Making The Devil’s Music – Part One

The first time I met Erika Spawn on the hottest day of the year in the summer of 2005. We were scheduled to shoot a video for her track Needles, which was third single from her second album, in a tiny green screen studio in the shittiest part of West London. Granted, Erika wasn’t a star by then, but I was still somewhat stunned that her label wouldn’t spring for a more expensive studio or, to be frank, a higher profile director than me. Over the next few years, I’d go on to make a handful of cult movies which would at least establish me as a safe pair of hands. At this point, however, all I’d shot was my debut flick, Trashhouse, and that hadn’t even been released on DVD yet. When I was offered the gig for the Needles shoot, I was just told that Erika had seen the TrashHouse trailer online and had thought it was funny. I wasn’t going to turn down any paying gig whatsoever at that point, so I didn’t ask any questions. I just showed up.

Well, at least, I just tried to. The studio was the hardest place to fucking find that I’ve ever been late getting to in my life. Pip was behind the wheel, turning corner after corner cursing my navigational skills as I led her from dead end road to one-way street. By the time we finally got there we were both frazzled and spent, convince that we’d walk in to find a pissed-off production team and an Erika at the end of her tether. We thought we’d probably get fired. We made our way across the baking forecourt, the sun bleaching our hair and reddening our skin with every second that we exposed ourselves to it. As it turned out, we were the first ones there.

Erika finally turned up four hours later. In a full length fur coat.

The shoot’s nominal producer was Eddie Meachum, Erika’s manager. Quite how he considered that being her manager meant that he was going to be a competent producer for a music video shoot I have absolutely no idea. Pip (who was officially only there as my ‘assistant’ on this case) ended up pulling so much of Eddie’s slack that when she actually came to produce a music video herself a couple of years later (the Rocky-themed video for Jim Bob’s Battling the Bottle) she’d already had all the practice that she needed and could probably have done the whole thing with her eyes shut. That’s no offence to Eddie there; he’d tell you the same thing himself. I liked the guy then, and still do actually. There aren’t all that many people that I met in the course of this story that I’d actively choose to stay in touch with, but Eddie’s one of them. Doesn’t change the fact that the guy couldn’t produce worth shit, and I was a first time director as far as music videos were concerned. So neither of us were particularly able to rein Erika in. She’s very much the unstoppable force, and neither of us were an immovable object.

The video ended up more unpleasant than it was intended to be, which made things even more difficult when it came to getting it played. I was going to stick an embed of it on here, but it looks like they’ve all been blitzed off the ‘net, so you’ll have to content yourselves with a fan-made Dying Bride video up at the top of the page. If you’re still massively curious about the Needles video, there’s an extract from it in the final cut of The Devil’s Music. Oh, and here is the only photo in existence (as far as I know) of me and Erika Spawn in the same room. Snapped on the very day I’ve been talking about.

Pat Higgins and Erika Spawn

We’d always planned the rubber lingerie and the surgeon tools, but the original concept was for the whole video to be POV from the patient’s viewpoint. Here’s the rough breakdown from the storyboards I’d been emailed.

1. POV from patient’s perspective strapped to trolley. Empty room.
2. POV of Erika entering room. She’s wearing a rubber outfit with stockings and suspenders and a spiked collar.
3. POV as Erika sings to patient (ie. Straight to camera)
4. POV as Erika produces tray of vicious-looking surgical equipment.
5. POV surgery – Erika pulls entrails and organs out of the unseen patient.
6. POV slow, slow fade to black.

The idea was that the video would feel horrible, but that we wouldn’t actually need to show any of the graphic stuff (scalpels cutting flesh, and so on) by sticking firmly to the POV, so we’d get away with post-watershed on the only music channels that would actually be interested in showing us anyway. By the time Erika arrived, got done with hair and makeup and turned up on our tiny little stage in her rubber outfit, it would ordinarily have been about time to break for lunch. Pip made murmurs in this direction, which Erika firmly cast aside with an ‘I already ate. Let’s shoot this thing’.

So, we shot. For about an hour. After which time, Erika was starting to get into it. She was stalking around the stage, growling the lyrics straight into the camera in time to the guide track which was booming around the little studio. I was just about to call for another take when she brightly asked;

‘So, where’s the chick?’
‘What chick?’
‘The chick I’m cutting?’
‘Oh, we’re sticking to the Point of View shot, so you’re never gonna need to see them.’
‘No, no, no. I mean, the chick I’m cutting up.’
‘I thought we were going to..’

She smiled abruptly and turned to Eddie.

‘Eddie, get us a girl down here. This guy hasn’t got us someone for me to cut. Not Carol, someone different, maybe a blonde. You know the score.’

Eddie gave a quick salute, and within an hour we had a wriggling glamour model strapped to the operating table. I filmed her in decidedly non-POV shots, as Erika prodded at her with a rubber scalpel and the fake blood flowed. As you’ll know if you’ve seen the video, the POV stuff kind of goes out the window after the first minute. It’s cheerfully horrible, but not exactly psychological horror.

