before it could be released. What Aimee left us is a brilliant, gripping, imaginative, powerfully cinematic movie that has barely been seen and never been written about. I can’t find a single review, under either title, online or among my magazine collection. There are a couple of comments on the IMDB and one on Amazon, but they’re pretty dismissive. There is precisely one still online (above, from the British Council website) and no trailer. Just like Blood (I haven’t seen Siren yet) the departed director has left a fine legacy in their single work which is waiting to be rediscovered and fully appreciated.

I honestly can’t recall the last serious film I enjoyed as much as Grave Matters. It’s an utterly brilliant movie and I wish more people knew about it. And about the woman who made it.

MJS rating: A

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

interview: Robert Pratten (2006)

In June 2006, two years after our first interview, Robert Pratten sent me some photos of preparations for his second film, MindFlesh (adapted from the Buddhist horror novel White Light by William Scheinman). He also kindly answered some e-mail questions about the project.

What made you want to film this book and have closely have you followed it? (Presumably you have moved the story from San Francisco to London...)
“I met Bill (the author) in Phoenix at the World Horror Convention in 2004. I read a couple of his short stories and they were brilliant. I asked for more and liked them and when Bill told me he was working on a novel I said I wanted to be the first to read it! So, around November or December 2004 when I got Bill’s novel White Light, I just couldn't put it down and I called him to option it straight away. Since then I've been working on the adaptation to the screen, moving the story from San Fran to London  - which was easy - and translating the characters' thinking and internal dialogue to visual images and actions - which was hard!

“Then, at Cannes 2005, a producer and I pitched the project to Thai production companies to get the film made out in Bangkok. We struck lucky and on July 7th, while the bombs were going off in London, I was in Bangkok discussing how we were going to shoot the film there - having rewritten the script and set it in Thailand. By November 2005 it became clear that, although we had half the money from Thailand, the other half from the US wasn't going to come through and I decided I would shoot in London again! So it's been a long process but I have to say quite an enjoyable and exciting one.”

What exactly is ‘Buddhist horror’?
“Well, I could say ‘anything horrific written by a Buddhist’ which sounds like I'm being a smartarse but I mean it's a horror film or novel by someone with a different world view - a Buddhist point of view. There are various Buddhist views expressed in the film but I guess the key one is the idea that our minds create our own reality and that a single thought can change our environment. Bill is actually a bona fide practising Buddhist who, among other things, teaches meditation to prisoners in San Francisco. I'd like to be a Buddhist but I'm just not disciplined enough!”

What cast/crew names can you give me at this stage?
”The lead male role hasn't been cast yet but we do have our goddess - a French actress called Carole Derrien - and Chris Fairbank (Alien3, The Bunker) will play a character called Verdain who's a rather nasty parapsychologist. On the crew side, I'm delighted to have Patrick Jackson (London Voodoo) on cinematography, Arban Severin (Steven Severin's missus) composing and, of course, Sangeet Prabhaker as our prosthetics wizard!”

With the monster, why have you gone for a good old-fashioned suit instead of the CGI that one might expect?
“However much money you spend on CGI, the monsters still look like CGI monsters. With prosthetics I can get a monster that better integrates with the photography but also with the action. Inside the suit is an actress called Charlotte Milchard who is absolutely fantastic. It's still early stages - there's about another three weeks of work on the suit - but Sangeet and his team (Satinder Chumber, Andy Fordham and James Adams) have crafted a work of art. It's been very rewarding discussing the character and backstory of the creature and seeing how Sangeet has interpreted that into his sculpture.”

What did you learn from London Voodoo that you are able to apply to this project?
“Well, everything really - none of that experience is lost. What's different about MindFlesh is that it's very effects heavy including stuff shot against green screen so technically that's interesting and challenging in equal measure.”

When do you expect to start shooting and when might we expect to see the finished film?
“First day of photography is October 2nd 2006 but I'm aiming for a January 2008 release date. It'll take about a year in post-production - probably about six months just rendering the effects!”

interview originally posted 23rd June 2006

Behind the scene on Mindflesh

interview: Robert Pratten (2004)

Robert Pratten wrote, directed and produced one of the best British horror films of recent years, London Voodoo. I spoke with him by phone on 16th April 2004; part of this interview appeared in Fangoria but most of it has not been seen before. (Two years later, I interviewed Rob again as he prepared his second feature, MindFlesh.)

