Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Deliver Me - Shoot Diary - Day Four

8.15pm We're back outside the hall location. It's absolutely freezing and we've got a whole scene to do out here, but we're having problems with lights. Cooke wants a backlight on MyAnna, but we can't run a cable across the (very busy) road, so he ends up sweet-talking the owner of a house to let us borrow some electricity to run a 150W lamp for an hour or so. (When I say borrow, I mean he promises her twenty quid. Good job we're not out here all night, or we'd have spent all our contingency.)

Earlier we did a couple of shots on a bus, which we managed to get for free from Nottingham City Transport, who were very amenable and were happy to take us round whichever route we wanted. I know that sounds like an advert, but I'm just surprised that they were so accommodating. Maybe it's the spirit of Christmas...

12.00 midnight. We're in the hall, setting up to film the extras for the opening scene. To save time - because we lose MyAnna at 4.30 today - she's catching a plane to see her Mum for Christmas and can't leave any later - I've changed the shot from a track to a pan. By strategically placing the extras, we've managed to make the hall look slightly more full than it is, and thanks to some great lighting by Cooke and some great performances by the extras, the shots look great.

Then it's on to do the most complicated shot of the night - a track back, jib down, zoom out, pull focus from an ECU of a brass crucifix on stage, down past the healer's bowed head (managing to not knock her out with the jib head by having her crouch down out of shot and stand up on cue so that it looks like she's always been there) and down onto a big close up of the man being healed. We do a couple of rehearsals - John Ross jibbing, Cooke zooming and focusing and me tracking back - partially because it's the only way to see the monitor - and then we run four takes. The last two are good, but still a little wobbly, so we do one more. I track back a little faster, managing to (hopefully) merge the speed of the track with the speed of Cooke's zoom out and it looks great - perfect end framing. The whole thing's still a bit wobbly, but I've come to accept with these shots that it's part of the deal. The other way to do them would be with a computer controlled camera, but there's something about doing things 'live' - having to have three operators all in sync - that is really exciting and really reminds me of why I want to make films in the first place.

7.10am Back at home. We wrapped on time - the only fuck-up being that we nearly lost some of Glenn's dialogue due to extremely loud birdsong - and MyAnna left in time to get her plane. We had to stay behind to clear the location and restring all the Christmas decorations in the hall, which took ages (although, to be fair, I wasn't really doing anything, squeezing the last few dregs of Director's Privilege out of the situation before I go back to not having people do things for me anymore). Then it was back to Tina's to drop off the kit before coming home.

I thought I'd feel exhausted, but tonight I actually felt pretty awake - maybe it's my body clock getting in sync with nights, (just in time to switch back round again) - and by the end, I was thinking that I could maybe go on. Obviously, I didn't voice this to the crew or Tina (who has probably had less than 12 hours sleep during the whole shoot), but it makes me feel that maybe doing the feature won't necessarily kill me...

Sleep now. Edit starts tomorrow...

Monday, December 18, 2006

Deliver Me - Shoot Diary - Day Three

7.00 pm...and Cooke's already talking about 'rimming Jesus'. We're in the hall in Bramcote which has been dressed to look like the spiritualist church in the film, and Cooke, John Ross and John Banner are setting the lighting for the night. It's taking a long time, but once it's set, that's pretty much it for the night. Hopefully.

10.00 We've done the first scene. It's the only one with all three lead actors in it, so we cover it quite substantially. All three of them are great - and have been throughout the shoot. One of the directors on this year's DVShorts scheme, Deborah, comes along to have a look at what we're doing, and asks me how much rehearsal time we've had. I tell her we haven't - it would have been great, but in the end there just wasn't enough time to arrange it. She seems surprised - but I think if you cast well and you can get on with the actors, you've got to trust that they know what they're doing generally, and then anything on set is just a tweak. I think the key thing is communicating with the actors - luckily all of these three are really experienced, making my job easier. MyAnna is becoming slightly addicted to tear stick though.

11.00 Setting for a scene in the corridor and having a discussion with Cooke about lighting continuity. Shooting the whole film in reverse order (why we are doing this, I'm not entirely sure...) means that you end up having to do some strangely convoluted thinking - "So we need to set the lights to match with the scene which we are going to have established in the earlier scene which we shoot tomorrow." Eh?

12.30 Feels, bizarrely, both early and late at the same time. Early because we've done the scene we had scheduled, and even managed to bring forward one from tomorrow's schedule (making 1st AD Chris Pheasey very happy), and late because it's gone midnight - which yesterday would have meant we were into the last stretch, but tonight is only halfway there.

We're setting for the first of three very complicated jib and tracking shots. Knowing how long these things take to set up, rehearse and shoot, I'm hoping that five and a half hours is going to be enough. This is a key scene in the film, so I've got to make sure we get everything we need.

5.30 We've wrapped - and the lack of sleep is starting to really catch up with me. I'm feeling too tired for words - my eyes feel like they've been soaked in vinegar and dried with sandpaper. We (hopefully) got all we needed - although we were struggling for clean sound takes at the end because the birds started piping up outside with their dawn chorus. Fucking chripy bastards. Run through the storyboard and script one more time to make sure I haven't missed anything vital - but by now I'm not sure my brain would be able to tell anyway. Need sleep. Will work it out in the edit.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Deliver Me - Shoot Diary - Day Two

11.30 Managed to get a good sleep last night - apart from waking up at half seven, which is kind of the default time that Betsy would normally be waking me - and only spent a couple of hours being mind-prodded by stuff I've got to remember to do today.

2.00 Just got back from the hotel where the actors are staying after doing a costume fitting/check. Sam Loggin, who's playing Erin and Glenn Doherty who's playing Michael were both there and seem excited about starting. Glenn said that he'd read the blog and noted my comment about actors being 'flesh puppets' - but I don't think he was really offended...

Made some decisions about costume and came back just in time to give the place a quick hoover. In a moment of weakness I agreed to use our house for tonight's shoot. This is, obviously, quite stupid, but I've said I'll do it now so there's no backing out. I guess there are some advantages - I don't have to travel to set, I can go to bed straight after we finish - but they might end up being outweighed by the constant anxiety that the crew are wrecking my house. The funny thing about shooting on location is that it only takes about 5 minutes for you to start thinking about the place as 'a set' rather than as somewhere where people live. Maybe my constant nervy presence will stop them doing any major damage.

Another advantage of shooting in the house is that, if I get tired, I can get them to wire up the monitor for me, get my dressing-gown and do it all from bed. I can just borrow a walkie-talkie - "Tell the male flesh-puppet to talk a little faster for me, would you..." I'll be just like this guy.

Maybe not.

18.55 Still shooting the car stuff - just having a break while they rig the bonnet shot. All going well - done all the interior car driving stuff - which is such a pain in the arse for everyone - can't see the camera, can't get a monitor, Grant (sound) is crammed into the boot like a mafia corpse - that I don't think I'll do it again. Think we got some good takes - just need to hope that speed bumps, car vibration and engine noise are all surmountable in the cut. But then, what are editors for?

03.59 Just wrapped. Quite a niggly, frustrating and scratchy night all in all. The car stuff took forfuckingever to finish - we had problems with clamps not clamping and batteries running out at highly inoportune moments, which meant that we got to lunch about an hour behind. Then we had to come in and do the 'bedboy' scene, with Laurie in full make-up. For some reason we had about 10 minutes of not understanding how the lighting was supposed to work, with me and Cooke getting snitty with each other before we came downstairs, talked it through and realised what the hell we were doing. We managed to get everything we needed- both Sam and Laurie were great under duress - or in Laurie's case, under about three inches of make-up - and it was only at the end that things seemed to get niggly again, when one of the lighting kits we'd hired decided to start not working - or working intermittently, which isn't a good thing for when you're trying to suggest a constant light source.

Still, considering we had to deal with cars, prosthetics, electronic glowing hands and contact lenses coming in and out, I think we did well to finish more or less (10 minutes early) on time. Now I really need all these people to get out of my house so I can go to bed...

Deliver Me - Shoot Diary - Day One

4.00 Just got to the location. Have decided to carry the motto ‘WWDD’ with me for the duration of the shoot, inked onto my wrist. It stands for ‘What Would Dario Do?’

4.40 Chris Cooke (DOP), John Ross (Grip and Additional Camera Op) and John Banner (Camera Asst.) are lighting the first scene, the actors are all toasty warm in Donna Bowyer’s new MiniWinnebago and I’ve just forgotten and then remembered a crucial bit of costume detail which I’m hoping won’t slow us down too much. We seem to have about 25 people around at the moment in this tiny flat which is by far the biggest crew for a film I’ve directed (and is in stark contrast to the 2-man crew we had for ‘Awake’). They all seem to know what they’re doing though, so I’m letting them get on with it. We’re aiming to get the first shot done by about six…

9.00 Just had ‘lunch’ – or ‘supper’ I guess – vegan bolognese (for Cooke’s benefit – although later we will have bacon cobs to satisfy the meat-eaters). We’re all on schedule. Got the sex scenes out of the way – the first I’ve ever had to direct (even if they both only involved a bloke on his own each time, pretening to have sex with Cooke’s camera). Apart from a weird moment after the first take of the first shot where the camera decided to stop working (heart-stopping…), everything seems to have gone well. The crew seem happy, the shots look great and apart from regularly glimpsing Mat – who’s doing the ‘behind the scenes’ documentary and keeps filming me when I’m doing things like demonstrating the appropriate ‘fucking rhythm’ on the bed, I’m feeling quite comfortable. Early days yet, though.

