Friday, 17 November 2017

If you only knew the power of The Dark Side...

It was, if I remember correctly, (and I’m worryingly likely to be wrong, if that’s the case), early 1992 and I’m upstairs on the school bus heading home. My best friend has an issue of a magazine I’ve never come across before – The Dark Side. This particular issue has a massive article on the special edition of Aliens.

Now, we were all HUGE Aliens fans – we played and loved the video games, I had the Dark Horse comics which we adored – so to read that there was a version of Aliens which showed Newt’s parents discovering the derelict and a whole load of other footage was a revelation. We’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization of the film and always presumed the additional material was artistic licence, not scenes we’d been denied seeing.

This magazine was an intriguing publication – my only experience of film magazines at the time was reading the odd issue of Empire, and like its sister publication Q, it often felt a bit too dry for my teenage tastes and lacked any sense or irreverence or anarchic stupidity that I enjoyed so much in the video game magazines I read such as Zero and Your Sinclair. (I guess it wouldn’t be until the launch of Neon/ Hotdog in the latter 90s that there would be something covering mainstream cinema in a less dry approach.) Although this horror magazine wasn’t as loopy in tone as my gaming mags, it had a sense of humour to itself, from the daft captions on the letters page to a less than complete reverent approach to everything covered.

Coming across The Dark Side must have coincided with my teenage horror “awakening” – I’ve covered that in more detail on my previous blog post below but it was a strange combination of the purchase of a random horror movies book from an overstocks book shop* and reading Stephen King’s Carrie that opened this dark portal…and the discovery of The Dark Side magazine came at the right time, opening my mind to a whole new world of horror. To quote one classic horror movie monster, “We have such sights to show you” – indeed!

From purchasing my own copy of said Aliens special edition, I’d pick up every issue of The Dark Side on going. Around this time there was talk of  "Opportunity Shocks", a short film competition they’d just run and as film making was just becoming something I was daydreaming of and focussing on, reading about Alex Chandon’s Bad Karma felt like something which, if not immediately within my grasp, was something I too could stretch towards. I’d eventually order from Alex a VHS copy of Bad Karma and his showreel for Drill Bit, which would get regular viewings with myself and my friends, entertaining us and inspiring us…and the line “STUPID CHAIR! MADE FOR STUPID PEOPLE WHO CAN’T STAND UP!” continues to make me giggle to this day…

I would read about all night horror film screenings in London, events I wished I could attend, screenings of forbidden or rare films…and reminisces of double bill film screenings in flea pit cinemas, a far cry from the Mansfield or Nottingham Odeon which was the closest I mostly got to a silver screen experience.

This period also coincided with the revival of the Vipco video label and their reissue of Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. Encouraged by the enthusiastic words in the magazine, I hired this pan and scanned, censored edition from the video shop and my friends and I sat down to watch this film, which we were informed, was regarded as a classic. Being only used to Romero’s Dawn and Day of the Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters seemed at times laughable to us, at times incomprehensible (THAT underwater sequence) and ending abruptly. But in the days afterwards I had convinced myself that there was something there that I just hadn’t grasped yet and, if my new horror bible said it was a classic, then the problem must have been with me. The problem would very soon go away.

Another revelatory moment would occur, when following The Dark Side’s Troma movies special, I discovered a Bank Holiday flea market in my hometown which had a second hand VHS stall…and came home with a copy of Class of Nuke ‘Em High. This stall, hitting my hometown market twice a week became a mecca for me during school holidays and where I would visit in the hope of picking up copies of films I’d been reading about in The Dark Side.

My “Italian” problem went away and then some -  I became entranced by the world of Italian horror, no doubt thanks to the articles written by John Martin (who would go on to be, and still is, my favourite film writer – his Seduction of the Gullible book remains a favourite!) I would search out films by Argento, Fulci, Bava, Margheriti and soon learn the pseudonyms used by the fly by night video companies to disguise the product. I’d take great delight in joining the dots and discovering that some of my nostalgic favourite video hits that my brother and I had watched at a VERY wrong and inappropriate age (Bronx Warriors, The Atlantis Interceptors) were from this same lineage.
(For a more indepth discussion of my adoration for Fulci, please see a blog post I wrote for a screening Creak had accompanying Fulci’s The Beyond…which also covers a “joining the dots” moment for Rome 2033: The Fighter Centurions -

As my knowledge or Euro “trash” genre cinema expanded, covering Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, Paul Naschy and the likes as did the mavericks of the UK scene. I’d read about Norman J Warren’s 70s output and love the tales of him working with so little, desperate to see Prey, Terror and Satan’s Slave with only Inseminoid available to view. I’d read trashy tales of Pete Walker and his controversial attempts to goad moral majority shock and scandal from his films. I’d be forever curious about the work of Lindsay Shonteff, though the only film I ever managed to track down was Zapper’s Blade Of Vengeance (and I kick myself years later for not paying to download those films from the now taken down website – a whole output there which no current dvd label has been able to secure for reissue.) Although I remained stuffy about Hammer films (an attitude I’m only recently starting to turn around) there was plenty of other UK output from across the years spread across the pages of the magazine, to file away in my brain bank and hope I could spot on the VHS stall, or a late night screening on TV to be taped.

Although those early to mid 90s seemed a depressingly lean time for UK film makers who didn’t want to make social realism or period pieces – Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil seemed stuck in the collapse of Palace Pictures and the rest that seemed to come through seemed to be played more for laughs (Funny Man, Revenge of Billy The Kidd) or flowery goth pomp all of this newly found knowledge of those making films on the periphery (and certainly far from the periphery of mainstream taste) all encouraged my film making day dreams. If it wasn’t for The Dark Side’s fanzine focus section (from which I also latched on to John Martin’s Italia film magazine Giallo Pages) I wouldn’t have come across a little film fanzine called A Bag Of Sand, devoted to film makers exactly like myself – home movie enthusiasts hoping to somehow get a break. This fanzine was a lifeline to me, comforting me to know others were out there around the country in the same boat as myself or further along that road (especially for one film maker called Edgar Wright but I believe has done quite well for himself…) Hilariously I’d also later become the cover star of an issue when Steve Lawson, the editor, tootled up from Leicester to Nottingham to interview me about my ropey film work.

As a bonafide massive fan of The Dark Side I was honoured to get a letter printed in the magazine and it continued to raise a chuckle that my signing off of telling Allan, the editor, to get a haircut (based on his Mike Read-esque spiked mullet hairstyle on his editorial photo, which was obviously a shocking faux pas to my long hair teenage tastes) continued to run for several later issues with other readers suggesting the same thing. Sorry about that Allan :)

Other magazines would come and go in my life around this time – I’d pick up the odd issue of Fangoria, but could never get on with that magazine….I’d also collect Shivers, though it never seemed to hit the heights of The Dark Side. Aside from John Martin’s Giallo Pages, I’d also pick up other fanzines such as Necronomicon, European Trash Cinema and the odd issue of Video Watchdog…but for a long period time it was all about the Dark Side.

Much that my love for the magazine coincided with many things coming together in one go, as did the decline in my following of the magazine. The magazine had resorted back to a bi monthly schedule, which I worried was the alarm bell waking the death knell to get ringing, having seen it with the 8 bit video games magazines I once read. I’d also left college, I felt that it was very hard to make an effective horror film at the level I was operating – sure, you could repulse people, you could play for laughs, but it was hard to actually scare people – and the films I was wanting to make were to be more slices of life reflecting my own experiences of entering the adult world. I’d be going further into the world of Scorsese, Woody Allen, Lindsay Anderson…it felt like the magazine was slowly working through an inexhaustible A-Z of horror and everywhere you looked it was the X-Files. Sorry, it’s not you The Dark Side, it’s me…

I didn’t pick up an issue for years, though I would flick through the odd issue in a newsagent and be pleased to see it managed to avoid that demise I predicted – like an old friend, it felt comforting to know it was still around.

