Hello Andrew, welcome to UK Horror Scene. Before we begin I would just like to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us.
UKHS – When did you first discover your passion for filmmaking and why did you decide to focus on the horror genre?
AJ – When I was about five years old I used to go to a local video shop in Tycoch in Swansea with my parents and there was a Horror section tucked away at the back of the shop. I was intrigued with this forbidden area and when I finally sneaked back there I was awestruck by the lurid VHS artwork. I spent ages trying to convince my parents to rent some horror videos for me and they finally relented on the condition that my father watch the films with me and explain how the violence was just special effects.
The first films he watched with me were ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ and I was blown away by them. Because I understood it wasn’t real, I watched the violence and murders in the same way someone would watch a magician perform a magic trick. I’d want to figure out how they did the effect. So from that day forward I loved horror and watched any horror film I could get my hands on. I never had any nightmares and didn’t try to kill anybody so my parents accepted my unusual childhood obsession. There are always claims that these films have a troubling effect on children, but watching these films just made me want to become a filmmaker, not emulate any of the violence in real life.
When I started my company North Bank Entertainment in 2011 I wanted to focus on horror not only because I love the genre but because it made good business sense. Although it’s often a crowded market place, Horror is probably the easiest genre to sell when you don’t have access to big budgets and star names. It’s tough to make a low budget action picture when you don’t have the budget to compete with the spectacular set pieces in mainstream projects. It’s tough to make a comedy without star actors to market it around. But with horror, some of the most interesting horror films in the genre have been low budget affairs made by unknowns. I knew I only had access to shoestring budgets so horror gave me the best chance of making a reasonable standard of film on a micro budget level.
AJ – The great American horror filmmakers who emerged in the 70s and 80s will alway be my biggest influences because those are the filmmakers whose work made me fall in love with the horror genre. Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and George Romero have always been the best in my view. ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, ‘Halloween’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead’ are all films that defined the genre and they all had a massive influence on me when I was growing up.
I’ve been watching a lot of Tobe Hooper’s films again recently and he’s definitely emerging as my favourite of the horror godfathers. He is unashamed in his love of horror, B movies and sci-fi and I love the dark sense of humour that his films have. In terms of modern filmmakers I’m a big fan of Rob Zombie. It’s clear what his influences are but he also has a unique style of his own. I love how polarizing he is, many people hate him and others love him. I think a lot of people forget that even the classic horror filmmakers were criticised and disregarded when they first emerged on the scene. Look back at the reviews of films by Hooper, Craven, Carpenter and Romero when they first came out. People slated them. But many years later you see horror filmmakers and their films gain cult followings and get re-appraised by a new generation. I think years from now that will be the case with Rob Zombie and he’ll be considered an important director in horror cinema.??
UKHS – This year you have two movies due for release which you wrote, produced and directed back to back, ‘The Midnight Horror Show’ and ‘Valley of the Witch’. Can you tell us a little about each one and the challenges you faced during each shoot?
AJ – These two projects were very ambitious from a producing perspective. I wrote them back to back so decided to shoot them back to back too, from October to December 2013. I set up both projects as a joint venture form start to finish. So the finance deal involved securing one amount of money to be spread across both films, and I set up distribution deals in the UK and USA as a two film acquisition rather than selling the titles separately. 4Digital Media took on both films in the UK and Hannover House acquired both films in the US as part of a 3 picture deal I had with them which also included ‘The Amityville Asylum’.
The whole pre-production process involved recruiting crew, securing locations and casting both films at the same time. It was quite a challenge during the shoots to balance the budget as they are two very different films and quite ambitious for the micro budget level we were working at. But we managed to complete the shooting of both films on schedule thanks to the support of the wonderful executive producers and the immensely hard working cast and crew.
‘The Midnight Horror Show’ focuses on the Moreau family, a group of travelling circus/variety performers who often kill the volunteers they invite on stage to participate in their shows. Although it sounds like a Slasher movie, it’s not that at all.
The film follows the individual stories of the family, such as Janus, a ventriloquist whose dummy Epi is getting out of control, and Trinculo, a heavily scarred clown who is involved in a rather tragic love story with a girl he saves from an abusive boyfriend. Meanwhile you have sibling rivalry between the illusionist Apollo and the burlesque dancer Venus as they contend for the affections of their father Deimos. It’s the story of a family, each member with their own individual problems and often relatable insecurities, it just so happens that they are a family of killers.
