TrashHouse: My First Movie

Every now and again, it’s interesting to look back.

Ever since I saw the cinematic double-whammy of the late 70s rerelease of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the original release of Star Wars when I was three years old, my life’s mission was to get involved in filmmaking by any means possible.

Nothing else grabbed me in the same way. TV was okay (especially Street Hawk), and I liked dabbling with the early home computers (Spectrums, Commodores, ZX81s and even Dragon 32s), but it was always the cinema which fired up my imagination like nothing else on this planet.

I was probably a bit of a nightmare at school: a smart, enthusiastic kid who who mainly only enthusiastic about things that weren’t being taught on the syllabus. Media Studies wasn’t a staple of education back then, so I spent my childhood in a state of constant frustration that my day-to-day existence just didn’t have all that much to do with the thing I loved.

I managed to persuade my parents to let me shoot and develop a couple of rolls of Super 8 film (in which I tried to make it look as if a plastic Tauntaun was running around and tragically melting) and later, as we crept towards the latter half of the 80s, to annually rent a video camera from a high street store (Visionhire) so I could spend a couple of days trying to make movies.

My decision to bail on the high school at 16 led to a very stern lecture from the headmaster (“What is this freedom you’re looking for, Higgins? The freedom to wear excessively long hair?”) which I’m fairly sure was because I was fractionally above the average and thus dragging the grades up rather than down. That headmaster certainly never seemed to have noticed my existence before I threatened to make a tiny impact on the school’s statistics. Nonetheless, I was ultimately much happier at the local sixth form college because it enabled me to take (gasp) Film Studies at A-level. This led to a uni course of combined Media & English, which of course led straight to depressing unemployment and then a series of name-tag jobs in places like Odeon or Blockbuster: basically anywhere that enabled me to stay, in some small way, close to the thing I loved.

Life moved on, as it does, and I got married and settled down. Meanwhile, in the background, the non-starting of my movie career felt like a ticking clock. At some point in 2003, I looked at a block of money sitting in our bank account with which we’d intended to buy a car. I suggested to my wife that, rather than buy that car, maybe we could make a movie. Because she’s the greatest human being in the universe, she said yes.

And that was how TrashHouse came into being. I don’t think about the flick all that often nowadays, and it’s been a long, long time since I’ve sat down and watched it. Nonetheless, if we’d never made that movie my life would have turned out very differently.

lucy_david

I often bang on about how, in some ways, it’s easier to do hard things than easy things. The greatest thing TrashHouse had going for it was that, in the early months of 2004 when I was shooting and editing it, cutting digital footage on a home PC was still really difficult. Even once you’d had a PC built specifically for that purpose, with the brain-meltingly huge 20GB hard drive (which the guy building the machine tried to dissuade me from, saying it was more space than I’d ever need ‘in a lifetime’), attempts at home editing for anything larger than a very short project presented a massive number of technical difficulties. Time after time I’d lose days of work to crashes, and backing up was just not a viable option without spending thousands more pounds on even more equipment.

But that’s where the ‘hard thing/easy thing’ kicks in, because once we’d actually shot TrashHouse it ended up getting broad distribution on DVD across the UK in exactly the same way that it would have done had it cost a hundred times as much as it did. The simple reason behind this? If something’s genuinely hard, less people do it. We had very, very little competition in the ‘microbudget British horror’ niche, and distributors were hungry for product to get onto the shelves.

trashhousepage

Nowadays you could shoot something that looked ten times better than TrashHouse using the phone in your pocket. But anyone could do that, so could you actually get any bastard to watch it afterwards?

I could fill a book with the mistakes we made on that shoot. My God. We built sets from scratch and then didn’t actually dress them properly (or, in some cases, really even use them). We made up ‘action’ sequences on the fly without properly planning or blocking. We asked our poor, overworked make-up artist to painstakingly create zombies with subtle make-up shading (who would barely be seen) when we’d have been better off just covering them in blood and clumps of latex.

Oh, and we put meat in the gore mix. Never put meat in the gore mix. The smell of that industrial unit will stay with me until I die.

Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 11.11.57

The team who worked on TrashHouse were an awesome bunch, mind you, and I have absolutely no regrets about the casting decisions. For all my enthusiasm, the script wasn’t as tight as it could have been and I’ve hopefully learned a lot since. I think this was partly just down to that sense that “this might be the only film I ever make” which first-time writer/directors are saddled with. I wanted to include everything on my wishlist, and would genuinely have stuck in a giant octopus if I’d thought for a moment that I’d have gotten away with it.

Loads of things made it feel ‘real’ to me as a genuine step into the industry. Getting signed by an established distributor with a couple of decades experience (although they closed their doors not long afterwards). The process of going through the BBFC, where the trailer got an 18 and the feature got a 15 (which I’ve never quite been able to work out). Getting shown at our first festival and doing my first director’s Q&A.

LucyHouse

Above all, though, seeing it on the shelf of Blockbuster. The same Blockbuster I used to work in. That was a good day.

Because movies never really go away nowadays, you can still see the film on Amazon Prime if you’re in the UK or the US. If you choose to check it out, look kindly upon it as a product of its time. The crazy little movie which finally got my toe in the door of the industry I loved so much. It has dated horrifically, and you could shoot something that looks better on the phone in your pocket.

Maybe you should.

 

 

 

Getting FEAR & FILM to visit your town!

Hey folks

Had loads of fun gigging FEAR & FILM so far. What started as a kicking off point for my TEDx talk last year became a fully fledged interactive show at this year’s brilliant Horror-on-Sea festival, and since then we’ve expanded it a bit and taken it around some more venues.

It’s a 70 minute (or two hour, depending on the venue/situation) show covering horror, screenwriting, fear and a bunch of other stuff. We’ve got an Atmosfear-style horror host called The Scissors Man interrupting proceedings throughout, and we’ve had a load of fun with it.

But we don’t know where to gig next.

The show works best with an audience of 20-50. It’s aimed at grown-ups with some swearing here and there (so it’s not for an all-ages crowd).

Basically, if you can suggest a venue and we can see that there’s a potential audience, we’d love to bring the show to your fair town. But how can you let us know, I hear you cry?

Easy. There’s a Facebook page for FEAR & FILM that I’ve just set up and is right over here. If you ‘like’ the page and just make a post with the town of your choice (and maybe encourage a few of your townfolk to do the same), we’ll try and set up a gig.

I have, of course, no idea if this plan will work. But at the moment, I get people if I’m going to bring it to x town, and then I never know whether they’d be the only person to want to buy a ticket. We’ll always keep the ticket prices to under £11 for this tour, so if we can’t make that work we won’t set up the gig. But we’d love to come and visit you.

If you’d like to meet the Scissors Man, head over and make your voice heard.

Peace and love,

Pat

 

Video Blog: Viewing Conditions for Horror

When Paranormal Activity came out, a lot of people were absolutely terrified by it. The flick’s reputation nowadays isn’t really up amongst the horror greats, and I think an awful lot of the reason for this can be put down to the conditions under which we experience horror movies.

Here’s the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing series of short rants about filmmaking, screenwriting and whatever else is on my mind. Hope you enjoy it, and don’t forget to subscribe.

Gigging FEAR & FILM

Last week I did a bit of a landmark FEAR & FILM gig, in that it was my first ever non-festival solo show.

I’ve spent quite a lot of my adult life talking to groups of people. I’ve done this in a bunch of different contexts: from stand-up comedy, academic lecturing, festival shows and one-day masterclasses through to last year’s TEDx talk. What I’ve never done, until last week, was have a show that was unconnected to a festival or event and consisted of me standing on stage for two hours.

Well, cross that one off the list.

I had no idea if anyone would turn up (they did) and whether they’d enjoy it (apparently they did). I’m massively glad I took the leap, and I’ll book up some more shows throughout the rest of the year until next year’s Horror-on-Sea rolls around and I’ll unleash the 2019 show (which I’ve already started working on and is tentatively called Pat Higgins vs The Scissors Man).

At this point, I’d also like to give an absolutely massive shout out to Three Wise Monkeys in Colchester, who provided an absolutely wonderful venue and were flat-out amazing through the whole gig. Go and visit them, because they rock.

