Horror at the lower budget level seems to be part of a never-ending boom over the last few years in Britain and Europe, starting to come up to the level of the non-stop production of the U.S. Here it is driven more by the supermarket DVD market than the cable channels buying product, but the end result is an avalanche of films, often with no real selling points to you, the buyer, making their way into ASDA and Tesco, then out again the following week as a new batch comes in.
Which is why you need a good reason to go out and pick one of them up. Heretic, out now on DVD but also making its way around the country in selected cinemas, four-walling it Kevin Smith-style, has loads of good reasons for you to pick it up: a completely-homegrown low-budget production from a new creative team on the scene, it’s a rare religious-themed modern-day horror that doesn’t retread well-worn pathways laid down since Hammer and Exorcist days, locating a more modern spiritual and psychological dimension at the other end of the terror spectrum from the usual vampire/zombie/demon-slayers at the other. We spoke to the ambitious folks at the Mod Scientists Collective about this, their first feature film, the collective’s future releases and the state of the U.K. film biz in general. Join us on the pub couch and hear what producer Bethany Clift and writer-director Peter Handford had to say.
The Dark Side Magazine Blog: Before we get to the feature, we were very interested in the notion of the Mod Scientists Collective. What is it and how did it come about?
Beth: It started as a joke between you [gestures at Pete] and my soon-to-be brother-in-law, didn’t it?
Pete: Well yeah, we are interested in the 60s Mods – the clothes, the music, all that. There was that Mighty Boosh sketch where they encounter a group of Mod Wolves, blokes dressed in sharp suits with nice bags and wolf heads, doing a dance. When we were just talking about it once, the phrase Mod Scientists came up, and it just stuck.
Beth: It encompassed what we want to do. We were inspired by the Mod motto of “clean living under difficult circumstances,” adapting it into our own “Infinite Creativity under Difficult Circumstances.” We very nearly weren’t Mod Scientist, though, as it’s M-O-D, and we weren’t allowed it.
Pete: We’re registered at Companies House as Modernist Scientists. Otherwise they thought people might think we are part of the Ministry of Defence!
Beth: They wouldn’t let us have ‘Mod Scientists’!
TDSMB: So that’s your brand.
Beth: Yes. The idea behind what we’ve done is, we graduated from the Northern Film School, and had pretty good success over 2-3 years in development schemes and other ways of establishing ourselves as screenwriters, working with production companies. I did some stuff with Eon, Pete did some stuff with Warp X, but the problem is there’s no money there, and you reach a point where you say someone’s got to say “Right, you’re going to make this movie, here’s the cash,” and no-one ever says this. They say “the cash isn’t here right now,” or “we’ve lost this scheme” or “the government have changed this.” So we wanted to do it, we wanted to actually have a career. We wanted to make a film, but more than that we wanted to produce Mod Scientists to give other people that opportunity. So our composer is a musician coming in on this – that’s the ethos behind it.
Pete: The idea was that in time, if we’re successful, and so far so good, the idea is to offer opportunities to people in the same boat as us. It may be just our experience, not wanting to generalise about screen agencies and such, but ultimately our experience is that it’s just tough to get anything on-screen.
Beth: Nigh on impossible. If you go to someone with an idea for movie you’re going to shoot which is low budget – which is £500,000 to a million – they’re going to say “Ok, hmm.” Go to them and say you’re going to shoot the movie, from start to release, for £30,000, they laugh! They don’t believe it.
Pete: We did become a victim of trying to do it so small and so realistically and manageably. We didn’t have the experience – our expertise collectively at the time, which has changed now a lot, was purely with words – we’re both screenwriters, something we can both do well. It wasn’t editing, it wasn’t knowing cameras, it wasn’t raising finance, it wasn’t location spotting, it wasn’t casting – having actors in front of you, doing their thing, acting their guts out.
