Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Film-Making Can Be Murder… an interview with Julian Richards
FILM-MAKING CAN BE MURDER…
An interview with Julian Richards, director of The Last Horror Movie
Thirty-eight-year-old Julian Richards is originally from Newport, Wales, and now lives in London. After working on Channel 4’s long-running soap Brookside he moved into feature-film direction with 1997’s Melies-Award-winning Darklands, starring Craig Fairbrass and often described as “the Welsh Wicker Man“. Silent Cry (2002) starred Emily Woof, Frank Finlay, Kevin Whateley and Douglas Henshall but did not obtain theatrical distribution. Richards has now made his third film, The Last Horror Movie, which Variety magazine called “unsettling… distinctive… [and] sharply handled.”
You’ve just got back from Cannes. How did the film go down there?
We actually took it to Cannes the first time in 2003, where it screened in the Market section. We adopted a unique kind of guerilla campaign strategy, which involved putting up 500 “Murder – Police Appeal for Assistance” posters around the town showing photos of our lead actor Kevin Howarth in character as Max. There was a description, and something saying Max had left his car at Luton airport and was now believed to be on the Cote d’Azur. Then it gave a number to dial if anyone sighted him – which was my mobile number. Kevin arrived halfway through the festival, and within five minutes of him calling me to say he’d arrived at the airport, I had calls on my mobile from French people saying they had “seen the killeur!” It caused quite a stir.
Kevin didn’t end up in the cells, though?
No, thankfully. Then again, maybe it would have been better if that had happened! When you’re competing against all these big-budget Hollywood films, you have got to attract attention somehow and be inventive.
And the strategy paid off?
Yes – we ended up selling the film to an American theatrical distributor, Fangoria Films.
Fangoria the horror magazine?
The same one. For ten years they’ve been putting out videos and DVDs, but this was their first theatrical pick-up so we were obviously very pleased. It’s very unusual for any independently-made British film to obtain any kind of American cinematic distribution, let alone a microbudget one like this. We open in Texas later this month.
Your first film Darklands cost 500,000. How much did The Last Horror Movie cost?
50,000. Cast and crew worked on the film in a profit participation capacity, so we’ve deferred around 250,000 worth of wages – so in a way the film cost a total of 300,000.
Presumably the US deal means you’re already in the black.
Not necessarily, I’m afraid to say. What happens with these kinds of sales is you get an advance payment, which often isn’t very big, then you get a share of the profits that accrue from the video and DVD markets – it’s what’s called in the business “ancillary revenue streams.” We won’t start properly recouping for three or four years down the line. This is the first time I’ve been so closely involved with the business side of things – it’s the first time I’ve been a producer as well as a director or writer. And I’m only now beginning to see how complex it is. Film-makers do very often find themselves at the wrong end of the food chain, as it were – sometimes all you get is the advance, nothing else. Unless you have some control or input into the distribution side, you often end up with not very much money at the end of it.
You said you were opening in Texas. Is the plan to go slowly across the country, which is the way it used to be done with nearly all films until the 70s?
Yes, we’re going for an old-style release, state by state in North America. We think that’s sensible for a little movie like this that’s kind-of blown in on the east wind, without any ‘name’ stars to sell it. It’ll go from state to state between now and the end of the year, four or five prints travelling around.
Not yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that does occur. We start in Austin, Texas, then it’s up to Montreal and Toronto, then back down into the USA.
A cinematic release is in many ways odd for The Last Horror Movie, which is explicitly made to be seen on video – specifically, on rental video.
What’s that William Goldman quote about the movies… “Nobody knows anything.” Well that’s certainly true in my experience. Before this I made two films with relatively large budgets – I had 5m for my second film, Silent Cry. And that one had ‘name’ actors in it – but both movies really struggled to get any kind of cinematic distribution deal. Then I do The Last Horror Movie for 50,000, deliberately designed and intended to go straight to video… and it’s already been sold to be shown in cinemas in the UK, US, Canada, Germany, Mexico…
How did that come about?
To be honest I was very nervous about it working on the big screen at all – there are certain ideas that aren’t really going to work that well if you don’t see it at home on video. But then it premiered at the FrightFest in London, at the Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square. And I realised that the film’s content is so confrontational that it evokes a real response from the audience – a quite audible response at that premiere. And visible, and infectious. I realised that all you need is a couple of cinematic ingredients in a film that the audience can respond to: they were wincing in the right places, laughing in the right places, looking guilty in the right places for laughing at things they realise they shouldn’t have laughed at. And it really made them talk afterwards, which made me think that the film could generate strong word-of-mouth.
