Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Fear of the Daft

Mayhem, the horror film festival which I help to organise, along with Chris Cooke, Gareth Howell and the Bang! Short Film Festival, screened on Sunday night at Broadway in Nottingham. We had a programme of shorts, a mixture of local and international films, followed by a special preview screening of Michael J. Bassett's new British horror 'Wilderness'. It was a good turn out - probably over 200 people, and we had a great reaction to everything we showed. Probably the most talked-about film was the Brazilian short 'Love From Mother Only' by Dennison Ramalho, which was a full-on tale of sex, Satanism and possession. Another fim which went down really well was 'The Weight' by John and Tom Turrell, a story of an affable psychopath and the perils of local small ads.

Watching the shorts it was interesting to see what influences were prevelant. Certain elements of Asian horror seem to be quite popular, with scary children, faceless apparitions, psychological drama and quick cutting all making a good showing. There were fewer films that went for gore or monsters or witchcraft, but then maybe that's just down to the current climate.
I think that sometimes people are scared of things looking daft - they don't want to try too much gore, or too many full-on effects because they are really hard to make convincing on a really low budget. Also, I think that sometimes people who aren't into horror so much, make films which reference horror genre set-ups or images, while at the same time presenting themselves as being about something 'more'.

I think I want to encourage people to go for it a bit more. Next year I'd like to see a wider range of horror, without the fear of things looking silly, and without the need to make things appear more 'serious'. Most horror stories have a certain amount of daftness built in - there's always the fear that if you make something that's supposed to have a monster in it (of whatever kind) that you're going to be laughed at. But I think people like to see stuff that takes them outside of their comfort zone, or at least attempts to. 'Love From Mother Only' was quite extreme - big devil statues, evisceration, talking beating hearts - but people loved it and went a long with it. However that was a comparatively big budget short, shot on film with a large crew and some money to spend on effects. The challenge for local low-budget filmmakers is to try and do something that would have the same effect, but made for tuppence. Which is hard, but not impossible. And sometimes the attempt is enough to carry things through. I like films that don't play it safe, that face up to the fear of the daft and plough on through it.

This isn't to have a dig at anything that we showed, or anything that was submitted, because we are all madly grateful for people's interest in and support of the festival. I think we have the possibility to build up a thriving horror scene in the region and hopefully Mayhem is going to continue to be a central part of that.

Read the BBC review of Mayhem 2 by Paul Bradshaw

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sounds horrible

‘Deliver Me’ is the next funded short that I’m due to make. It’s for a scheme called DV Shorts Plus, funded by Em-media and the UK Film Council, with a budget of £20,0000. At the moment I’m still waiting for the funding to come through – a job changeover at Em-media has meant that there’s been a substantial delay in the money being sorted out. The plan was orignally to shoot in Feb/March time, but now we’re looking at (hopefully) October.

The film is about a young woman who goes to see a spiritual healer. The woman, Heather, has a tumour behind her eye (more eye fetishism going on), but is also pregnant. The healer, Erin, at first relcutant, eventually agrees to treat her. The centrepiece of the film is the healing session which takes place in a Spritualist Church Hall, wherein Erin miraculously draws out the disease from Heather’s body. The climax of the film reveals the disturbing source and nature of Erin’s abilities.

The film is intended to be an expansion and development of the themes and filmmaking techniques which I’ve been exploring over the last three films (‘Autopsy’, ‘Cry’, ‘Through A Vulture Eye’). It’s got more character development and more story than ‘Cry’, but continues the idea of building an atmosphere, creating a tone. Again, as with Cry (and TAVE) I want to try and make the film feel like one sequence – like a piece of music, I want it to have different parts, but to always feel like it’s got the same basic underlying rhythm – so that it’s got a momentum that draws the viewer along.

Music was an important part of ‘Cry’ – as was the sound overall. It was an element of the film which really seemed to help with setting the tone. For ‘Cry’, I worked with a composer called Fyfe Ewing (formerly drummer with the band Therapy?), who I got introduced to through Jeanie’s brother. (I say introduced, but I’ve never actually met him in person – he lives in Brighton and we’ve only ever spoken on the phone or in emails). He has a similar set of influences to me when it comes to horror films, so it made it quite easy to talk about the kind of thing that we were aiming at.