But then for some reason earlier this year I picked up an issue and found myself buying it regularly again. The aspects which appeal to me more these days (and to be fair, did when I originally bought it) are those personal touches that the writers bring – it’s those individual reminisces and opinions which seem to really work for me. A recent article about the Holborn Gothic Society felt like a real peak into a secret world yet one which is still very much alive today (and who would have expected Bob Monkhouse was such a fan of the fantastique!) Allan’s editorial pieces and Facebook posts looking back at his diaries, the films he saw on what day 40 years ago are such a sweet time capsule of a cinema world long gone. It’s things such as these which make the magazine a special place, a communal place where fans of horror can come together.

Sure, there are plenty of places where such people can come together on the internet in a far more instant and interactive manner, but for The Dark Side to still exist in PRINT form, in this day and age, is something to be applauded. I certainly never expected it to outlast a giant such as Fangoria. I appreciate this love in is turning a blind eye to controversies in the magazine’s history, namely accusations of plagiarism, and even now one particular forum seems focussed on continuing to rake the magazine over the coals. I’ve seen various arguments back and forth but for me, that’s a discussion for another time.

I have to smile about a certain circularity of events – when I first became a regular reader of The Dark Side I was reading about a no budget film maker receiving some promotion via the magazine, enviously reading about Shock Around The Clock and other all day horrorthons – and as I return to the fold as a regular reader we now we have the first ever Dark Side horror film event where they are screening my horror short film Creak (which was my first attempt at making a horror film since my teenage years) at Dark Fest. This will also be my first ever horrorthon so I no longer need to pine at film line ups and events and wish I could be there. Indeed it feels like things have come full circle!

I will always hold up Alex Cox’s Moviedrome series as opening my eyes to such a broad range of cult cinema, but it was The Dark Side which introduced me to such a huge other wave of fantastical cinema and helped join a massive amount of dots between important films and directors for me, some of which have gone on to become some of my all time favourites.

The largest of hats off to Allan for keeping The Dark Side going all these years through thick and thin and here’s to many more years. For those of you attending Dark Fest I hope to meet some of you there!

*Perhaps some eagle eyed Dark Side reader can help track down this said book – from my previous blog post “I think it had a main image on the cover along with 3 boxed out images on the bottom, all stills from the movies…one of which I’m sure was Klaus Kinski in the role of Nosferatu.

I can’t recall if Frankenstein’s monster was on the cover, but as I flicked through the pages I somehow found myself stopping on a striking image of Alice Krige’s frighteningly decaying corpse from the adaptation of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. It really was quite shocking. Amazing Dick Smith special effects. As I had the book open some classic cloth cap style Midlands pensioner shuffled behind me, looked over my shoulder, saw what I was looking at and declared “THAT STUFF WILL GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES!” I also remember it had a full page of eyes from De Palma’s The Fury and also a full page picture of Carrie’s date with a splattering of blood on his face from the De Palma adaptation. There was also a double page spread of the different coloured “deaths” from the finale to Corman’s Masque of the Red Death film.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Why I Do What I Do (or why I thought I do what I do and what I want to do about 9 months ago doodah)

My friend Calie started a blog about writers earlier in the year and asked me to be one of the writers to submit a piece about their work to her blog. I must say I felt a tad apprehensive after reading some of the guest pieces she’d already ran – authors who were several published books down the line, whereas I didn’t really see where my film making could stand toe to toe with the previous contributors. After her reassurance that she was keen to hear from a variety of writers who work in different mediums and had different levels of success I felt pacified enough to commit to the below. I never expected it to turn into such a self analytical and historical piece...unfortunately she never got to run the piece, with life getting in the way of her running the blog...and a lot of what I talk about below also feels slightly less relevant three quarters of a year further down the line, I'm still in a limbo state trying to finish the same 3 films which I probably mention below.
For anyone (hello?) who does "follow" this blog, some of the below towards more recent years will be going over old ground...but if you get that far anyway, hats of the highest size and magnitude off to you for persevering!

