How I Made A Horror

Or how I produced an award-winning sixty-eight minute horror film on a budget of three hundred pounds in 1994.

Firstly, the above is mostly lies.

*          I didn’t produce it, well not all by myself; I did it with a cast and crew of around forty who worked tirelessly, at weekends and in the evenings, for around five months, all for no money.  Credit goes to them, both technically and morally.

*          Foremost amongst them was my co-producer, Chris Denton, who also covered the functions of cinematographer, camera-man, lighting, sound recordist, oh, and editor. He was quite busy.

*          The budget was, technically, three hundred pounds, but that obscures the fact that Chris, as part of his job as a videographer, had secured private access to a couple of hundred thousand pounds of filming and editing equipment. Had we had to hire all that, the budget would have been a wee bit higher.

*          It was award-winning  – the film won the International Award at 1995’s BIAFF (IAC) Awards:

http://www.theiac.org.uk/iac/video_library/BIAFF-1995-awards2.html

But, to be honest, and grateful as we were, there are so many different film awards in the world that almost everyone has won an award of some sort or other.

It did happen in 1994, though.

The genesis of the film that would become, ‘Blood Hunt’ was conceived during a very drunken Christmas Day meal in 1993. Spurred on by ignorant idealism, and intrigued by the prospect of a project that could involve all the various creatives I knew – actors, musicians, live-action role-players, writers, and photographers – I proposed we make a horror film. Two friends – both actors – said they would be director and cast respectively.

I’d been writing in one form or another all my life, but had no idea about writing screenplays. Seriously. Worse than nothing, because I didn’t even know what I didn’t know (and more on the consequences of that later).

Nonetheless, three weeks later I had produced a 17,000 word script.

At the time I wrote it, and subsequently, I had in mind that I wanted to make a B movie. This wasn’t a slur for me, it was a deliberate aim, based on having enjoyed many a decent B movie. I wanted a good solid, low-brow rollercoaster action-horror movie. The people around me, who would provide the cast and crew, were all into similar things and we were all young and full of beans, so it seemed a good match.

And actually having that conceptual definition proved a much wiser decision than I could have realised at the time. It allowed me to quickly pass on the vision, the vibe, the tone of the piece to others. So when the actors went away to work on the finished script; when the composer started working on the score; when Chris and I started scouting locations; we all knew the kind of thing we were looking to create.

So that’s something I got right, by pure fluke.

What I got wrong:

*          Pacing. Forget three-act structure, forget any-act structure, I knew nothing about any of it. As it happened, given my familiarity with horrors, I got the structure and pacing roughly right, partly from luck, and partly from the fact that I kept the pace break-neck throughout (because it was a B movie).

*          Formatting. Didn’t know anything about industry script formats – 12 point Courier; line indents and spacing etc – nor did I know that if you followed those formats you could pretty much guarantee that your finished film would be as many minutes long as your script was pages long. I wrote it in Garamond (my favourite type-face, but more concise than Courier) and when my finished 72 page script came out as a 68 minute film, it was a complete surprise.

*          Exposition. No one had ever taught me the old filmic axiom that you show don’t tell and so I wrote loads of dialogue wherein characters explained everything in excruciating detail. Oh dear.

*          Dialogue. Loads of it. I said that above, didn’t I? Tarantino and Shakespeare can make that cool, but not many others can.

*          Diversity. This one totally slipped by me until I started to listen to some feedback from viewers. I had made a film with my friends, who were all, predictably, a similar age to me and in doing so, I unconsciously created a world populated only by twenty-somethings. Now if you’re making a piece that is consciously concerned with a particular age group (e.g. Breakfast Club) fair enough, but our film was ostensibly set in the standard world and the absence of anyone outside their twenties was noticeable. I also under-wrote female parts (an easy mistake for a male writer): as my female lead pointed out to me, she was virtually the only speaking female part in the film and her role was mainly to be narky with the protagonist, get pregnant, and scream a lot. In fairness to myself, I took all this onboard and my second script featured a range of ages in characters and not only strong female characters, but a solid female protagonist.