I am entirely unmusical, so I always find it quite hard to describe what I want things to sound like – the only way I can communicate it is either to find some other music which has a similar feel, or to talk about what I want the music to do – defining the tone I need it to fit with.

For ‘Cry’, I knew that the music would need to be quite full-on at the start – the film was designed to be the last reel of a horror film, so from the beginning I wanted the audience to be forced to feel that they were coming in at a heightened point in the narrative. I also knew with ‘Cry’ that the music could be quite ‘horror filmy’ – the whole design of the film had to make people know what type of film they were in in a very short space of time.

For ‘Autopsy’, I used a song by Neko Case called ‘Furnace Room Lullaby’. I love the song and think that she has got an amazing voice and the opening lyrics seemed to really fit with the story of the film, and set an appropriate tone. But there are additional problems with using songs rather than composed music which was something that I only realised after making the film. Much as the song works, there is maybe something about using an American country voice that dislocates an audience a little – which is good in some ways, but in other ways maybe raises unnecessary questions in the minds of the viewers – and maybe makes them think that the film’s trying to be something it’s not. Each song comes with a set of associations and these associations can, to a degree, take a viewer out of the film – they can make you think about the filmmaker rather than the story.

Sometimes directors recast songs in such a way as to make them truly, indelibly part of their film. In David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’, one of the key scenes takes place in the Club de Silencio, where the two leads go and listen to a performance of Roy Orbison’s song ‘Crying’. The song is sung unaccompanied and in Spanish – and we cut from performer back to the audience throughout its whole length. It’s not entirely clear (as nothing in the film is entirely clear) what exactly is going on – but we can feel that it is something deeply emotional – the scene is absolutely riveting. Of course, Lynch has used Orbison before, recasting ‘In Dreams’ as a creepy and disturbed threat in ‘Blue Velvet’ – and obviously knows that the audience may well make that association. But he uses that as well, making the ‘Mulholland Drive’ scene seem even more loaded.

Another piece of music which is, for me, indelibly linked to a film is Iron Butterfly’s ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’, which is used for the climax of Michael Mann’s film ‘Manhunter’. It’s a bombastic piece of late Sixties prog rock, something like 17 minutes long in its original incarnation ( I once downloaded it and listened to it on the way into work – by the time it got to the extended drum solo I felt like chucking the thing under a bus) – and not something that you would expect to work – but maybe it’s the case that music which is more histrionic, overly dramatic and heightened is the stuff that works (or maybe it only works when you’re dealing with very fucked-up serial killers)

Argento, of course, has used music in a very upfront way, most memorably probably in the opening sequence of Suspiria – more prog rock, this time from his long-time collaborators Goblin. And again, it really works, at least for me. It feels like he’s trying to make the music as much a part of the film as possible – not an addition or a supplement, but as a fundamental part of his technique.

For ‘Deliver Me’, the music is again going to play a strong role. I want it to give the audience an idea of the central preoccupations of the film and to build up a fervent atmosphere from the very start. At the moment my main reference point is the soundtrack to an Italian giallo film, scored by Ennio Morricone, which uses choral voices and an insistent, off-kilter loop. I like the idea of the music being really upfront in the film – not using it as background or incidental sound, but using it to really ‘sell’ the tone I’m going for.

‘Deliver Me’ is intended to be a step towards making a feature. There’s a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years called ‘Savage’, which I would love to do at some point in the near future, but I feel that I need to be seen to be able to make more character-based work. ‘Deliver Me’ is, or will hopefully be, a step towards that, while at the same time keeping me on track with all of the development as a filmmaker which I feel I’ve got out of making these last three films.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


I heard this week that Through A Vulture Eye is going to be shown at the 5th Fantastic Films Weekend at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford at the end of next month. The same festival showed Cry a couple of years ago, and gave it a great review, so I’m really glad that TAVE is going to be screening there as well.