Why do I write? Why do I do what I do?  Possibly, most importantly, what is it that I really want to do? These were questions which I’ve already been asking myself over the past year, compounded no doubt by a significant death in the family and one of those awful milestone birthdays, where in the aftermath your body alarmingly seems rapidly more aching and fragile, derailing any feelings of invulnerability that you may have previously held.
I’ve always held  a significant moment in my teenage years as THE catalyst moment from where everything else has unravelled from, yet as I try to analyse the how and I why of that moment I found myself going further back, looking for the groundwork which made me susceptible and open to that moment.
I realised, that like the vast majority of things in my life, most of it can be traced back to my Sinclair 48K ZX Spectrum.
It seems odd that Sir Clive Sinclair’s computer for the masses should have such a significant effect on my very being, but it was everything around it as a result of computing which exposed me to a wider cultural awareness.
Firstly and most simply, were the masses of licensed product that were adapted into video games…or if not officially licensed, years later I’d realise how storylines, themes etc were heavily inspired from other sources.  As this was the wonderful lawless wild west of the early world of home computing, for the most part these all managed to exist under the radar without legal ramifications…with only the odd arcade inspired conversion receiving any lawsuit ire, which usually resulted in a quick reskinning of graphics to bypass such issues – a situation which mostly continued until Rainbow Arts “Great Giana Sisters” proved too close to Nintendo’s “Super Mario Brothers” (see what they did there?) *
The breadth of licensed software is really quite staggering when looked at from a distance. Over the years video games were seen as more of a “kids” thing, a perception which is no longer with us, but it’s also interesting to see how video games with more “mature” tie ins must have been aimed at an older audience, as realistically the younger audience wouldn’t have been aware of the original material…though, as in my case, press and promotion in video games magazines suddenly raised awareness.
Some examples- video games of Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Minder – programmes which were aimed more at the 8pm/ 9pm watershed adult audience. Book publishers seemed keen to get involved in this new medium, resulting in adaptations of James Herbert’s The Rats (resulting in full page advertisements of the striking book cover illustration in video game magazines…the game was a mixture of strategy and adventure, with some tense decision making moments, sometimes which would result in rats “biting” through the electronic page of text – beat that Kindle!) There was a ground breaking icon driven adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol, more child friendly fare such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which came with as a game/ book package), Beam Software’s recognised classic graphic adventure interpretation of The Hobbit, followed by similar ambitious games by Mike Singleton tackling the Lord of the Rings trilogy…many book, tv and film adaptations…even music inspired “games” would follow, including a light synthesizer tie in with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Often these tie ins would be graphic adventures where, for those unaware of the genre, required VERB NOUN entry to play (ie GET ROPE, OPEN DOOR, INSERT CARD) – I recall a review of one adventure game called 4 Minutes To Midnight, which had an evocative opening at a petrol station and a car crashing into the petrol pumps, inside the car was someone who had succumbed to some super virus outbreak…years later I would discover the source of inspiration for this opening…
Many of these games I would never get to play, or not until many many years later thanks to the wonders of modern emulation (and the removal of the tedious waiting for the game to load from cassette.) However, my window into this world was wide open thanks to the UK video game press. From around mid 1985 I would regularly be reading a mixture of Crash and Sinclair User (followed by Your Sinclair at the end of 1985) – magazines specifically covering the ZX Spectrum, as well as Computer and Video Games, a broader magazine which covered all formats. On a similar tip, for around 20 issues we also had at home Marshall Cavendish’s INPUT magazine, which brought a 52 week run of magazines with across format type in programmes, ranging from action, adventure and strategy  games, word processing and spreadsheet type applications leading into the world of Machine Code. Even this type in magazine would throw in various cultural references, usually in the illustrations to make the tedious idea of typing in programs more exciting – for the word processor type in, there were several illustrations with the text “Tolstoy could have used a word processor”, then over the page amongst a picture of a pig’s head and several people wearing identical blue overalls “And Orwell couldn’t wait for 1984…” So my initial awareness of the existence of Orwell came from a magazine designed to teach programming…
My reading of books at this time became quite limited – apart from reading books at school, the weekly trips to the library seemed to dissipate somewhat, probably out of a lack of adventure in knowing where to take my reading next – bar Roald Dahl books, my reading of literature seemed to stall somewhat – ironically, any books I did read were usually related to a game, in the hope of garnering some clues – I read The Hobbit in the hope it would give me some extra help in tackling the graphic adventure but found the book an arduous, dry exercise at the age of 11 …and as there was a graphic adventure of Terry Pratchett’s Colour Of Magic I tried to reserve that book from the library, but was told it was “unsuitable for someone my age.” Typical of my non rebellious 10 year old nature I accepted this…instead of wanting to discover what made it such a forbidden fruit!
But most of my time would be taken poring over these magazines, re-reading issues fervently – tea time would usually mean taking a stack of issues and sitting at the kitchen table, going back through articles I never read at the time or reconnecting with favourite features. It wasn’t just the articles about video games – as the years passed and the readership aged, more “lifestyle” features would crop up. With close tie ins genre wise with fantasy, sci-fi and horror it’s unsurprising that many features would tap into those worlds. I recall an interview with Douglas Adams in C+VG, surrounded with a DIY flip book of a computer generated tea cup and saucer flying around Adams. Following the massive success of his tie in adventure game of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy with Infocom, he’d created a new game inspired by his own experiences called Bureaucracy (Infocom games were too complex for my mere little Speccy, so I never played them…but the first time I heard the name H.P Lovecraft was a result of their Lurking Horror adventure game.) C+VG also ran a feature on Steven King, 2 pages briefly covering his career in books and the film adaptations…I recall a book review “round up” in Sinclair User which featured a particularly striking image of a pair of eyes and stretched light beams, which highlighted a novel called The Damnation Game by a new author called Clive Barker…and by the time we get to 1990 and I’ve upgraded to my Amiga, I’m reading a massive feature on special make up and FX company Image Animation for their work on Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, which had 2 tie in video games.
So, as a result of all of this, I had a grounding and an awareness of these creators and these worlds, even if I had never experienced them first hand by seeing the films, reading the books etc.
What happened next I’m not entirely sure, but there were two events. In my head, the primary event was a visit to an overstocks bookshop in Nottingham in my early teens…I have no idea why, but I’d picked up a book called HORROR MOVIES*. I think it had a main image on the cover along with 3 boxed out images on the bottom, all stills from the movies…one of which I’m sure was Klaus Kinski in the role of Nosferatu. I didn’t have a particular interest in horror movies, though I’d always been fascinated by the image of Frankenstein’s monster since seeing a photo of it in the first TV listing for Channel 4 coming on the air (which, I would later realise, wasn’t Boris Karloff but was Fred Gywneth as Herman Munster*)
I can’t recall if Frankenstein’s monster was on the cover, but as I flicked through the pages I somehow found myself stopping on a striking image of Alice Krige’s frighteningly decaying corpse from the adaptation of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. It really was quite shocking. Amazing Dick Smith special effects. As I had the book open some classic cloth cap style Midlands pensioner shuffled behind me, looked over my shoulder, saw what I was looking at and declared “THAT STUFF WILL GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES!”
Despite lacking any rebellious streak, I sincerely believe it was his words, his disapproval of the book, which prompted me to take the book to the counter and purchase it.
This book became my absolute bible, re-reading and re-reading articles, introducing me to such a variety of films from the beginning of silent cineama – The Golem, Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu, to the Universal world of Lugosi, Chaney and Karloff, through to the 50s shlock, the fabulous world of Roger Corman’s run of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (with a wonderful double page still of the various figured “colours of death” from the conclusion of the Masque Of The Red Death film), Romero’s world of zombies, into the harder 70s horror and the extremities of 80s horror and “video nasties” where I would see the names of the Italian directors (Fulci, Argento) who would become my heroes before the end of my teens. Some of these films I would eventually see, some I’ve still not…
The other event, which was no less significant, was my purchase of Stephen King’s Carrie. I don’t know where I bought it – I have a strange feeling it must have been an airport and that it was an American published copy, but my purchase of this predates a family holiday to America at the age of 16…nevertheless, I was completely taken by the book and convinced all my core friends to read it, which then turned them on to this world. What followed was a rapid devouring of King’s work – I recall a post Christmas family visit to Manchester, where I came back with a stack of newly purchased books, including his pseudonymous Richard Bachman books and the novel of The Running Man, which Schwarzeneggar had already starred in - an adaptation which disregarded most of the book* I recall a family holiday away to some Meditteranean island where I spent the whole week ripping through several novels at high speed including The Shining.
I had two favourites – The Stand, his apocalyptic epic tale of the world devastated by the super flu “Captain Trips” fired my imagination of that “What if?” question that last people on earth tales continue to tap in to. It also had a familiar opening sequence involving a petrol station and a car crashing at the opening…which if you haven’t fallen asleep by this point in this article, you may recall that it means the adventure game 4 Minutes To Midnight was inspired by The Stand.  His short story collection “Night Shift” featured so many short stories I would revisit over and over – Grey Matter, the story of some bad bacteria in a can of beer turning an abusive father into a more hideous monster continues to make me shudder…and there was also a lovely melancholic teens on the beach story called Night Surf, which was like a little side story to The Stand and existed in the Captain Trips epidemic world – the idea of these side stories apart but part of a bigger story, expanding the world and scope, appealed to me massively.
From King I then went to James Herbert, burning through The Rats trilogy at an alarming rate and finding his nuclear horror of Domain haunting my seared mind, already suffering blast burns from the horror of the film adaptation of When The Wind Blows, apocalyptic 80s cinema and the Orson Welles narrated “documentary” about Nostradamus “The Man Who Saw Tomorrow” (which is a whole other story of how that film RUINED me and my teenage years.)