10.00 Planning for a very complicated track and jib shot, which requires expert timing from Cooke, Ross and Myanna, who’s playing Heather. Ross decides to improvise and borrow a mop handle to utilise as a vital bit of grip equipment. Maybe he should patent it – the JR MopHandle Extreme.

1.00am Onto the last shot. Cooke is on his back on the sofa filming a ceiling. Yes, a ceiling – how inventive, Sheil. It all got a bit faffy around midnight where we found a shot looking much uglier than we’d anticipated and had to run around trying to find a bit of set dressing to pretty it up a bit. That took up about 20 minutes, until Cooke decided to break every normal rule of filming and place a mirror in the middle of the shot. Still, unless this ceiling shot tuns into a drama, we’re going to wrap early tonight, and get some sleep.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A graphic illustration of the stresses of being a filmmaker

Everyone keeps asking me if I'm feeling really stressed - what with it being the day before the shoot and all - and the truth is that the mood of fatalistic calm I was talking about the other day seems to still be prevalent. Although, thinking about it, maybe calm isn't the right word - my brain is still running at a hundred miles an hour, zigzaging off into different directions (What should Erin wear? How do I shoot the 'Paul fuck' scene? Have we got a crying man yet?) - it's just that everything seems like it's dealable with - we start shooting at four tomorrow and then that's it - we keep rolling until the film - for better or worse - is done.

I've drawn a terrible graph to illustrate.

Here, red equals stress levels, which steadily climb throughout pre-production until the number of decisions made starts to outweigh the number of decisions yet to make, when it starts to fall again - until the first moment of the shoot when there's a spike of all-encompassing anxiety (usually accompanied by an urge to vomit), which quickly settles once the first shot is in the bag, then gradually diminishes as the shoot progresses.

Green represents adrenalin, which pretty much keeps climbing through the whole process - luckily enough, because if it didn't you'd be too knackered by the shoot to actually do the work. One by-product of this constant climbing adrenalin accompanied by fluctuating levels of stress, seems to be the possible (or even probable) formation of a number of ulcers in the stomach region.

Blue represents the icy dread that you've forgotten something of immense importance (probably the key thing that made you want to make the film in the first place). This climbs and climbs until it's too late to do anything about it. The thing that you've forgotten usually pops into your head about an hour after you've packed everything away and everybody's gone home. Then you have to spend the next few weeks convincing your editor that you actually planned to miss it out and it wasn't that important anyway, so that they don't think you're a bloody idiot.

Today, we checked through the camera kit, I finished off the shotlist (now typed up and ever-so-organised looking) and then I went home and moved all the furniture out of my spare room, because that's where we're shooting on Saturday night. Nothing like spending a couple of hours dusting and hoovering to get you in the mood for a shoot. Tonight, I'm meeting one of the actresses, Myanna Buring. Myanna was in, amongst other things, 'The Descent', which is probably the best British horror film I've seen in years.

I haven't seen Myanna since the casting session, so we're going to talk over the film, in lieu of having a pre-shoot rehearsal. The actors all seem really keen on working on the film, and so far none of them have come up with any questions (I don't know why I was expecting them to have questions - maybe the script's clear enough...). We're going to be shooting the film pretty much in reverse order - all tomorrow's stuff happens at the end of the film and the stuff we shoot on the last night is the opening. I think this is the first time I've had to work this way around (Cry had to be shot chronologically according to the script because of the amount of room destruction that went on). My worry is that the possibilities for continuity fuck-ups exponentially increases the more out-of-sequence you film, but I guess I'll just have to keep my mind on it.

I got some notes today about the rewrite for 'Mum and Dad' and realised (again) that I'm pretty much going to have to go straight onto that after I've done this. In a way though, despite the unrelenting head-fuck of it all, it's good to do the two back-to-back - at least it means that I'll be in some way prepared for all the things I have to do for the feature, having just done them for the short. Anyway, that's weeks away - let's get the short out of the way first...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Fatalistic Calm

We’re into the last few days of pre-production before the shoot starts on Friday and the stress of last week seems to have begun a strange transformation (at least for my part) into a kind of fatalistic calm. Essentially, the closer we get to the shoot, the less possibilities there are, either because a)I’ve done all the work I should have done and made an informed and hopefully wise decision or b)I’ve had to say yes or no to things I’m not sure about because there isn’t enough time left for me to fuck about anymore.

Either way, making decisions is good, because once made they generally don’t have to be made again, so the millions of possibilities that presented themselves at the start of the shoot – encompassing casting, locations, crewing, art-design and storyboarding – have now shrunk down to mere thousands. Whatever decisions we’ve made prior to the shoot will force an outcome during the shoot and the edit, so that’s when we’ll find out if we’ve fucked up or not. In a way, this might be the most exciting bit – when you’ve got all the elements but they’re not assembled yet – because the film starts to exist in your head as a mixture of those possibilities, and the reality of your decisions hasn’t yet had a chance to force itself onto the screen.

When I was writing about making an ‘unperfect’ film last time around, I think what I was trying to get at was this - because I think that films, if they are writer/director led, often present a worldview which is distinctive to the filmmaker, the decisions you make are often informed by subconscious prejudices and fetishes and so the best you can hope for is to make a film which is revealing - not only to an audience but to yourself – an element of what you think about the world – or maybe, more distinctly, what kind of stories you translate the world into. And as such, it's never going to be perfect - because it never could be - but it might be well-translated enough to make the audience feel or think something that you have thought or felt.

Chris thinks ‘Deliver Me’ is a Seventies British horror film – not in a campy, take-the-piss kind of way, but in a way that it evokes a feeling from that era. He might be right – I’ve seen a lot of films from that time and I think it was probably the last moment when British horror had a really distinctive feel. But I hope the film doesn’t feel like a ‘homage’ or some kind of fanboy wank – I want the story to work on its own merits. Maybe he’s just saying that because he somehow pictured the lead character (who is actually now only in her late twenties…) as being played by the incomparable Sheila Keith from Pete Walker’s Frightmare)

I guess in my head it’s always going to be ‘a story’ rather than a slice of ‘real life’, so the script has a stylised feel which I’m hoping to carry through to the shoot. It’ll be interesting to get the actors’ take on it and see how it works. This’ll be the first time for ages I’ve actually directed something that has more than one character in it (or at least the first time for ages where the other characters haven’t been a demon, a corpse or a niggly little tree demon…) so Christ knows how all that’s going to turn out. Ah well, they’re professionals, I guess they do this kind of thing all the time…

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Character is story/Making the unperfect film

Just over a week to go before we start shooting on 'Deliver Me' and I'm feeling tired, crabby and stressed - probably about par for the course as far as working on funded shorts goes (especially those where they neglect to actually give you the funding...). The main concern over the past couple of weeks has been casting. Luckily, we've got a really good casting agent, Ali Fearnley, on board, who is really into the project and has been working hard to get us to see as many possibles as we can. I've said before how I find casting a bit weird, and after thinking about it a bit more, I think I know why. I don't really have people in my head when I start writing a story - that is, of course there are 'people' in it, (rather than just, I dunno, broccoli or something), but the character isn't normally the starting point of my stories. In fact, I'm much more likely to think of a story first and then work backwards from there - creating a character to fit what I need them to do in the story. Back story comes into it as and when I need to think of it - I don't normally create an extensive character bible or anything - a lot of that stuff develops as I work on the project as a whole.

One of the things you hear a lot when you're writing is this idea that 'story is character' - which seems to suggest that in really nailing down who your characters are you will figure out what their story is. And while I think that is totally valid, and makes complete sense, I also think the inverse is true - 'character is story' - you create interesting characters by thinking of stories which require them to act in certain ways, so you mould them to fit the story. Maybe it's just the way my mind works - maybe its tied into my distrust of the idea of 'truth' onscreen - or maybe I just don't have the same interest in people that other writers do. My characters are very rarely based on people I know or have met - they're not people I grew up with or hang around with. Maybe that's why I've veered towards horror - not because you don't get realistic characters, but because it gives you an opportunity to create twisted worldviews - to imagine a person's brain and personality, rather than try to imitate or replicate one.

It was good during the casting sessions to have a chance to direct the actors in certain selected scenes - it started to help me think about how the film's going to work in terms of performance. I think we've got some good people involved and I'm hoping that they're going to enjoy it...

The other thing I've been doing is storyboarding and shotlisting some more, with the aid of Chris Cooke. Chris is great to work with because not only has he got an encyclopeadic knowledge of every horror film ever made (he spent the 80s locked in a room watching video nasties) but he's got great enthusiasm and is willing to take risks and improvise stuff.