Erika Spawn - Needles

And that was pretty much it as far as drama went. It was a cheap, two day shoot that ended up rather bloodier than expected. It was a fun little side project which was barely seen by anybody until two years later, when anything remotely connected to Erika immediately became hot property. The YouTube hits for it are pushing three million now. Erika and I didn’t argue, didn’t have some blow-up. I was a rookie director who needed the money, why the hell would I argue with the star of the show?

The last time I met Erika Spawn was at the first showing of the completed video, which took place in a small room in the offices of her record label about six weeks later. We watched the completed video, gave each other a hug and promised to work again together in the future. Standard Operational Bullshit, obviously never see each other again.

I should probably mention Erika’s accent. As you probably know from footage that you may have seen of her, it ping-pongs around all over the place. People’s take on this seems to differ depending on how benignly they look upon Erika. Fans claim that she’d lived in so many places throughout her life that she’d picked up different inflections on the road, and that her accent was a kind of cultural gumbo reflecting a varied upbringing. Her critics claimed that the thing was an affectation that she never quite mastered, like she was shooting for a broad New York accent but fucked up and always had to live with her mistake when in public or be exposed as a fraud. Personally, I believe that Erika spent her whole life pretending to be different things to different people. In researching her life, I found that she did indeed spend time in a fair few places growing up, but I don’t believe that she picked up those inflections naturally. I think she’d fake it wherever she was. In London, she’d fake RP. If she was in Australia, she’d affect an Aussie drawl. And the whole lot just bled together. I’m not sure there was ever actually an accent that was hers to begin with, just the residue of a whole bunch of different fake voices that she’d put on. So many different fake voices that the genuine voice never had a chance to properly develop.

Erika loved fake stuff, and I think she would have genuinely regarded that as a triumph rather than a tragedy. Fake voices, fake nails, but, above all, fake bloodshed. Even in the two days that I spent in her company, it was obvious that Erika had not only a deep love of, but also a borderline compulsion towards, any kind of make-believe horror or gore. This was matched only by a mirroring sense of revulsion towards any kind of real-life brutality. She would be repelled by images of war or violence in the papers, yet would think nothing of pretending to gut and dissect a struggling glamour model in one of her music videos. It was pantomime, and she loved it for that reason.

This is why, when the violence and the bloodshed turned very, very real in the summer of 2007, I simply couldn’t get Erika Spawn out of my head. I couldn’t reconcile the images that the papers were reprinting day after day with the woman I’d seen recoiling from a tabloid because it contained a photo of an old lady bruised from a mugging. I simply couldn’t understand how Erika could get from the messy Grand-Guignol ridiculousness of the Needles promo to that notorious eight minutes of shaky video referred to by baying red-tops as ‘The Torture Footage’ in just two years.

The Erika Spawn phenomenon went from being a fun little goth metal band with some killer tunes and gross-out stage show, to being one of the darkest news stories of the decade with a genuine body count.

And I decided, rather foolishly, that I was going to find out why.

PS. I might continue telling this tale. I might not. It’s not something I talk about much, and the only reason that it’s back on my mind is because I’ve been asked to look back at The Devil’s Music ahead of the upcoming re-release via Cine du Monde. It’s weird thinking about it all again. For more information about my movies, why not check out the live show “Werewolves, Cheerleaders & Chainsaws” embedded at the bottom of this blog entry? It hasn’t got much about Erika, but it’s got blood, boobs and bad language so I’m sure she’d approve. Wherever she is.

TrashHouse – We Have the Rights Back

Weird thing about Jinx Media still being in business after ten years; we’ve got the rights for our first movie back.

We signed a seven year distribution deal for Trashhouse back in February 2006. We signed the UK and the US, but the US elements of the deal went wonky when one of the companies involved folded, and that release never happened. The UK release, however, was pretty damn great and saw us on shelves of stores all over the country, not to mention our first review in Empire. ‘Clever ideas but dodgy tech credits’ if memory serves.

TrashHouse_DVD

And now the film has come back to us. It’s the first time ever that we’ve owned the rights to a movie that has a valid BBFC certificate in this country, meaning of course that if we fancied knocking out a cheapo rerelease it would cost us pretty much nothing to do so, provided the film was in exactly the same form as it was when rated in 2006. And there, of course, lies the rub.

I’ve talked about revisiting movies and recutting them before on this blog. My re-edit of The Devil’s Musicwas signed to Cine du Monde last year and we’re just waiting for a shelf date. My director’s cut of KillerKiller should be along later in the year too.

But TrashHouse… Aah, TrashHouse is a different case.