Beth: And the unique thing was – and this is where we find we differed from a lot of other low budget filmmakers – not only did we not have that experience, we didn’t know anyone who had that experience. It was Pete and I, literally since the day we started shooting; a couple of weeks before, when a couple of key crew members came on board, but then it was Pete and I, and it continues now to be Pete and I. We’ve had great people come in and help at different points, but the responsibility just rests on two people. You hear these great stories of low-budget movies that are so natural, because they’ve got a group of friends that’ve been wandering around with a camera since they were 14, making short films…
TDSMB: Well, that does raise the question: given the difficulties of getting a feature production of off the ground, why not start with a short instead of a feature? The horror short scene in the U.K. is quite vibrant at the moment, with festivals screening finished shorts and giving new filmmakers a platform. Why go straight to feature?
Pete: We did think about that. Several reasons, one of which is, really, shorts aren’t commercial. People buy them to put on TV, and you can get shorts DVD collections which are excellent, but you can’t sell it as a single. Also, to me as a film fan, it was purely that I love film, I love feature films. And from a logistical perspective, actually, we looked at it and, by the time – depending on if you’re shooting on film or digitally, as if you’re shooting on film it changes a lot – if you’re shooting on digital, by the time you’ve rented the camera, got your people in place, done all your prep, etc., by then the relative costs of shooting a ten minute short versus a two hour feature aren’t that different.
Beth: From the very beginning, when we raised the finance, we’d been very clear we had an ethos for what we’re doing here. What we’re doing here is, we make the first one for £30,000 and get our money back, make the second one for £300,000 and get our money back, we make the next one etc. We’re building. When we raised finance we had a brochure, we broke down the figures, everybody who helped finance the film has points in the film, so they get their money back and then get an incentive out of our profits. We couldn’t have done that if it was a short, we wouldn’t have raised anything; we would have had to finance it ourselves. This is not just a calling card for Pete; it’s part of the Mod Scientist production line, part of something to show what we can do and what we’re actually looking at as part of an ongoing plan, a campaign for our future.
TDSMB: It’s clear from watching the film that you had ambitions, a clear idea of what you wanted to say and how to say it, and made the budget work to that, to make sure you got your ideas up on screen. While we’re interested in how it got made, we’re equally interested in the themes, because they’re what make it different.
Beth: To me, the themes are interesting because they show it’s very much a screenwriter’s film. The story is as important as the horror, and I think it’s to Pete’s credit and show’s that he went through eleven, twelve drafts to get it to that stage. When we first did it, it was supposed to be shot in a church, and the first six were set in one. We went through six months trying to find a location; we were supposed to shoot this in January 2011, we had everyone lined up, and then in December 2010, the location we had lined up got in touch.
Pete: They had to take the script to a kind of religious panel, a group who would decide if it was suitable.
TDSMB: Was it still consecrated ground?
Beth: No, it was deconsecrated, but they were still careful about it. But two weeks before, they shot a movie there with cage fighting in it!
Pete: They filmed a big cage fight in the middle where the pews used to be. But then it wasn’t religious content.
Beth: So we had a long dark night of the soul before Christmas, and Pete bless him spent his Christmas re-writing the entire script to now go in a house rather than a church.
Pete: It definitely makes it a better film. The original concept, from myself and Paul, we used to live together and watch horror films together, and we thought “We can do better!” We came up with this idea. We moved away, and though we never finished it, there was this one section in a church. There were strange creatures in it, the church was laid siege to, and a few months later I was at a screenwriters festival in Cheltenham and it just came to me, a priest trapped in his own church, can’t leave there, one night, with something – at this stage it could be anything, zombies, aliens – a guy on his own, is it happening, is it him, is it his fevered imagination, it all stemmed from that. The church location threw up loads of problems; it’s a brilliant visual, very scary location, very ominous, but essentially one room. You can go into the belfry, the vestry, but ultimately it’s just this space.
Beth: Once we decided the budget was going to be £30,000, it became clear we had to have one location, a maximum of 7 or 8 characters, because we can’t afford more; people cost money, locations cost money. As it turned out there were four locations, but the church initially seemed pretty safe. For the first three or four scripts though it did read “He walks to the back of the church,” “He walks to the front of the church.”