I've been trying to remind myself that this is an opportunity to take some risks and not to play it safe just because it's a funded film and it's going to be 'seen by people'. I mean, I'm not planning to make some experimental oddity, but there are certain things that I'm not sure are going to work, and I figure the only way I'll ever find out is if I try. I guess if people watch the film and end up saying 'what the HELL was that?' I won't really mind - I'm not setting out to make a perfect film - as if you ever could - in fact, it'd be closer to the truth to say I'm setting out to make an unperfect film - something with weird edges and strange features that'll hopefully find an audience, but isn't self-consciously trying to make itself seem 'great'.

Or maybe I'm just covering my arse in case the whole thing turns out to be terrible. Who knows? I guess we'll find out soon enough...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Parenting Issues

After what has seemed like an age - but is only actually about six weeks – Film London have announced the greenlit projects for the Microwave scheme. And ‘Mum and Dad’ is one of them.

Which is great and scary news.

Myself and Lisa have known for a while now, but we were asked to hold off telling anyone until Film London could put out a press release. We’ve started, tentatively, putting out feelers in terms of cast, crew and effects, and I’ve written a whole load of notes for the second draft of the script, which I’m hoping to write over Christmas. Em-media are on board as the co-financiers, which is also really good news, because it means we don’t have to go out and find the rest of the finance.

I’m trying to split my head in two at the moment – half of it is dealing with the mounting number of things to get done for ‘Deliver Me’, while the other half is preparing to think about all the other things I need to get done for ‘Mum and Dad’. At the moment we’ve got the shoot planned for 18 days, hopefully starting in March next year, which means a frightening number of pages of script to do each day, plus a significant amount of effects work to fit in. At the end of it, I’ll hopefully be a better and tighter filmmaker.

Or I’ll be dead. One of the two…

Friday, November 24, 2006

Laboratories, sex shops and toffs

Three weeks today we start shooting on “Deliver Me”. We’ve been in official pre-production for a couple of weeks now – and it looks as though we might actually get our first invoice paid by Em-media sometime next week, which is good because it'll mean that we no longer have to be relying on the Bank of Pawlik to cashflow everything.

We’ve got two main locations already, with one still to find, all of our crew are in place, but none of our cast – which is quite scary at this stage. I was planning to go through casting tapes today, but they haven’t arrived yet, which has left me at a bit of a loose end. I was also supposed to be seeing Cooke to talk about the storyboard, but he’s at home dosed up on Strepsils. So I’m trying to get my mind back on three of four of the other 1000 things I’ve got to get my head around, but I’m finding it difficult to prioritize what I’m supposed to be thinking about.

There are a few things that I’ve scripted which I’m unsure about – either in terms of their story function or the way I’ve planned to shoot them and much as I want to use this opportunity – having a budget, having a large-ish crew – to experiment, I also don’t want to waste time on things that don’t end up in the film. I guess it’s about balancing risk against return.

Yesterday we were investigating a couple of the risky elements, which meant spending the morning in a laboratory and the afternoon in a sex shop. The lab visit was to explore a lighting technique I’m interested in trying out which sounds as though might be feasible – it basically involves using flat, flexible, luminescent sheets – but may not give us the amount of light we would need. The scientist we spoke to about it was really helpful, but when he was explaining how to rig up the device – “it’s really simple ..” - I got lost in a maze of resistors, capacitors and alternating current. If we go ahead with it, it’ll mean getting somebody in who isn’t a complete dolt when it comes to electronics.

As for the sex-shop - well, without going into too much detail, we were looking for some latex parts to use as props for a particularly ambitious (and potentially appalling) shot which I’ve put into the script. This is the difficult one – I don’t want to spend too long thinking about how to do this – because it’s technically very difficult – in relation to the likelihood of it being in the finished cut. Also I don’t want to get told off again by a sex-shop worker for removing sex aids from their boxes and analyzing them closely while Cooke looks on, scratching his chin like he’s on a particularly filthy edition of Antiques Roadshow.

As I’ve said, I’ve also started storyboarding. I am quite possibly the worst artist in the world, which makes this difficult – a fact bought home to me when I was teaching this week and illustrated a point on shot listing with this.

Absolute rubbish.

I really envy people who can draw (and people who can sing – another thing I’m absolutely appalling at). But as I tell my students, as long as you can communicate what you need to, to the people who need to know it, don’t worry about your artistic skills, or lack of them. (Even if it looks like you’ve held the pencil in your mouth. While chewing a large and violent wasp. With someone else’s lips….) As long as the message gets across, that’s what matters.

And at least with a story board this bad, it’ll make the actual shots seem that much better – as long as they’re not filled with weird clown-eyed toffs...

Friday, November 17, 2006


Things have been moving up a gear for “Deliver Me” – we’ve been crewing up, finding locations, I’ve started shot-listing, storyboarding and shot designing and we’ve got a casting director on board. I’ve written before about how I find casting quite weird – so it’s good to be working with someone who can feed into the process and provoke me to think about different options.

Script-wise, I think we’re there – as far as having a shooting script goes. We had another meeting with Paul Welsh the other day which was entertaining and confusing simultaneously (confutainment? ). Honestly, there was a 15 minute period where he was trying to explain to me where he thought the script could go - he seems keen on me rewriting up until we shoot –(which kind of happens any way as a byproduct of casting, story boarding, finding locations and rehearsing) - and I still have no idea what he was suggesting.

Maybe it’s me – maybe I lack some specialist auteur apparatus that allows me to interpret mime - “at the moment the script seems to be doing this” – a hand heading diagonally down – “and then does this” – the hand heads up, like a big tick. Certainly, there seemed to be an implication that I maybe wasn’t pushing story as far as it could go – “how much further can you do? How much further do you want to go?”. It might be me being paranoid, but I do get the feeling that I’m not being “real” enough – that because I essentially think the film as a genre piece that it’s going to be hokey and idea-driven rather than “true”.

This a similar point of view to one expressed by Lenny Crooks, the new head of the Film Council’s New Cinema Fund who did a meet and greet in Nottingham a couple of weeks ago. He began his introduction about the kind of films he wants to fund with the words “I’m interested in truth, I’m not interested in genre.” “Red Road” (interestingly marketed as ‘a thriller’), “London to Brighton” and “This is England”, were all films he cited, which sounded like – at least for the New Cinema Fund – “truth” equates with a certain kind of dirty realist drama. Horror would only be acceptable if it was in a David Lynch/David Cronenberg arthouse vein - and even then, I very much doubt they would fund another “Shivers” or “Eraserhead”.

The meeting just made me think, “well, this isn’t for me then”. Which is fine – at least I know. But it’s weird to think that whole genres of filmmaking can be discarded for being more “untrue” than others. To me something like Andrea Arnold’s Oscar/Bafta winning "Wasp" is more unreal than “Suspiria”, precisely because it presents itself as being “reality” rather than an entirely fictional construct. At least “Suspiria” acknowledges that it’s a story. Which maybe makes it more honest.

The American poet Marianne Moore once had a great phrase about poetry being “real toads in imaginary gardens”. And surely that’s all that counts – regardless of the setting, you can create a truth for your characters. Is not as though the minute you start writing horror films you have some kind of creative lobotomy – although the amount of people who ask me “why do you like horror, is it because of all the guts? “ or similar suggests that there is a very pejorative view of horror fans and makers – in fact, I think it’s the opposite – it frees you up to think in new ways. Obviously there are bad and cheap and shallow horror films, but there are also a bad and cheap and shallow realist dramas. Realism doesn’t equal truth – is just another kind of fakery.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

287 Days Later

Astonishingly, after nearly 10 months (287 days to be precise...) we've been sent a draft contract for the DVShortsPlus scheme. Leaving aside the slight anomaly of this contract only being drawn up now - ONE YEAR after the scheme was first announced and FIVE WEEKS before we start shooting - this means that, potentially, if we're lucky, some time in the next few weeks, we might actually be allowed some access to some money, which will be One Hell Of A Good Thing, because it's very hard to make a funded film without any funding.

It also means that, for the first time, we get to see what we have to provide in order to get some money, what the deliverables are and how the recoupment percentages stand (recoupment, hah!). Although there's still no word as to whether the UKFCers have approved the script, so maybe I'd better hold my tongue...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Mushing Together Sex and Horror

A few days ago - after much prompting from Cooke - I finally got around to watching Dario Argento’s episode of the Masters of Horror TV series – “Jenifer”.

I’ve been a big fan of Argento’s for about five years, ever since I saw “Deep Red” and even though recent films like “Sleepless” and “The Card Player” are way off his absolute best, there’s always something in his films that’s memorable and provocative. With “Jenifer” he has a lot of fun referencing Beauty and the Beast (the fairy tale rather than the Disney singing telephone film (or even the Eighties big hair fantasy drama ) ) and Frankenstein while at the same time exercising his own preoccupation with duality and the meshing (or mushing ) together of horror and desire.

Based on an old “Creepy” comics story, “Jenifer” is about a cop who saves the life of a young woman, about to be murdered by a formerly well-respected man now reduced to vagrancy. The young woman – clad only in a flimsy flighty summer dress – has a great body but a hideously-disfigured face. Unable to speak, she instead makes half-animal, half-childlike noises – whining, crying, growling, sometimes almost purring.