Whereas doing new versions of KillerKiller and The Devil’s Music was really a matter of recutting some scenes – tightening some bits and adding a handful of elements that hit the cutting room floor and perhaps shouldn’t have done – if I were to revisit TrashHouse it would be a big job. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, the flick is a total product of its production context. Some awful special effects, dodgy grading, iffy pacing. The problem with revisiting TrashHouse is that if I started tinkering I just wouldn’t want to stop.

All the things I hate about it (watching it back now) could be fixed. Things that were waaay out of our reach in 2004 could now be dropped into the mix with relative ease, and considering the number of special effects bits that were put together as cutaways or against green screen, I genuinely think we could make the sucker fly like it never has before. Last week I installed Adobe CS6 on my laptop and I tested how well the software was running by tinkering with a couple of shots from the TrashHouse rushes. Shots that had taken me DAYS to get a pretty poor result with in 2004 looked about a hundred times better after I’d worked on them for 20 minutes with my 2013 software (and skillset). Plus, I’ve still got nearly all of the wardrobe and props, so additional cutaways wouldn’t be out of the question either. Perhaps the film could finally look like I’d always wanted it to; it was, after all, the most ridiculously over-ambitious micro-budget movie to ever actually get completed.

I was talking about this situation with Paul Cousins, who was very much my right-hand man throughout Nazi Zombie Death Tales and was the director and editor of the filmed version of my live show Werewolves, Cheerleaders & Chainsaws. What’s that, you say? You’ve never seen it? Why, click the link below…

Anyway, I was discussing what to do with TrashHouse with Paul. Paul suggested that I might be better to remake/reboot the movie rather than trying to tinker with such a flawed flick. He thought I’d be better leaving it as a product of its time and shooting the whole damn thing again at some point. He might well be right, but I can’t help feeling that I’ll never get the chance. That if I leave it to attempt a reboot at some point in the future I’ll never actually do anything with it at all.

Of course, as soon as I start tinkering with the movie it becomes unreleasable on DVD under the old BBFC rating; we’d have to resubmit it and swallow all the costs associated with that. Right now (considering that TrashHouse is still a LONG way in the red overall) we’re really not in a position to do that.

Weirdly enough, I had another idea which is the most radical of the lot; I thought of making the entire rushes available for people to have their own crack at re-editing. Let all the bedroom SFX gurus loose on green-screen footage of poor blood-splattered Lucy and her heavy artillery and see what they could come up with. Let people recut the whole goddamn film as a showreel piece or just for fun. Release dozens of hours of rough footage into the wild and just see what happened.
I liked that idea for about ten minutes and then the control freak in me kicked back in. It’d be a fun experiment, but I suspected that nobody would ever bother to recut the whole film (a couple of people might have a go at the big fight scene with the blood up the walls and the chainsaw, but that would probably be it) and then I’d never be able to get the genie back into the bottle.

But, damn, I really liked those couple of shots I put together with CS6 last week. It gave me a sense of the movie that TrashHouse always wanted to be but never was due to the fact it was shot by a first-time filmmaker in 2004.
Maybe the project’s time will come. Maybe I’ll remake/reboot when I’m about 70, as the last film of my career as a kind of bookend. Or maybe I should learn to let the past stay there, and concentrate on the fact that I’m hurtling into a project-packed future and already can’t keep up with my own schedule.

PS. Incidentally, I’m being interviewed for new documentary about micro-budget horror called Making Monsters this evening. You can check out the teaser trailer below.

Filmmaking is now a Democracy. Maybe we need more obstacles.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s pretty much only one reason that my shot-on-miniDV first feature ended up getting decent commercial distribution (which, in turn, led to me being considered a ‘proper’ filmmaker albeit one on a very, very low rung of the ladder).

I climbed an obstacle.

Cutting footage on a home PC was tough at the beginning of the century. It wasn’t something that the average home PC could do straight out of the box; it required a souped-up kit, capture cards and software that certainly wasn’t standard issue. It cost money, time and patience.

 

 

I cut Trashhouse on a home PC with a 20GB hard drive, (which at the time was a ridiculously huge amount of storage space and cost me a whole load of money). The flick is completely a product of its production context; the average film student watching the movie now would be dumbstruck at how amateurish certain elements of it look. From a technical point of view it’s all over the place; the grade is inconsistent, the compositing is shocking and there are CGI elements that look laughably poor in 2013 (and didn’t exactly look brilliant by 2004). It doesn’t look like the commercially released indies of 2013, which are within spitting distance of Hollywood in terms of visual qualities and technical expertise. But, in 2004, it didn’t really have to. The fact that it existed at all was enough to at least get a few potential distributors to watch it; there were only a tiny number of indie features getting produced in the UK each year.

There are some good things about TrashHouse, which ultimately meant that I got the chance to keep making films. These good things are the stuff aside from the technical stuff. It’s got a pretty decent script and some interesting ideas in it. If people go to it looking for a mainstream horror flick with high production values they’ll be bitterly disappointed, but if they go to it looking for a lo-fi oddity they’ll hopefully still find stuff to enjoy.