Pete: It’s a top location, but actually moving it to the house, from a creative perspective, purely in the writing – we hadn’t got to the planning, we just had a basic budget idea but we hadn’t planned all of that in detail – but it opened it up. In retrospect, with all that we experienced in making the film – post production, on set – I thank the Lord we didn’t film in a church! It was going to be all night shoots, the crew were going to be housed elsewhere.
Beth: It was horrendous. But I do think that Christmas was where we realised we weren’t going to be able to… we had planned £30,000 as the shooting budget, with post-production on top. We’d done our budget, then went through it and cut it in half practically, costumes had been £800, we made it £300, and so on; we set ourselves these limits, we have to do it with £18,000 and there’s no point pretending we were going to get any more.
Pete: In terms of the writing we had that creative impulse, explored it on paper, before we set the budget, set the limits on it. You’re quite right, there was an agenda; even when I started writing it I knew I couldn’t have masses of locations, I knew it had to be quite contained, but even in the original script there was a lot more violence, a lot more traditional horror – limbs coming off, all sorts of things like that. As it developed I didn’t want that, I wanted more horror off-screen, outside the church, things being thrown at the windows, body parts being thrown at the big stained-glass window, that sort of thing. Ultimately, the creative impulse came first, and we imposed the budget afterwards. I don’t think it would have worked the other way around. It’s dangerous to try and write a film like that.
Beth: What’s on screen is interesting; I think at some point we should make the shooting script available, as what’s on screen is not the shooting script either. Once on location a lot of the things you wanted, like mobile phones or torches, you discover in order to do that you need a special light bulb.
Pete: You can’t just shoot it on digital, it won’t show up. You need a special torch.
Beth: You plan to take two and a half hours to set up, but actually you’ve got four hours to do three shots, so no, that’s not happening as planned. Again it’s a credit to our editor Dave, he’s done great work. He learned with us too, through the process of looking at it in post-production. He’s been amazing. We’ve been incredibly lucky.
TDSMB: Given what you’ve been saying, we were intrigued by you shooting locations in the Leeds/Bradford area. Even though you create a kind of “every-village” with them on screen, there are still certain things about it that felt “northern” in an interesting way. The actors sound convincing because of where they’re from, playing a recognisable set of characters from a recognisable world.
Pete: As a point of comparison, when I first watched many moons ago now Dead Man’s Shoes, an incredible film, one of the things I love about Shane Meadows is that his characters, particularly in that film, is when they talk to each other. Especially when you come from Birmingham, you don’t hear those voices on screen very often, and hearing blokes just talking at each other, someone who’s not from those areas might think “that’s terrible acting, that doesn’t sound right, bad scripting bad acting,” but actually for a certain demographic it’s really funny, and it’s correct, and that’s one of the strengths of that film. We quite liked this in the end, realising the choice of actors from the screenplay, we did want regional people, we didn’t shy away from it. We had someone in it incredibly Leeds, incredibly northern. Another director might have said “We need to RP, English that up a bit,” but we didn’t. I just think you need in an English film a bit of dialect, it makes it more interesting.
TDSMB: Sometimes it’s more realistic; there’s something interesting about the way different regions convey shock. In traditional horror films you might be asking the characters why they are doing what they do, why do something stupid. Here, you have characters asking the questions the audience would ask, getting the emotion across but also keeping the film ahead of the audience.
Beth: We did an open casting, and we looked at CVs, and what sort of people would work for the characters. We did a whole day on the casting, because we needed people who could act, but as importantly needed people we could count on, because it’s a low budget film. By the time we got on set, we’d done a read-through, the cast were friendly with each other, Pete had done a couple of one-to-one sessions with Andy Squires our lead, and I think we gained from as much as the film.
Pete: It was always my intention to write something that had a bit of heart, because so many horrors are great but their characters are ciphers, archetypes to be murdered, the type of film that’s a rollercoaster ride as you wait for how and when they’re getting it. That’s a certain type of horror, but I certainly always wanted to do something else, and it’s interesting that we’ve had some people who have seen the film who have said that the flashbacks slow the pace of the movie down, and I was worried about that even when I was writing it. In retrospect I still stand by it, because it’s not a normal horror movie, the horror is about his role as a priest, as a human being, what human beings have done to each other, not the ghost or the weird things happening in the house.