The cop, on finding out that she has nowhere else to go, decides to take her home and put her up at his house for the night. However, in a shining example of HusbandDickery, he doesn’t bother to wake his wife and tell her that he has given couchspace to a hideously-deformed, but scantily-clad woman-child – (and this the day after he’s tried to force his wife into rough anal sex while remembering his first glimpse of Jenifer – bound and bent over an old oildrum, a machete raised above her head ) – so that when the girl appears in their bedroom the next morning she scares the life out of both his wife and his teenage son – who recovers his wits quickly enough to note “hot body!”.

When his wife insists on getting rid of Jenifer, the cop drives her out to the wilderness (like he’s getting rid of a stray dog ) but can’t seem to let her go. Jenifer – obviously fixated on the cop – starts nuzzling up to him in the car and before long they’re fucking on the front seat – roughly, animalistically. It’s all wrong – not because she’s deformed, but because she seems so childlike – and like an animal at the same time – she’s sexually aggressive, but like a dog in heat.

The cop (continuing the HusbandDickery ) brings Jennifer back (‘hey, she can’t speak, how’s she gonna tell anyone…’) and while he and his wife argue, Jenifer runs upstairs to the bathroom – from where some strange sounds soon start to emanate. They rush upstairs and find Jenifer crouched over the eviscerated body of their cat, filling her mouth with its guts.

This, unsurprisingly, is the last straw for his wife, who leaves, taking the son with her. The cop, momentarily wondering what he has got himself into, soon has his mind taken off this by having some more rampant sex with Jenifer.

You can kind of see where this is heading, and it doesn’t surprise you when we find a replay of the opening scene at the end, but the tone of the film – with its deep black humour and strange, dreamlike feel - the cop seems intoxicated long before he starts on the brown paper bag – really reminded me of Argento’s section of ‘Two Evil Eyes’, ‘The Black Cat’, which is another tight little piece (again an adaptation.)

Of course, lots of Jenifer is quite hokey - and in this it maybe shows its comic book roots – there’s a freak show in town, for example (do they still have freak shows? ) and the cop ends up getting a job as a handyman in a local store (which is a job a hobo in the 30s might get ) - but then Argento’s never exactly been one for a gritty realism – and the story (rather than the plot ) is what he’s interested in.

The film is tightly shot, with some great makeup effects, and it never drags. Some people have complained it’s not scary, but then I never think horror films have to be – they can be, but a lot of horror films I see work because they’re horrifying rather than scary. And Jenifer is horrible because of what is says about male desire and the link between sex and horror – and because it doesn’t explain everything away.

Apparently, there were couple of deleted scenes (which caused John Landis to freak out) which show how far Argento’s prepared to go with his imagery and I think it’s a shame they weren’t included – not out of a gratuitous gore-thirst, but because I think they would have really pushed home the monstrous sexual element of the story.

Good to see that he can still push the boundaries in an interesting way. Now bring on the new Three Mothers film...

Friday, October 20, 2006

Man in office writing blog

Back in the office at the New Look Broadway this week – all Paul Smith Cinemas and Media Lounges, apart from my bit of the building which is still like a down at heel detective’s office – and I’m feeling a kind of hangover from last week. I feel like I spent so much brain time thinking and talking about Mum and Dad that trying to do anything else this week has felt like trying to operate heavy machinery after glugging down a bottle of night nurse.

I’ve got to get on with “Deliver Me” though - which has definitely suffered from a lack of momentum over the eight months since we got told that we got it. This week I’ve been trying to think about casting. I find this bit really hard – when you come to look for actors it seems like there’s an almost infinite amount of them out there but only a minuscule proportion of them are people who you’ve actually seen at work or heard about. Which makes it tricky – when you look at Spotlight, the actor’s directory, you’re only going off a posey black and white photo and the CV - so you end up judging whether people look right. I know some people have a definite look for characters in their heads, but I find that that rarely happens for me – I’m quite open to suggestion. It’s only when you start looking – and yesterday I must have looked at over 500 actresses – that you realize that you do actually have some pre conceptions. Then you start getting dismissive, “too old”, “too young”, “too sophisticated”, “too harsh”, “too freakishly bug-eyed” – all instant judgements made off one photo, probably taken two or three years ago.

I did find a great thing on Spotlight, though – an actress whose CV featured at the top the role of “thirty something woman unhappy with herself”, which is practically a short film title in itself. She has also played “31-year-old mum listening to radio”, “crisp sales rep” and “girl in a bar”. Christ, it must be hard being an actor.

I’ve always thought that I’m not really an actor’s director – I don’t come from any kind of acting or theatrical background (and I have, in the past, been known to refer to actors as “flesh puppets”) – but it’s something I definitely want to work on. Part of me just finds the whole concept quite weird – “what, you mean you’re going to try and embody this thing that came out of my head. How does that work?” Maybe it’s the thing about trying to explain psychologies of characters you made up, even when you might not fully understand them yourself. Anyway, I find it hard.

I’ve also started on another pass at the script after another script meeting with Paul Welsh. I still feel like we’re communicating through some kind of fog or mush, where at any time one or other of us has the default facial expression of “Eh?” (Or occasionally, “Huh?”). This time we talked about exposition and tension in the script. I think exposition is always really tricky, but especially in a short script. It’s always considered a no-no, but then maybe that’s why you get so many shorts that are all subtext - full of ambiguous looks and drawn out silences. Sometimes I think maybe some really obvious exposition is the way to go – certainly in a lot of genre films they don’t give a fuck.

I was watching something the other night, Nigel Kneale’s 70s TV series for ITV called 'Beasts' – all animal-related horror stories. The first one, 'Baby' – about a couple who move into a cottage in the country and make A Horrifying Discovery in the walls, had a blatant piece of exposition. The pregnant wife, played by Jane Wymark, is on the phone to her dad – who never appears or is mentioned again – and tells him the whole back story – why they’ve moved, the fact that she’s pregnant, what her husband does. It’s a minute long and its pure exposition – but least you know where you are.

The film as a whole is really good, very creepy with some great writing – even if it has got that 70s TV creakiness and staginess. It also features a great example of HusbandDickery (named, by me, in honour of this site. ). Simon MacCorkindale plays the husband, who acts like an absolute arse every time he’s on-screen – his first entrance after his wife has just seen her cat run away from the Obviously Cursed house and is visibly upset and emotional (and pregnant) is to berate her for bothering him when he’s had ‘a rather good day’, than bellow at her to stop fussing “I can’t stand fussing!’. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg – when she begs him to get rid of the mummified unborn mutant animal corpse that they found in the house (which seems to have caused the farm to be totally barren and infertile) he tells her he’s taking it away when in fact he’s hidden it in their unborn child’s nursery. Nice one, MacCorkindale, first class HusbandDickery. If anyone knows of any more examples, please let me know.

Monday, October 16, 2006


I’ve been down in London for a week, at the Film London Microschool, along with my producer on ‘Mum and Dad’ Lisa Trnovski. I didn’t have much of a chance to write anything at the time, so here is a brief synopsis pieced together from my scraggy, doodle-ridden notebook.

Monday – First day of the ‘Microschool’, Lisa’s not there because she’s working. Start off feeling like I’m at a bad party – too self-conscious to introduce myself. Then Sol – the head of the scheme – arrives and immediately introduces me to everyone else in the group. Someone takes a step back when they hear that I’m the writer of ‘Mum and Dad’ – “This guy’s got some dark thoughts” he says. “Better out than in” I say.

First up is a talk by some Sales Agents. We all have to pitch our projects in a couple of lines. I do my spiel – and get told that ‘You’ll never sell a horror film called Mum and Dad. Change the title.’ Feel deflated and defensive – a mixture of ‘what the hell does she know’ and ‘what the hell do I know’. Feel like I should point out that there have been films called ‘Mother’s Day’, ‘Parents’, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ and ‘The Stepfather’ – but then realise that no-one’s probably heard of them, so probably not good comparisons. After the talk, Carol, one of the other Microschoolers comes up to tell me that she loves the title and I shouldn’t change it. Feel heartened.

Then we go into our groups and meet our tutor, Phil Hunt. He tells us that we need to operate in a spirit of ‘co-opetition’, which he swears he didn’t make up and is actually a word. Although naturally pessimistic and cynical, I find that Phil’s relentless optimism and postive thinking mantra is actually quite a good thing to have at this point. Either that or he’s brainwashed me. One piece of advice he gives is that we should always be polite and personable when dealing with people. This strikes me as quite a sad state of affairs – that you have to be told not to be a wanker. Phil also advises ‘never give up your primary source of income for filmmaking’. As someone whose primary source of (pitifully small) income has come from filmmaking over the past couple of years this gives me The Fear.

