Marc Evans Interview
HIS LITTLE EYE
Marc Evans on his new horror phenomenon My Little Eye
Marc Evans’ zeitgeist-surfing horror film My Little Eye was one of the major success stories of the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival, audiences and critics alike applauding its savage blend of reality TV, internet paranoia and old-fashioned stalk-and-slash chills. The mixture proved too much for one viewer at the late-night public showing, however – the woman had to be helped out of the cinema after suffering a panic attack. I caught up with Evans – whose previous features are House of America and Resurrection Man – in the ritzy surroundings of the Caledonian Hotel, where I asked him about this extreme reaction to his work.
Somebody was taken out of the screening last night, it was too much for her – were you in the cinema?
I watched the beginning and the end from a seat at the back, to see how people were reacting to the scares and stuff. Some people are sick on waltzers, and it’s a bit of a fairground of a horror film, I think. It’s great in a way.
Did you get the chance to speak to her afterwards and calm her down?
No – she was gone. I had this before with Resurrection Man – I never had a screening where there wasn’t a walkout. I don’t really go out to upset people, but it’s quite nice to get some kind of effect.
Horror is a bit like comedy – there’s a specific reaction you’re aiming for, and if they’re not jumping it’s not working
Exactly, totally right. Comedy’s got to be funny and a horror film’s got to be frightening – it’s a very very weird genre to work in, quite frankly, because what is frightening, how do you make something frightening? It’s a guess, at the end of the day. It’s also difficult to write, and keep an idea of the things that we originally thought were good, because as we worked on the film the whole thing starts to seem like a bit of a ridiculous process. We soon lost any idea of what was scary and what wasn’t.
Did you have test screenings and tweak the film as a result?
We did have test screenings – I didn’t mind them actually. Test screenings are generally disliked by directors but I found it was a really good way of finding out nuts and bolts things, like what people did understand and what they didn’t understand – what they got, didn’t get, liked. Sometimes, you can give them too much information and that spoils it. We had two or three screenings, and we did respond to what people said, really. But it was a bit of a saga. We’d been working on the film for a while and we’d got it down to about 110 minutes – I’ve always thought that horror should be 90 minutes. And Tim Bevan, the head of Working Title said ‘Why don’t you audience-test it?’ And we were sent out to LA and the audience-test was supposed to take place on September 11th. So we all got to LA and saw the Twin Towers coming down, and we’re stuck there, basically, with a film that really, at that time, nobody wanted to see. Because it’s quite a violent film. We were stuck out there, and couldn’t get home and eventually after 10 days we decided that we would screen it, since we were there. And it didn’t screen very well, but the circumstances were so weird that we just took from that screening what we could, and moved on, really.
Did think it wouldn’t be released at that point?
Yes, to be honest. I thought maybe we’d just made the wrong film at the wrong time because of the way the world changed overnight – not that our film is in any way relevant to that situation. But in some ways you know, that hasn’t proved the case – the jury’s still out in the States, because we haven’t released there yet. But I don’t think 9/11 long term has diminished people’s desire for horror, or the darker type of movie. The other thing where you’ve got a bit of license with this genre is your viewership’s quite extreme. You’re allowed to be extreme, really.
If it isn’t you’re doing something wrong, maybe.
You are, really. People want to be shocked and challenged and all that stuff. There’s a kind of ritual to a horror movie, like there’s a ritual to a comedy. The catharsis of that is what people want. And it’s not really relevant to 9/11, but it certainly was a strange time to be out there.
What was the starting point – to do a horror movie, or to explore some of these zeitgest themes?
What came first was the idea by David Hilton the writer. I think that horror, like science fiction, is one of those genres where people are always looking for a concept. And most horrors that have been successful have a pretty strong concept behind them and there was a weird sort of thing that BB had started in Holland, and the phenomenon was being reported but it hadn’t actually appeared here. So there was maybe more of a myth to it, because you were reading about this stuff which now of course makes complete sense because we’ve had our own experience of it. David Hilton was reading this stuff, and had this kind of middle-of-the-night sort of idea: “wouldn’t it be great if.” I think a lot of horror films start off from the premise “What if. this could actually happen.” I suppose at that point it was like a combination of the two things: let’s make a horror film about this. So it was high-concept but it was the idea of trying something that was current, and scary, and not ironic, not post-modern or jokey or anything. There was a new urban myth to exploit, basically – there was a new phenomenon on the block. So as film-makers you go ‘Well, let’s try and play with that, because that’s a new idea and might produce a new kind of film.’
My Little Eye could perhaps be seen either as very timely, or possibly as trying to surf a wave that’s already peaked.
The two things that come up every time we talk about this film with people. Big Brother and Blair Witch – they’re both as much of a curse as a blessing I think. It’s obvious why they are the two reference points, but this film may never be as successful as Blair Witch and it may never chime with people who watch Big Brother. If you said “This film is based on Big Brother” some people might be very disappointed by it, because it’s not really a parody on that, because it doesn’t use the rules or the atmosphere of that particular show.
Do you find Big Brother sufficiently horrific as it is, anyway?
