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.
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.
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.
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.
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.