I also emailed Atomfilms this week to find out about how Cry has been doing on the site. (The deal with atom was made by the former distribution company for the film, so I’ve never had direct contact with them). The film’s had about 250 reviews on the site, ranging from the fantastic “this is the BEST short film I’ve ever seen!” to the vindictive “You owe me eight minutes.”, so I figured that there would be maybe about a thousand viewings. As it turns out, the film’s been seen over 72,000 times, which is a bit mind-boggling really.

I’m still trying to gear up to shoot my next short ‘Awake’ some time in June, schedule, weather and location permitting. It’s good to have other things to concentrate on, because the short I had planned to do and am supposed to have funding for, ‘Deliver Me’ still seems to be stalling. I’ve no idea what the hold-up is, but I do know that it’s been four months since we got told we been successful in applying, and we still haven’t had a confirmation of the money, let alone any cash. I’m trying not to let it get to me, but it feels like a lot of the momentum has been lost.

Anyway, I’m trying to concentrate on ‘Awake’ and also on preparation for ‘Mayhem’ at the end of this month. I’m editing a specially designed trailer for the festival next week, as well as the final showreel. It should be a good night.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The edge of madness

I watched Herzog’s Fitcarraldo recently, for the first time in about twenty years ( I don’t actually remember getting through to the end the first time I watched it – probably one of those late night BBC2 films that you feel as a aspiring teenage intellectual you ‘should’ watch). It’s a strange film – weirdly uncomplex in a lot of ways – it seems at first to suggest that it is going to be about a man’s madness, but then it seems to just be the madness. It exists in a weird kind of loop – Fitcarraldo is mad for doing what he does, dragging a boat over a hill, but in order to show him exhibiting this madness, Herzog does exactly the same – what is shown in the film is as crazy outside the film as it is within. It’s like some strange loop – the film doesn’t just illustrate madness, it conjures it up for its own sake. You end up watching, and analysing the filmmaking and the filmmaker as much as the film.

There’s something compelling about a film wherein the filmmaker’s personality and worldview run so thick. It’s like there’s an edge of madness to them, an inherent, almost unwitting, compulsion to get what’s inside them out there onto the screen.

The day after watching Fitzcarraldo, I ended up going out to see a new British comedy film. Probably because of the proximity of the viewing experiences, I couldn’t help but compare the two (unfair in a lot of ways – it’s difficult to see the two films pitching for the same audiences). And what was most striking about the British film was how mild it was – everything in it was unsurprising, typical and stereotypical, designed, seemingly, to pull an audience in with a promise of the familiar. It lacked any element of the madness that runs through a film like Fitzcarraldo.

I like that sense of madness in films, that sense of an idea unchecked, allowed to pursue its course – it feels like you’re being taken somewhere you haven’t been before. I enjoy it when a film feels like it’s the conscious or unconscious working out of an obsesssion, or a desire, or a fury, or a fetish. Films put you in the position of looking at events through the eyes of another, and it’s always more interesting to me when you can really feel the presence of a personality alongside you, directing you to focus on how you’re seeing what you’re seeing, forcing you to see those things in a different way. Better to have that edge of madness alongside you, than a mildness that gets washed away the minute you leave the cinema.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

That's inhuman...

With Through A Vulture Eye finished, I’m trying to get on with planning another new short – ‘Awake’. It’s the one about the guy in the woods. I’ve got a basic storyline worked out, but haven’t yet written it up into a script, because I’m still thinking about how (or if) I can do certain effects. One thing that I’ve wanted to do for a long time is to get the idea of the camera ‘jumping’ from tree to tree or from one wall to another. I think I’ll probably end up doing it with a jib, but I did spend quite a bit of time over the weekend trying to design some lightweight, cheap and easily assembled portable structure that would give me more of a ‘monkey jumping’ look. Unfortunately, I’ve no background in engineering or design, so everything I did looked like something a seven-year-old would send in to Blue Peter.