It’s around this time, probably at the age of 14 or 15 I wanted to be a writer. King was my hero, even though there were many of his books I never read (and still are very many, as I’ve not read any of his books for years) but he was my template, my idol to aspire to. My favourite classes at school were English (language, not literature as I couldn’t get on with the books we HAD to read in class) and Art. But oddly I don’t really remember writing. It was something I wanted to be, without doing it. Or something. The only thing I remember writing - which probably was when I was 15 and funnily is something I’ve only recalled while thinking about this piece – was a story called A Pinch Of Snuff*. Tapping into video nasties and my new interest in horror films I started writing the story of a woman coaxed to a rich bachelor’s mansion with a view to killing her off on camera, which I’m presuming would turn into a game of cat and mouse. I really don’t remember. I do, to my elder shame, recall writing a sex scene inspired by James Herbert’s more saucier moments. I don’t recall it getting very far into the cat and mouse escapades.
I also remember passing this handwritten work in progress, maybe about 10-15 sides of lined A4 at a push, around some people at school and suddenly quite a few people in my circle of friends had read it, with more interested as word got around (I say this, but this is a very small word getting around.) But there was something in the response,  as I look back at it now, which scared me – it wasn’t a negative response, it wasn’t people laughing at me, there was possibly some excitement, some enthusiasm – “Have you read Luther’s story!?”  type thing….I can’t recall…but quite why it made me feel sheepish, on the spot I really don’t know*.  Whatever the reason, I suddenly decided at this early age that I was not very good at writing. I had no style.
I wished I’d known someone a little bit more beyond my years, in a similar creative mindset, who could have took me to one side and tell me everyone at that age is of course useless, derivative and dreadful…but you have to continue to work through it. But there wasn’t. So that was the end of my career as a writer.
Alas, snuffed out at such an early stage.
But, I still wanted to tell stories. By now one of the other biggest things in my life was comics, in particular 2000ad which became another obsession to devour. Saturday mornings were spent at Ground Zero comics in a shopping arcade in Mansfield, hanging out, 20 years before geek comic book culture would explode into the mainstream with The Big Bang Theory and hugely successful Marvel film adaptations. My friend and I wanted to put a comic anthology together ourselves called “Bad Apples.” We tried to come up with a storyline for something…devoid of inspiration, we listened to The Orb’s “Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld” in the hope of their aural landscapes giving us that nugget of a storyline. Quite how we got to a murderous politician getting snapped by a nosey, arrogant investigative photo journalist I have no idea…but that was the storyline for him, while I had to come up with my own. One initial short story was The Tap, where a man kept endlessly awake from a dripping tap calls for a plumber, only for the plumber to inform him that he doesn’t have the particular washer required and he’d have to come back…resulting in the man, already on the edge, murdering the plumber and then being kept awake by the sound of blood dripping from his victim’s head. Arf. I also created several pages of an ongoing storyline of Armour Plated, a psychopathic robot policeman – like an unhinged, archly ironic Robocop – who goes on an unstoppable rampage in an irreverent ridiculous tale heavily inspired by the madness of Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s fabulous Marshal Law series.
However, after hearing through the grapevine how my friend thought my stories and drawings were a bit…well…shit…I suddenly lost any confidence in my ability to draw (and to be fair, I had little confidence in my abilities as it was…) and so that was the end of my comic book career…(and funnily enough Bad Apples too, with the photo journalist story never getting any further than 6 striking pages)
Alas, snuffed out at such an early stage.
So, can’t write, can’t draw – what can you do? Nope, Goody Two Shoes wasn’t to decide that singing stories in song form was to be my next path…I realised that surely making a film is no different to creating a comic book – it’s framing action and dialogue in a TV or cinema screen shaped box – and if I can’t draw, then surely I can put people together in a frame and press record?
Incredulously, it was this simple line of thought which set me off on the path which I’ve been following for nearly 25 years.
Of course, to make a film, I needed a script. I didn’t know anyone who wrote scripts, or had scripts or any ideas for me to film, so by default to have something to make I began writing films with a view to making them.
The first cinematic master piece? “Agent 009.5 and Fez Head”, an improvised collaboration recorded in my best friend’s bedroom with a camcorder which was connected to a VHS recorder in his room, limiting the reach and angles we could get in a completely random act of madness. Sadly this filmic equivalent of a first Rutles demo recording was lost when it was taped over with a pirated copy of Hellraiser 2: Hellbound (Clive Barker AGAIN!)*
Armed with my dad’s newly bought camcorder, my first solo entry Silicon Seeds was conceived, taking inspiration from David Lynch’s The Grandmother short film (something I hadn’t seen, only heard mentioned briefly in the Lynch special of Jonathan Ross’ Incredibly Strange Film Show) where a man grows a robot spider from some silicon chips in his back garden which then goes on to attack to him. Go figure. Except the production ground to a halt on the attack when I was worried about getting fake blood all over our bathroom and my mum going mental at me. I believe it languishes on a dusty VHS tape after a pirate recording of Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange.
After which I hit college and within various class projects and my own work… the obligatory goth(ic) inspired pretentious film that exists in EVERY teenage film maker (mine taking its The Soul That Pines For Eternity title from a headstone in Fulci’s City Of The Living Dead) and other work…somewhere between this time I wrote a feature length script called “Parad-Eyes” which inexplicably and hilariously was the name of a mental hospital where, obviously inspired by some throwaway reference to Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor or something like that (which I’ve still never seen) someone goes into the aforementioned hospital to – shock (corridor) horror – discover the inmates are running the asylum! MADNESS! However, as I was lacking a printer compatible with my Amiga this script remained digital only and the disc is long gone, never to be recovered.
On a similar tip I wrote another feature length project – “The Final Hit” a tale of two hit men paid to take each other out. Imagine my annoyance when I saw the announcement of the film “Assassins” where Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas play rival hit men hired to take each other out then join forces…Hollywood must have had moles in the armpit of the Midlands! Much like Parad-Eyes, I don’t believe this script ever got beyond my public domain word processor software so is also lost…despite shooting a John Woo/ Quentin Tarantino action fest with no money was beyond my abilities, I still decided to create a fake trailer for the film which in retrospect took as much work as it would have been to shoot the whole thing…still, messing around Mansfield with bb guns and having no attention from authorities seems wonderfully naïve now and I did put together a nice action montage to The Moody Blues’ “Go Now” which I always had a soft spot for.
Somehow I cranked out another feature length script called Acts Of Creation where some of my new obsessions – Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Leone and Robert De Niro – were somehow put together in a room to bash together an action script and in moments of meta madness (years before I would even hear the term) they would find themselves in their imaginary scenes, directing the actors, making them repeat painful scenarios as they rewrote the script, sat in the back of cars involved in a car chase… (Years later I would see An American In Paris and be amused how unsurprisingly this idea had been mined before, but to a far more delightful effect than my 18 year old mind could muster.) I even shot one of the more low key scenes from the film in my college class room, where the 4 creatives discuss the music for the film…for some reason Tarantino suggested Man 2 Man meets Man Parrish’s Male Stripper song, gets up on the table and starts to strip, to the horror and annoyance of De Niro.
Go figure.
This script did actually make it to paper – not sure if I hand typed every page out on my dad’s electric typewriter or used the aging Amstrad word processors we had at college, but somehow a paper copy of this script resides in my loft…and after spending what seemed like a small fortune (at least to a poor student) at the 5p photocopier in the local shop a copy went winging it’s way to Channel 4 and Film Four, never to be heard of again. I hope someone at the office got a good laugh out of it, or some scrap paper at least.
The horror…several college projects revolved around horror – Modern Art involved modern “artist” Bartholmew Myers (umm…dunno, a mash up of Bart Simpson and Michael Myers – no idea) whose artwork happens to involve REAL CORPSES! MORE MADNESS! Interestingly, I took extreme inspiration from Roger Corman’s A Bucket Of Blood, a film I wouldn’t get to see until years later and at least would take some delight seeing there were similar scenes in tone, especially with the art critics. Taking inspiration from Dario Argento’s giallo and colour scheme of his fabulous nightmare fairy tale Suspiria I cranked out A Walk In The Dark, an oddly pointless half baked stylized story involving the smallest, stupidest child’s policeman’s helmet and two unsatisfying twists all of which added up to it failing to gain entry to a local film festival competition. Great soundtrack though…
If anything, attempts to do cack handed amateur horror films put me off attempting to make horror films for many years. Although I’d continue to have a love for the genre and my Italian trash cinema heroes, I was in my “stylised real life” phase loving Woody Allen, Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Lindsay Anderson and my writing was more about people, relationships, especially those in their late teens going into their 20s..basically where I was at and the rude awakening of leaving college and entering the real world.
Plus, in theory, filming two people chatting in the room was a lot easier than depending on special effects, most of which were way beyond anything of my abilities and meagre budgets nor did I know any creative people who could supply them. These pre-internet days were pretty hard to network!
My crash and burn entry level into a) failing to get into university b) somehow landing a job at Nottingham’s legendary record shop Selectadisc (and its “school of hard knocks”) and c) coming to the tail end of some misery guts teenage depression and angst resulted in me writing “5 Times For”, an anthology film with a view that I can make 5 short films and put them all together in one package.
So, this began with (Time For A) “Bitch” where 3 friends got together around a kitchen table, drank wine and had a good old bitch about their dead end jobs, things which were bugging them and childhood dreams drawing on some of my own embarrassing admissions…each of these characters then got their own story (to some degree) so one character went on (Time For A) “Date” following his discussions to camera about his inner turmoil and over analysis before going on the aforementioned date, another went to (Time For A)“Party” (which was supposed to be shot all from the character’s point of view, seeing the house party through his eyes), (Time For A) “Fall Out” followed the female character walking out on an argument with her partner and literally being passed by the l’esprit de l’escalier as she realised how she should have responded to each comment from her now ex…with the final storyline “Time For A….” inspired by the surrealistic fantastical story “How To Kill A…” from Jaime Hernandez’s rightly lauded Love And Rockets comic book, this was a playful exploration of the filmic frame…I think it was supposed to also include a music video interlude to a song from Bob Tilton, a local band whose lead singer I worked with at the time.
