Adam Mason Talks BLOOD RIVER
A couple years back Evil Aliens director Jake West dropped me a note saying I needed to check out some new stuff by a pair of friends of his - UK indie directors Adam Mason and Simon Boyes. At the time the duo were co-directing the vicious little horror piece Broken, a film we were among the first to write about before it went on to play the festival circuit and land a global DVD release. Since then we maintained occasional contact via email, eventually meeting up in Cannes - and discovering Boyes is even taller than I am, which is a rarity - where they were attending the first ever screening of The Devil's Chair, a film Mason directed from a Boyes script that went on to have its public premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. The pair are teaming up again for Blood River - and we are more than happy to be hosting the first trailer for the film here - which just wrapped photography a few weeks ago. Mason and I have just exchanged a few emails about the new film and other related matters and the complete conversation follows below.
The Devil's Chair didn't premiere until September at the Toronto Film Festival and you've already got this one shot: do you really work that fast or was this just being kept quiet while you prepared it?
Well, it wasn’t really a matter of working fast, moreover that Devil's Chair was really, really painfully slow for one reason or another. And Broken was even slower, basically because we had nothing to make it with! That one was a real bitch from start to finish.
I’d been preparing Blood River for a long time, since way before Devil's Chair in one form or another. It was always supposed to be the follow up to Broken. And in terms of themes and stuff it is a natural creative extension to that film, whereas Devil's Chair was more of an oddity, in the sense that it came about in an odd way at an odd time in my life.
Thankfully that cruel fucking period is over, thank God, and it's time to move on. Blood River is where I’m at right now, and it’s a great place to be.
The good thing about my films so far is that the people involved, primarily my producer Patrick Ewald, have let me take the time to do it right. So many of my director friends haven’t been allowed that luxury. You can’t really churn these things out, like some production line or something – which happens with so many horror movies these days and always to their detriment.
Anything good takes time and thought and some experimentation. Not having much or any money and resourses can be easily balanced out by a wealth of time. Time, as they say, is money after all.
When I met you and Simon in Cannes I was really surprised by how funny you guys are, and yet you keep making these really uncomfortable, claustrophobic films ... what's the appeal of this stuff and do you think you'll try to change it up in the future?
Well, is funny the word for it? I seem to remember being so drunk that I fell over outside the screening room. Haha.
Well, funny's certainly one word for it. Simon was riffing on stuff all night and I remember being really impressed that you guys had both the stones and the knowledge to put Matt Berry in the film and let him do his thing.
Yeah – well Berry was the one person I fought for having cast wise. No one in the States had a clue who he was… and I guess they wanted the cast to be a bunch of pretty young things. But that is one of the aspects that makes it stand out to me. You don’t normally see someone like Matt as the comic relief in a balls-out horror movie – traditionally he’d be some awful 20 year old male model pseudo actor. Same with [Andrew] Howard's part. Matt is a comic genius. I was pretty in awe of him at first, as Garth Marenghi is without a doubt the greatest comedy series of the past twenty years, but really we hit it off straight away. I hope to get him in the next one if he’s not to big for me!
On a slight aside - there’s a music video I did for a band called Brigade that’s got Howard and Elize and Matt in it. I’m really proud of it. People should check it out on youtube if they’re interested. It was super super low budget but is one of my favourite music videos I've done. The song's called Guillotine. It's pretty cool. Matt’s hilarious in it.
As for making these kind of films - I have a pretty dark side, due to some of the things I’ve seen and gone through in my life, and these movies are a great way of expressing that. Cathartic if you will. But generally I’m an easy going guy. I don’t sit around all day, wearing black and wanting to kill people.
In the past I always wanted to make black comedies if I’m being honest – but those kind of films are so hard to get off the ground, especially in England. Before Broken I won a new comedy writers award from the UK Film Council ... but that experience was just too much for me. The banality of the hierarchy in the UK film industry has to be seen to be believed. They really haven’t got a fucking clue. So I took a sidestep away from all that and made Broken, which was always meant to be a straight to video, down and dirty exploitation movie as far as we were concerned. We just always tried to give it an intelligent spin, which I think is what people responded to in one way or another!