Where did the original idea for London Voodoo come from?
"I think the original idea came from the murders in the Thames. They dragged up a young boy’s body who was the victim of a ritualistic killing. That got me interested in investigating bit more. As I looked into voodoo, which people were saying it was first off, I found not the religion that’s often shown in films as being nasty and evil, but a religion that provides comfort to a lot of people. And I thought, maybe I can take a look at this and do something different with it."

Were you looking for a subject for a horror film at the time?
"Yes, I wanted to make a horror film."

Something that you could do without a lot of effects and make-up?
"Yes, exactly. I was thinking in terms of the development of the genre, and some of the earliest films I like are by Roman Polanski like Rosemary’s Baby. If you look at it, the genre went through the slasher period of the 1980s and then we were getting these comedy parodies and so on. So I thought: where do I go? I don’t want to keep making stuff more and more violent, so why don’t I go back and try and do something that looks back, with a bit of suspense and intrigue, rather than have all the gore and violence right in your face."

Is there a bit of a Val Lewton influence there?
"I don’t know. We went travelling. We went to Miami, to New Orleans obviously and to Cuba. What we found in Cuba and Miami particularly was Santaria, which is a kind of offshoot of voodoo. People have integrated it as part of their lives. I thought, well, this is the voodoo that I want to show; not the voodoo of The Serpent and the Rainbow. I didn’t want to do that kind of thing because it was set in London and I couldn’t have people rushing around cutting the heads off chickens. I needed to find a new way in. I tried to find the spiritual side of voodoo, rather than the shock tactic of voodoo."

How long did you spend researching voodoo before you wrote the script?
"It went on in conjunction to be honest. It started off with just the few bits I knew, with a little bit of web research. Then I continued to write it as we went travelling and investigated, and in the first draft of the script, which was probably after about three or four months, one of the people who reviewed the script said, ‘It reads like a voodoo handbook’! So I had to cut back a bit on the voodoo and stick more with the plot and the main characters. So in total it took about nine months to finish the script and sixteen drafts."

The people with knowledge of voodoo that you spoke to, what did they think about their beliefs being the basis for a horror movie? Were they a bit cautious?
"Oh yes! Absolutely, because as a group they feel much maligned. Every voodoo film that comes out shows them as these evil types. When we got talking, we actually interviewed a white voodoo priest called Ross Hagen. He’s quite well-known in voodoo circles! In fact he’s the only properly initiated voodoo priest in Britain and he’s been very supportive of the project. In fact on the DVD there’s a twenty-minute interview with him. We went to interview him, the documentary unit, and then we’ve intercut his interview with bits from the film. In the film we don’t really explain the voodoo as such, we just get on with the story. then if you look at this interview, the significance of some of the things they do is revealed in that. He’s been quite supportive, particularly because we are showing it to be a religion that gives people comfort in their lives."

Where did you get your funding?
"It’s financed privately. We mortgaged our house to provide the bulk of it. My wife is a chartered accountant and she’s quite well connected with different people. We put together the script and a selection of the short films I’ve made as a package, then we went and got that. Once we had Steven Severin on board things moved a lot faster because he was somebody outside our circle of friends that had faith in the project. To be honest, it really gathered momentum from that moment on."

How did you get Steve Severin on board?
"I used to be a punk before I went into corporate life, so I’ve always been a Siouxsie fan. I was listening to the Join Hands album; there’s a track on there called ‘Icons’ with pounding drums and I was listening to that as I was writing the script. I thought, what about Steven Severin - this is right up his street, if you look at the different themes which are explored in Siouxsie and the Banshees’ music. So I e-mailed him via his website, just a four-line thing saying, ‘I’m doing this film about love and sacrifice and it involves voodoo in London.’ It was a long while because they were touring at the time, but he got back to me - I was amazed he even responded. I’d forgotten about it and got on with the script. He said, ‘Oh yes, I might be interested. Send me the script.’ So I sent him the script and he got back to me and said, ‘It’s refreshingly clear of all the usual clich├ęs. I’m interested - let’s meet up.’ Then when we met up we found we both liked the films of Nicolas Roeg and David Lynch so we had stuff to talk about. Then what we did: in the film there’s a couple of montage sequences and Steven wrote the music before we did any filming on those. Then I was able to listen to that and think of different images before we went into filming, so it’s been quite a collaborative thing in that regard."