With no access to a word processor I think must have been typed on my dad’s electric typewriter again. Pretty sure I have all of this script in the loft…I managed to film “Date” with the help of a new bunch of creative people I’d met at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham (which became my new spiritual, romantic hang out in terms of tortured writer/ film maker loitering drinking endless coffee on his day off – a walking, caffeine wired jittering cliché, if ever there was one) Ironically, my “casting” meeting with the barmaid in the café whom I had asked to be in the film would turn out to be as awkward as the date in the film, in an art aping life aping art to be style. Date would be shot over a period of time and partially edited…but would remain unfinished until many years later when the some titles, including pretentious quote courtesy of Joseph Conrad, were added.*
Despite not finishing Date, but frustrated by how long the process had been, I swiftly wrote a short diatribe between two friends, one of whom was at the end of her tether at the other’s ignorant attitude. (Mono)(Tone)(Drone) was shot quickly in a morning in a pub…*
There some significant changes in my social circle, with best friend/ confidante/ actor/ creative moving off to university. Luckily I fell into a new group of performing arts students, which gave me a pool of people to work with…so bizarrely having still not given up on this 5 Times For debacle I shot Bitch in my kitchen with 3 friends becoming increasingly wired on neat Ribena standing in for wine…when wine would have probably had less toxic results. Again, it would remain unfinished due to a lack of titles for many years…
With my new found friend we crafted a bonkers Phillip K Dick inspired tale of a man who is sent by some acolytes via the use of some powerful eye drops to go and kill God. We came up with the whole storyline on the top deck of a bus ride back to my house, where we enacted and described the whole film with such gusto to another friend that he remained eternally convinced our performance was better than the final film. This film WAS finished and The Sky Is Empty was submitted once again to that same local film festival competition held at my new spiritual hang out…but once again, was not selected for screening.*
One final film would be made in this period – a daft comedy short called Ansafone about one young woman’s exaggerated obsession with her answer machine. It remained unfinished for several years as, yet again, it never had the titles and some remaining sound effects put on. Despite being incomplete, this film would have a profound effect on the next 15 years of my life…
Ever restless, between periods of waiting for the stars to align to shoot these films around the limited availability of cast, crew, English weather, locations, cars starting etc I would grow tired of my “current” film and begin writing another, which of course was always far more exciting than the one I was currently committed to making, an endless Catch 22 which made me ever more frustrated with my film making. I’d written a 30-40 page “short” called Way Of Life, where a girl went on 10 consecutive blind dates and would report back on each disaster to her housemate…and blow me down if the person she should be seeing isn’t already living with her…what a fresh concept…
But it was a visit to see Swingers at the cinema which would prove a turning point – upon exiting the cinema, my friend remarked on the similarity between Ansafone and the sequence where Jon Favreau has a conversation with his answer machine. My friend suggested that I take a bunch of ideas for short films that I had, perhaps even use elements of Way Of Life, and put together a feature length project in that slice of modern life style.
A year later I had a script for a film called “Gettin’ Some” – in my head I always hoped it would be like an almost low budget/ early 20 something take on Robert Altman’s Short Cuts – slices of various people’s lives, but with a venn diagram crossover where the lives intersect in equally interesting and banal ways across the running time of the film. It had over 30 speaking roles, countless locations across the city and for someone with no money, no car and only Sundays and evenings to film due to work commitments stupidly ambitious. The 2 year long production of this is far too arduous to go into here, but involved a failed National Lottery funding bid, losing my camera man and sound crew, reshooting and recasting everything we had shot, losing my lead actor the night before we came to finally shoot his first scene, losing my lead actress not once but twice, the second time almost resulting in some “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” reinvention of the film I was now sick of making, broken microphones, discovering video cameras, concrete floors and red wine when mixed create expensive and disasterous results, forged and fracturing friendships and both blossoming and broken relationships. 14 years later the film was finished – and no, the delay wasn’t only down to a lack of finished titles…but again, another story of again Catch 22 tedium….for another time…
As the shoot for Gettin’ Some ground to a halt I found myself armed with over 24 hours of footage and no way of editing it…this coincided with a move to Brighton and leaving my life in the Midlands behind. Exhausted with no money, equipment or any idea where to find a film making network in Brighton (very early days of the internet!) my film making took a hiatus. But the writing continued – Agent 009.5 was now attending the directing course at the prestigious National Film and Television School and wanted me to write something for one of two pieces for his 2nd year. Originally it was to be based on a situation our friendship found itself in during our time at college but at the 11th hour of the deadline he decided that we should scrap everything we’d already written. The premise was based around an incomplete painting being deliberately delayed and, knowing his love of Scorsese’s Life Lessons film from the Scorsese/ Woody Allen/ Francis Ford Coppola “New York Stories” film, in a fit of rage I declared to myself “HE WANTS LIFE LESSONS!? I’LL GIVE HIM LIFE LESSONS!” The resulting film “Scorn” turned out very well and with it I finally got my first and only visit to a film festival, where it was shown in Leuven and we had a rather marvellous jolly to go and support our far from jolly intense drama.
Over the next few years we worked on a variety of projects – several feature length horror treatments none of which seemed to get close enough to start the script stage…and through him I almost got my first commission (well, unpaid) when I was asked to work on a story idea from a female producer. Unfortunately when I handed in a treatment she only seemed to focus on the particular elements which she had insisted had to happen and didn’t seem to care for the food I’d brought to the picnic, including the main protagonist trying to connect with her long gone dad via his tape collection…so that fizzled out as it was apparent it was such a personal piece it was clear to everyone but her that she should be the one writing it.
After several years I was able to get some money together, pay off debts from shooting Getting’ Some and buy a Mac to start editing the film. I’d stupidly convinced myself that I shouldn’t start another film while this mammoth project laid unfinished (wasted time I would regret) but as an edit of Gettin’ Some finally took form and required the help of other people to grade and sound design I felt ready to return to film making.
Strangely both of these short films – “The Crunch” and “Stranded” arrived pretty fully formed in my head quite quickly. The Crunch was to be a heavily stylised two hander following two computer programmers working late throughout the night, with the “young buck” rubbing up the stiffening older colleague with his energy and arrogance of youth. Stranded’s starting point was oddly wheels spinning….which led to 3 interconnecting storylines of dysfunctional families in a coastal setting. The film making landscape had also changed rapidly over the previous years – websites such as Shooting People and the emergence of social media made it much easier to discover, connect, cast and crew films – and with my Mac there would be less delays when it came to editing and post production (well, in theory – both films would be delayed due to various post production issues usually around sound problems…meaning I had 3 films stuck in various stages of post production.*)
During a break in the making of Stranded I quickly wrote a short fantasy thriller entitled “Goodnight, Halloween” which I’d half jokingly described to people as a cross between The Diary Of Anne Frank and Clive Barker’s Nightbreed… in an alternative mid 80s America where “Halloween” creatures had existed alongside mankind forever a religious fascist government suddenly declared the creatures to have no rights and could be exterminated on sight without repercussion, The film was also inspired by the emergence of Skype and video calling – I liked the idea of the film taking place simply on a monitor screen with various character phoning in from their hiding places – with desktop screen taking inspiration from icon driven adventure games such as Shadowfire back from those ZX Spectrum days. Although it required a worrying return to special effects, something I’d deliberately avoided for over ten years, I was confident in the abilities of our family friend (who had done the make up for The Crunch and Stranded) to create the creature make up. The initial batch of film making to help create the footage we needed to create the desktop footage went well, but my Mac, now beginning to age, would struggle with the footage and the difficulties in trying to synch up all the elements was a challenge. This footage then went off to a friend to create the amazing desktop animations and windows, which took a long time but was worth the wait.
Although my initial plan was only to show the protagonist with the final shot of the film, revealing him at the monitor screen, several people felt that we needed to see THE main character performing in the film…so I had to shoot this footage which, to complicate matters massively, required an actor wearing a pumpkin head make up effect – something beyond my make up artist. In the end, out of desperation to get this yet-another-long-winded project finished, we shot this key footage with a rather ropey mask bought from ebay. The editing of this new footage, combined with the desktop animation now incorporating the original footage really was too much for my Mac, so a friend was roped in on editing duties, which were slowed down by work on his own film….after which he provided an edit which required me to go back to and work on extensively. This resulting edit unfortunately showed up something I was avoiding to acknowledge – the pumpkin head sequences looked awful and diluted down the quality of the desktop sequence. Years of trying to find a replacement mask or FX artist who could deliver a convincing appliance (and which would fit my no budget) followed…and are only just coming to a head now, 9 years since the original shoot.
With delays upon delays upon delays with all of these films which were supposed to be my “return” (and THAT STILL unfinished Gettin’ Some) I wanted to do something quick, simple and…well…disposable…that I wouldn’t be hung up on being perfect and get so frustrated by. Buoyed by the results of the shoot of Goodnight, Halloween it was finally time for me to return to HORROR.
So, a few months after the birth of my first child I wrote “Creak”, a 5 minute horror film inspired by an event which happened to my wife and I – we were both woken at 3am by a very loud creaking sound, which was completely inexplicable as there was nothing in our house, or anything in the obvious vicinity of the house that could have created that sound. It was a pretty flimsy script, deliberately kept low key with the exploration of the house in the early hours of the morning by the couple who live there. It was one day shoot and it all went pretty smoothly and was a fun shoot.
