How I Made a Horror – Part Two

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

Following 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.

We had a shooting schedule – yay us! – and even in my naivety I had realised that location needed to be the determining factor for shooting, not script order. Not only were there organisational considerations – getting film equipment, people, and props into a location takes time and once you’re there you want to shoot everything you can, in one go – but there were also access issues. The script called for shoots in some locations e.g. a bar and a library which we could only access on Sundays.

So on Sunday 1st May 1994 we arrived at Baloo’s – a local bar owned and run by a friend who had kindly agreed to let us shoot there (thanks, Neil!) We all hung out there most of the time anyway, so it was almost like shooting at home.

The scenes in question were from about twenty minutes into the script, with protagonist Jim celebrating inheriting a fortune with his friends Patrick and Leo. It was a night scene but we would be shooting during the day so the first order of business was blacking out the windows.

We got very used to doing this, as you do when you shoot a horror that is mostly night scenes, but necessarily shot during the day.

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In terms of difficulty, it was a baptism of fire – being a bar scene, it required a lot of extra’s which necessarily made shifting equipment for different set-ups more time-consuming and awkward. We also had a lot of material to cover, a lot of angles and dialogue, and all with an entirely new and untested crew.

Oh and the first death in the film had to happen, a fatal stabbing in the street outside.

Yeah, that was a stressful day, but we got through it and for the first time we had some basic footage to show for it.

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Some memories and reflections from the ensuing six-month shoot:

  • It went on forever. God, it felt like we would never be finished. Whereas we had a shooting schedule that broke up the script into specific chunks, there were inevitably lots of changes to when those specific chunks would actually get filmed. Things got in the way.
  • We were pretty ambitious with visual effects, considering we had sod-all money. We wanted the Drell Vorgora (the vampires) to have a non-human facial appearance, something the Buffy television series hit on a few years later. My friend Tenpole had drawn a fantastic sketch, incorporating spiralling grooved patterns into a partially bestial face. He then produced rubber casts which we glued onto the actor’s faces- what we hadn’t anticipated was that because the casts were glued air tight, and covered the nose, we could make them ‘pulse’ slightly by breathing in and out. That was cool.
  • Meanwhile, my friend Jon produced individually-fitted vampire teeth for the three vampire actors, triangular knives that looked like they were made of slate, and a severed head matched to the actor who got killed at the finale of the film. Said severed head was painstakingly individually threaded with hair; said actor then got his hair cut down to a number one during shooting, meaning the whole thing with the hair had been a waste of time. Hmmmmm.
  • When you’re doing a B movie vampire film, you want gore and you want blood. And as we discovered, fake blood is not as easy to manufacture as you might think. It has some odd qualities, being dark, sticky, and viscous. Ordinary shoots use professional fake blood – yeah, that’s a thing – but remember we had no money. We ended up with some bizarre concoction of coffee, syrup, and food colouring in the end.

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  • We learned on the job how different film acting is to theatrical acting. When you’re on the stage, you have a live relationship with an audience sat at least twenty feet away from you; on a film-set your audience is effectively that box sat on the cameraman’s shoulder! And crucially the actor does not determine what the audience does and doesn’t see, via his positioning – the cameraman does that, too. Also there is a critical difference in terms of distance – when you shoot a film the audience may be as far away from you as twenty feet but equally they may – and usually are – much much closer. This means that filmic acting calls for a much more subdued subtle style. All of my actors were from a stage background so this was a big adjustment for them.
  • We also learned about the limitations of acting ability. Had we been making a slasher, all your antagonist needs to do is pull on a mask and pick up a chainsaw / axe / machete / razor blade etc. But our antagonists were conceived as ‘thinking animals’, both simple and complex, hundreds of years old and possessed of superhuman strength, dexterity and senses. A bunch of twentysomethings struggled somewhat to put that across. I’m allowed to say this – I was one of those actors.
  • I had no idea how important lighting was, I thought it was….well, just the process of lighting so you could see what you were filming. I had no idea that lighting actually shaped, changed, and determined the terrain of a scene. I came to think of lighting as ‘sculpting in space’ and to this day I think my co-producer Chris is a bit of a genius at it.

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It is worth adding that we learned a lot about timing, scheduling, and the discipline of filming. When we made our second film in 1995, we got the shoot down to two and a half months, and films three and four were shot over sixteen-day continuous shoots.

Anyway, sometime around November 1994 we finished principal photography and moved into the post-production phase. For me, the big thing that came out of that was the importance of music. I had a sense that it was important of course and I had my own list of favourite movie themes. But to see an edited scene before and after the score is added…makes you understand the enormous contribution of the music to the overall emotional impact of the scene.

Our composer, Nick, did a brilliant main theme which runs over the closing credits. It was called, ‘Retreat From Nature’, which links beautifully to the central concept of the film on two levels – firstly, our protagonist, Jim is literally retreating from nature (as symbolised by the Drell Vorgora), but beyond that, there is a general idea in the script that mankind itself has retreated from nature, with its cities and technology.

And on a personal note, I always chuckle at the lyrics of, ‘You’re Gone’, one of the pop songs that Nick composed to play in the background of the bar scenes:

‘Oh no

You’re gone

Back to the wanking’

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The finished version of, ‘Blood Hunt’ was finally screened to the public in January 1995 – it’s on You Tube and IMDB if you want to take a look:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2408286/?ref_=fn_al_tt_5

 

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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.