Last we left Richard Rowntree, his latest feature film Dogged had just landed on VOD services. A film that, while mostly receiving favorable reviews (including one from yours truly), indicated that Rowntree was still growing as a filmmaker. A marked improvement over the proto-short released prior, the upward trend in quality left us hopeful for whatever else he and his crew had planned next. With the recent wrap up of Nefarious, a kickstarted feature film which looked to tackle the home invasion sub-genre in its own unique way, the opportunity once again presented itself as a milestone for improvement. We talk with a few of the film’s production crew members about the growing pains that come with each new endeavor, the criticisms which pothole the journey, and how the horror genre itself evolves with the ever changing sociopolitical climate.
Oh, and dick jokes.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT
Lee Wignall (editor), Matt Davies (writer), Chris Foulser (DOP), Richard Rowntree (director)
We live in a world that feels more divided than ever. There's a sweeping rise of right wing extremism, nationalism, and dangerous ideologies, all of which have seeped into and affected both our sociopolitical constructs and discourse. Anyone even mildly connected to the media will tell you, the world feels like a scary place. And yet, the horror genre not only continues to thrive, but even finds itself experiencing something of a renaissance. Why do you suppose that is?
Richard Rowntree: I think you’re absolutely correct in linking the rise in the popularity of horror films with a particular feeling in society – discomfort and unease. The two go hand in hand if you look through the history of horror and the countries that it emanates from. The post second world war B movie creature features (from both the US and Japan) are all focused on the atomic age and fears of mutation – how these disastrous tests in the Atols give rise to Godzilla, for example. Then you get into the Vietnam era and the fear of society which is reflected in those films is the fear of the unknown assailant, the faceless attacker, which gives rise to the stalk and slash movies of the 70’s and early 80’s. And it goes on through the 90’s with the fear of technology and then into the self referential movies of the noughties (the decade from 2000 to 2009) where horror starts to look back on itself. I think that the last few years, certainly, has been a kind of fear of the “outsider” – and that stems from society’s fears relating to extremism and terrorism. Horror films (good ones at least) always represent the societal fears of the time when they’re made. The world is currently a very scary place, and I think audiences, on a very basic level, want a brief form of escapism that encapsulates their fears when they watch a horror movie. The permeating theme with “Nefarious” is one of the divide in the financial climate of society – how we see those people with power and money taking advantage of those people who are less fortunate.
Chris Foulser: There’s a great saying in the media, “since records began” – it points to the fact that there’s always something more extreme that’s going to come along. From my perspective, the world’s always had scary elements, and you can choose to embrace or ignore them (perhaps in the hope they’ll go away). I had a safe and secure upbringing, so working in the horror genre is acceptable for me as a way to explore the darker side of life. At its core, the horror audience are one of the most accepting and open minded of film fans, and it has to be because of the topics that the genre explores, and I think that’s why horror is thriving.
Lee Wignall: Films are a reaction to whatever’s happening at any given time, and it almost gives you solace that someone (in this case the filmmakers) are on the same page as you, so the world can’t be all that bad when someone’s on your side. And we all like a mental hammering, with a bit of blood saturated, arse-clenching danger from a safe perspective!
Matt Davies: Dark times lead to dark thoughts. It’s no surprise to me that in a time of social upheaval, people want to explore the horror genre, and are more open to these types of stories and this style of story telling. You only have to look back at horror, particularly in the UK – of the late 60’s and early 70’s to see a parallel with the current times.
"I think that the last few years, certainly, has been a kind of fear of the “outsider”"
So why THIS story? What compelled you to tackle home invasion, and why should genre fans (or any anyone else for that matter) care about this one versus the million others?
RR: I hope we’ve made a film that explores a relatively tired sub-genre, the home invasion movie. There’s only so many times you can watch a home being broken into and the home owners being subjected to horrors, so we’ve tried to make this slightly different from the usual fare – and it’s very character driven as well as featuring some pretty cool practical effects. Hopefully it will resonate with the horror audience and people will connect on some level with the characters and understand their plight.
CF: I think home invasion is one of the lesser explored sub-genres of horror, and it isn’t limited to horror, it also has roots in action films, comedy and mre. I think we had to ask ourselves a question about whether we saw the story as a tragedy or a comedy. Taking inspiration from films such as “Funny Games”, “Don’t Breathe” and “The Strangers”, I felt it was important to explore the tragedy of this type of story and what drives the characters from one act of horror to the next; Hitting out at those who have wronged you, stealing from those you deem able to afford the loss and much more beyond.