At the end of the day, Lisa arrives and we go for a drink with most of the other Microschoolers. This was the best part of the day, just because we got to talk to each other without feeling like we’re being continually assessed. Later on in the evening, one of the people organising the course says to me “I’ve read your script and I just wanted to ask – where’s the redemption? Where’s the humanity?’ I should say something like “In somebody else’s film” but that would sound glib, so I try to explain – to someone who’s not a horror fan – why a lot of horror fans don’t want redemption at the end of their films. Not sure that he quite agrees, but it’s an interesting discussion and it makes me wary of how my film might be percieved – all the way along we’ve talked about it as a full-on genre film, which has both a plus and minus to it; on the plus side, it’s probably easier to pitch and market, while on the other hand, some people Just Don’t Like Horror Films. I know, I know, it’s hard to credit…

Tuesday: Script and Directing day. Lisa’s here for the day, but locked away with the other producers for most of it, going through the budget and getting told wildly interesting things about insurance and Tax Credits. Also here today is Chris Cooke, who’s the directing tutor for the comedy group. Our tutor is Tom Shankland, who, when he learns that I’m from Nottingham, says ‘Ah, the centre of British filmmaking”. I tell him it’s also probably the centre for British debt as well. It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard people talk about the East Midlands as being a hotbed of creativity – especially when I’m in London. In Nottingham, in never feels like there is the same kind of attitude about it – it always feels a bit like funders look at us like we’re just lucky amateurs - but outside people really envy the community we have up here.

Today is all about looking at the script and how we’re going to translate that to screen. We get some actors to work with, although a lot of times we don’t get much beyond a couple of readthroughs. Luckily, I get to block out a couple of scenes and Tom gives me some advice about restructuring and cutting dialogue which is quite helpful. It’s good to hear the script out loud for the first time – and to start thinking about the type of performances we need. It’s also quite instructive, because a couple of the actors are definitely not into horror, but the one who is gives the best performance. I think it’s really key that, if we get to make this, we cast people who are really going to be into going along with the horror, rather than putting up with it. I kind of want to get people who can add more wrong – who, if I say ‘Can you take the severed head out of the bag”, say “Okay, what about if I licked the blood off it as well’. Y’know, that kind of attitude.

We also have a session with a script editor, which is really good. He likes the script and gives us some good ideas about how to lengthen it (it’s still only about 72 pages at the moment, although I know it’ll play longer) and how to add some further psychological resonances. At the end of the day, everyone else goes out for a drink, but I go home early – after wandering around Charing Cross road for about an hour trying to find a DVD shop that Cooke wanted to show me, only to find out that it’s already closed. Good job probably – if I have to carry any more stuff around with me I’ll have to hire a pack mule.

Wednesday is all about marketing. We have a talk from Mia Bays, which is great, then have to go out a prepare a marketing pitch. We only get about 45 minutes – so me and Lisa go down to the cafĂ© and knock about a basic structure and some selling gimmicks. Then we go back up, and group by group, have to stand up in front of each other and a panel and pitch our films for up to five minutes. Me and Lisa are one of the only teams to go up together (we’re honing a kind of double-act schtick by now) and all is going well until my mobile starts ringing in the middle of it. Aware that this is, at the very least, terribly bad form, I make a joke of it and tell everyone that it’s my Mum and Dad calling. Get a good laugh and plough on – while making a mental note to call Jeanie later and apologize for rejecting her call

After that, we get a final pep talk from Phil about how to prepare for our final pitches on Friday, before we get a talk on pitching by Judy Counihan. Then off to the pub again, to drink too much and talk indiscreetly about film financiers. Everybody is on good form – particularly Vaughan (another Microschooler), who goes off on a very entertaining ten minute rant about what he hates about Michael Haneke’s Hidden. Have a good chat with another director, Vesna, who is shocked to learn that I’ve got a child (although maybe the shock was that I’ve left her with my Mum and Dad, considering the nature of my script…)

Thursday, I go round to Lisa’s and we prepare our final pitch to the Film London panel. Lisa’s got a great flat in Battersea with terrific views and a big open-plan lounge which is good for rehearsing in. It takes us a few hours, but we manage to get our pitch down to a comfortable (i.e. not too breathless and panicked) ten minutes. The whole time we’ve been allotted is twenty, including Q and A’s, so we’ve got to keep it brief. We go over and over the pitch, rehearsing what we’re going to say and making sure we know who’s doing what bit – then we leave it so that it doesn’t sound too overrehearsed. I think the main things with pitching are to know your film and be relaxed. Try to remind myself not to drink any coffee in the morning – caffeine really fucks me up.

So, on to Friday. Get to Film London in Shoreditch for about 11 and meet David and Edwina, one of the other teams. They’ve already been in and tell me it’s nothing to worry about – the panel are all really nice. This is good to hear. We spend about half an hour talking ghost stories and then me and Lisa are up.

The pitch goes well – we manage not to forget anything and to seem relatively natural. I get a few gags in (always helps if you can make them laugh, even when you’re pitching a brutal horror film) and I feel like we’re presenting a good front. I think the key moment is when we’re talking about managing the effects on the budget and I get prompted to talk about Through A Vulture Eye’s fake eyes. I give everyone a breakdown – lychees, nail varnish, rice paper – of the ingredients and the process, and when I get to ‘then parboil the rhubarb’ I get another big laugh. (My advice for pitches – get the word ‘parboil’ in there somewhere.) All in all the whole thing goes really quickly, and then we’re out of there and dissecting the whole thing over lunch. Both of us feel like we’ve done a good job, and that, if we don’t get the money from Film London, we’re in strong position to try and get it somewhere else. Now we just have to wait and see.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Running at doors

It’s Sunday evening, and I’m in my office at Broadway, just finishing off the draft of ‘Mum and Dad’ ready to send off tomorrow. It’s the first time I’ve been in the building for months when I haven’t had to make my way through a corridor of scaffolding, dangling wires and builders to get to the office, or try and work against a backdrop of drilling, banging and impromptu tests of the new PA system.

They’ve been redeveloping Broadway, putting in a couple of new screens and some new offices and I’m sure it’s all going to look great. But it has been pretty difficult to concentrate for a lot of the time. Not that I’ve had the opportunity to let that bother me – since I got back off holiday I’ve been working like a demon to get this script done – averaging something stupid like 9 pages of script a day. Today was the first time I actually got the chance to read the whole thing through (although Lisa, my producer for this project has been great at reading the drafts-so-far). I think it’s turned out okay – yeah, in places it reads like it needs work, but I think the structure and the basic characters are there. I also don’t know how much of a chance we would have to develop the script if we were commissioned – it sounds as though Film London really want to get a move on with these projects and get them shot in the next few months.

It’s a weird thing, having to put so much thought and effort into visualizing the finished film – it’s what always happens, funders want you to make the film as much as possible on paper before they’ll let you actually make it – because at the back of your mind you’re always acutely aware that the more you invest in it – in terms of time and effort and slices of your soul – the bigger a disappointment you are priming yourself for. And yet, to hold back from putting in that amount of effort would only damage your chances more. It’s like running at a door that has a one-in-three chance of being made of paper, with a soft mattress behind it, and a two-in-three chance of having a large boxing glove on a spring at crotch height. The faster you run, the better or worse it’ll be.

Enough daft metaphors – that’s what spending too much time in your head does to you. At least I’ve got another feature script, however rough, which is something I didn’t have a month ago. Think positive.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Ways to alienate funders, No.1

In the run-up to our holiday last week, I had my head down trying to get a script written for 'Mum and Dad', the Microwave/Film London submisssion - ready for the week-long 'Microschool' I've got to attend along with the other shortlisted applicants the week after next. As well as trying to write 6 or 7 pages of script a day of full-on crazed perversion, I also had to deliver a redraft of 'Deliver Me' to Em-media Development Exec Paul Welsh -which he was keen for me to do before I finished the feature (despite the fact that, as I found out when I got back off holiday, he's away for a couple of weeks, so won't be able to give me feedback until after the Microschool...).

So, I made some time, wrote the draft and sent it off to Tina to send to Paul.

So far, so good.

Except that on returning and reading through the script earlier this week, prior to a meeting with Tina about production stuff, I noticed something that had previously slipped my attention.

In the redraft, I've added a scene at the end of the script - a scene set in the past of the lead character, Erin. It shows her at the age of 13, already a gifted spirtualist healer, in the back room of a church, with a man who is a church member and, supposedly a kind of guardian to her. He is having unprotected sex with her, and ends up being the father of Erin's mutant child, setting up the highly dysfunctional relationship which is at the heart of the film.

So, what did I name this hypocritical, manipulative child-abuser?
Paul, of course. The same name as the person who'd requested the rewrite...

Now, I didn't even notice this at the time, and it certainly wasn't a conscious thing - but I don't know if that makes it seem any better - it's just my subconscious that names a creepy abuser after a our development exec.