Quelle surprise, once again the wheels fell off with the post production* (though nothing to do with the titles – they were done some efficiently by my animator friend) However, when it was finally finished I did attend a local screening where I got one hell of a kick watching a girl in front of me jump at the “jump scare” moment in the film, which felt very satisfying to see that genuine response. I sent the film to various horror film festivals, but the film did get pretty strong support from horror bloggers worldwide who I contacted about the film. To this day it’s my most watched film online.
Although some friends and peers didn’t agree with my “disposable” approach (one friend was particularly scathing at this idea) it was interesting to me that the film which I had spent less time on and wasn’t as “important” to me was the film which had the best response. The Crunch and Stranded had no support from film festivals around the world, which felt very disappointing (especially with Stranded, as I had hoped it would appeal on European film festival circuits) whereas the instant fix response back to Creak felt like the right road to travel down, at least where my ego was concerned.
I had a whole slew of ideas for the next episodes in the series, but Knock Knock, which was intended to be the 2nd Disposable Scream didn’t happen for quite some time as I juggled pre production on that and a non horror short. Knock Knock was/ is intended to be my homage to the Italian genre directors I loved – Argento, Fulci, Bava – again with a pretty flimsy premise of a woman who has had a horrific breakdown culminating in becoming a self inflicted burn victim being driven round the bend by a constant knocking at her door. Pick-Ups was my non horror short, a kind of comedic drama with a sting in the tail, where a man throws away his past life all on an infatuation with a woman abroad in the Czech Republic, then realises too late that he completely misinterpreted her meaning when they last met.
Knock Knock’s starting point was a friend’s flat in Hove which had a striking red lounge, a deep blue hallway and fantastic black and white tiles in the hallway, which gave it some David Lynch meets Italian Giallo style that I knew I had to film in one day. Pick Ups came about as an intended throwaway project I was hoping to shoot in a day while visiting a friend in Copenhagen – when this didn’t happen I retooled the film and shot it in the UK.
Both of these films were enormous struggles to make despite being, in theory, very simple to shoot – as always, the tangled lives of others would hamper the pre production with a variety of recastings , lost locations, broken limbs etc stacking up to quite endless delays (in the case of Pick Ups, at one point I was prepared to shoot the whole film with just the one man crew of myself, so desperate I was to shoot the film!) Knock Knock, now renamed the ludicrous Knockknockknockknock to avoid confusion with M Night Shyamalan’s Knock Knock, is currently stuck in post production due to a variety of set backs and due to the painstaking time spent on it has become very far from the “disposable” idea. Pick Ups was completed and very well received (one acquaintance described it as a mixture of Jacques Tati and English kitchen sink drama, which I will take, thank you very much) and did get a few screenings at festivals around the world, but a disappointing few after I hoped it had a broad audience appeal.*
During the delays on both of these, I followed Creak with a very quick one day shoot film, this time in 3D. After spotting a strangely cheap 3D camera on the internet (£28!) and being a sucker for gimmicky 3D I decided to make a psychothriller to test out the capabilities of the camera. Black Spot was again a very simple premise of a man finding his car breaking down on a lonely county road. After setting off on foot he comes across another broken down car, where he discovers a dead woman in the back seat. He’s suddenly attacked and has to take refuge in this car and try to plot an escape from the psychopath terrorising him. *
Building on the support I’d received for Creak from the horror blog community, Black Spot received a fantastic amount of mostly positive attention and again dabbled in a few festivals worldwide. As with Creak it seemed the films I’d spent the least time and money on seemed to receive the best attention. Something to think about….
As a result of casting a particular actor in Black Spot and through a random series of events I found myself working with my first (and only) “proper” actor who was a massive household name in the 60s and 70s but is sadly off the radar of most people now. He had a personal piece he wanted shooting, so a day was spent at his flat working through his script. The aftermath of this involved another protracted editing period to get the work how he wanted it, made difficult by the footage we shot and at one point resulted in me receiving a rather terse email from a production company affiliated with Channel 4 with a potential legal threat as a result of the work. However, I was rather taken with the actor’s presence, look and the rich timbre of his voice (even with his aging years) and came up with a topical script idea which I hoped he would respond to, played to his aforementioned strengths and worked around his weaknesses (an understandable reduced mobility.) I felt it had potential to be funded swiftly via crowd funding with a view to capitalising on his large cult fanbase worldwide. I roped Calie, dear editor of this here blog, to help me write it and she turned out an amazing script with an end monologue so utterly wonderful we were achingly desperate to hear the actor read it aloud.
Unfortunately, our work was sadly in vain – I had hoped that in return for all my unpaid hours and hard work on his piece may have bought some favour and time for him to actually read the script, but as far as I’m aware he’s still never read it…and so Poison The Well stalled in that regard, but remains a script that I am still enthusiastic about and have high hopes if only we could get it under the nose of some old time stage-y thesps.
Inspiration can come from any source and in the case of another short film, Snore, it came from – as the title suggests – my snoring problem (sadly a family trait, judging by my dad’s nasal emanations.) This was originally conceived as a couple terrorized by a puppet creature in the style of the Drew Barrymore “General” episode of the Stephen King portmanteau film  Cat’s Eye. However, I decided that people being terrorized by a puppet would be more interesting if it were puppets being terrorized by a man in a suit. Hence Snore became a muppet style splatstick film, with a brief collaboration with a local horror writer and a shift of the middle aged main characters to now being a Dragon’s Den style no nonsense businesswoman and her suffering toy boy/ PA fighting for their lives.
The film received a local grant to help with the puppets, but delays in their construction, and then further pre production delays (again, including a loss of location…and this time the loss of a family member) means this film is still in production two years after first receiving the grant. However, some improvised test footage of the landlord puppet, shot in the original location was put online as “an introduction to.”
Which leads me to the soul searching as mentioned way back at the beginning of this piece…why do I continue to work in a medium where the delays are constant and frustrating? Why do I do what I do? What do I want to do?
The answer seems to be the first answer I had all those years ago* - I want to write. One of the factors in encouraging me to return to this avenue is the opportunity to self publish on digital platforms. A short film, quite simply, can never make its money back – the best value it can have is as a calling card to take your career on to the next level where you can begin to make a living…something that none of mine have ever done and potentially may never will. I’m not naïve enough to think that I can suddenly waltz in to the world of fiction and make a living, but even if one book sold 10 copies at £2, that’s more than my short films have ever got me back. Though some maybe snobbish of the democratization that digital services provide, I see it no different to recording artists who record albums at home and then find platforms to help distribute their music – musicians aren’t seen as any lowlier for self releasing material and I don’t see why authors should be seen that way either.
I have a plenty of ideas which were intended for scripts – either shorts or features, or in the case of Creak and Black Spot they inspired ideas for feature length sequels, with the short films in a sense providing prologues to the features. With a short film already in hand, I have a way of promoting any novel with a film that already exists…or I can utilise my film making “talents” to either make a short film to promote the novel, or a trailer to promote the novel.
The world of Goodnight, Halloween was always something I wanted to revisit on a bigger scale, but I could never figure out how it would work – would it be a feature length project? Would it be a series? Something with webisode side stories? At times it felt very sprawling and I could never get a grasp of it to ham-fistedly shove it into a script form. Writing short films that you intend to make can actually be a limiting exercise in terms of imagination – at some point I would have to find a way to get this on screen, so writing meka-orcs battling forgas on the shimmering rings of Tanar IV was never going to happen…therefore as a result you self censor and never write such flights of fantasy. But taken away from the limitations of either my own film making “scale” or even the constraints of how a film script is supposed work (see the screenplay writing book Saves The Cat and the formulaic effect it has had on Western cinema) my imagination can go where it wants.
My first attempt at being untethered was actually really difficult. Free of the script framework box to work in, instead of liberating it felt quite bewildering…like an animal which has been released after years in captivity, it felt like a tentative exploration of where and when I can go, where thoughts and memories and recalls can drift across the same paragraph without needing a line break and new INT or EXT to demarcate the next element. I could hear the words in my head, yet for some reason they wouldn’t come out…of it they did, they didn’t sound as it did in my head. My scripts had always been heavily written with quite detailed descriptions – at times I wanted to make sure any external reader “got it” with where we were, what was happening, how the characters were feeling…I always felt it better to overwrite to make the intention clear, then remove anything too “on the nose” at the shoot or in the edit. My treatments similarly were quite detailed and didn’t use a script template. Yet for some reason it wouldn’t come out as novel form and it was a real struggle.
I managed several chapters of Goodnight, Halloween before my attention shifted to another project – as it was based on a completed treatment I felt that this was a more complete picture to work from for my first novel. After quite an enthusiastic spurt the writing petered out…I have to wonder if writing a cremation scene around the anniversary of a family member’s cremation was my subconscious not wanting to go back to that at this moment in time, or at least not right now.
It feels like I’m in a bit of a limbo place - my film making isn’t over, but at this moment in time I’m as keen as ever to get these long term projects finished and free that headspace with the hope of it allowing me to concentrate on these novels, as I don’t feel I can give them 100% (or any percent) while these films still remain incomplete…yet the delays in making them could mean it may be another 6 months before I am free of them.
It feels like I’ve taken a very long circular journey to get back to where I always wanted to be. Perhaps it will only be a temporary distraction before the film making bug swoops me back up again. But for now, once I can concentrate all my efforts on writing novels, I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.
The Sky Is Empty
The Crunch
Gettin’ Some
Black Spot
Meet Frances