LW: It ties into the social and political landscape perfectly, as it deals with the social elite going to town on the under-classes in the most horrendous ways. However, nobody is clean in this story, everyone is wrong to some degree, so it’s also a reflection on the world as a whole. Some people are just a bit more wrong than others.
MD: Home invasion has almost become a trope in itself, so it seemed like the time was right to try and re-invent that type of story. We hope with “Nefarious” that we’ve taken what could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill story and turned it on its’ head somewhat. As with “Dogged”, we sought to push beyond the basic horror premise and integrate social commentary into the script to give it more depth and a broader appeal, albeit maybe on a subconscious level.
“We hope with ‘Nefarious’ that we’ve taken what could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill story and turned it on its’ head somewhat.”
What would you say is the best defense against a home invasion?
RR: Haha, preparation is the best defense! Get an alarm system and don’t take anything for granted!
CF: Having lots of friends!
LW: A floor covered with Micro Machines and a few well-placed paint tins swung from a banister, that seems to do the trick! Failing that, I’d just run at the intruders naked (assuming they broke in whilst I was in bed!), screaming and swinging my cat round by the tail…
MD: Being mentally one step ahead of the people trying to get it!
(Pick your favorite child) Which particular aspect of the film (story, script, performances, technical, etc) would you say sits as its strongest? For instance, Pulp Fiction's script would be, what I think, its prominently defining trait.
RR: I think the actors all give very believable performances, and they really help bring the script to life. Technically this was a very different experience for us at Ash Mountain Films as we were able to shoot a large portion of the film in a studio space and that was an absolute pleasure to experience – being able to control every aspect of the environment. I would say for me, it’s difficult to choose just one, but I think the strongest element to this film is the story as a whole – it’s something I haven’t seen before, and the kind of film I would want to watch myself, which is what we set out to achieve from day one.
LW: Definitely the editing (wink, wink!). It’s a hard question as everything went well and everybody put in a huge amount of effort to their work. I guess at this stage, before we’ve locked picture, the performances really stand out. The actors threw themselves into it and owned their characters. Our gaffer Chris Wilson also put a lot of time and thought into lighting each and every scene and he really was able to go to town on this one. He’s always one of the first people on set and one of the last to leave.
MD: It’s always difficult to try and pick out a particular aspect of your own work that is better than another – we worked very hard in crafting a specific visual style for this film though, and I hope that stands out and appeals to audiences.
“…we worked very hard in crafting a specific visual style for this film though, and I hope that stands out and appeals to audiences.”
In detail, describe the worst day in the journey to either bring Nefarious to life, kickstarting, production, or otherwise.
RR: There’s the occasional day during a Kickstarter campaign where you don’t get any pledges – and the first time that happens is pretty soul destroying! But luckily we didn’t experience too many of those and were blessed with hitting our target before the final day of the campaign which was a huge relief. But those are the worst days – where you question whether or not anyone cares about your work as much as you do and wants to see your movie.
CF: For me, the worst days are the ones on set where nothing goes wrong! When we assembled our team, our levels of creativity really hit a high when we’re creating answers to problems we encounter on set – it helps us produce a better shot, a better take. So in that respect the first shoot day was my worst – we ran to time and it all went pretty smoothly, which was a complete contrast to the first day on “Dogged” where we managed to break an important piece of kit within an hour of starting principle photography!
LW: My wife Mel (production designer) and myself both worked on the film, so our kids had to be shipped off to their grandparents every weekend for the last 2/3 months, which is hard to deal with after a long week of work, and not seeing them properly during that time is hard – but in relation to the actual filmmaking process, waiting for the Kickstarter to hit its target is hard. It’s a horrible process of begging for the money, then begging for some more. Then there’s the whole social media side of things where you’re constantly checking your accounts and stats and making sure people are still liking your posts, and reminding people for the 400th time that you’re “making a film”, and hoping they’re still your friends at the end! Also, disposing of animal guts at the end of the shoot in the pitch black at 11 o’clock at night ranks up there, it’s a “never again” for me!