Oh well, I'm sure he'll be all right about it. I think it's quite funny in a way. Maybe he won't even notice...
Should make the notes I get back quite interesting though...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Always Be Submitting

I just got back from the Post Office after sending off my application for this round of Cinema Extreme – it’s a project called ‘Damaged’ (I know, sounds a bit like a bad Jeremy Irons film), “a blend of ghost story and emotional drama” kind of influenced by “Don’t Look Now”. I’d said to myself after previous experiences that I wouldn’t apply again, but then I started thinking that at least this time I’d have something new to show them and a couple of other things on my CV. Also, despite having a raft of other projects ‘in development’ there’s no guarantee any of them will happen, so I need to keep submitting (Always Be Submitting – the motto of the non established film maker –insert BDSM joke here …)

This will be something like the sixth project I’ve got that is either in the process of being developed or being submitted. Hopefully, after a certain point they’ll all reach some kind of critical mass and someone will explode a cluster bomb of money at me, although considering that most of them are specifically designed for low-budget schemes, probably more like a small balloon of endlessly deferred payments. Honestly, I feel like I’ve developed more work this year than in ages, but the same time I’m more skint than I’ve been in a long while. I don’t know how the fuck other people manage – do a lot of people have trust funds or are they independently wealthy? Do they have rich and supportive partners and families, because I can’t see how I can spend the time working as a filmmaker, and make money, at least not at the moment. Especially exasperating is the idea that as the filmmaker you should be expected to work the most and be paid the least – your wage is often counted as ‘unofficial contingency’. I don’t know how it’s supposed to work…

I’m probably just whining because my head’s a bit crazy the moment. I found out I’ve been put through into the final round of the Microwave scheme that is being run by Film London. It’s an ultra-low-budget (a one hundred thousand pounds ceiling) feature film scheme which I submitted a project for in June – in a bit of a rush because I only found out about it four weeks earlier. I put together a 15-page outline (plus treatment, directors notes etc.) for a horror called “Mum and Dad”. The other day I had a meeting with Film London, who told me that in order to go through to the next stage I would really need to have a full-length script. The next stage is a weeklong development school held in London in about five weeks time. Which gives me about five weeks (minus a week because I’m on holiday) to try and write the full script. I went to Em-media today to try and see whether they could fund the writing of the script, but ended up leaving even more confused. It would be better if I applied as acompany, rather than as an individual, so I would need to get a producer from the region, only that producer would then have to step aside so that I could get a producer from London, to actually produce the film. Part of me just feels like getting my head down and getting on with it, but another part of me (probably the financially responsible one) feels like I should at least try and get some money for the work I’m doing.

Maybe this is just the famine before the feast - I put the work in now and reap the benefits in the future. Either that, or I’ll be stacking shelves in Lidl by Christmas

The ghost of an edit

There always seems to be a point in an edit – not necessarily a moment, more like a slowly developing period of clarity – where the film you’re going to end up with appears to you, like a kind of ghost, and you get the chance to compare it, for the first time, with the film as it had originally lived in your head. This is usually the point where (if you’re me) a feeling of vague disappointment settles in. Not that what you’ve got is necessarily bad or wrong – is just the feeling that what was in your head has failed to make the transition onto screen. Sometimes this can even be a good thing – some idea you had and had to scrap because of time or feasibility or act of God – has actually transmogrified into something that works better. Other times, you can feel, nagging in the back of your mind that you’ve missed your chance.

This is more less the point I’ve reached with “Awake”. It’s kind of almost there, but some of the things that I’d hoped we’d got, don’t quite seem to be working and I’m having to invent ways of working round them. Sometimes this involves shooting something new, an insert that will help to tell the story better. Other times, I can just feel that there’s something missing. Maybe it’s music – I’ve got an idea of the kind of sounds that I want to use, I just need to have the time to record them (and rely on my friends for supplying them…). Anyway, I’m going to take some time off from the edit because I’ve got a load of other stuff on so maybe I’ll be able to come to it in a couple of weeks with some fresh eyes. In the meantime, here are some more stills.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


I started digitising the footage from the shoot this week, then putting together a rough assembly of some of it. So far, I’ve covered about 2/3 of the script and the film’s already running at over 8 minutes, which is a bit longer than I’d anticipated. At the moment, I think I’m probably looking at about a 12 minute film – unless, of course, the story doesn’t work and I have to do some radical rewriting in the edit suite (always a possibility).

The assembly looks pretty good – the photography’s great and Matt’s performance is strong, but it’s at this stage that you start to get an idea of what you’re missing and maybe what you should have done differently. One scene is missing some quite essential sound because of the friendly local chainsaw twins who were cutting down trees just down the path from us for the duration of the scene, and there are a couple of close-ups I wish I’d thought of getting. I think the trouble was, because I was having to do sound (and art dept) as well as direct – and because we had so much to do in such a short space of time – that I didn’t really have a time to assess what we’d shot and what we still needed, I just had to rely on a general kind of instinct as to whether we’d got it or not.

Still, some stuff that we took a risk on seems to have panned out okay, and I’m sure I can fix the sound with some wild tracks and foley work (which I quite enjoy anyway). The interesting thing now is whether the story works in the way that I intended – that’s the weird thing about the edit, although it’s a process of gradual assembly, it’s also one of gradual revelation – taking you back to the story, revealing what was on the page.

I think it’s going to take a while before it’s finished – I’m not going to be able to work flat out on the edit, so it’s going to be fitted in amongst other stuff – but I do really need to get it out of the way before I start on ‘Deliver Me’ – although that project has been moving at such a glacial pace that it could be another six months before I have to do anything with it…

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Chainsaws, wires and tree demons

Woke up late – 8-ish – aching all over from having to run up and down the steep steps to the shack for half of yesterday. Today was always planned to be a lighter day – at least in terms of the amount of shots – but it was also always going to be the most technically demanding. We started off with the most difficult shot of the day – the shot with the camera flying through the trees. John had built a flying dolly – the treepod – which would carry the motorised head, underslung support and the camera. We used a ladder to get about twenty feet high up a tree and John attached a couple of lines which we then threaded down to pin into the trunk of one of the trees which had been blown over in the wind.

With a line attached to a portable screen – which I had hung around my neck like some weird learning aid – and one hand holding onto the controller for the remote head, and with John pulling the treepod along by a washing line pole we had numerous goes at getting the shot, eventually having to give up when we saw that the line had rubbed its way through one of the pulley wheels. It’s hard to know if we’ve really got the shot until I get into the edit suite and fiddle about with the speed and stuff, but I think we’ve got something to work with.

By this time, two men had arrived to start chainsawing the trees near the house, which meant that we had to shoot the whole of the next scene mute – a problem I’ll have to worry about in the edit suite.

After lunch, we did a couple of sequences involving jib shots – and had Matt running up and down hills for about two hours. By the time we were done, it was about five o’clock, and we still had the most complicated effects shots to set up.

The last hour of the shoot was the most uncomfortable for Matt – he had to be pinned to the forest floor, unable to move one arm, with blood all over him and midges nipping at any exposed flesh. This was also make or break time for the tree demon – which by this time, was quite battered and bruised from all the transporting around. With the light fading, we got to it and, thanks to some great work by John Ross, I think we got enough to make the sequence work.

By the time we wrapped, I was knackered, bitten to fuck by forest insects (I found one living on my leg in the car home today), covered in dirt and blood and with calf muscles like lead, but watching the footage back last night, it seemed like we really got what we needed. Don’t know when I’m going to start editing. My first priority at the moment is sleep.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Sunshine, weird hands and a cosy little shack

It's just gone 10pm and we've just got back from the first day of the shoot. I say 'we', but we're still waiting for John and Matt ot make it back after they stopped off at a pub on the way back - on the pretext of returning some kitchen foil - and haven't yet managed to navigate back to the house yet.

It was a good first day, but bloody long. I was up at about 6.30, immediately teased the curtains open to see what the sky was doing - and, amazingly, found that it was a beautiful blue sky and gloriously sunny morning.

While everybody else slept, I took the camera out into the forest and got some early-morning-sun-through-the-trees type stuff. It looked good - hope that I can find a place for it all in the film.

When the others were up, we packed the car and headed for the shack.

The morning was good, but a little slow - I managed to make one sequence of a man coming out of a door and greeting the new day necessitate about 14 shots - including one where John Ross had to climb a tree and do wierd things with his hands. I also made Matt take his shoes off and walk about on spiky branches for about 2 hours. They both seemed in farily good spirits though.

After that, we did some jib stuff. I should know by now that that always takes fucking ages, but it seems like I forget that every time, maybe just seduced by the fact it looks so good.

By the time we hit 3 o'clock, we hadn't done any of the interior stuff - which makes up much of the first 5 pages of script. I had to shotlist as we went along, which made my brain ache - but the shack, which at first seemed really grim, by now seemed quite cosy. I called Jeanie a couple of times to put back our pickup time - from 6.30 to 7.30 to 8.30...

We had to really bomb through the last couple of scenes - including the 'revealing the demon' sequence - and I couldn't get to see a monitor for much of it, so I'm trusting to John Ross that it all looks okay. By the time we finished at about 9, I couldn't even risk looking back over the script to see if we'd missed anything - so I guess if there are any story holes I'm just going to have to fix them in the edit. Put some voice-over on or something. Or maybe a caption 'And then, scared shitless, he ran outside...'

Keep trying to tell myself that I'm embracing the daft...