So the next date for FEAR & FILM is the Ruined Childhood evening in Downham Market Town Hall on Sunday, May 27th. Tickets are on sale already, and I hope you can make it. It’s a double-bill with David Lawrence and Stephen Brotherstone, who wrote the brilliant Scarred for Life about terrifying kids’ TV from the Seventies. It should be a great evening.

Oh, and I’ve had a couple of people asking whether we’ll be making a filmed version of FEAR & FILM available. The short answer is ‘yes’, but we’re going to hold off until we’ve finished doing gigs with the show (hopefully avoiding that problem of audiences watching the filmed version then going to see the live show, which messes things up a little for everyone). Having said that, the filmed version is in the can, so if there’s any bloggers or horror websites out there who think they’d be interested in the show but aren’t going to be able to make it along to any of the dates, get in touch via Twitter and I’ll sort it out for you to watch the recorded version.

Likewise, if there are venues or festivals who really want a show about horror and screenwriting (now available in 1 hour or 2 hour versions! Wooo!) please give me a shout.

I bloody love doing this stuff.

 

SCREENWRITING TIPS: Embedding Your Theme

I spend a lot of my time teaching screenwriting in both classrooms and on one-day masterclasses (with webinars coming soon – see the note at the bottom). This means that I often end up studying concepts related to education that aren’t necessarily directly associated with screenwriting. One of these has been the concept of SOLO Taxonomy, which is a way of judging a student’s understanding of a subject. It begins with a very basic and uncertain level of comprehension of the subject, but gradually builds up to a far more nuanced and complicated understanding. One such model of SOLO taxonomy, as first developed by John Biggs and Kevin Collis, is used below. Although this exists, as I mentioned, primarily as a method of gauging levels of complex understanding, I have come to use it as instead a method of embedding theme in a meaningful way throughout a narrative.

As a bit of background information, I’ve been working on a screenplay about a masseuse trapped in a room with a mutating corpse. Yes, I use academic models to deepen the thematic content of splattery horror movies. That’s me. Let’s investigate my idea using a SOLO Taxonomy and see where it leads us.

Level 1 is prestructural. The concept in rawest, wooliest form with no further analysis attached. In my case: the concept of flesh.

Uni-structural is level 2. One single meaning of the concept. Flesh is the meaty stuff on top of the skeleton. We’re covered in it. I always was crap at biology.

Level 3: other uses and meanings start to come into play at this multi-structural level. At this juncture, we might well be thinking about not just our own flesh, but the other meanings and associations that we have with the concept. Sexualised flesh. Corrupted flesh and concepts of beauty. Eating the flesh of another to survive. Flesh as home to a parasite. Here is the level where I might be able to include different concepts within my own narrative. For example, if the central theme is going to revolve around flesh from the point of view of massage, we can start to mess around with these other concepts as parallel concerns.

Meat eating, for example.

My lead character is Lauren. Maybe I’ll make Lauren a carnivore, and another character (maybe my mutating corpse, before their unfortunate demise) a vegan. Maybe I’ll make Lauren sexually voracious on a superficial, physical level (seeing lovers as ‘meat’) which not only plays with some interesting textures, but also gets away from the virginal ‘final girl’ paradigm that we’ve seen on way too many occasions for it to be anything other than a bog-standard trope (albeit a useful one that’s often fun to play with). At this multi-structural level, however, we don’t need to join these different elements. The relationships between them is not what matters; at this point we’re just looking for different examples, and different ways to emphasize a central theme. We don’t need them to relate to one another yet. That comes next.

The next step is a relational level. Here’s where we start to feed these concepts into one another. Is it possible that we can use Lauren’s attitudes towards meat or sexuality to inform and deepen the central problem in which she is locked in a room with a mutating corpse? Might it be possible that the only way to dispose of the fleshy invaders in her room (which have erupted from the mutating corpse, as such horrible things often seem to) is to eat them? Questioning attitudes towards flesh in all of its aspects is where this relational idea comes in. If we can tie in ideas of flesh as food, flesh as sexual object and flesh as comfortable home both for the creature who wears that flesh and, indeed, for any invading parasite, our script is likely to become thematically richer. Every element starts to reflect back that central concern with flesh in a way that compliments and interrogates every other element.

