Drew Cullingham is well on his way to gaining a notable reputation for creating challenging cinema. His new film The Devil’s Bargain was shot using an innovative pinhole technique along with the ambitious storyline of an impending apocalypse. I caught up with Drew to quiz him on his new picture, his career, as well as life behind the camera
I really enjoyed The Devil’s Bargain for many reasons. Firstly its ambition – the era, the impending apocalypse, but secondly – and conversely, its simplicity. How do you feel it turned out?
I’m happy with it. In some ways the simplicity is deceptive, because the editing and grading process was far from straightforward and a lot of work (and the impressive talents of sound designer, JD Evans) went into creating the soundscape behind it all. The main remit was to get a real ‘retro’ feeling look and an almost hyper-naturalistic soundscape, and I hope we achieved that.
The pinhole technique seemed to require a lot of effort to make it work. Was there any point during shooting where you thought about reconsidering using it?
It wasn’t so much the effort. In fact it simplifies the camera to the extreme. There’s no need for focus pulling or lens changes, so everything is much faster and more organic to shoot, which is certainly an aid to letting actors really get into things. The biggest issue with the pinhole is the amount of light it needs to even register a picture! There was, however, no point in which we reconsidered. It is a character all to itself, and very much a part of the style of the film.
This was largely down to the pinhole again. When there was sufficient light we could move very fast with virtually no time between set-ups. The notion behind that, amongst other things, was to really let the actors dive into the scenes and let them play out in long takes, with the camera effortlessly moving around them. It’s great for performance, and it meant we needed only the smallest of crews. Very organic. On the flip side, if even a little cloud decided to slip in front of the sun, we had to wait it out, which can get frustrating. On the whole we were fortunate with the weather! Given the time pressures, we were also fortunate enough to have all the locations within a few minutes walk of each other – so we were literally shooting every available sunny minute of those days.
The Devil’s Bargain is released straight onto VOD, but you’ve experienced the ‘traditional route’ before with the release of Umbrage: The First Vampire through Left Films. How enjoyable was the process of releasing your own work into the UK marketplace?
Time will tell! I have faith that, with the internet being what it is, a film can find its audience there. I won’t say this way is right for every film, and I have been fortunate enough to have Umbrage: The First Vampire sit on shelves here and in North America (where Lionsgate put it out as ‘A Vampire’s Tale’). People do tend to have an attachment to physical products, but more and more I think we are learning to consume films, as music, in a digital one. At the moment there’s room for both.
It would be so easy to bemoan the state of the British horror scene, if not the state of the UK film industry in general. We definitely have the talent, but whether it’s the seduction of foreign shores or just that filmmakers don’t get enough opportunities here it does seem that many of our best talents end up being behind non-British films. That said, I think we’re definitely on an upward curve.
59 British horror movies managed to get a release in 2013, either by DVD, VOD or a short cinema run. What is your preferred method of distribution, or do all avenues have their advantages?
I think it partly depends on the film. All have their advantages. But then you only have to look at what they did with ‘A Field in England’, a cross platform release, to see that all these methods have their own merits. The important thing is to not necessarily see one as better than another. The way we are consuming films is changing. Some people want to watch a film on their tablet on the way to work. Others want the thrill of the cinema. Others still want the comfort of their ‘home cinema’. I think it’s just a matter of giving people what they want and just making films available at all levels.
Presumably its harder and harder to get a DVD release. I spoke to Left Films recently, and despite a great catalogue that includes Umbrage as well as Stag Night of the Dead and Blood Car, they say they’re on hiatus simply due to the state of the market. Is there anything small distributors can do to reinvigorate the home entertainment market?
Blood Car’s a hoot isn’t it?! Loved it. It’s tough out there. Small distributors felt the pinch of the recession even more keenly than the filmmakers. It’s not even that it’s necessarily harder to get a DVD release, though by extension it certainly is – I think it’s more to do with the increase in VOD and online distribution. The smaller films that would normally be picked up by smaller outfits will increasingly find a more natural home elsewhere. It’s especially tough here in the UK, with far fewer retail opportunities than say the US. The prime real estate here in terms of shelf space is supermarkets, and what little space is left there after the chart-toppers is keenly sought after.
My day job is that I run one of the last UK independent video stores – and in recent years have found a new generation somewhat cynical about micro-budget horror. It seems some sections of the audience are conditioned to multi-million dollar generic horror films and unwilling to embrace independent features. With your ambitious approach though and the ingenuity you use in your projects, you must retain a confidence that you can tempt people away from Paranormal Activity 7 and the like?
It’s funny isn’t it, considering the first Paranormal Activity was shot in seven days on a shoestring budget and waited a couple of years before Paramount picked it up. And since then there’s been several modestly budgeted horrors that have done well, like Insidious. But yes, there will always be people who don’t want to look beyond the generic safe popcorn fare that litters the multiplexes. Again though, I think with the rise of the internet, and the facilities for getting films out there, any film can find its audience – and I’m confident there are more than enough discerning film-lovers out there that want something a little different.
The Devil’s Bargain is released on VOD on January 17th at distrify.com and facebook.com/TheDevilsBargain