Nightmares, trauma and storm clouds


Matt and John arrived today - I think they were a bit freaked out by the remoteness of the cottage. And the rabbit's face on the wall. And the stuffed swooping owl in the dining room. And having to sleep in the room with dolls in.

Betsy had a nightmare last night - woke up crying about 'red'. Suddenly, 'The Shining' feels like a documentary.

This afternoon, I filmed an interview for Jeanie for one of her new projects, Born Lucky. It was with a man who had survived a plane crash that killed nearly 60 people 20 years ago. He was very matter-of-fact about it (without being flippant - it had obviously been a very traumatic experience) - and the story was fascinating.

This evening, I went out and tried to film a sunset - without much luck - a bit of red sky, but mostly black rolling storm clouds.

Stayed up too late than is good for me, worrying about whether I've thought of everything. First day of the shoot tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Bambi, butcher's guts and lycra


Woken up early (6.30 ish) by Betsy. Came downstairs past the enormous stag head in the hallway - Betsy giving it a cheery "'ello Bambi!'" as she passed - and looked out the window. Pissing down. Still. Suddenly got the fear that I'd have to rethink the whole film (or at least the exterior parts of it).

Kept going out and looking at the sky until finally a chink of blue appeared - the first since we arrived. Felt slightly more positive.

We went out to visit the shack today which gave me a chance to try and visualize how some of the sequences might work. It's goint to be a pain to get everything up there, because the approach path is pretty wet and treacherous. The cabin itself is pretty grim (in a good way). I hope that there's enough room once we get all of us + a camera + lighting + sound in there...

On the way back, we stopped in a small village and Jeanie inquired in a butcher's shop about some intestines which we're hoping to use for one of the scenes. The butcher cheerfully went outand brought back a large handful of various foul-looking organs, which he's said he'll save for us. What with the bag of meat I bought the other day before we left (just in case), it looks like we'll have more organs than will actually fit inside a human torso. Still, when it comes to bloody guts, I suppose it's better to be oversupplied than under.

This evening I went out and did some wild tracks in the woods. The trees were again bending terrifically in the strong winds, giving out a creepy creaking sound which I'm hoping the film can exploit. I felt okay in there (after slightly freaking out last night) until in the midst of sound recording a stream - and concentrating hard with my headphones on - I heard a whooshing sound behind me and turned to see a cyclist in full lycra come whistling past me, making me jump out of my skin. I think years and years of overexposure to horror films has made me overly suggestible. I managed to suppress my overactive imagination - not helped by Jeanie ringing me in the middle of recording some tree-creaking deep in the woods to tell me that all the lights in the house had suddenly gone out - long enough to hopefully get some good stuff - stormy winds, creaking trees, general oppressive forest atmos. Still need to shot list, storyboard, prepare props...

Came back with a head full of things to do to find that the electricity had come back on, just as suddenly. Bloody countryside.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Hail, vomit and ominous creaking

Monday 31 July

We drove up to the Lake District today – through hail and torrential rain for much of the way – not a good omen. As we got to the gate that leads up to Karen and Adam’s house, where we are housesitting for the week, Betsy, our daughter, exploded with vomit all over herself, the back seat and the luggage. While we cleaned her off, we discovered that the key to unlock the gate hadn’t been left for us, so Jeanie had to go off and get it while I hiked up the hill with a slightly stinky Betsy in her buggy. Half an hour later, regretting the decision deeply and on the verge of a heart attack, we finally reached the house.

As Betsy chased the cats around the garden, I checked out the views from the house over the lake, which I’m hoping to use to double for the view from the shack. They’re fantastic, really dramatic – hopefully it’ll work okay. Then, I went to have a look at the nearby forest location, which I want to feature in the film.

There are a couple of very tall trees that have been blown over in storms which now lie on the ground, their roots showing and standing vertical, 10ft high. It was quite eerie – with the wind blowing, all you could hear was the creaking of other trees as they moved in the wind, giving the distinct impression that they, too, were about to come crashing down.
Later this evening, after it got dark, I went back out there with a torch, just to see how it looked at night – and managed to terrify myself. In the pitch black, the torchlight makes everything look alive and the darkness is thick with sounds and barely perceptible movements, all of which serve to set your imagination running riot. I don’t think we’re actually going to be able to shoot at night – I’m not sure how we could light it – but it was good to get the feeling that the character in the film experiences – that there is something out there, ‘life in the woods’…

Friday, July 21, 2006

Embracing the Daft

I’ve just realized how close we are to the date when I’m supposed to be shooting “Awake” – (I’m actually thinking of changing the title to “Life in the Woods” as it’s the subtitle of Thoreau’s “Walden”, or maybe even calling it “Awake, or Life in the Woods” – I really like the idea of having a long, unwieldy title for some reason…). I’m not really that prepared – the script isn’t really written yet, I haven’t got a shot list, I don’t know what equipment we’re going to need – but I have been working on creating the spidery tree demon which bothers the main character – in fact, I’ve probably spent far more time than is healthy glueing bits of felt to the taxidermy body I bought off Ebay – the thing is likely only to be on-screen for a very short space of time.

The thing is, I’m trying to follow my own advice – and to show, rather than imply –embracing the daft (or at least, the potential for daftness). I’ve been encouraged (some would say “baited”), in this by Gareth, he keeps reminding me of my “fear of the daft” ethos, and wants me not only to show the demon, but to have it move about. This wasn’t part of the original plan, but I can’t resist a challenge, so I’ve started to make an additional model, based around a toy robot I found in a cupboard at home.

Hopefully, this will straddle that line of being creepy and stupid – rather than just being laughable (however, as Gareth has pointed out, if I’m feeling nervous about it, I need only remind myself that it can’t look any worse than the thing that runs off the table after it has burst out of John Hurt’s stomach in "Alien”). Gareth is still keen for me to have a scene where the demon is attacking the character, and he has to thrash around holding on to it to animate it, because it reminds him of the final part of “Trilogy of Terror” but, apart from the fact that I’m not entirely sure if the model would stand that kind treatment, I don’t know if I can fully embrace the daft to that extent…

Monday, July 10, 2006

All kinds of wrong

For a couple of years now, a few of us have been getting together on a regular basis to have Horror Nights – essentially horror film all-nighters round somebody’s house ( I say all-nighters, but usually we’re lucky to get past about 4 in the morning – although this means that we get through at least 3 or 4 films). As the nights have gone on, the choice in viewing material (mostly provided by me and Cooke) has got more and more varied and esoteric, which has led to great discoveries (like The Blood Drinkers, Daughter of Horror and May) as well as the occasional stinker.

This weekend, we had the first Horror Night for a while, round at Gareth’s. After a bit of a preamble with the a couple of Fleischer Superman animations from the 40s (which I picked up the other day for 99p from one of those discount book stores in town) – which were great, we started off with ‘Imprint’, Takashi Miike’s entry into the HBO ‘Master of Horror’ TV series, which showed on Bravo earlier this year – and which was the only one in the series (including films by John Carpenter, Toby Hooper, Joe Dante, Dario Argento, Lucky McKee, Don Coscarelli and Stuart Gordon), which hadn’t actually been shown in America due to its extreme content. Cooke and me had both seen it when it had been on TV, and wanted to see what the others would make of it. It’s probably the most compact of his films that I’ve seen (along with maybe ‘Audition’), with a really good narrative structure, but also at least 4 or 5 different kinds of wrongness.

It starts with an American (played by Billy Drago, who, despite being the only American actor amongst a Japanese cast, manages to deliver all of his lines as though they were written in a language he’d never before encountered) travelling out to a brothel island in 19th Century Japan to look for a girl he left years before. In the first five minutes you have a the bloated pregnant drowned corpse of a prostitute, a dwarf with a cockerel headdress and a big dark syphilitic hole in the side of her nose and a young prostitute with a face that is twisted on one side into a Joker-style smile. From then on, you get ghostly apparitions, the most horrible and wince-inducing torture scene that I’ve sat through since ‘Audition’ - (as a punishment for a presumed theft, the black-toothed brothel madam decides to maim one of her girls, but only in ways that won’t damage the merchandise…), the most extreme story of childhood poverty (including incest, aborted foetuses and rhubarb) and an ending that comes totally out of left field, that will have you both laughing and shaking your head with the horrible daftness of it all. All in all, it managed to put John off his pizza, allowed Gareth to discover what particular piece of onscreen brutality really makes him squirm, and set up some of the themes of the night, namely: wrongness, twinfreakery and, weirdly, noses.

After that, we all fancied something a bit lighter, so Cooke suggested Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein. I’d never seen it before (nor Blood For Dracula, which it was made back to back with) and it was a good contrast with ‘Imprint.’ It’s loopy, excessive, camp and hilarious – and, what’s more, it was originally made in 3-d, a fact which really adds to some of the scenes, especially when it’s a giant pair of decapitating tongs heading straight for you, or some innards falling out down a drain and into the lens, or with Udo Kier’s impalement. The film is also notable for featuring Chris Cooke’s favourite ever line of dialogue: “To know death, Otto, one must first fuck life in the gallbladder!” And you can’t really argue with that. Udo Kier plays the Dr. Frankenstein role, with immense gusto and a script-mangling accent, constantly going on about trying to find the perfect ‘nasum’ for his ‘Zahmbie’ (the evening’s second nose reference).

