Premiering at Film4 Frightfest this year, low-budget Brit Viking actioner Hammer of the Gods played the Main Screen on the Saturday, a prestigious big-screen debut for any film. We caught up before that with its director Farren Blackburn, who has made a name for himself in genre TV directing the likes of Silent Witness, Survivors, Doctor Who and the finale of Luther, and won a BAFTA for his work on The Fades.
DSMB: How did you get involved with the production?
FB: I was in Cardiff doing the Doctor Who Christmas Special 2011. The script was sent through to me via my agent from Vertigo Films, just to see if it was something I was interested in reading. I’d had one or two meetings with the producers at Vertigo over the previous 2-3 years; they’d liked a couple of other projects that I took to them that, long story short, never quite took off. But they maintained that they liked what I did, and would keep me in mind for projects, so they sent me the script to Hammer of the Gods which I read, and basically I saw enough in it to spark my interest.
What was pretty clear to me was that, on the budget they were proposing, there was no way we could realise the film that was on the page at the time, but that’s very often the nature with lower budget movies. They were aware of that as well, so I basically said look, there’s an element of it that if we take that out and make it the focus of the film, we can (a) make a very cool film, and (b) we can kind of scale it down without hopefully killing the ambition, make it suitable within the budget. And a couple of meetings later, they liked my vision of it, and we took it from there really.
DSMB: Did you already have an interest in the historical period the film was set in? Were you interested in films about the period, or was it just something you took an interest in?
FB: To be honest with you, it wasn’t a particular area of interest, it wasn’t a particular area of expertise, and by no means does the film try to be a wholly accurate depiction of the times. It’s based in the Viking era, but hopefully it’s an action romp and an entertaining movie as well. What I saw in it was at the heart of the film, there was a sense of a Heart of Darkness story, and I thought wow, if we could make an Apocalypse Now with Vikings, then that would be a very cool thing to do. It’s kind of a little bit like that, it’s a sort of scaled-down version. It was very plain to me that we couldn’t realise big battle sequences, we couldn’t have lots and lots of extras and all that kind of stuff, but if we could take the central character, who’s very conflicted… He starts out trying to be a man of reason within brutal times, and he fights and he kills but he fights out of necessity to survive rather than out of bloodlust, which a lot of the other Vikings do, it’s in many ways a sport to them.
So he’s very conflicted because of the brutality of the period, but over time the confrontations he is involved in, and the journey he takes leads him to the realisation that it’s inevitable that if you want to survive you’ve got to embrace the brutality of the times. He turns into a darker warrior by the end, and that is quite a strong arc for the main character; it becomes a slightly more personal quest, a slightly more psychological story, and allowed us to scale down the film as it stood but still make something very cool, something with a lot of visual ambition hopefully, make it practically doable. It was about finding that thing within the script that we could use to drive the movie forward that we ended up making.
DSMB: The film has a testosterone-heavy cast, and obviously as the director you need to be the one in charge, so did that lead to challenges in taking command?
FB: You know, it is brutal. At times, it’s a strange one; I don’t have a history of that kind of thing necessarily, but I would never particularly want to do something where the brutality or violence is unmotivated. I guess when you’re watching the film, at times people may think it is, but what I would say in response to that is the times were brutal, people would raise a sword to you in an argument, that was the nature of it. On the surface it does feel pretty heavy in that respect, but I didn’t want to sanitise what it would have been like at that time. We had an energetic cast; if anything, the only problem I had was trying to reign them in at times! I won’t spoil it for you, but the end sequence pits two characters together in quite a unique setting for a face-off, and while we were shooting that fight, during the rehearsals Elliot Cowan who plays the older brother, the Colonel Kurtz figure, fighting Charlie Bewley, who plays Steinar the younger brother, clashed heads, and it split Charlie’s eyelids! He literally looked like something out of Rocky!
Obviously that gave us real concerns in terms of continuity, because was the very end fight sequence and we shot it right at the start of the schedule, and in terms of everything that came before he shouldn’t have a massive gash across his eye! We had to send him off, get his eye glued rather than stitched and then have a very heavy make-up job – the make-up department did a fantastic job. That came about simply because even in rehearsals the guys wanted it look as real and brutal as it could be, and Charlie came a cropper on that one.
DSMB: The film looks expensive, at least at the level of Neil Marshall’s Centurion, which didn’t have as big a budget as perceived on–screen due to clever use of locations and effects. What were the biggest challenges of trying to get this film finished?