It’s a product of the obstacles I had to climb to get it made, and it only found its way onto the shelves of major stores because I had to climb those obstacles.

At the risk of sounding all “Eeh, in my day it were all fields around here”, which is never a good look, (especially when the day you’re talking about was only about a decade ago), I think what the new generation of filmmakers need more than anything else is some obstacles.  Otherwise every brave new voice is competing with EVERYONE who can pick up a camera and produce something that looks perfectly great without really putting in any particular effort. The democratisation of film production comes at a price; if you give everyone a voice, you fast discover that an awful lot of people have got fuck all to say but they keep shouting anyway. The voices that would otherwise have immediately stood out get swept away on the tide of mediocrity. Bark bark bark.

At the time that clerks hit, Kevin Smith was an original voice. The reason that people heard him was because (can you guess?) his movie had to climb huge obstacles to get made. Shooting a movie wasn’t something that guys who worked in convenience stores could easily do, and Smith’s determination just to get the bastard made meant that at least a couple of people watched his flick out of curiosity. The fact that it existed meant that at least a few sets of eyes would be interested in watching it. As it happened, that was enough to set the ball in motion and make sure that the original voice got heard.

 

Pat outside the Quick Stop, where Kevin Smith shot his debut.
Pat outside the Quick Stop, where Kevin Smith shot his debut.

 

Nowadays, there are a hell of a lot of guys who work in convenience stores who are making movies. Some of those movies look close to professional. Very few of them are an original voice waiting to be heard, and my worry is that the ones that are have no way whatsoever of standing out. The average member of the public isn’t just going to keep watching no-budget movies looking for a diamond in the rough; they’ll decide they don’t like ‘them’ as if ‘they’ were a homogenous mass and go straight back to watching Hollywood product. There is nothing inherently interesting about making a 90 minute movie for no money, because it’s literally something that an eight year-old can do.

In the past, there were potential gems that never got made.

Now, they’re getting made and nobody’s actually watching them.

In a way, I think that’s worse.

PS. Despite all this, I still encourage people to go out and shoot movies. Go figure. My hour-long live show Werewolves, Cheerleaders & Chainsaws is full of advice about how and why to do it. It’s a bit NSFW (gore, nudity and naughty words) and is embedded below.

Do we need a Champion?

I’ve been trying a bit of a smartphone detox lately, which makes a lot of sense given that we’re deeply involved in the development process for our smartphone horror Evil Apps. I’ve been attempting to stick the iPhone in a box as soon as I’m home, and to only use it when out and about. This is basically a strategy to stop the goddamn thing sucking every single second of unallocated attention out of my life; I realised that all the little pockets of time that I used to spend thinking (from waiting for a kettle to boil through to taking a crap) had become pockets of time during which I just plunged straight back into twitter/facebook/whatever and I never got the chance to just let my mind wander. If you never let your mind wander, the thing just stays wherever you left it and you never get any new ideas. So the phone goes in the box and I give my brain some breathing space.

A direct result of this is I’ve found myself grabbing books off the shelf, just to dip into them for a few minutes, for the first time in years. Over the weekend, the one I happened to grab was The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. It’s a cracking read, and well worth dipping back into. I was reacquainting myself with the story of various failed attempts to film I Am Legend, when I stumbled across a phrase that stuck in my mind a little bit.

The film only finally made its way to the screen because it found a champion (in that case, Will Smith).

The first thing this reminded me of was Harvey Keitel getting hold of the script for Reservoir Dogs, and that being the key to raising the $1.5M the production needed. We’ve never worked that way around. We’ve always raised our budget and then sorted out our cast on that basis. As I mentioned in the last post (well, I hinted it, but I was hardly subtle) we’re currently planning on raising at least part of the budget for Evil Apps through Kickstarter and making sure that it’s the most kick-ass Kickstarter campaign we can possibly put together for you guys. The Will Smith line, however, made me wonder whether changing the order in which we do things would change the nature of the campaign.

EVIL APPS

Evil Apps has two fantastic lead roles and a whole bunch of meaty supporting roles too. We’ve approached the budgeting on the basis that we’ll cast newcomers and people with a bit of genre experience, but it crossed my mind over the weekend that doing this in reverse might be a valid approach too. If we can raise £x amount of money for a movie starring talented people with fairly low-profiles, might we not be able to raise £y amount of money to do the movie in a slightly bigger fashion if we had a ‘name’ attached? We’ve got a decent enough track record at this game now. We’ve won some strong awards, we’ve had some great reviews, we’ve proven time and time again that we can bring in genre movies on time and under budget. I’m tempted to even boast once again that Penny Dreadful in SFX magazine called me “The Tarantino of budget gore flicks, for both style and dialogue”, but that would probably be a bit guache so I won’t. If a higher profile performer than we’ve previously worked with decided that they rather fancied taking a lead role in a cracking indie rather than a supporting role in a tepid larger movie, mightn’t that change the landscape of what we’re planning to do?