TDSMB: There was a sense that these characters were strong enough that you could extract them from a horror film and have them there in a perfectly legitimate local drama, with their conflicts going on.
Pete: Having a character-led story about this man who is falling emotionally to pieces, and the ramifications of his actions, quite simple actions snowballing, telling this girl to go home and deal with it and it escalates – that’s the heart of the story. The horror is a delivery mechanism, the way I’m telling it – I didn’t want a soapy drama!
Beth: It’s that balancing act between Pete the screenwriter, telling his story, and Pete the horror film fan, wanting the shit scared out of him, sat there watching things that personally I would not watch! [Pete is clearly “one of us”!]
TDSMB: Let’s talk about influences a little. We got the impression that you’d seen the J-Horror wave, such as Ringu and Audition, films about scares rather than gore, but also that you had seen some of the French New Wave of Horror, like Switchblade Romance, Inside, all of those. Even though you don’t have their levels of gore, there’s a certain sensibility in terms of modernised fear in common with them.
Pete: I think so, yeah. The J-Horror, certainly – Audition is one of my favourite horror films, love it, it’s a masterpiece. I’d quite like to study it one day, as I didn’t get a chance to at uni – it’s such a slow burner, there’s so little horror in it at first, and then it just turns on its head and becomes one of the most horrific films you’ll ever watch. Japanese movies generally have been a big influence, I love all Takashi Miike’s stuff, also Hideo Nakata – the original Ringu, but especially Dark Water.
TDSMB: It’s nice to see a British director looking to J-Horror; recently most of them seem to be looking to the Americans.
Pete: There was a period when I used to watch them all, just soaked them up; then there was a point then where they stopped being very good. But yeah, there was that point where American horror was in the doldrums, but then J-Horror also lost its bite.
TDSMB: We’re also interested to see what other countries make of Heretic. The Catholic sensibility will play differently in, say, Spain or Italy.
Pete: I had a very Catholic upbringing, I used to be an altar boy! The film is not intended as a criticism.
TDSMB: It does ask questions, though. You are asking something important about the way the majority of Catholics live their lives.
Pete: For me the movie is about blind faith – about one man who sticks to the rules, does not think for himself and believes too completely in what others tell him to do. In theory the priest could have been a policeman, a doctor, a politician, anyone in a position of care and authority. That’s the tragedy of it; he doesn’t take his dog collar off and help this girl, he hides behind his job.
TDSMB: So while Heretic is not a calling card film for Pete, it is one for the Mod Scientists Collective. How do you see the next few films going?
Beth: The next movie is written; we’re just packaging it at the moment to be ready to go at the beginning of the New Year, when Heretic comes out; we’ll be looking for funding for it. Pete’s been doing some stuff on some graphic novels; he was initially going to do a tie-in, but he’s working on a new movie as well. We’ve got a graphic artist we met while working on Heretic who we’ll be working with. Again, it’s all about money; the movie side is moving forward a bit faster now as we have that experience. Pete’s looking at some games development stuff as well.
Pete: To a certain degree Heretic is a calling card; we have to get a bit of kudos under our belt, because that’s when you can go to people and make these other things. Whether they’re more movies or music or graphic novels, whatever, that’s how you make these things happen; you say “We’ve done this, for this amount of money, and it worked.” I don’t always want it to be about doing so much for so little, but you can do a lot with a little. There’s no point in whacking a ten million budgets on things, it’s very difficult to make that happen; but for a hundred thousand, you can make that happen, and make it look as good if not better.
TDSMB: Are you thinking horror again for the next movie?
Beth: Yes, it’s a female-led horror about a bunch of girls on their hen night that goes horribly wrong. I’ve written this one; the thing was Pete would write the first and I would produce; I write the second one and Pete will produce! It’s a black comedy, very gory and very different to Heretic. There’ll be more info on this on our site in the next few months, so stay tuned!
Many thanks to Beth and Pete of the Mod Scientist Collective for their time and candour. Heretic is available to buy on DVD now; check out the trailer below.