And this is when you thought about cinematic release?
Any film released on DVD and video does need theatrical exposure to get that level of promotion.
But the original intention was to do a straight-to-video project?
That was the starting-point. Having made two films with bigger budgets and recognisable faces that then didn’t get theatrical life, I just felt it must be impossible to make a micro-budget feature, on digital, and expect to go theatrical. There seemed no point in making them for the theatrical market. So instead I decided to aim at the video market, to make them work in a video context – from a business point of view, it made more sense. Theatrical distribution is a very expensive process – it can easily eat up all your profits.
But there’s a certain stigma attached to straight-to-video material.
Of course – you better your own standing in the UK and the US if the film you make gets some kind of theatrical distribution.
To what extent do you see The Last Horror Movie as a calling-card that might lead to bigger-budget projects, perhaps even Hollywood offers?
I see it as a thing existing in itself, not just as a calling-card. I already made one calling-card with Darklands, then I kind of re-iterated myself with Silent Cry. But I didn’t get the kind of success I would have liked. With Silent Cry, I took that as a director-for-hire, and although the budget was relatively very big, I got very frustrated – there was a real sense of working on a production-line, with a lack of the control I enjoyed when I was at film-school, and before then when I made movies on Super 8.
But what if Universal Studios rang up and asked if you’d do, say, Van Helsing 2?
Well, you have to make a career out of what you do, and strike a balance. I do want a Hollywood career – and of course to make good films within that system is an art in itself. I couldn’t make The Last Horror Movie, for example, within the Hollywood framework.
Are there any directors who you think can retain their creativity within the confines of the studio system?
Perhaps David Cronenberg – he did “jobbing” films like The Fly and The Dead Zone but then also made more personal pictures like Videodrome and Crash. He’s probably the most interesting film-maker from that ‘crowd’, ahead of George Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper…
Those last three have had very bad Hollywood experiences. Doesn’t that put you off?
No – you have to go to Hollywood if you want to have enough money in the bank, to buy the time to do what you want to do. Whereas I’ve had to go a different way – I used the salary from my “jobbing” film Silent Cry and that went to finance The Last Horror Movie. In Hollywood, you don’t have that close a relationship to the material, but I would try to use some of the lessons I’ve learned on this film if I did get the call.
So you wouldn’t say no to Van Helsing 2?
It wouldn’t horrify me to make that kind of film as such, so long as I could try to do something a little bit new, add a twist to it somehow.
You mentioned David Cronenberg – in person he’s famously mild-mannered, not at all the oddball you’d expect from the films. Watching The Last Horror Movie, people might be a little unnerved to meet Julian Richards…
I have my moments! Well, people are often surprised at how “nice” I am. To be honest, I see the serial-killer genre as often very metaphorical. In many ways this movie might be me reacting against a lot of things – driven by anger, perhaps. But that anger isn’t directed towards people, the way a serial killer would be – it’s more a matter of frustration at film-making, and specifically my experiences working in the British film industry for the last ten years.
The script is credited to “James Handel, from an idea by Julian Richards.”
I got James Handel involved, because I thought he could develop the idea in a way which I wasn’t as equipped to do. He’s an academic, a Doctor of Philosophy, and he certainly has a lot of anger about a lot of things relating to the state of society. And that came out in the script – I must say it isn’t an anger I share, really. My anger is a little different. But James got his anger out of his system by putting it down on the page.
A lot of the script consists of monologue to camera by Max.
One of the agendas of the film is almost to give the serial killer an opportunity to explain himself, and do so within the context of doing that in a horror film. As a way of suggesting to people that he isn’t as far removed from them as we’d like to think – a question of degree, rather than of category, you might say.
What were the other seeds of the project?
I produced a video-diary programme about a cousin of mine who’s a male stripper, entitled Naked Truths. It was self-made, without a crew – just him and the camera. It was the first time I’d seen a video-diary, and I was so impressed by the end result that it made me think, Wow – what if a serial-killer did the same thing. And at the same time I was thinking, What a fantastic premise for an affordable micro-budget feature film. I wanted to take ingredients from films like Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer and Man Bites Dog, use them as a departure point and push the envelope of the serial-killer sub-genre. One review of The Last Horror Movie said it was probably the most extreme externalisation of a killer’s mindset. The idea was to get as close to ‘the mutant’ as possible.
What about films like The Vanishing and Funny Games?
Certainly Funny Games was in there. But with a major difference: Michael Haneke, in Funny Games and also Benny’s Video, seemed to be making the point that violent images on film and TV desensitised the viewer. We aren’t saying that – indeed, we have Max deny that explicitly at one point.