I’m really just thinking aloud in the form of a blog post at this point. I haven’t formulated a game plan or even decided if this is genuinely something that we’d want to do. After all, with a higher profile performer a lot of other considerations with the production might change too. But it’s got to be worth at least considering, which is something we’d never done before. After all, money isn’t the only motivating factor for a performer contemplating a role, and our script is pretty goddamn cool. Put it side-by-side with the script to most British movies scheduled to go into production any time soon, and I’m quietly confident that ours can hold its head up high as sharper, funnier and generally more interesting.

In other words, if you’re the sort of person to have people, have your people talk to my people. Except I’m not the sort of person to have people, so I guess your people will just have to talk to me instead.

PS. Needless to say, I’m going to use the end of this blog post to plug my live show again. It’s packed full of anecdotes and advice for no-budget filmmakers, rare clips and a few jokes. It’s not really safe for work, since there’s a bit of nudity, gore and strong language along the way. It’s free, so be sure to let us know if you like it or find it interesting. If you want to give me feedback or ask questions directly, I can always be found on Twitter.

Of Kickstarter, Crowd Funding and Veronica Mars

I bloody loved Veronica Mars.

Veronica Mars

A smart, beautifully written show which was fresh and engaging, it was a little bit undermined by a final season which was clearly filmed under the shadow of the ax; it lacked the confidence to play out storylines across the whole series and seemingly went for abbreviated mini-arcs in case it got cancelled mid-season. Unfortunately, when it survived to the end of the season it then threw caution to the wind and turned to finale into a set-up for another season which never came. It became the by-word for a show that lacked closure.

Well, as you might have heard, that’s about to change. as reported over here on The Wrap. A campaign on Kickstarter raised $2 million in under a day, which will pay the production costs for a movie. Warner Bros have apparently given the go-ahead, and the project is very much real.

This is some fairly amazing stuff, and says a huge amount about how the industry is changing. As I mentioned when I wrote about the illegal download thing, everything’s very much in flux in terms of finding production and distribution models that work. We’ve been intending to try the crowd-funding model at some point very soon, allowing us the freedom the make exactly the kind of movies we want to make and our followers want to watch. It’s an exciting new horizon and maybe, just maybe, it might prove a good fit for a certain movie we’ve been drip-feeding information about all year.

On a totally unconnected note, here’s the teaser artwork for Evil Apps, which premiered over on our Facebook page earlier this week.

 

EVIL APPS

 

Totally unconnected to our eventual crowd-sourcing plans, honestly.

(Cough)

Anyway, back to Veronica Mars. I love the idea of a show simply refusing to die because the fan base don’t want it to. When Joss Whedon’s massively enjoyable Firefly was prematurely cancelled, the show was given another roll of the dice in the form of cracking big-screen spin-off Serenity. Unfortunately, the box-office takings of the spin-off made further journeys unlikely, regardless of the fact that Serenity is a critically well-regarded flick that is widely loved by the target audience.

But that was then. That was 2005. That was a different business model.

The box-office (or video-on-demand, or DVD sales) of the Veronica Mars spin-off aren’t the be-all and end-all of the show’s fortunes in the way that Serenity’s were, because the new business model means that the movie can be more or less in the black the the first point someone buys a copy (unless there’s a huge marketing spend outside of the Kickstarter budget, which is doubtful). It’s sure to prove a fantastically liberating way of making stuff, and it potentially means that shows can continue as long as people want to see them, rather than being dependent on the whims of the networks.

Given that this week Vimeo have also launched Vimeo on Demand, the future is looking very interesting as far as both funding models and distribution platforms go.

For the companies that can whether the storm, I think there’s some potentially wonderful opportunities just around the corner.

PS. Incidentally, I talk about distribution deals in my hour-long live show about zero-budget horror filmmaking “Werewolves, Cheerleaders & Chainsaws” which we’re distributing absolutely free. You can watch the sucker on the link below. It’s NSFW with some gore, swearing and nudity. Hope you enjoy it.

Little Shop of Horrors: The Theatrical vs The Director’s Cut vs The Workprint

I’m reeling a little.

This morning, I was lecturing about screenwriting in general (and pleasing your audience in particular) and I mentioned the 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors. I spoke about that notorious test screening where the “Would you recommend to a friend?” cards allegedly came back with only 13% of affirmatives, dictating that the original “Everybody Dies” ending got the chop and a new, cheerier ending was added to the flick. I spoke about the pros and cons of tailoring your product to the whims of your audience. I spoke about whether a black comedy needs to end like a black comedy, or whether it can give the audience a happy ending without compromising its moral integrity.

I spoke about all of these things with mixed feelings, because I’m a massive Little Shop of Horrors fan who is also a deleted scenes obsessive and yet my feelings about that original ending are decidedly muddled.