*          Complexity. I didn’t want to do traditional vampires – where would the fun be in that? – so this is what I went for instead: my vampires  – the Drell Vorgora –  would not be supernatural entities but instead a different kind of human being, a splinter species to mankind that evolved alongside it. They would be physically stronger and faster than normal humans, more long-lived and evolved to subsist solely on blood. They would display powers that seemed supernatural – such as the ability to hunt an individual psychically, based on their psychic scent, or beat – and would be uncomfortable with daylight but not harmed by it. They would be subject to some of the common limitations of traditional vampires – inability to enter private residences without permission – but not others, such as daylight and crosses. Oh, and following persecution from mankind, starting with the Inquisition, they had retreated from civilisation and now lived in the South American Andes.

Got all that? Well quite. Massive complexity can work quite nicely in thrillers, but horror works best with fairly simple concepts, the stalker sub-genre displaying that most clearly. Actually, I think I brought off my odd  vampire-variants fairly well, but it was a lot to ask an audience to take in during sixty-eight minutes and probably not optimal.

*          Re-writes. I didn’t do any. Script-writing guru Robert McKee always says Thou Shalt Rewrite should be a cardinal commandment for screen-writers. Not for me though; we pretty much put my first draft up on screen. And the result? Based on a lot of feedback from a lot of people, it’s not too bad, but it is clunky in places and baggy in others.

So, script finished, I moved on to funding. We had the use of the filming equipment but I knew we’d need some cash, for props and for the specific visual effects make-up for the three vampires. None of us had any money ourselves, so I hit on the idea of going to a local cinema entrepreneur and saying, ‘We’re a small local group making a horror film – if you give us the budget, we’ll plaster your name over everything and mention you in all the press interviews.’

And he did (perhaps surprisingly, since we had zero track record). So that was our thumping budget of three hundred pounds secured.

Next, we needed to secure locations. In this we were aided by an intangible factor that I hadn’t really considered when we started out. We were based in Guernsey -it’s a little island in the English Channel between England and France, in case you didn’t know. So unlike a comparable group operating in, say, New York, or London, or Paris…..we were pretty much big news. Hey, there wasn’t a lot else going on!

What that meant is that we got interviews in the local papers and in local radio, and also that when we approached places for filming permission, they were more likely to say yes.

We were an exciting novelty, basically.

Now for the most part, our locations were quite mundane; flats – we all lived in flats, so that was easy; offices – most of us worked in offices, so that too was achievable; streets – we had easy access to streets, because it never even occurred to us that we should get filming permission before launching into chase scenes involving up to ten people….

But there were two locations that were potentially tricky.

One was a church and the other was the Peruvian Andes.

Yeah, the script started with a mountaineering scene in the Peruvian Andes. Chris always used to say I put things like that in my scripts just to stress him. I used to see it as wearing two different hats: so with my writer hat on, I would deliberately not think about what would be possible when I put my producer hat on: it would force us to come up with imaginative solutions.

And so it proved to be with the opening scenes of BloodHunt. What we did was to use the cliffs around Guernsey and shoot up at them, to make them look mountainous. When we added a night filter, music and sound effects, the illusion was so successful that we even had local people asking where we’d shot it!

The church was equally tricky for different reasons – firstly, we needed a disused church (we estimated about four solid days of filming), secondly, we didn’t have any money to offer, and thirdly, there were some elements of the script that were not exactly complimentary towards Christianity.

Nothing blasphemous, just the vampires saying that their kind had been persecuted by Christians but still,  I wasn’t sure how that would go down with Church authorities so when we did actually find a disused Methodist Church who were amenable to us using it, I sent off the script with a due sense of unease.

But they were fine with it, as it turns out and even gave us the keys to the church, so we could film when we wanted.

And so, after a couple of months of rehearsal and preparations, on the 1st May 1994 the embryonic film unit that was 3DF Films – named after the initials of the Director, Composer, and two Co-Producers – Duquemin; Davison; Denton; Feely – gathered for the first day of actual photography.

Part two of this article will deal with that shooting process, and also, the post-production phase.

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