After a short interlude which we spent discussing particle accelerators, the shape of the universe and the trajectory of the earth around the sun, (albeit in a half-assed, read-an-article-in-the-newspaper-once-so-now-I’m-an-expert way), we put on the next film, a Japanese erotic horror from the late Sixties called ‘Blind Beast’.

It’s tricky, even now, to say what I think about the film. Essentially, it’s a three-hander, about a blind sculptor, who, with the aid of his mum, kidnaps a young model with the plan of making a sculpture of her. He disguises himself as a masseur, before slipping a chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth (what happened to chloroform? Once upon a time it was standard issue in all thrillers, now you don’t ever see hide nor hair of it. Did they run out or something?) and taking her (in a series of taxis – a blind man, an unconscious girl and a middle-aged woman – yeah, nobody will remember them…) to his home/studio, a large industrial warehouse in the middle of nowhere. When the model wakes up, she finds herself in a large room in near darkness, the sculptor’s torch gradually illuminating the room to show that the walls are completely covered with sculptures of female body parts – a section of lips, one of eyes, a wall of legs, one of arms, even one of noses (see, it’s officially Horror Nose night). Also, dominating the space are two immense naked female torsos, one on its front, the other on its back, allowing for a scene where a blind man chases a near-naked girl over a pair of giant breasts. Obviously, this description makes it sound like it could be some kind of Russ Meyer style kitsch romp – but in fact the film totally eschews any notion of camp – in fact it doesn’t have any humour in it whatsoever. While the relationship between captor and captured develops (in a very Stockholm Syndrome way), there is a lot of talking – a lot of pretentious talking at that – all about inventing new forms of art and becoming one with your sense of touch. For about an hour, it feels as though it’s never going to get any closer to being a horror film than just the premise – but then, in the last half hour or so, it goes all ‘In The Realm Of The Senses’ (which was made about 6 years later – they must have seen this…) and enters some very dodgy territory – after the model is raped numerous times, she finds herself ‘softening her feelings’ towards her captor. Actually, the film is already a bit dodgy in its depiction of the blind man – with one of those cinema visual impairments which means that he can instantly sense the precise location of someone in a room, but struggles to find the handle of the door to the house he’s lived in for years. It’s another one of those disability=madness ideas that pretentious (and able-bodied) filmmakers seem to like to employ. (That reminds me of the time we went to see the remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ - which shows disabled people as being evil, hideous, baby-killing freaks – and found ourselves sat behind a group of severely disabled people and their carers. Who the hell thought that was a good idea?)

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like the film – the design of it is really unique and it actually works okay despite being so setbound precisely because of the madness of the visuals, and in the last half hour, it works up into something quite interesting about sensuality and pain. It’s just that it probably could have worked as a less pretentious film – more of a B movie. Still, it’s worth taking a look at, even if it depressed the hell out of everybody by the end.

We finished off with another film about disability, but this time one that is a real B movie – and absolutely revels in it, Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case 2. Cooke and Gareth had seen this at a horror all-nighter years ago and found it really good fun, and thought it would be a good contrast to ‘Blind Beast.’ And it was – no pretentious dialogue, a much better discussion of disability issues and some of the most over the top prosthetics I’ve ever seen. The story is that, although presumed dead at the end of the first film, the Bradley brothers are taken to hospital in critical condition.
Through the psychic prompting of his deformed, maniacal former Siamese twin brother, Belial, Duane regains consciousness and the pair escape – and are picked up by Granny Ruth (Annie Ross) who runs a sanctuary/commune dedicated to ‘Unique Individuals’. And unique is the word, because this is where the prosthetics dept is running overtime – every single one of the people living there has a face so grotesquely deformed it’s like they’ve been sketched on a beermat by a drunk – one on them is all face, like a giant clam ( but has ‘one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard’), another has a face shaped like a giant half moon. Another woman has a head like the handlebars of a scooter, while my favourite (naturally, given the themes of the night) is the man who has a face made entirely of noses. All of which seem to be constantly running.

It was good fun, and a great end to the night, although Cooke’s contention that it is a better film about being a twin than Dead Ringers is, to my mind, a bit strong. Yeah, it’s less pretentious, yeah it’s got a good message about not treating people who are different like freaks (albeit slightly undermined by the fact that all of the ‘unique individuals’ take part in murdering people who threaten them), yeah, it’s got a man with a face made out of noses, but Speaking As A Twin, Dead Ringers is the one that freaks me out. If you’ll pardon the expression.

So, we made it through four films, ending up at around 4.00 which isn’t so bad (previous nights have sometimes only limped on to about 2.30) – maybe it was good to have short films (nothing over 90 minutes) so that your mind doesn’t get locked into one position for too long. And all had the requisite madness that makes true horror. Although, maybe next time we should try for something more ear-centred.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Accelerated growth

I spent most of last week working on a new project – an outline and treatment for another horror feature. I had to put it together really quickly to meet a application deadline for a scheme which I’d been invited to apply for, so I worked up an idea that’s been hanging around the back of my head for a couple of years, an ultra low-budget full-on horror called ‘Mum and Dad’. Although it was a lot of work, it was actually quite good to do it in such a short space of time – it feels like after moving in slow motion, the idea suddenly got injected with an accelerated growth hormone. The good thing is that, whatever happens, I’ve got a new outline to be thinking about – and it’s something that I really would like to do, because there’s a lot of stuff in it that, although very wrong, I could have a lot of fun with. The only negative about working in such a way is that there is no time for new things to rattle about inside your head and bang into other things – you have to kind of force things together and sometimes it means that there are elements that aren’t as rich as you might have wanted them to be. Of course, if the project goes anywhere (in terms of the scheme), I can work on these, but when you’re putting something in for consideration by a panel, you have to realise that as far as they are concerned, this is it – what you’ve put in could well be the end of a lengthy, considered, exhaustive process of imaginative thinking, rather than the beginning.
What’s quite interesting is that because I’ve had to knock it up so quickly, I’ve ended up talking to people about it, trying to get an idea of what they think – in effect doing a load of casual mini-pitches. And in that respect it seems like it works. It’s got a similar feel to Cry, where it seems quite straightforward to talk about – people seem to get it pretty quickly – whereas a lot of my other ideas take a bit more explaining – like I haven’t really got them boiled down enough in my own mind. It’s good practice, talking about things you’ve got in progress – it makes them seem alive in a way. For me, it feels good to get away from that feeling of preciousness about ideas – that fear that if you talk about them while they’re still in that embryonic stage you might ruin them, or someone might leech the idea, or people will look at you like you’re some kind of freak with a sewer for a brain….

‘Savage’, the other horror feature that I’ve been working on for a while has always been a bit of a harder pitch, and I think that’s down to me not having it crystal clear in my own mind where the key to the story lies. It’s something I’m working on at the moment, as I’m attempting to put together a revised outline for the story. I might have to do a new treatment as well – I did a PDF earlier in the year which works in some respects, but in others turns out to be a bit offputting, apparently. Luckily, having been in perpetual development with projects like ‘World of Pain’ for a number of years, my feelings towards revisiting/revising/reinventing ideas have softened. Now it feels like an opportunity to get something else out of the elements you’ve assembled. Not that you have to completely change the story, just find a different way of telling it. It always feels like a failure of communication on my part if people read the outline/treatment and can’t get how the film will work.

As far as ‘World of Pain’ goes – Chris is currently doing his draft of the script, so I imagine at some point in the near(ish) future, I may get the chance to revisit it. And turn it into a film about darts. Or caber-tossing. Or cheese-rolling. Or something.

‘Deliver Me’ is on the cards to start pre-production in the Autumn. We had a meeting with Paul Welsh from Em-media the other day, who has managed to get the paperwork sorted out. It was good to get some feedback on him about the project, as it’s the first time that we’ve really had that to date. He has some issues with the story, which I can understand, and I think we’re going to sit down and go through it prior to starting work, although I feel like at this stage we’re still sounding each other out and slightly miscommunicating because we don’t know each other (or each other’s work) that well. (Example - in this meeting we had a five-minute argument about whether ‘a vision’ was the same as ‘seeing something’.) He seems behind the film, but he did start off by warning that it was a ‘critical’ film for me. He was talking about how the routes into features are getting more and more streamlined, and how films around this level – including DVShorts and Cinema Extreme (ostensibly the rung above and below) are seen by a lot of people who will be in the position of looking for people to develop into feature directors. It sounded a bit depressing – kind of like a make or break deal – but then it probably is the reality of going along that route. However, for my own sanity, I can’t think of that being the only way that you get to have a career as a filmmaker in this country, so my attitude at the moment is to do my best to make the best film possible for the scheme, but not to treat it as though it’s such a precious chance that if I fuck it up I’m doomed. That way lies madness.

So, I’m going to continue making films outside of the funding system, just to assure myself that I can – and because, essentially, no-one can stop you doing it. Up with uncinema.