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

A Lesson Has Been Learned - The Post Production of Pick-Ups

For what I saw as a “simple” film, in terms of cutting and editing opportunities, along with the scale of the film, I presumed an edit of the film would come together pretty sharpish. I can’t remember if I asked Mark to edit, or he offered, but either way for some reason I didn’t feel confident in editing Pick-Ups – I wanted someone “external” who could see the footage objectively and hopefully bring some pizaaz to it which my meat and potatoes editing seemed to sometimes lack.

However, by this time Mark was gearing up for a Kickstarter campaign for his short film School Of 1980, which I’d offered to try and assist on in some capacity, contacting bloggers who had been supportive of my work in the past. This understandably took priority for the time being.

Around this time Nick had produced the photoshopped elements to turn Worthing into the Czech Republic and, if I remember correctly, had worked out some provisional titles for the credits where we knew the roles were already defined, such as casting. However, he was also preparing to leave the country for…well, who knew how long…so he had to get these elements out of the way sharpish. Somewhere along the line the hi-res elements were stuck on an in accessible hard drive somewhere in the UK and we had to go with the lower renders for the film…not the biggest issue and bar one shot I think for the most part they look pretty authentic and seamless. (Nick also put in some graffiti on my request – on a wall is “A chair is a chair” translated into Czech, though I wished it had been huge on the wall like a big tagged slogan.)

So, I wouldn’t actually get my first edit (which was the first 5 minutes of the film) until May – over 4 months since we finished filming. Apparently Mark had problems with the edit as Darren was visible in the lounge footage where Debbie’s large mirror was visible in the background, something we hadn’t spotted at the time. He’d also removed the “magic bead curtain” moment as he said it didn’t fit with the rest of the film…he was also keen to remove the opening sequence of the film with the Czech signage etc for pacing reasons – he felt we needed to get straight to the point, straight to the door of the flat and get in the flat as quickly as possible. My original intention with this sequence was to have some titles appear on it “”Faster Productions presents”, “Terence Drew in” etc but for some reason I decided against that – either I had concerns the titles wouldn’t have been that clear against the backgrounds, or that it was distracting…or perhaps we never really put the titles against it and I got used to how it was.

One issue that had come up as a result of my flopping of the footage (which was unnecessary in the end as we never saw any cars in shot, or at least which have a steering wheel visible on the right hand side of the car) was that Joseph now moved from right to left across the frame, which is what we’d associate more with him leaving somewhere, rather than arriving or travelling to a destination. In a sense this somehow makes it feel like his departure from the end of the film brought to the front – his retreat from Nula – rather than heading towards her. But as the suitcase has those JFL letters emblazoned on the side it was something I couldn’t get around…unless I wanted to cut the whole opening sequence.

Still, by the start of June I had a completed rough edit from Mark – he had cut Terry’s long monologue down to the barest of elements – pretty much the start and the end, with the justification that we didn’t need to hear the whole thing, though it was good to film it for performance…possibly that there was something that he’s got something big to say and we deny him saying it. I really loved Terry’s monologue performance and wasn’t sure about this, but again, one of the reasons for having an external editor was to remove any sentimentality about the edit from me – the “kill your babies” rule which the aforementioned “magic bead curtain” shot was a testament to this – so I let Mark be the guide on this. Yet I did have doubts that somewhere, in an attempt to make the film as lean as possible, we were sacrificing motivation to the detriment of the film. But I decided to bow to Mark’s wisdom, as he has a far greater knowledge of film theory than myself.

Several other elements had been excised – as with the opening sequence, he felt the key was to get Joseph to the flat and IN the flat as quickly as possible. So the opening sequence as Joseph knocks on the door of the flat, shines his shoes, caresses the Nula nameplate all went so after the opening walk we were straight to seeing Nula open the door. He also wanted to remove the final sequence of Joseph sat on the stairs while the credits rolled – he felt it was better to end on the full stop downer image of Joseph walking down the stair forlornly. This in the end was something that I “fought” for – I felt the image of Joseph shuffling down the stairs was quite a downer image, whereas seeing him sat on the stairs, muttering to himself, looking at his phone seemed to add an awkwardly painful albeit sadistically comedic finale to his situation. I didn’t manage to get the copy of Gasoline Alley in as the final image, as the cut of it was really awkward, but I did get Joseph on the stairs.

And then…not much really happened.

Mark was busy over the summer with a tourism film and somehow, somewhere, time just slipped away and we never managed to get together to discuss the edit. So it wasn’t until November when we finally managed to pick it up, talk about it and then very very quickly Mark’s final edit was done. It seemed a long wait for a swift tweak and finish off. I really don’t know why it took us both so long to get together again.