MD: About three days before the Kickstarter was due to end, and we didn’t think we were going to make it. Crowdfunding is hugely rewarding, but stressful in the extreme. Right up until you hit your target, you’re always thinking about how you might be able to rescue the project if it doesn’t work – because you don’t want to let down the other backers, or the cast and crew who all desperately want to make the film.
I'm sure we can guess, but what about the best day?
RR: Every day on the shoot! It’s such a joy being able to create alongside such a talented group of cast and crew, and I love their company – it’s a pleasure being with them!
CF: When we hit our Kickstarter goal and knew we were going to be able to shoot “Nefarious”.
LW: The last day of shooting (which was also the saddest) – it was the last scene chronologically and the most intense scene, so there was a lot of crazy stuff going on around us, with animal guts, red jelly, lots of blood, mentos being dropped into barrels of coca cola, and just downright nastiness that was a joy to make, but hopefully won’t be quite as much of a joy to watch! I’m getting into spoiler territory though…
MD: We had a particularly complex in-car shot which seemed to be set up for everything I hate; a complex set up, a large number of moving parts to make it convincing and it was during a night shot (anyone who’s seen me on night shoots knows I don’t fare well!). It took multiples takes, but looking back at the footage, I was amazed by what we achieved with it. Ironically it’s a pretty small part of the film, but it will always stand out for me in terms of ingenuity and achievement.
“…we have to work within parameters, and in a lot of ways, I think as a filmmaker that it makes you more creative to have constraints placed upon you”
What was the audition process like for Nefarious ( was there even one)?
RR: So we had a couple of the cast lined up right from the start. We wrote the roles of Marcus, Lou & Jack with Toby, Nadia & Matt in mind, and thankfully they agreed! We approached Greg about the role of Clive and it’s such an unusual and challenging role, we weren’t sure if he was going to be interested, but thankfully he was and that was a big thing for us, because we knew him, trusted him, and he’s brought something quite unique and very difficult to the role. For the other roles, which are obviously key (Jo, Darren & Mas), we held auditions. In the first instance we ask for self-tapes from the actors – we ask them to read the script and then prepare a monologue in character for us – that way we’re able to really get a feel for who they think the character is, and get to see what they will bring to the role. It also demonstrates a level of commitment to and understanding of the script. We were incredibly lucky to find 3 outstanding actors. We then meet with them, discuss their thoughts and have a live audition process which we tape to see how they look on camera. We went through the mill a bit with the role of Darren – twice we had actors lined up for the role – the first guy ended up getting a good contract run on a big prime time UK TV show and they wouldn’t release him for us – and the second guy we had lined up got in a really bad car accident and was unable to join us – but we actually hit gold, third time lucky, with Buck. He’s really delved into the character of Darren and made him utterly believable but also hugely unlikeable – which is 100% what we wanted. His self-tape and audition was phenomenal – we actually saw him first on the audition day – and it was impossible to see past him when we auditioned everyone else.
CF: We cast a lot of actors we already knew, but for the lead role we wanted a fresh face. We cast it three times and landed Buck eventually which was a huge blessing – he was committed and confident in his portrayal of Darren from day one, his self-tape was a cut above the others we received, and he understood the character from the off.
LW: It was pretty smooth – Buck slid into the Ash Mountain team seamlessly when we finally found him!
MD: We were very lucky to have some of our talented cast from “Dogged” come on board again. We have a really productive relationship with Aston Productions (co-producers) and sister company Aston Management, and Jo Southwell recommended some actors for us who were very talented.
Are you satisfied with the results of your work? Is there anything you wish you could do over, or maybe do better?
RR: On a personal level, absolutely, I’m delighted. The only things I might do over are making the shooting days longer so I have more time on set! If money wasn’t an issue, then yes, in an ideal world the shoot would be half as long again and we would build all the locations as sets, but we have to work within parameters, and in a lot of ways, I think as a filmmaker that it makes you more creative to have constraints placed upon you. I’m learning all the time as a filmmaker too, so it would be nice to go back to the start of the shoot with the knowledge I’ve gained during production.
CF: As filmmakers, we can always do better. I love the commitment from everyone to improve on perceived mistakes or areas we felt needed more work from our last feature. I’m really satisfied with what we’ve got in the can – one thing in particular was that we planned our shots and worked with the stills photographer to capture some more B roll footage and continued to play with the lighting and composition of the shots to bring through into the edit.