Frank Oz has spoken quite eloquently about the problem with the original ending, in terms of the way that theatre and film pack very different kinds of punches. The power of the close-up, man; we see Audrey’s eyes welling up as she pictures Somewhere That’s Green and, Goddammit, we want that character to get her happy ending. Audrey and Seymour dying in the version that has now been released as the Director’s Cut is still a serious bummer, and following it up with what feels like *endless* footage of the planet getting destroyed means that the ending feels drawn-out and kind of mean spirited. What plays as an upbeat black joke in the theatre feels downbeat when stretched out so far. Having been delighted to get hold of this ‘Director’s Cut’ initially, I’ve now watched it a bunch of times (sometimes with groups of students) and the chill that apparently fell upon that Orange County test screening nearly three decades back still falls across people watching it for the first time. I don’t think it’s the content, I think it’s the execution; I’d reached the conclusion that after the novelty of the bleak ending wears off I’ll probably end up going back to the theatrical. That, for all its tonal inconsistency, the upbeat ending somehow still works better.

After the lecture, something weird happened. I googled the test screening to check I’d got a couple of my facts right and chanced upon the LSOH Wikipedia page. In amongst all the things I already knew, there was a mention of the ‘lost’ full version of Meek Shall Inherit.

Ok, here’s where my deleted scenes obsession kicks in. I was not only aware of the full version, (which even Frank Oz seemed to have forgotten about, judging by a couple of comments he made a few years back), but I had a handful of stills that were in this book. Also on my hit-list as far as deleted scenes went was an alternate version of the feeding sequence involving Orin’s severed head, which I’d seen a still from in Cinefex magazine back in ’86 and I’d always wondered how it would play tonally. Neither of these scenes were in the deleted scenes compilation on the Blu Ray, and I’d become convinced I’d never seen them.
Then I noticed a recent amendment to the Wikipedia page, which said that the Meek Shall Inherit full version (including a dream sequence where Seymour turns into a plant) had appeared online. Less than a minute later I found it (thanks to the miracles of Google). I’d barely recovered from watching it when I clicked the text beneath the clip and found links through to two more videos of deleted scenes from a mysterious workprint.

To me, these were the holy grail. We had the plant-dream, we had the severed head feeding.

Little Shop of Horrors: Orin's Head

Amazingly, we had a much shorter version of the ‘Everybody Dies’ ending, as it screened at that ill-fated showing.

Jesus Christ. I watched them all, back to back, *directly* after watching the Director’s Cut (and then the theatrical ending on its own for good measure) so I had the nuances of the released versions pretty locked down in my mind.

See, there’s an incredible lesson for editors lying in the rubble of this wonderful treasure-trove of deleted scenes. I love the theatrical. I’m fascinated with the director’s cut, but it comes off disjointed and mean-spirited in the way everything is so drawn out.

Yet here, in this unseen version that’s more violent than the DC, we can learn the power of tiny changes in the edit. When Seymour feeds the baby-bird-in-a-tin version of Audrey II for the first time, the workprint edit choices stress something that both the Theatrical and the DC shy away from; blood.

We see a horrible shot of the blood gathering at the end of Seymour’s finger as he squeezes and squeezes, which is kind of yuck.

We see blood splashing over the plant’s adorable baby-bird ‘face’, and it’s a pretty horrible juxtaposition.

Bloody Audrey II

Prior to the feeding, we see Seymour laying out all that newspaper to soak up the gore. During the feeding itself, as previously mentioned, we see him feed the head to the plant, like a grim punchline to the sequence before we zoom into the plant’s maw to hear the laughter.

By not shying away from these tiny but unpleasant details, the workprint footage could *only* be leading towards the grim ending. And then, wonderfully, when the grim ending turns up at the end of the compilation it plays like a goddamn dream. Where it was long, drawn out, cumbersome and repetitive on the ‘Director’s Cut’, here it plays like a big bang of giddy, over-the-top monster movie. It’s short enough to pack a wallop, and the ‘punch’ images are actually synched with the ‘punch’ bits of the song. It’s bloody great.

Suddenly, in these few minutes of grainy footage, I can see my favourite version of Little Shop of Horrors. One that works tonally right the way through, going blacker than either of the others but never feeling mean about it. It’s a goddamn morality play, after all.

The last bits of my personal Little Shop of Horrors jigsaw fell into place today, and I love the movie even more than ever. Seems a shame to have to lobby for a new Blu Ray a mere three months after the last one came out, but sod it.

The queue starts here.

PS. I talk a bit about screenwriting and editing in my hour-long show about horror filmmaking, which is embedded for free below. If you regularly read this blog, you’ll already know that and will be rolling your eyes at me embedding it again. If you’re not a regular reader, I hope you check it out. Please note that it has some gore, nudity and swearing and isn’t safe for work. Unless you work somewhere that really digs gore, nudity and swearing, of course.

Gremlins, Poltergeist and The Exorcist: Age Appropriate?

Gremlins came out when I was 10.