Tone wise, I definitely set it up to be a zany dark horror comedy in the vein of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’. We’ve just picture locked the edit and I’m delighted with the film, it’s funny and has some thoughtful moments as well as hitting the horror beats. Definitely a pretty strange film that could go either way with an audience!??
‘Valley of the Witch’ is set in a real place in South Wales called Cwmgwrach which when translated from Welsh to English means Valley of the Witch. The film is about a series of unexplained suicides in the village of Cwmgwrach which are linked to a centuries old curse put on the town by three evil Witches. It’s a film that’s influenced by ‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘The Lords of Salem’, so it’s a combination of small town, character based reality and some very surreal and supernatural elements.
The projects were very different experiences as a director. ‘The Midnight Horror Show’ is far and away the best experience I’ve ever had directing a film. I had a group of actors who were all so open to improvising and allowing the material to evolve. That’s the way I like to work as a director. Even though I write the scripts too, I’m never precious about the written word, I love the process of collaboration and embrace new ideas that form during filming. A film should evolve during shooting and I consider the script to be just a rough guide. I like working with actors who bring ideas to the table and who are not going to get flustered if we try spontaneous things.
I love actors who can play things a number of different ways, giving us different options every take. I had that with the whole cast on ‘The Midnight Horror Show’, every single one of the actors was so much fun to work with and none of them were ever intimidated when I’d re-write scenes or ask them to improvise in character.
Producing the film was tough as it was a constant battle to keep the shoot on budget, but the whole process of directing the film was a joy. ‘Valley of the Witch’ was a bit more challenging in a number of ways, from a directing standpoint there were a few contrasting acting processes that weren’t the easiest to deal with and from a producing standpoint it was tough to balance the books.
But for all the challenges I’m very happy with what ended up on screen, which is all that matters at the end of the day. There is some really wonderful atmospheric photography in the film, Ryan Owen Eddleston is definitely one of the best Directors of Photography in the UK. The amazing collaboration between Ryan, the Gaffer Jonathan McLaughlin and Production Designer Felicity Boylett resulted in ‘The Midnight Horror Show’ and ‘Valley of the Witch’ being the best looking films I’ve ever been involved with. The crews on both films were incredible. I really do believe they are among the best crew members in the business. It’s all very well working on the crew of a big budget film, but it’s a whole other thing putting in 100% day in day out on a micro budget film when resources are limited, the schedules are tight and the conditions are often very challenging. I’m immensely proud to be able to work with such dedicated people.
AJ – These days the idea starts from a producing perspective first. I am in regular talks with investors and distributors to determine what films they’re looking for and I always monitor the market trends myself to see what kind of films are being stocked in supermarkets. If there’s a trend in horror for Paranormal themed films then I will shoot that kind of film next. I think the mistake a lot of new filmmakers make is shooting a film and then trying to work out how to sell it for distribution after it’s completed.
That’s a tough situation because you could end up with a film you’ve invested time and money into that no distributor wants to buy because it’s not the kind of film that has a place in the current market.
The trends seem to change every year so you need to play the game and adapt to current trends if you want to make films that get released. People bang on about self distribution these days and the emergence of Video on Demand/Digital. But those platforms haven’t yet overtaken DVD as the main format, in the UK and US getting your film into the major supermarkets is still the best possible chance you have of generating strong sales because of the casual consumer factor. Distributors have established relationships with the buyers at the major retailers, filmmakers just starting out don’t have that. That’s why I believe filmmakers still need traditional distributors and should include them in the development process of a project.
So the synopsis/concept idea and title comes first for any project I make, even before the script. I float the concept and title to distributors here and abroad to see if it’s the kind of film they would acquire. If it is, then I move forward on securing investment, writing the script and making the film. It usually takes about 3-4 weeks from conception of the idea to a first draft. We typically shoot these films in 10-15 days, with a post production period of 3-4 months. The calculated business approach to creating the concept doesn’t mean that I throw creative motivation out of the window. I am still able to scratch the creative itch by working in ideas that mean something to me around the marketable core concept. I always end up exploring some personal themes, even if it’s done in the form of subtext.
Of course, the casual viewer won’t necessarily notice that and all they will see is a low budget horror movie. But some socially relevant subtext or interesting character traits keep me creatively interested in the material as a writer and director.
The films I make are very low budget so they don’t have the production value or star pulling power of mainstream movies, but the one benefit to keeping things at a low budget level is that I have the creative freedom to try different things on every project. Some of the ideas and experimentation will work out and some of it won’t. But I’m learning by doing, and I’m grateful to have the freedom to do so.