LW: There’s always room for improvement, but given the budget we were working to, I’m happy and proud with what we’ve achieved. There’s a few scenes where I would have liked another couple of angles, but we’re limited into what can be done with time and budget constraints hanging over you. There was also distinct lack of chocolate Hob-Nob biscuits on the catering table which was problematic at tea time, but you’ve just gotta let some things go…!
MD: There’s always things you wish you could’ve done better or differently, but you should be your own harshest critic. We put our heart & soul into every project we make, and that means we know we’ve done the best job possible with the resources available to us.
“…at this stage, before we’ve locked picture, the performances really stand out. The actors threw themselves into it and owned their characters.”
How well do you handle criticism of your craft? Additionally, what's the best - and worst - thing you've ever had a critic say about your work? Did it help you to grow as an artist?
RR: There’s moments where you really take it to heart, no matter what your art form, and it’s hard to swallow. There’s other times where some of the criticisms are so ridiculous that you laugh them off. But it’s all a part of the job so to speak – if you put your work out there, then you have to expect comments, good or bad, you’re opening yourself up to it just by having the desire for people to see your work. If you don’t try, you never know. When it’s a respected professional critique, then I take on board the comments and try to adapt if I think they’re warranted (which they usually are, and most times it’s just highlighting things which you already know as a filmmaker, and I’m my own fiercest critic). And I think it would be very arrogant to just ignore criticisms from people who know what they’re talking about, or to think that you can’t ever improve. Particularly with this film, we took on board the comments from “Dogged” right from the script writing stage, and tried to address them. But it’s also important to stick to your principles as an artist and to try and tell the story in a way that satisfies you as well as the audience. And you shouldn’t ever lose sight of that, otherwise you’re not an individual, and you’re not creating something good. A couple of my favourite “laugh them off” comments have been “What’s with the stupid small table” (a reference to a shot in the trailer for “Dogged” which was shot at an angle which made a table look smaller than normal) and “I usually love Australian movies, but this is sh*t” (I’ve never been anywhere near Australia!). Unfortunately the internet is accessible to anyone, regardless of their brain capacity, and sometimes this gives lonely and jealous people the chance to vent their thoughts in the public domain without really thinking. But at the end of the day, if you don’t try, you never know – and that’s what really helps you to grow as an artist, and a person.
CF: I love that people react to our work. It tells me that people are watching it and that it’s compelled them to make a comment, whether good or bad. “Look sh*t” was one we received, and I think that’s helped me to consider whether I’m meeting that standard with every shot!
LW: I guess like anyone, my initial response is a string of expletives, but once I breathe and collect my thoughts, I focus on the intent of the critic. Criticism falls into 2 categories for me: constructive or needless. If it’s constructive, I suck my ego up, take stock and allow the learning experience to take hold – if it’s needless, I leave it to my mood of the day, which could lead to a polite “f*!k off” or something more venomous – and I try to ignore it until I forget about it. My personal favourite criticism for “Dogged” was aimed at the trailer and simply read “Looks sh*t”. We also had a complaint about the size of a table, so we’ve tried to make “Nefarious” “not sh*t” and bought the biggest table in the world to compensate.
MD: Listen to all criticisms – take what’s productive, and let the rest wash over you.
We understand that the shoot was 16 days. That's tight. What was the on-set atmosphere like?
RR: It was pretty tight, but the film is mostly set in one location, so it wasn’t anywhere near as arduous as it sounds! From my perspective the atmosphere was brilliant – I’m always so busy on shoot days that I don’t always get to fully engage in it as much as I’d like – but the laughter we experience on set is something that really helps keep spirits up in conditions which can sometimes be trying. Because the team have all worked together before, there’s a fabulous camaraderie and everyone genuinely wants to do the very best they can with their own department. Everyone understands how difficult it is to make a feature film with the kind of budget we had, and they all maximise every element they can to make it as good as it can possibly be. The post shoot blues generally, I think, set in for all of us once it’s over.
CF: Too many dick jokes for my liking!