My parents were Daily M*il readers (it’s okay, they’ve stopped now. They probably got sick of me complaining endlessly about it from the age of about 15 onwards) and so the first time I ever heard about the flick was from a manufactured moral outrage piece in the summer of ’84, full of details based entirely on a very bloody early draft (which you can find on the ‘net if you look around enough) and bearing little relationship to the finished film.

Gremlins UK Quad

It sounded horrible. The M*il editorial rolled out a list of atrocities (including Mum’s head getting cut off and the dog getting killed) which I couldn’t reconcile with the fluffy picture of Gizmo sitting beside the article. The easily horrified 10 year-old me contented himself with being a bit horrified, and then forgot all about it.

Autumn rolled around, and something odd started happening. Merchandise for the movie began turning up in the shops, and didn’t seem to fit the content that I’d read about in the ‘newspaper’ over the summer. The toys were clearly pitched at my age-group. I thought they looked interesting and fun, but the bleak horrors detailed in that first Daily Mail article also gave them a whiff of darkness, of forbidden fruit. I thought, in other words, that they looked awesome.

Various tie-in books appeared on the shelves at the same time, and I read all of them. From the ‘storybook’ aimed at 8 year-olds through to the George Gipe novelisation clearly pitched at adults, I picked up each one and read every word. I bought every gum card. I knew absolutely everything about Gremlins, every plot twist and every special effects technique, by the time it got slapped with a 15 certificate by the BBFC. Fascinatingly, they have recently released the documents leading up to this decision at this link here.

I taped Film ’84 the night that Barry Norman reviewed the film, and the two short clips that he screened that night were my only window into the movie for the best part of a year. I watched those clips again and again (“Come on Barney, be a good dog”) until the tape was stretched and warbling, but couldn’t see any more as the BBFC had decided that it needed to be kept from me.

It was nearly a year before Gremlins was released on VHS, as was the custom in those days. By the time I finally got to see it, I had reached the dizzying age of 11. A mere few months later, my parents bought me an ex-rental VHS of the movie for my 12th birthday, on the basis that I’d been renting it nearly every weekend and the steep tag of £55 for the ex-rental tape would actually work out cheaper in the long run.

It is, of course, the movie that defines me more than any other. You seen my chapter of Nazi Zombie Death Tales? Well, yeah, the Gremlins influences run deep in that one. The mix of horror and comedy is a constant in everything that I do.

Devil Spider

The BBFC downgraded Gremlins to a 12a last month, meaning that if it were released at the cinema today a 10 year-old could see it accompanied by a parent. 29 years after the flick hit the cinemas, of course, I have a different perspective on it. I’m a parent myself, and I can easily imagine the shitstorm that would have hit the BBFC if they’d graded it PG in ’84 (the only other option realistically available, as it was still 5 years before even the mandatory 12 would be introduced). It’s not just the violence, needless to say, but some of the other wonderfully dark shit too; I wouldn’t want to be the parent who had to comfort a crying 6 year-old after discovering the truth about Santa via the less-than-comforting medium of Kate’s gloriously horrible speech.

Regardless, I’m certainly glad I got to see the flick at 11. If I’d been kept away from it until actually turning 15, I think the impact would have been slightly dulled. There are certain flicks that you need to see at certain ages for maximum impact. In fact, I was discussing this on Twitter the other day with Danbo12, who asked whether Poltergeist would live up to his expectations (he’d never seen it). I was about to answer an enthusiastic ‘yes’ when I paused; all of my experiences of Poltergeist are filtered through having first seen it in my early teens. Poltergeist taps into the fears of a child rather beautifully; it sums up the fears of the thing under the bed or the scary shadow outside the window better than any other flick I can think of. Approaching it for the very first time as an adult, having left those kind of fears behind and moved onto more tangible concerns, I suspect that it might underwhelm.

The same thing works in reverse for The Exorcist. I know that the last time it was re-released at cinemas, there were certainly a considerable number of teens and yound adults guffawing at the screen and generally screwing up the experience for everyone. It would be tempting to write this off as whistling past the graveyard; as the behaviour of young people very enthusiastically showing off how scared they weren’t in order to look tough. There’s probably a bit of that, true, but I think there’s something else too. For a teenager, The Exorcist simply isn’t a particularly scary movie. The horrors of the movie are pitched squarely at the fears of the parent not the child, and as those under 25 are notoriously bad at empathy (for various interesting biological and evolutionary reasons that I won’t go into here) they’re likely to come out of it pretty unscathed. Show the flick to a 40 year old with a kid approaching puberty, however, and I think you’d fairly quickly kill the idea that the flick has lost all its power over the years.

It’s all interesting stuff. The film we’ll be shooting later in the year, Evil Apps, has two 19 year-old protagonists. It’s a film about technology, social networking and the way we communicate. Having leads much out of their teens would have made no sense whatsoever. You can see me talking about Evil Apps towards the end of the live show embedded below.