It’s at this point that we might want to start thinking about how to state the theme of our movie in just one sentence. By progressing down the taxonomy and coming up with interlinked ideas of the different meanings of the central theme, we can perhaps produce a question that sums up the attitude of the film and the themes that will be interrogated. In this case, for lack of anything else at the moment, let’s go with giving an unsympathetic character the line “I don’t care whether it’s hanging on a human being, on my plate or torn up on a slaughterhouse floor, flesh is just flesh. Just a collection of atoms like anything else.”

By having a character verbalize this theme somewhere in the first act, we can proceed to pull that idea apart in whatever ways we can, whilst giving the audience confidence that, thematically, this is going somewhere.

Finally, we have the extended abstract level. This is where our different concepts are not only brought together, they are combined and used as a springboard for increasingly abstract thought or the different ways of looking at that central theme. For example, it may be that we can introduce the themes of flesh in ways other than just the ones that we have already discussed. How about visually? Could we introduce a colour grade onto the final film to make the movie itself look more like skin texture? OK, this kind of idea is likely to be out of the hands of the screenwriter, but it’s the sort of visual prompt that can work its way subtly into a script and find its way into the final movie. Perhaps themes of flesh as a canvas could be brought into play with ideas like tattoos? Perhaps the other career that Lauren is dreaming of following might be a tattoo artist rather than a masseuse, which would introduce the interesting idea that she is effectively trying to change her relationship with flesh itself?

Take the time to make your way through the SOLO Taxonomy from that initial blunt, unthinking statement through to a more complex, interconnected and abstract way of dealing with your central theme. You might end up looking at it in a whole new way. Even in writing up this exercise, I’ve grown rather fond of that tattoo idea (which certainly hadn’t occurred to me before I’d thoroughly examined the whole ‘flesh’ concept).

Have a good writing day. My name is Pat Higgins, and my conscience is clear.

Note from Pat:

LIKE THIS STUFF? Please follow me on Twitter (@zcarstheme) and share this article to people you think might enjoy it. After years of teaching screenwriting to people face to face, I’m setting up a series of webinars via jinx.co.uk which will range from simple Q&As to more complicated, focused classes on specific aspects of screenwriting and filmmaking. Hope you can attend. My first book, Bloody Screenwriting: Write a Killer Screenplay in 30 Days will be out later in 2018, so if you’re reading this in the future go and buy a copy. Thanks!

 

Pat’s Halloween Letter

Hey folks

Some of you will be reading this on Halloween night 2017. That’s when I’m writing it. This isn’t a post I wrote a while back that’s been stored in a buffer. I’m sitting typing these words with a lit Jack O’Lantern outside our door, and the sounds of kids laughing in the street outside.

Halloween used to be shit when I was a kid, growing up in the UK. We knew it COULD be good. We’d seen E.T., and marvelled at the kids roaming around in costumes. There was NONE of that for us. There was a vague awareness of the holiday, in that the TV would show a horror movie or two (I fondly remember watching the airing of Ghostwatch in a hotel TV room packed full of terrified students a few years later, when I was at Uni) but that was about it.

Britain just didn’t GET Halloween, and the first Trick or Treater who ever knocked on my door was in 1994. Just one angry looking teenager in a non-costume. I was a bit surprised, simply because it had never happened before. I gave him an apple, (which was all I had in the house except beer and cigarettes: I was only 20 myself) and he sprayed the words ‘fuck off’ on the side of my house. So, not the greatest initial Trick or Treat experience.

It kind of carried on like that for a good few years, with the only people roaming around being older kids who really wanted to throw stuff at peoples houses whether treats were forthcoming or not. And that kind of sucked even more than when nobody knocked at all. It was a rocky start to the holiday.

Slowly but surely, though, the nation started to get it. More kids started Trick or Treating, and the majority of the angry late-teens kind of vanished in embarrassment, not wanting to be seen doing something that kids a third of their age were doing. Nowadays, frankly, the whole thing rocks. At least round these parts: I imagine that mileage may vary depending on where you’re based.