I think Darren was pretty quick on the grade front – though several people had for some reason suggested keeping the film in colour I had always wanted this film to be in black and white, smudgy, grainy black and white, perhaps almost a bit French New Wave looking. It perhaps never got to that level of grain (and one element was we never really got that shallow depth of field I really wanted for the look, especially with Joseph in front of those fairy lights) but it still looked good. Darren added some fake shake to the opening, which is perhaps a tad unconvincing in retrospect (and some people remarked was distracting) and apart from a frame rate issue with Nick’s titles the grade seemed to come together pretty swiftly.

Following our collaboration on Black Spot I asked Mik Holowko if he’d compose the score again, with a possible view to also doing the sound design. I had some specific ideas for the opening – I wanted a cross between the finger clicking, rhythmic sound of…hmmm…the Addams Family theme tune, with a particular track from Ennio Morricone’s score to A Fistful of Dynamite (which sounds like a frog croaking “Juan, Juan, Juan”) as it had a really particular comedic effect. Or it did to my ears. I also wanted a zither sound, probably to give a nod to the Eastern European setting of The Third Man.

So Mik got to work on the soundtrack and by the start of December he’d already got a score for me – much like my original intention for Black Spot, he seemed to have disregarded my ideas and request and given me a completely different score. His first score was VERY dramatic, sounding almost from a Hitchcock film – choral pieces, man on a mission style. A great piece of music, but really hard for me to hear fitting this film. We went back and forth on this with me requesting changes. He’d also put in wall to wall music throughout the whole film, whereas I felt there were parts that really needed silence, or just let the dialogue happen without accompaniment (especially the coughing fit and what remained of the monologue.)

Eventually I think we found a midpoint for us both. Although the final score did remain “man on a mission” I grew warmer to it – it seemed to fit the opening walk very well, the swell of the main piece and the way it pulled back towards the end worked very well. The smaller cues that Mik put in worked a treat and he did an absolute perfect deep rumble and farting brass or bassoon sound for Milo’s strut into the room. It always made me laugh when I watched that moment back.

By now we were a year since the film was shot. With the score out of the way I was hoping Mik would also be able to work on the sound design, but we ran into several issues – one was a technical issue, where he seemed to suggest all the sound was screwed up, in particular due to the burbling sound of Debbie’s fish tank, which made cutting the sound very difficult. I was worried that I had yet another film with difficult sound which may require ADRing and being over a year into post production something I was heavily reluctant to do. But the second issue was Mik had some personal issue and then couldn’t commit the time to the sound design, so he had to bow out.

I did have to do one piece of ADR though – as I was still unhappy with Dick’s delivery of the “Rodddddd Stewart!?” line I contacted him to try and dub that line and his laughter. I went over to his flat one evening where we re-recorded the line, but in retrospect we never nailed that coarsely inflected accent that I really wanted – some people remarked that it sounded more Welsh in the final film, which probably adds to other confusing aspects in the finished film.

With the sound design I luckily I had a slight back up plan – I knew of Kirstie at Elephant Sounds, a Brighton based sound recordist and sound designer whom I had originally contacted via Darren with a view to doing the sound design for Goodnight, Halloween – my fantasy thriller short which was in a stalled production position. I dropped her a line and luckily she was happy to work on the sound design and didn’t seem to have the same issues or concerns over the fish tank noise.

Finally in May – nearly 18 months since shooting the film – I had the finished film. After all this time of making it I didn’t have the desire to keep it locked online, so I put it up available to view for all straight away.  I got a nice response back from some people – one work acquaintance described it as a mixture of Jacques Tati and 60 kitchen sink drama – a comparison I was very happy with. I’ve never seen any Jacques Tati films, but I know both Mark and Terry are huge fans, so I’m sure they were happy with such a complement.

I submitted it to a bunch of festivals.  In June it played two festivals – a Troma related film festival (which being a fan of Troma as a teenage was kinda cool) and then it also played in my home city of Nottingham, at Short Stack, the film making event my film making chum David Lilley runs. I couldn’t make the screening but if I remember correctly I did submit a brief video introducing the film and talking about the difficulties I had making the film…it received a nice write up in a local magazine even if they misinterpreted the original setting for the film with the finished one - "a charming, funny and beautifully shot short film about an English man travelling to Copenhagen to meet a Danish girl"  

In September it was screened at Moviebar in Brighton, the film night that Terry and I ran for two years. I can’t remember anything particular about the screening, I think it was warmly received…I must have gone to the screening and spoke about it afterwards. Then in October it was screened at the Visionaria film festival in Italy…it seemed like there was a nice momentum running on the film and with this positive response so far I had hoped it boded well for the film being accepted into more festivals – especially European festivals and hoped East European film festivals may have responded positively to my attempt to recreate their geography in my back yard.

Unfortunately, the Visionaria film festival was the only other screening it received despite a LOT of submissions to film festivals.

So, my hope that we’d made something fun, light and short which would find a home at more general festival wasn’t to be.

My previous horror films had been easier to promote online through the large network of active horror bloggers, but with this not falling into any particular genre there wasn’t anywhere I could really have a flow of promotional opportunities to help the audience and viewing figures for the film grow.

I received some feedback from Mark (who’s life in Copenhagen was the instigating inspiration for the whole film) who suggested that it was never clear Joseph had gone to another country, possibly compounded by Milo’s almost Welsh accent. With an influx of people from the Eastern Bloc over the last two decades, it could in a sense be easily set in the UK. Mark had suggested I add a couple of shots to the opening – perhaps a plane flying overhead, or landing – something to establish we are somewhere else. I did mull over going to Gatwick and trying to surreptitiously film some footage of Terry walking through arrivals (with some CG signage changing it to an Eastern European airport) but frankly, in my usual pig-headedness, I couldn’t bare to go back and revisit aspects of the film even though these changes perhaps could have helped the film. I sent him a longer, original cut of the film and he felt the cutting of the monologue down to the simple elements did rob us of not only Joseph’s motivation, but also the high stakes he had gambled.

In retrospect, did we sacrifice audience comprehension, understanding and empathy of the story and characters for a running time so as not to bore the audience, to keep the film short and sweet? I was hoping the short running time would have helped with film festivals, but perhaps another minute of running time wouldn’t have been detrimental to selection at a festival. Who can tell?
Did putting the film online immediately hamper chances of it being shown at a film festival? The next films I’m due to finish, despite taking equally painful lengths of time as Pick-Ups are going to be held back from online screening until I’ve given them all a crack at the film festivals – at least then I’ll know that general availability hasn’t been a factor against the film being selected for screening.

Perhaps, quite simply – though it is hard to admit – it just wasn’t good enough to be screened, despite thinking it is.

Overall, I still like what we achieved with Pick-Ups. I think it does have a charm, fun performances, a nice look, a good soundtrack – I think it’s a strong little package of a film. However, I do have misgivings about the disproportionate amount of time spent on basically 3 people in the same room. I look at those teams who participate in those 48 hour sci fi challenges (Anthony and Jenny who I have worked with in the past have been involved in some of these) and see how slick and accomplished they are – perhaps sometimes as equally flawed or half baked as the premise of Pick-Ups can be – yet they have taken a fraction of the amount of time I spent on getting Pick-Ups made. The response online and from festivals doesn’t seem like much of a return on nearly 4 years of struggles to get it made.

It’s perhaps informed me to try and stick with genre films, even though it’s an equally crowded area to work in, but at least there is a market afterwards to where you can push the films if the festivals aren’t interested. The long term experience of trying to get this made, along with the similar lengthy amounts of time the 3 films I’m currently working on are taking, have brought me to a conclusion that my desire to never not finish a film, despite endless tribulations, is perhaps a misguided use of energy. As such it seems to be telling me that I need to create a cut off for a film – if it hasn’t reached a certain stage by a particular time, then I should be prepared to cut it loose, even at the risk of discarding footage that has already been shot, rather than wasting more time and energy on something which is perhaps not meant to be.

So perhaps in a way Pick-Ups didn’t break me. But it has taught me a lesson.

You can watch it HERE