I have worried about it, though. If I bring the sensibilities of the things that scare me now and apply it to a film with two teen leads, am I going to be able to make those things translate? Teenagers and 20-somethings are generally a hell of a lot less concerned about where the social networking yellow brick road is leading us than those who grew up in a pre-internet age are, so am failing to target the concerns my own target audience? Will the young leads put off the audience with whom the concerns of the script might otherwise resonate?

I hope not. I hope that the script will tap a common sense of unease for both age groups, and even if it doesn’t there’s a beauty of an exploding head in it.

Right, I’m off to complete my collection of Gremlins bubblegum cards. Tooth decay has no age limit.

Indie movies and the Illegal Download Thing

Here’s another topic I’ve avoided talking about.

I’ve avoided talking about it largely because both sides of this discussion seem so entrenched in their thinking that nice, civilised discourse often gives way to people chucking insults, hyperbole, misleading figures and great big chunks of horse shit at the other side.

‘The other side’. Even that turn of phrase suggests a divide that can’t be conquered. An issue where you’re either on one side of the fence or the other. No grey area or defections allowed.

Well, sod it. I want to wallow in that grey area a bit. I’ve been trying to find ways to give stuff away for free for years. We’ve put Werewolves, Cheerleaders and Chainsaws up as a freebie, of course, on the basis that if we can get it to meet as many sets of eyes as possible then it might be able to spread the word about our company. At best, it might make a few folks go and buy our movies or attend next year’s live show, and we’ll ultimately get some money that way. So, in order to get it in front of as many sets of eyes as possible, here’s the embedded version again. If you haven’t watched it yet, hope you enjoy it. It’s a live thing about filmmaking. It’s vaguely NSFW in places.

Right, that’s the great big plug out of the way. It actually serves to illustrate a point, though. If your business model relies on the good effects of giving something away, you’re gonna need to keep plugging it. There’s a reason those annoying fuckers trying to give you a free paper as you walk through London are so persistent. It’s a numbers game, and if you’re giving it away for nothing then you need great big numbers of people to watch your product or you won’t see any benefit whatsoever.

We also tried to give The Devil’s Music away for free on initial release, via a third party who placed a couple of high-yield ads at the beginning of the stream. It was a great big risk despite the fact that the company in question threw a load of weight behind the release in terms of conventional advertising. I think it’s fair to say that the experiment wasn’t fully successful, and that the business model still had some kinks. The next release will be going back to conventional DVD, which is a bit more predictable even as the air seems to be leaking out of the balloon.

On the DVD purchase model, I need a lot less people to buy a copy of a feature than I need to watch a freebie in order to make that business model make sense, (provided I’ve struck a decent deal with the distributors). The advantage with this as well, (that nobody seems to talk about much) is that the DVD purchase model is targeted. By its very nature, the people who end up watching the movie have likely done their homework because they have made the decision to drop a tenner on the disc. Odds are they’ve at least Googled the title (even if whilst standing in the shop) and read a bit of background, therefore deciding whether the movie experience they’re about to pay for is one that they are likely to enjoy.

One of the things I found most difficult about having flicks end up on the torrents was that the nature of the distribution model required no investment, research or engagement from the people who ended up watching the flick. The end result was that as soon as any of my tiny little indies hit the torrents all of the average scores on sites like IMDB absolutely plummet, regular as goddamn clockwork. Whereas the guys who’d gone and bought the movie had looked it up and thought “Okay, this is a tiny micro-budget flick with a lot of talking. It’s a slow-burn with a creepy pay-off. That’s my kind of movie, I think I’ll buy it”, the guys pulling it off the torrents were just seeing ‘horror’ and hitting download with no further engagement with the process. Sometimes there might be a lucky match-up, and someone might enjoy it, but far more often the end-user would be expecting a mainstream Hollywood product (or at least a gorefest) and end up clicking the ‘1’ out of 10 on IMDB or wherever. Often accompanied by a comment about how they only watched the first two minutes because it was ‘so fucking cheap’. Something that they’d have inevitably found out before ever deciding to watch it if they’d had to cough up some money, travel some distance or even put in some time and effort. It’s one of the things I find toughest about the flicks getting distributed illegally; well, there’s that, and the fact that other territories get much, much harder to sell once a flick has hit saturation point online, and there’s no way that an indie can organise an international day and date release (as they’re likely to be dealing with different distributors in each territory).

I’ll keep looking for ways to give stuff away online. As I watch the distributors I’ve dealt with over the years go out of business one by one, it becomes apparent that, yes, the old business model is busted and the new ones have yet to settle down. I’m trying to find a pithy way to wrap this up, one that doesn’t come across as a further shot across that divide. I want to build bridges not create bad feeling. There must be a nice, neat one-liner to sum it up.

Can’t think of one, so I’ll just let the article dribble out incoherently.

Fuck it, it’s not like you’re paying for this stuff.