AJ – So far, I’d say ‘The Midnight Horror Show’ is my favourite because it’s the first time I’ve felt like I managed to fully get my personal sensibility on screen. Sometimes working with low budgets and time restrictions means the gap between what you had in your head and what ends up on screen is quite big.
But ‘The Midnight Horror Show’ is a film where that gap is at it’s smallest for me. The film has a zany Gallows humour, moments of drama and some decent horror set pieces. There were compromises that had to be made on other films I’ve worked on, but this one is very much what I hoped it would be.
I don’t regret any films I’ve made, even ones that are not critically well regarded. To be honest, I measure the success of a film in sales figures rather than any form of acclaim because strong sales mean financiers and distributors are happy and I can keep making films that will get released. Acclaim doesn’t guarantee that. I know some filmmakers like to slag off projects they’ve worked on, but I honestly have no desire to do that even if I privately feel mistakes were made. Every project I’ve produced has helped me learn something about how to conduct business as a producer and each of the films I’ve directed has taught me what works and what doesn’t from a creative or technical perspective. It’s all part of a learning process and that’s what this journey is for me.
I’m learning the ropes of the film business and every project contributes valuable lessons to that education. I’m working with small budgets but I still feel I’m in a fortunate position being able to make feature films regularly.
Every one of the five films I’ve produced since forming North Bank has secured a domestic and international release and helped me develop strong relationships with financiers and distributors. I feel very lucky to be building a company with a back catalogue of profitable titles. So it’s difficult to regret any project considering that every film I’ve been involved with has contributed to that wider goal.
AJ – I think the BBFC have always been gunning for horror, same as the MPAA in America. As I touched on earlier, it’s not considered a “classy” genre and horror films deal with dark subject matter so it’s an easy target for criticism and censorship.
The current trend in horror is for psychological and paranormal themed horror so if they are cracking down on explicit gore then it wouldn’t have as much of an impact on horror as it may have had when Torture Porn was the main trend. But I read that the BBFC are also going to crack down on the “tone” or “psychological impact” of horror films, and if that’s the case then I’d consider that impossible to determine because every person reacts differently to horror. One person may find something scary that someone else isn’t bothered by. It’s always an occupational hazard in horror filmmaking to butt heads with the censors. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that any film that gets cut or banned immediately becomes a famous, sought after title.
So if the BBFC try to cut or ban any of my films they will be doing me a massive marketing favour.
AJ – I am currently prepping two projects for production this year, ‘The Reborn’ and ‘The Last House on Cemetery Lane’. The plot of ‘The Reborn’ is basically that four babies are born on October 31st, the same night as the local police kill four Cult members during a human sacrifice ritual designed to bring about reincarnation.
13 years later, the reincarnated cult members are now teenagers. Their devoted parents are blissfully unaware that on Halloween night, the teenagers plan to make them the next human sacrifice to the dark God of Samhain. But a former police detective knows all about the deadly plan and he must try to convince the parents of the truth before it’s too late.
The film will be the biggest budget I’ve ever worked with in my career and we are currently attaching marketable “name” actors to the project as a condition of the bigger investment. So if that all goes to plan it could be a very exciting step up into bigger budget territory for North Bank Entertainment.
‘The Last House on Cemetery Lane’ is a ghost story focusing on screenwriter John Davies who moves to an old manor house in a sleepy West Wales village to get out of the rat race. At first he enjoys himself, embracing the quieter pace of life and starting a relationship with his beautiful neighbour. But soon, John begins to experience strange supernatural occurrences in the manor house and has to unravel a mystery surrounding the spirits that haunt the building. The film is mainly set in one location so I’m looking forward to the more simplistic nature of shooting something that doesn’t require a lot of company moves.
One of my previous films ‘The Amityville Asylum’ will be released on DVD in the UK by 4Digital Media on Monday February 10th. The DVD will be stocked in Tesco, Asda and HMV, as well as being available on Amazon and on all the major digital platforms.
UKHS – Thank you for your time, Andrew. It was a pleasure interviewing
you. Good luck with ‘The Reborn’ and ‘The Last House on Cemetery Lane’. We
look forward to your movie ‘The Amityville Asylum’ being released on DVD
PRODUCTION COMPANY WEBSITE: http://www.northbankentertainment.com
PRODUCTION COMPANY FACEBOOK: http://www.facebook.com/pages/North-Bank-Entertainment/140993745943868
ANDREW JONES’ TWITTER: https://twitter.com/AJonesFilmmaker
Image courtesy: North Bank Entertainment. The Amityville Asylum, The
Midnight Horror Show and Valley of the Witch.