Anyway, this Halloween we decided to make my mysterious ‘lost’ movie, THE HOUSE ON THE WITCHPIT, available for one night only. The links are up (at the time of writing) on the front page of the Jinx Media website – Choose your option from Amazon or Vimeo. Come tomorrow, we’re deleting the movie and the Halloween 2017 version will never be seen again, just like the version that we premiered in at Horror-on-Sea in 2016 (which I promptly destroyed onstage after the premiere). We do this stuff because it’s fun. If you choose to spend Halloween night with our film, I hope you enjoy it. We’re very grateful for your support, and hope you find our odd little spookshow a worthwhile diversion on this crisp autumn night.

Witchpit 34 artwork

But that’s enough plugging stuff. After all, an awful lot of you will be reading this after Halloween has long passed. Besides, I’m in reflective mood and don’t want to launch into endless sales pitches.

Still haven’t decided on exactly what flick we’ll be watching ourselves this evening. Probably Boys in the Trees because I keep hearing amazing stuff about it. Either way, I’ll be curling up with a glass of red and quietly cheering the fact that Halloween isn’t shit in the UK anymore.

I’m going to be taking a little while off from my social media accounts after tonight, so if you follow me on Twitter (or Facebook or whatever) you’ll probably find I’ve gone silent.

It’s ok. Don’t worry. Just like every good Halloween boogeyman, I’ll be back.

My name is Pat Higgins and my conscience is clear.

End of Part One.

Sun Rocket Films – The First Presentation

Last night, we had our first business presentation for our mighty new organisation Sun Rocket Films at the Metro Bank in Southend.

It’s always an awesome experience to talk to people about a new venture for the first time, especially one with as much drive, potential and focus as Sun Rocket. I’d like to thank the staff at the Metro and the rest of the Sun Rocket team for making such a great first impression.

Can’t wait for the stuff that comes next. If you want to get involved or hear more, don’t forget to register your interest on the site.

Here’s to the next step on this stupidly exciting adventure.

 

‘IT’ isn’t a horror film? Get Out!

With the movie IT smashing box office records for an R rated release all over the place, there are a number of think-pieces floating around on the Internet suggesting that IT is not really a horror movie after all.

The emergence of Jordan Peele’s frankly brilliant Get Out earlier this year also showed signs of this phenomenon, with some critics falling over themselves to suggest that this was somehow more than “just” a horror movie. A Guardian article tried to float the tag of ‘post-horror’.

This seems to happen with monotonous regularity, whenever smart horror films with good characterisation cross over to a new audience who don’t consider themselves to be the “type” of audience who routinely watch horror movies. It’s a subject quite close to my heart, as I have worked in horror all of my professional life and am heavily involved in the launch of an exciting new company called Sun Rocket Films which also deals largely with genre releases.

Horror is poised to have its very best year ever at the box office (and was even beforeIT came along and ripped through even the most optimistic expectations of box office returns with a taloned clown-hand), so I expect this particular drum to be drummed again and again, as people who don’t like horror wriggle and squirm to avoid facing up to a cold, hard truth.

Yes, they do. They do like horror. They might not like the label, but they like the contents.

My next movie is KILLER APPS, which will be shooting through Sun Rocket next year. It’s another horror, certainly, but throughout the scripting process I’ve taken a great deal of care with the characters and I’m hoping that my dark little story of Kayla Frost and her cellphone addiction will be able to stir emotions in the audience other than just fear. I love my characters on the page, and try as hard as I can to make sure that those characters survive the sometimes bumpy journey from page to screen.

I’m proud of my genre.

When horror is done well, it can change the way people think and feel in a way that few other genres can. It can prompt empathy where none previously existed, and point out injustices in a way more visceral and involving than any number of well meaning but funereally-paced dramas.

And even when it doesn’t do these things, that’s fine too. Sometimes, just fear is just fine. Even when the genre doesn’t reach the heights of Get Out or IT, a glimpse into a fictional inky darkness can make us truly appreciate the sunshine in the lives we have.

