The name Mark Ezra is indelibly inked into the minds of horror aficionados for his memorable slasher Slaughter High (1986), so it was a great surprise to see his most recent film – You Are Not Alone aka House Swap – sneak into the UK market with practically no fanfare. After watching the film [review here] I wondered what could we do at UKHS to prevent this frightening British horror from slipping under the radar, so I got in contact with Mark to discover the scoop on his latest genre entry.
UKHS – Mark, thanks for taking the time out to speak to UKHS. House Swap feels like a very personal project for you. Am I right in thinking the number of crew you had was in single figures?
Mark Ezra – This was personal on two accounts. Firstly, because the story actually happened to my wife Jenny and myself, and secondly I was able to shoot with a tiny crew. Jenny is a production designer – she was assistant to the great Anton Furst on Tim Burton’s BATMAN – as well as a composer. Although we have no music track in the film, Jenny wrote the pieces that the character Ginny composes and plays. Richard Gibb, the cameraman, I’ve known since we were at film school. Richard has shot documentaries in war conditions and is able to light a shot in seconds, so that gave me the possibility of working very fast on the shoot. So that was the crew – Jenny, Richard and myself.
Mark Ezra – There’s a lot less to worry about in one sense. There’s no producer breathing down your neck. There’s no crew of fifty people following you around and slowing you down. Against this, there are no checks and balances. If I make a wrong choice, nobody is going to tell me so. As Producer/Director I financed the movie myself, chose the cast and the location. As writer I made the choice of a ‘subtle’ approach to the story, letting it develop by increments. My usual approach as a writer is to have ‘bigger bangs for bigger bucks’. Going the other way was an experiment to see if I could make it work.
I was an editor at the start of my career, before I started writing. However I had never edited digitally on a computer. I bought a new Mac and edited on Final Cut Pro. I was learning as I went along, and there were many things I couldn’t handle digitally, so I brought in Sebastian van der Velde to help with technical matters and also the sound editing. He brought a lot to the production, both technically and creatively, and I wouldn’t have been able to complete it without him.
UKHS – How did the project come to fruition? Since Riders (2002) we hadn’t seen any of your work on our screens.
Mark Ezra – Riders was a hit in Europe (its original title was Heist, but David Mamet was shooting his Heist in Montreal a few weeks ahead of us, so we changed the title to Steal. The film opened first in France under the title Riders (no, I don’t get it either – but apparently it’s a cool title there) and that’s how it appears on IMDB. The film was number 1 in the French box office during the Cannes festival and I got 17 writing or development contracts that first weekend as a result of its success. I spent the next few years developing those projects. For a multitude of reasons none of those films got made – right cast unavailable at the right time is often the main reason – and they all ended up in ‘development hell’. Since I do not own them, I cannot get them produced myself.
Mark Ezra – After the success of Waking Ned (which I initiated as producer, though later took a back seat on) Jenny and I were living in Hollywood and developing projects. When we returned to the UK a friend of ours, a Swedish model, suggested we might like to house sit her mediaeval house in Glastonbury while she was working in London. After we’d been there a couple of days, things started to disappear. Very loud music from an old music centre came on at 2.00 a.m. The next morning I called the owner and asked if anything odd had happened in the house. ‘Oh my God!’ she exclaimed, ‘he’s back!’
It turned out that she had a stalker who was able to get past all her security – she had changed the door locks three times and the window locks twice. Unpleasant things continued to occur for a few more days – urine in the back of the TV stands out – and I eventually called the police. The policeman I spoke to said he would be too scared to come out as he was alone! When he finally did turn up in broad daylight he took some notes and was otherwise useless. That gave rise to the cop scene in the movie. I actually shot the movie in a different location: in one wing of a very cold Tudor mansion near Taunton, with a day out in Glastonbury itself.
UKHS – One of the things I really admired about your film was the simplicity of the horror. It brings to mind a different era of genre filmmaking where the fear resided in the mind of the viewer, rather than being spelled out on screen. Was this your intention from the beginning? Also, how keen were you to adopt the found footage style of filmmaking?
Mark Ezra – My usual modus operandi is to have a crackling good opening scene that sets the mood for the rest of the movie and then I pepper the story with some great shockers every few minutes. The ‘found footage’ style restricts this as, if one remains authentic, one can only see the material either witnessed or shot by the victims. The story inevitably becomes more ‘psychological’ and subtle. I was interested in trying to make this work on a very limited budget. In retrospect, it would have made more sense to shoot the film in a traditional way and include more shocking scenes. It would not have cost any more.
UKHS – I read a great interview with you by Justin Kerswell back in July 2011 at the time of the Slaughter High reissue. You mention during it that House Swap was pending, but why has it taken so long to be released?
Mark Ezra – I tried the festival route at first (it won at the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood) but the whole way films got marketed and sold was changing while I was making the film. The DVD market has pretty well collapsed. My sales agent, Imagination of Beverly Hills, got some early sales in Europe – it did well in French-speaking territories – but the UK sale was achieved later.
UKHS – Credit to 101 Films for releasing the film, but the title change to You Are Not Alone as well as the rather generic artwork frustrates me as the quality of the movie far exceeds such ‘conveyor belt’ distribution. Are you just pleased it’s released though? You seemed surprised when I emailed you to say so!
Mark Ezra – Why 101 only released it now I don’t know. Better late than never. I am grateful to 101 for getting it out. However, there is a general lack of communication between film-makers and distributors (probably because distributors generally find film-makers demanding and difficult…who would credit it?!) I would have been happy to help them publicize it. Perhaps they thought I was in the US and hard to reach.
UKHS – One of your films that is infuriatingly difficult to track down is Savage Hearts (1996). Richard Harris, Maryam d’Abo, Jerry Hall… such a great cast. Do you think it will see a DVD release at any point?
Mark Ezra – Savage Hearts came out on VHS at the time. We achieved some good sales with it at Cannes, and Variety gave it a terrific review. It also did well theatrically in some territories. However it surfaced in a hacked-down version in some countries, which has led to my getting some stinker reviews on IMDB. The long version gets great reviews. It’s as if they are two completely different films. I can’t see it getting a DVD release 20 years later. There simply isn’t the market anymore.
UKHS – What’s next for you Mark? I see you have your own production company – Winged Lion – is it just a case of seeing what projects create interest from investors and such like that determines your next move, or do you have anything more personal you have a yearning to develop?
Mark Ezra – There are several projects I’ve developed over the years – including a really great Horror. However my main investors don’t appreciate the Horror genre, and my Thrillers are generally too expensive without a DVD market to support them if they don’t perform well enough theatrically. All independent film-makers are finding this same problem and are moving into high end TV – where there is a great deal of competition unless you produce something that really stands out. I have money promised for a series, but when writing 8 hours of TV it is hard to sustain the quality. I’m working on it though…
UKHS – Well, I wish you every success in the future and thanks for taking the time out to answer some questions.
You Are Not Alone as it’s now known is available from all the usual retailers. Ignore the title, ignore the sleeve – this is an excellent independent British horror that demands further investigation.