[Laughs] It is. Like everybody, I have a complete love-hate relationship with it. There’s a massive feeling of self-loathing about watching it, yet I watch it. I watched every series and I still quite haven’t got to the bottom of what about it that is so compulsive, but it is compulsive and also quite horrible at times. I don’t have a moral problem with it at all – I don’t think it’s exploitative. I think it exploits as much us watching it as the people taking part.
It’s a kind of psychological horror – though there was that incident on the American programme where somebody was removed after threatening another contestant with knife.
There was one with a knife and there was another incident – this maybe strays into urban myth – in one country where the first person to be ejected later committed suicide. So there’s an underlying cruelty and danger to it, even though it’s played out pretty safely in the television show. But it’s there isn’t it – a definite cruelty thing.
This film is maybe more in the old dark house tradition.
In a way it’s our spin on the ‘big house’ film, the spin being made possible by digital technology and coming out of this whole new obsession with reality TV, and broadcasting reality, and shows like this. I think the film is in that tradition of the old spooky house.
Things like Amityville, etc.
Yeah, going back to Psycho. That house keeps popping up in different forms, and it was great to be able to have a crack at it.
Do you like the genre, generally speaking?
Oh yeah, love it. I like films that take you somewhere, films that have got atmosphere and tone and are weird.
Many people would describe Resurrection Man as horror.
Yeah, it was in a way, like a kind of vampire movie in a way. I do like the dark, weird cinematic things, that’s what you aspire to make, when you get the chance to make it.
Which previous films were in your mind during the shoot? Presumably John Carpenter’s earlier stuff?
John Carpenter’s in there definitely, and Polanski actually, funnily enough, quite a lot – the atmosphere. Because a lot of his stuff relates to a house becoming a sort of malign presence. Repulsion, and Rosemary’s Baby as well.
Is this why your leading lady looks like Mia Farrow?
Yeah, it was, actually. It was part of the reason why I cast her. Because that character was in the same sort of position of not knowing what was happening to her. So, Polanski, and directors like Lynch – who just know to put you in this place that’s really strange that you’ve never been to before, with a masterful use of sound – he was a big influence.
Your film’s digital sound is striking – there’s the real sense of events being caught by microphones. What was your approach with the sound?
We recorded sound normally, then we just then beat the shit out of it, to make it as edgy as possible, with little bits of break up in it, aural disturbance. That’s hopefully part of the atmosphere that kind of gets under your skin, because there’s this incessant whirring of cameras, and low industrial rumbles you can’t quite identify. It’s wonderful fun playing with that stuff – the film didn’t really exist until we did the soundtrack, to be honest. It’s the soundtrack that turns it into a cinematic movie.
How did you stumble across the creepy night-vision effect that makes the eyes glow?
It’s just a button on the camera. We were just playing around with the machine – ‘you too can try this at home!’ sort of thing. The point is, that we had to shoot all of the scenes in dark – we just used the night-vision button on an ordinary domestic camera.
How many cameras did you actually use? The implication is that the web-cast uses hundreds.
Well, we were recycling those along the way. At any one time there were probably about eight on the go.
Was it constricting that you couldn’t move, only pan and zoom?
That was a deliberate choice. We wanted to dehumanise it, and make it really sinister, so all we did was little pans and zooms. We would tell the camera-operator off if he started getting too smooth.
There seems to be a specific choice behind each shot – like a webcast, with a viewer choosing between various cameras. Are we meant to feel there’s somebody watching the whole thing?
Yes, the idea was to do a kind of live vision mix. You don’t see them, you don’t know who it is, but you feel that someone’s in control.
Of course, you are in control, as the director. You’re the sinister controlling figure.
Well, the characters we tried to imagine the most were the characters watching the website, and what they would go for, so you always try to double-guess what they would show. And so it was a really interesting directing exercise, because it wasn’t actually what I would show, but try to imagine and convey what I thought they would show.
Like a character ‘X.’
His character was really the character who made the film.
So it’s his ‘little eye’?
It’s his ‘little eye’ – exactly. Absolutely right. That was intriguing, because it wasn’t about what I wanted, but asking the question ‘What would they show now?’
It’s a little like the German movie Das Experiment – the actors are there trusting you, and Working Title is ‘the company,’ but there could be all sorts of stuff going on. So that the actors might possibly experience some of their characters’ fear.
It was an interesting little film from that point of view because all those things played into it, because we were in that house, and they’d never worked like that before. American actors are used to seeing the camera, that discipline, so they felt a bit unsafe I know because they didn’t know which shots would be used.
Did you in any way try to emphasise this by being sinister yourself?
No, it was all very workmanlike, the whole thing. I should maybe have done it like Coppola, with loudspeakers. Or maybe directed via remote control, from Britain. Maybe I’ll do that next time.
Operating within such strict rules – are we maybe heading into dogme95 territory?
That’s a side-issue. It was just a set of rules that we thought were appropriate for this film, because we had to make it on a low budget, and it seemed a way to go, go the whole hog with it. That was quite experimental, to see if we could use that language to tell this kind of story.
With the aim of stimulating a sense of claustrophobia?