But we aren’t going to take everything he says as gospel…
He’s an unreliable narrator – the film is being made to understand himself as much as anything, to explain himself to an audience. He’s on his own journey of discovery, and it certainly wasn’t our intention to make him infallible.
The title is The Last Horror Movie, but there is plenty of black comedy in there – the domestic scenes when he’s with family members, etc. But even there, we’re never entirely sure that Max isn’t suddenly going to ‘turn.’ I did notice, however, that when he’s wearing surgical gloves that’s usually a sign that violence is going to erupt.
To be honest, suspense isn’t really an ingredient of this film, in the way that it often is in most stalk-and-slash movies. And the comedy was very tricky to gauge. That’s where my idea of the movie and the writer’s idea of the movie probably differed the most. After shooting, and when I got the first edit, I went back and reshot some scenes to make the film harder – to take out some of the comedy. It’s a question of tone: in the first cut the comedy had become farcical, contrived: the invention of a writer, rather than something that developed believably and organically out of the characters. The writer was absolutely adamant that there was no reason why Max had to be a stereotypical serial-killer: there was no reason for him to be another working-class loner with a sexual problem and no sense of humour. We were looking for an original spin on what a serial-killer could be: this is a man who could easily live next door to you: he has friends, family… He isn’t an obvious ‘monster on the loose in society.’
And you largely resist explanations.
There’s the matter of his dead parents, which is the only clue as to what lie at the heart of his problem, his psychosis: grief over lost loved ones. But we didn’t want to pin down some pat reason for his actions.
What research did you do – did you look up details of real serial-killers?
Both myself and the writer looked at documentaries, read books – concentrating on Dennis Nilsen (who looked like a bank-manager), Jeffrey Dahmer (because he was a serial-killer who was a good-looking man-about-town.) We were interested in “unlikely” serial-killers, if you like.
Have you had any problems with the violence from censors and classification boards?
In the US, yes – over there it’s going out unrated, it wasn’t even given an adults-only NC-17 rating. They said they didn’t like the way the film “dwelled” on the deaths. It’s commonplace in horror to cut away very quickly, and show violence in montage. We deliberately shot all the killings without any cuts, in real time, because I thought that’s how it would be like if a serial-killer really did make a documentary about his crimes. I found that sense of ‘actuality’ to be one of the most potent ingredients. I could have brought in my directorial know-how and use loads of tricks to make the murders more gory or spectacular. But in the end they’re much more powerful shown ‘straight’ – some are shown far away in the distance, we don’t cut away, you’re right there until the bitter end. Audiences aren’t that used to seeing that level of reality.
And refreshing that there’s no soundtrack music.
We did it without a score, and some people involved thought putting music over the top would be better – after all, Max has edited “his” film, so wouldn’t he also put some music on it as well. We said, No – you’re missing the point. It’s not about manipulation, it’s about showing the hard facts. There are a couple of scenes were music features, but it’s playing in the scene – on a radio and on a hi-fi, when two of the murders take place in people’s homes. One of them is a radio track, an easy-listening number full of corny sentiment to contrast with the horror of what’s happening in the room. The other one was a noisy victim, and I reckoned Max would turn up the hi-fi to drown out the sound – an opera, as it happened, which I picked for a kind of Clockwork Orange effect.
This use of “found” music is one of the dogme ‘commandments’ – do you prefer this kind of ‘stripped-down’ film-making aesthetic?
It’s horses for courses. If I did get a Hollywood job and tried to apply those kinds of techniques, I wouldn’t last three days. I do have some personal projects which I might be able to shoot on digital and low-budget. Perhaps a romantic comedy – but it would be in the style of John Cassavetes, or Swingers, or Roger Dodger. I don’t intend my filmography to be all horror or thrillers – it’s my forte, and what I know most about, but I did study film-making for seven years and got my horizons broadened. I like to think I have a certain skill with a certain kind of comedy, human-observation stuff.
A lot of the old 70s horrors are being remade. If you could pick one to remake yourself in Hollywood, which one would it be.
That’s very tricky, because the ones I would pick have either already been done, or are in production – like Assault on Precinct 13, which isn’t a horror strictly speaking. I’ve always considered doing a London equivalent of The Warriors. But thinking of horror… There was that remake of The Haunting but I think we could get away with another one. Ah, I’ve thought of a good one I’d like to do: how about The Exorcist?!
interview and transcript by Neil Young, 11th June 2004
Click here to read the review of The Last Horror Movie