Where did you find your cast and crew?
"The crew is mainly friends of mine from film school and other people we’ve worked with on short films together. The cast, some of the supporting roles like Roy Hollett who plays one of the builders, Steve Halloran who plays the boss, they were the best actors from the short films that I’ve made. But the leads - Doug, Sara, Vonda - we auditioned them. We went through the Spotlight casting directory, looking for people with film experience and then had them in for an audition."

What sort of short films had you done?
"A mix really, because I was at the London Film School for two years so I’ve made seven in total. Three at the film school as part of the curriculum and then another four afterwards on DV or super-16. They’re a mix, they’re not really out and out horror films but there’s a couple there that look at spirituality, life and death and suchlike. But nothing that you could stick on the DVD! I treated those really as training exercises because when I gave up work, I gave it up to make a feature film. I knew that was what I was getting into so I just tried to make as many films as possible and explore different things each time I made one."

Did you shoot the feature on DV or film?
"We shot on super-16 then all our rushes were telecine-ed and put in the computer at home here. What we did was we edited in Avid Xpress DV and we output the cut film onto DVD and VHS in order to do the test screenings. Then we output the EDL, the edit decision list, the negative was cut and that was scanned at high def into a computer in Switzerland, professionally graded and then printed back to 35mm. So now what you see doesn’t resemble DV, now it looks like we definitely shot on film, thank goodness."

There’s a lot of night-time stuff where the cinematography is crucial.
"Exactly. It looks really nice now and we’ve got a Dolby digital surround track - so when the bass comes in, you really feel it! It’s a different experience in the theatre!"

There’s a British horror film revival. Do you feel part of that?
"Yes, I do. I think it’s good to be part of that. I’ve already started writing my next one and that’s going to be a British horror. I think it’s good and I hope that the revival continues."

Did you want this to be a distinctly British film?
"Yes, I did. I’m from London obviously and I think one of the ways that film-makers make their films original is by drawing on things from their past experience. Sometimes I think people try to be original but their stuff is so quirky, so original that no-one can relate to it. So I think just drawing on your own personal experience, that makes it original enough - to have stuff in there that audiences can relate to and yet still use the genre framework. Bodies in the basement, possession - they’re things that followers of horror films look forward to seeing and they want to see how you’ve done it different this time. So that’s what I tried to mix in."

What reaction have you had from screenings?
"It’s been really good. The best thing we did was a test screening back in September. There was 160 people, mainly horror fans with a mixture of goths and Swedes thrown in as well. They anonymously filled out questionnaires and we asked them about the pacing, which scenes they liked, and so on. We cut about another five to seven minutes from the film, mainly from the start of the film, before we committed to the final edit. And that helped no end! The last screening we did was in Phoenix at the World Horror Convention last weekend and people were coming up and shaking my hand going, ‘Outstanding!’ We’ve mainly showed it in the States and they really like it."

Is that because it’s so British?
"I think it’s partly that. We thought that the reaction would be good because 28 Days Later had done so well. But the reaction we’re getting is not so much because it’s British but because it’s - to quote one reviewer - ‘going back to the glory days.’ People in Phoenix, what they said they liked is that it credits the viewer with some intelligence. That’s what they really like about it; somebody taking their genre seriously and not tongue-in-cheek with a little wink at the camera: ‘Of course this is all nonsense.’ That’s really the type of film I wanted to make. I wanted to make a serious film, although there’s light-hearted moments in it, but I wanted to try to be as realistic as possible - like the Polanski ones."

You’ve got this deal with Heretic. What other deals have you got?
"No-one else as yet. We started the screenings in America then we’re spiralling out. We’ve had a good reaction in the UK but we’ve not signed with anyone yet. We’re still talking with different people. And the same is true with international sales. Bearing in mind that we only printed the 35mm at the end of January so it’s literally hot off the press."

What’s your next film?
"I don’t want to say too much about the plot yet because I know from before that when you’re developing the idea it changes quite a lot. But it’s definitely a horror movie with a little bit of science fiction, and it’s set in England again; not London but the green belt somewhere. At the moment I’ve done about 90% of the script - but it’s the other 10% which takes 90% of the work. What happens is you find a lot of half-baked ideas; some get thrown out and some get baked through fully!"

interview originally posted 9th August 2005