There’s lots of things that we did which were constricting but actually kind of added to the aura of the film. We realised early on that we couldn’t anticipate action. In most films, the camera is kind of exactly where you want it to be, and you arrange the action around the camera. In this, we really wanted to get the feeling that the camera was trying to follow and track the action – so the action is always ahead of the camera. Things like that made the cutting very different to a conventional film. And it adds to the feel of the film, really – all those things contribute to the effect.
Was it a smooth shoot, everybody stuck in this house?
It was smooth in most respects, but it was very tough and claustrophobic in this house, a very tough shoot. By the end, we were really glad to see the back of the house.
Did that feed into the atmosphere?
It did a bit, certainly forged a group dynamic among the actors which is kind of handy. They started to feel like people who were living out of each others lives, that was part of the mood that we wanted.
To what extent is the film more commercial than most British products, especially compared with the artier stuff here in the Edinburgh Festival?
It’s funny you should say that, you see – I don’t know what a commercial film is, you just try to make the best film you can according to the rules of that film. So it’s very interesting that people are picking up on it as having the possibility of being commercial because it certainly wan’t planned like that. You don’t do anything differently, it’s just that I think what it’s got going for it is the high-concept, it’s very current, and it’s got nice looking youth in it, a bit of violence and a bit of sex. We just tried to make the film the best we could – I don’t know how you’d make a more or less commercial version of it, I mean, everybody dies, for a start.
Why did you film in Nova Scotia?
Specifically for the location – because it’s got snow, woods, trees, the house, all that. It’s also got an infrastructure. When we were filming there, The Shipping News and K-19 the Widowmaker were both shooting there.
Was there much contact between the various sets?
We were very much the little brother in town. In a general sense it was shot in North America because of the spooky house, and you need that sense of wilderness which I don’t believe you can stage over here and make it believable.
Because of the distances involved?
Yeah – even if you’re in the remotest part of Scotland there’s always the suspicion that some postmistress or something will turn up, in that 39 Steps sort of tradition. So there was the landscape thing, and also culturally, if you make a British horror film with British characters in it, immediately you’re dealing with social realities just because of accents and all that stuff. As played out in Big Brother where you’ve got the posh guy, the working-class lad, and that brings a whole lot of baggage with it. Not only did we make them American, we made them ‘bland’ American – bland white suburban American kids. There’s no person of colour in there, and no gay person in there, there’s no person who’s got a bit of history and a bit of identity.
‘Sliced white bread’ as they’re called at one point.
That’s what we wanted – again, it’s to do with the horror tradition. You know, five kids in the house, maybe they are stereotypes, and we wanted to twist that, really, to play with that. So American it was, at the end of the day.
The actors are Canadian and American?
Yes. They didn’t need to be Canadian or American, it was just an anonymous North American place. We cast all the parts in New York and it was just sheer coincidence that two of them happened to be Canadian: Laura and Kris. But there was no design behind that, we were just looking for anonymous ‘sliced white bread’ kids.
Is My Little Eye being taken primarily as a horror movie, or are most audiences engaging with the wider themes?
I think people are picking up on the themes – you hope you make a ‘smart horror movie’ and I think, at the end of the day, all good horror movies are about something, they’re not just scarefests, they’re all tapping into something, and saying something.
Towards the end, the film widens into other areas of control, with much talk of the unseen but all-controlling ‘Company.’ Was this a deliberate attempt to not just make another slasher movie, and instead to move towards something like The Game, where the characters are always questioning what level of reality they’re experiencing?
Exactly. The most horrific moment is not what happens at the end, but when they can’t find the name of the site they’re supposedly being broadcast on – it’s got this almost metaphysical dimension of like ‘who’s controlling this’ – is there a game, is there a company at all? That’s intriguing because it adds to this feeling of deep insecurity, of being completely vulnerable in the hands of this anonymous force.
Is this intended as a subversive comment on the youth of America – they way they’re controlled by unseen forces like Disney etc.?
This is why there’s the reference to The Breakfast Club. I was very taken by the number of posters for missing kids that are out there. They have the photos of missing kids on the back of milk cartons, and that sort of thing. It seemed to me that the characters in the film are deliberately characters without much family, without a strong family background at all, without a strong society around them, so are abandoned, in a sense, to the world of the Web. And in a sense drew their world view and their morality from that so there is a sort of comment in there about that – the naivete and their expectations, in relation to celebrity, and being on the website.
It’s like this is the first internet generation – in the way that previously there were radio, cinema and TV generations?
Exactly. And how that can be a fantastic tool for education and all that, but it would be easy to be a 21-year-old web-head who knows everything about the world, and yet knows nothing about the world. And perhaps their sense of morality is based too closely on the Web. That definitely fed into ideas of what the company is, and how it manipulated them.
Are you a regular web user yourself?
I think I’m typical of my generation – I’ve come to the web later and use it in all sorts of ways to make my life easier, and enriches it in some ways. I don’t cruise the web, I’m not a web-head, and I still understand that slight nervousness about putting my credit card number into an unregulated, faceless system.
It’s a question of trust.
Totally. Trust is the word.
interview by Neil Young, 17th August 2002
12th September, 2002
by Neil Young
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