I’ve always liked trying to figure out this kind of stuff – how to get the camera into places where it can replicate an unnatural point of view – not just for the sake of it (I never really like those shots that you often see from the inside of a fridge when someone opens the door – I always end up wondering if we’re supposed to imagine someone inside of there, or that the yoghurt is somehow sentient), but because they can quickly give the idea of a different presence in a film.

I used to teach an evening course in Directing Drama for Broadway cinema and one of the things I ended up talking about was ‘human’ and ‘inhuman’ points of view (people would write these phrases down and I’d worry that they’d think they were industry standard, rather than just me making stuff up). In most realist dramas, the camera often adopts a ‘human’ point of view – it will be positioned somewhere which could potentially be conceived to be where someone watching the scene might be standing. In these instances, the camera is unobtrusive, we as an audience understand it to be an invisible, concerned (or dispassionate) observer, and we subconsciously identify with it. When the camera adopts a position that would not be normally accessible by a human (looking down from the ceiling, up from the floor, from inside an inanimate object), we as an audience imply the existence of an ‘inhuman’ point of view – which is not to say necessarily something supernatural or monstrous, but something which is outside of the human context of the scene. In horror films, the ‘inhuman’ point of view often does represent the monster/the killer/the ghost’s perspective, but in other genres it can also indicate the presence of an outside entity – perhaps the filmmaker(s) themselves. (This is precisely the issue that Haneke’s ‘Hidden’ toys with – the camera shows a scene which, within the world of the film, can’t exist – no camera can be in that position. The only way to rationalize the presence of the footage is to suppose a point of view which exists outside the world of the film)

For me, the presence of ‘inhuman’ points of view in films suggest either an inhuman presence within the film, or an ‘extrahuman’ presence outside of it. ‘Hidden’ is full of these ‘extrahuman’ shots and pushes them to the forefront in a way that most films don’t. But then ‘Hidden’ is concerned with the viewer (who’s watching, from where) in a much more explicit way than most other films, and this is possibly why it has sparked off so much critical debate – it plays on the key element of filmmaking: watching.

My last three films have all featured the idea of watching and seeing quite heavily, and I always try and nail down exactly why any particular shot is from a particular point of view (I’m not claiming to be different from any other filmmaker in doing this, but I guess it’s just something that I’ve had to learn to develop as I’ve been going along, and it is something that I’ve come to observe myself thinking about.)

In each of the three films, I’ve used different camera and post-production techniques to suggest both ‘inhuman’ and ‘extrahuman’ points of view. In Autopsy, I used a miniature black and white spycam (which we could hoist onto the end of a boom pole) to suggest a ghostly presence, and also developed a way of shooting a scene as a triptych (basically, three shots from the same camera position, but panned off to show different, overlapping parts of the scene which are then knitted together in post to give a kind of widescreen montage look) to emphasize the idea of being watched. In Cry, I used another miniature camera, this time in colour, to suggest the idea of a possessed room – we clamped it high onto the ceiling and had it move jerkily (in an early attempt at the ‘monkey jumping’ shot), we put it inside a door which was being hit by a hammer, and in a phone which the lead character was picking up. We also pushed it through the door, the window and a hole in the floor (which involved Cooke going down into a very spidery cellar and poking his hand up through the floorboards like some weird glove puppet).

For TAVE, I used a couple of lenses which I scavenged through an old projector to replicate a rounded, fisheye shot, like the image on an iris. I guess the reason I like doing this kind of stuff is that I like the idea of creating points of view in camera – inventing a presence while you are actually there on set, rather than affecting stuff in post. Also, I kind of like using non-standard cameras and lenses – you get a different texture to the image that really helps with creating these ‘inhuman’ points of view.

So, at the moment, I’m sketching weird tree-based devices and trying to work out how cheap and yet effectively horrific I can get the short to be. The strangely ironic thing is that I have, supposedly, got funding for another short, but it’s taken so long so far to get it sorted out (three months and counting) that I’ve had to put it to the back of my mind. Maybe it’s for the best – if it gets me making other shorts, then maybe it’s a good thing. But if anyone has a trained monkey who can operate an HD camera, let me know.