LW: The atmosphere was amazing – and a great way to escape the daily grind – even though we work long hours for all of those 16 days, it never feels like that because of the amazing team we have with us. First and foremost, we have a good time, otherwise, what’s the point in doing it? The hard work stems from that – even when we’re exhausted and maybe annoying each other (which happens very rarely), or ruining a shot by accident with accidental laughter (sorry Nadia!), we’re all graceful enough to put our hands up, apologize and move forward professionally – but also still laughing! It’s a sad day when you wrap a film working so closely with a great bunch of people who are so talented and easy going, like the team we’ve had on both our movies.
MD: We’re incredibly hard working and we expect the same from all of the cast & crew – however, we also acknowledge that people are giving up their time, unpaid, to help us realize these projects. The sense of shared purpose leads to a great atmosphere – when I think back on this shoot, it will mainly be memories of lots of laughter!
“…but the laughter we experience on set is something that really helps keep spirits up in conditions which can sometimes be trying.”
There's always trepidation when it comes to creating a kickstarter and asking people for money; do you ever feel like it's more hassle than it's worth? And what if crowdfunding wasn't even an option, how else would you go about getting your films made?
RR: Any crowdfunding campaign certainly is a huge amount of work, and emotionally draining. But I don’t ever think it’s more hassle than it’s worth. If you desperately want to do something, I mean really desperately, then you won’t stop until you achieve it. And that’s how I feel as a filmmaker. I certainly do feel embarrassed on occasion that I’m hassling people for money, but it’s a means to an end – I’m not frivolously wasting a single penny of what we make, and I think people appreciate that. It’s not caviar and champagne on set, it’s freeze dried coffee and supermarket own brand biscuits! If crowdfunding wasn’t available, it would be almost impossible for us to make films at the level we do. There’s no public funding available to us as filmmakers in the UK with the demographics that we fill. And certainly not for narrative horror films! The crowdfunding money enables us to make a polished product that far surpasses the budgetary constraints – if it wasn’t there, we’d still be doing it, but it would be amateur actors, all on location, shot on an iPhone, with no lighting or practical effects, and we could only have a fraction of the amazing crew we’re able to have who all work at the top of their game. I guess we’d still be there, but our films wouldn’t technically be of a quality I’d be happy to send out into the ether.
CF: I’d like to say a massive thanks to all those who have backed our projects, and a thanks in advance for anyone who backs us in future. Crowdfunding has always been a thing for me, Kickstarter and others are just the latest iteration of that concept. Given a large portion of our donations comes from friends and relatives, then making films this way will always be an option. We’re extremely lucky in that regard. As far as the hassle is concerned, we hit our target, so it was very much worthwhile. Beyond this who knows, but with 2 films in the can, one on release – perhaps our next project might seek funds from a different source.
LW: I’m not a fan of the process, but I’m not a “money person” – I just love making things. It’s worked out so well for our two films though, we’ve been able to make 2 feature films and have full control over them – so although it’s tense whilst you run the crowdfunding campaign, if it makes it through, it’s highly rewarding for artists. There’s a moment when you hit the target that makes you nervous though, when you realise you now have to make a film! If it wasn’t for crowdfunding, I don’t know what we’d have done – maybe just continued with shorts or stripped down features over a longer period of time, which isn’t ideal – but neither’s selling your body, and we’ve discussed that as an option too!
MD: In short, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do without crowdfunding. None of the other routes for securing funding for indie films feel very accessible to me – we’re able to speak directly to our audience and ask them to be a part of the project. It’s a stressful process, making a nuisance of yourself on social media etc., but worth it to retain complete control on the output.
Can money buy happiness?
RR: I’ll let you know when I have some!
CF: If you asked me that in a French accent, I would perhaps say yes, and direct you to a cosmetic surgeon!
LW: It’d be nice to pay off the mortgage, go on some amazing holidays and fund our own films, but no, I don’t think it buys happiness. Whatever baggage you’re carrying around mentally is coming with you no matter what you have in the bank. We had no money for our films and what we did have we chipped in to buy things not covered by the Kickstarter money – and no matter what happens in the future, we can be proud of “Dogged” and “Nefarious”, and they’ve given me a very happy, fulfilling time in my life, we’ve made two feature films, and not many people can say that, it’s a huge achievement.
MD: No, but it can help facilitate the journey.
Thanks for taking the time everyone. As horror fans, we really appreciate the work you do, and can't wait to taste the latest fruits of your labor.
RR: Thank you for having us! You’ve been great supporters of our projects and it’s hugely appreciated, keep doing what you do for indie horror as a community!