FB: The biggest challenges were negotiating the landscapes we shot in. I’m delighted to hear you say that, because in the earlier stages of making this film, I said “We don’t have a lot of money so the one way to give this movie production value beyond its budget is to shoot in epic locations.” They were all there and at times literally all we had to do was point the camera and it looked cinematic, it looked epic, it looked big and grand in scale. We didn’t have to build anything, so we saved money there; we paid a location fee and we were in these amazing landscapes that look fantastic on the big screen and lend it huge production value. At the same time, we didn’t have the money or production support that you would normally have to service or facilitate these kinds of locations, so quite often there were a lot of secrets…
I remember we shot in a mountain valley at the foot of Snowdonia; the only way to that location was a 2 mile trail and we had two golfing buggies – that’s ALL we had, no cars! You couldn’t get a mini-bus or anything down there, and so literally in the morning we were dropped at the foot of this trail, actors were all in costume, crew were carrying equipment apart from camera kit and lenses which went on the golf buggies, and we all walked the 2 miles in inclement weather to get to the location, and then we were there for the day! The actors weren’t pampered, there were no costume and make-up trucks; there were a couple of easy-ups to go up to hide under if the rain came down, but the wind was so crazy at times they just took off!
There were a lot of locations where we literally had to be dropped at the foot of a hill or mountain and then walk, and were there for the duration, so that was exhausting; quite often we’d walked for 30-40 minutes before we started the shoot day, and we had to do the same at the end of the day. We were there in all elements, whatever the weather, and that was another challenge; while the landscapes in Wales are amazing – we shot in the Brecon Beacons, we shot in Snowdonia National Park – the weather was SO changeable. Within an hour you could have glorious sunshine, pouring rain, low-level mist, gusts of wind, and then back again. There are some scenes that were quite complicated to shoot that we had to shoot over two days and you’d have weather cover on one day was very sunny, and the next it was rainy and grey, so that’s a challenge in post-production, to try and grade the footage so it blends as one seamless scene even though it was shot on the two different days in those weather conditions.
It was incredible; there was one day that was torrential, torrential rain, and when it rains in Wales it does not stop; by 10.30 in the morning we were soaked through several layers, and that was it for the rest of the day. The camera lens was misting up, my monitor was misting up, I couldn’t tell what was in focus and what wasn’t… The scene that you will see towards the end where the actors approach this rune stone on the edge of a forest, and there’s a sort of bank that they have to negotiate down before they reach this rune stone, and the rain was torrential. Under foot it turned to mud, and we did take after take after take because they’d get three-quarters of the way down the bank, and ne of them would slip. Every take my heart was in my mouth, my fingers crossed going “Make it, make it, make it!” and then at the last minute, one of them would slip and we’d have to go again. It was just horrendous. We were fraught with challenges, but I still think it was the right decision, because what those landscapes gave to the movie in any other way we couldn’t have afforded.
DSMB: There’s a fair bit of gore, and it’s playing Frightfest, yet you’re somebody with a track record in television with shows that are capable of genuinely scaring people of all ages within the restrictions of television. I was wondering what your feelings are, as someone who has been able to do that, producing fear without the option of resorting to gore, is it simply “less is more”? Is that the key?
FB: I think there are times when that certainly applies. Normally my kind of approach is: the more you can leave to the imagination, the more frightening it can be. The power of suggestion is enormous, and I’ve employed that in the past in a lot of my work. As we said earlier, touching upon the fact this was a brutal time, I didn’t really want to shy away from it. I hope it’s not accused of being gratuitous at times; I think the film does have a particular tone, a slightly strange, slightly offbeat tone, at times a little supernatural, a little bit weird, it takes a twist at the end. Tonally what I wanted to do was to bring something to the film that would make it feel different to a lot of those films you’ve seen before, because, certainly, we can’t compete with 300. We can’t even compete with Centurion! That looks massive by our standards, the number of background artists they have and all that kind of stuff, we didn’t have that luxury.
I wanted to find something original in the tone, and I hope we’ve achieved that, and I hope that’s what sparked the interest of Frightfest. I’m really delighted it’s playing there, they have a very passionate and committed audience, and at the end of the day that’s why you make films, because you want committed and passionate audiences in sitting in front of them. That’s why I didn’t shy away from the brutality of it, and with that comes the gore. It’s twofold: a lot of it is borne out of the fact it’s just people fighting to survive, and secondly by the time you reach the end, we’ve been introduced to a Colonel Kurtz figure, and one or two of the things he does I hope will make people sit back and go “Oh my God the guy has lost his mind!” That is what we set out to achieve; we need to feel that this character is unhinged, and I think that is portrayed in it not just by his surroundings but in one or two of the more brutal moments.
When we were shooting in the Brecon Beacons, I was staying in a little holiday cottage (a lot of the cast and crew were put up around the Beacons), and my editor was in the cottage next to me. My wife came down to spend a bit of time and brought my kids. The editor was next door to me every night, and obviously I delighted in going in and seeing the assemblies every night, the scenes cut together, and my wife would go in with me. Then on the third evening she said “It’s quite brutal, isn’t it? For someone who is quite quiet, quite a sensitive guy, it’s pretty violent, isn’t it?” And I went “Yeah, it is, it is!” I surprised myself, but I’m really pleased with it, the fight sequences are energetic and kind of brutal, and it has so many elements to it I hope it has some sense of originality to it.
Many thanks to Farren Blackburn for taking the time to talk with The Dark Side Magazine Blog, and Elle McAtamney of Fetch PR for arranging the interview.