FOOTNOTE: Horror represents fantastic opportunities in terms of ROI and tax incentives for investors. Sun Rocket Films are holding a presentation in Southend-on-Sea on September 27th for those interested in film production, business professionals or those looking for tax-efficient investments. Places can be reserved via https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/film-as-investment-tickets-37731400635

For more information about Sun Rocket Films, please visit sunrocketfilms.com and follow us on Twitter @sunrocketfilms

The One Thing Film Students Need

For the past decade, I’ve spent my working life in two areas: education and film.

I’ve got a lot of love for both. With that love, however, comes the knowledge that both areas have some issues. Not just the big ones that make headlines, but smaller issues which undermine all the good stuff.

In the education sector, there’s a real issue with talented students getting the work experience and the breaks that they deserve. The focus on practical experience (for courses in the FE sector in particular) mandates that most students on Film & TV production courses undertake meaningful work experience as part of their qualification. The government has recently doubled-down on this aspect of 16-19 education, with the Chancellor referring to ‘high quality industry work placements’ as being a requirement for technical routes rolled out from 2019/20. Initial indications are that the duration of these placements will be significantly longer than those required already, on a basis of “no work placement, no certificate”.

This would be a great idea, of course, if there were enough good placements available to fulfil the requirement.

The risk here, of course, is that the definition of a ‘high quality work placement’ gets watered down to meet the tick-box requirement, and students who are looking to forge careers as directors of photography on major feature films end up working unpaid in high street photography shops or whatever in order to tick the box. Everybody loses in that equation (well, except the high street shop, I guess), and whether it’s a meaningful experience from which the student genuinely benefits is certainly open to discussion.

There’s also a largely unspoken gender issue at play here. In the majority of graduating classes I can think of over recent years, I’d say that over 50% (and in some cases more like 70% or so) of the very top performing students are female. I’ve been in education long enough to have had the pleasure of seeing some of my former students go on to forge very successful careers in the media, but the vast majority of students who seem to ‘get the break’ after graduating are, for whatever reason, male.

So, the driving need here would seem to be for work experience placements to be a genuine beneficial professional experience (resulting in a recognisable professional screen credit) in order for students to get a foot in the door of the industry, and for those placements to be allocated based on skill and capability rather than any other factor.

Elsewhere, over in the UK film industry itself, there’s another issue in a similar area.

Since the advent of digital filmmaking in general, films as a finished product have been devalued in the marketplace. The middle-tier of independent filmmaking has largely collapsed, leaving only no-budget movies put together on favours and pizza (for which very few of those involved ever end up seeing a paycheque) and massive budget blockbusters of £100 million or more which are incredibly risk-averse and usually based on existing intellectual properties so as to guarantee an audience of a certain size. There are exceptions, of course, but the bread-and-butter mid-level projects upon which experienced professionals relied to pay the rent, largely, no longer exist.

One of our central ideas in setting up Sun Rocket has been to tackle both of these issues. Sun Rocket Films works by having heads of department (experienced specialists paid at standard industry rates) overseeing departments featuring significant numbers of high-performing students, who work on the project to fulfil the mandatory work experience element of their Film & TV production courses. Rather than working unpaid in a retail shop which has precious little connection to their career goals, students get a genuine experience of their chosen specialism (be that cinematography, design, sound, post-production or whatever). The experienced professionals at the head of each department get to do the job they love whilst whilst getting paid a realistic rate for their hard work and expertise (which seems to happen increasingly rarely, sadly).

Hopefully, a few years later down the line, we’d be looking to see those former work experience students coming back as heads of department themselves. It’s a sustainable model for creating strong genre movies with high production values in a changing marketplace.

We’re trying to make things better. We’re genuinely looking for a set-up in which everybody wins.

As someone who loves both education and the film industry, I can’t wait to get started.

FOOTNOTE: Sun Rocket Films are holding a presentation in Southend-on-Sea on September 27th for those interested in film production, business professionals or those looking for tax-efficient investments. Places can be reserved via:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/film-as-investment-tickets-37731400635

For more information about Sun Rocket Films, please visit sunrocketfilms.com and follow us on Twitter @sunrocketfilms