And love it or hate it – that film we made for next to nothing got picked up by the Weinstein Brothers and is available everywhere. I love the fact some people hate it so much. It seems to send audiences one way or the other. And people who love it REALLY love it, which is what makes me more proud than anything else.
As for the future – me and Simon and my producer Patrick are talking about what we’re going to do next at the moment – with the aim of starting writing next week.
I think we’re going to head into Terry Gilliam territory, maybe a dose of Bruce Robinson, with an inevitable hit of the old ultra-violence.
Can you describe your working relationship with Simon a bit?
Yeah. Well Simon and I are the best of friends which helps a hell of a lot. And as far as our working relationship goes we’re like perfect compliments for one another. Like beer and cigarettes or whatever. But we’re also quite different in a lot of ways.
I don’t know if he’ll appreciate me saying this or not, but I’m probably more out there, whereas he’s more grounded. He is very disciplined when it comes to writing, and I’m generally a mess, flittering between one thing and another – hence my problem with getting things finished!
With what we’ve done so far he’s generally taken my lead with ideas and stuff – then we flesh those ideas out together until we have a solid idea of exactly what the story is going to be, the characters and structure and so on. In truth Simon isn’t a massive horror fan at all. He’s just an extraordinary writer.
I really want to see him directing again. Its just harder to get the type of stuff off the ground he wants to do. I’m producing a film for him at the moment which will be incredible if we can get the money together for him to make it. The script is fucking hilarious. Its called Squashed at the moment and is essentially American Psycho meets Rocky. Which sounds impossible, I know. Hopefully you’ll see what I’m raving about in the next year or so!
Andrew turned in a really remarkable performance in The Devil's Chair and looks really strong in this as well. Did you ever consider anyone else for the part? Did he need convincing to get all bloody for you again?
Blood River will win him awards. He’s won awards before but these ones will be bigger ones and more shiny and there will be more of them.
I don’t think I ever want to work with another leading man. Howard is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen, which sounds like a wanky Hollywood thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway. The guy is Sean Penn, or Day Lewis or Brando. Given the opportunity – and that opportunity will come soon, I’ll be willing to bet - Howard will set this town on fire. The man is a maniac with a heart of pure platinum. He is the most fearless person I’ve ever met, utterly committed, a total chameleon, I honestly believe he could do anything and probably will. He’s also been a very very good friend to me.
As for blood - he couldn’t give a shit how much I stick on him. Actually in Blood River he was the one wanting more.
You won’t believe how good he is in this one. Devil's Chair is nothing in comparison.
Without giving away too much of the plot can you say anything about the religious angle on Blood River? It seems like a long time since someone's made a good religio-horror, which is surprising given the current political climate ...
Well…. I don’t want to go into it too much because it’s a bit of a touchy subject in the sense that it could turn people off I think. But I’ll say this much – I’m not a particularly religious person, but I do believe in a lot of the fundamental principals, and I was certainly bought up in a religious household.
And you brought your parents to the premiere of Devil's Chair! Do they enjoy your films?
Well my dad used to be pretty negative about my stuff.. although I can tell deep he’s very proud of what I do. He enjoyed Devil's Chair more than the other ones as he’s got a pretty dark sense of humour himself. As for my mum, she’d probably be happy whatever I’d make. They’ve both been incredibly supportive of me over the years – even back when it seemed like I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was doing.
As for the religious connotations, Blood River is about reaping what you sow, and is quite Old Testament, I guess, in its values and what it is trying to say. We never set out to make it that way, but the state of the western world certainly had a massive influence on us subconsciously.
The film is very much a cautionary tale about how ultimately we all pay the price for our actions, and you can call that religion, or karma or causality or whatever you like.
People treat each other like shit. I hope the film gets a reaction.
When I saw the footage for Blood River that they had at AFM I was shocked by how cinematic it looked both in terms of the shots themselves - the helicopter stuff in particular - and the quality of the footage. I would never have guessed what I saw was raw and don't know if I'd even have been able to pick out that it was HD and not 35 ... who did you work on shooting this one?
Yeah – the stuff you saw was totally raw. We hadn’t done anything to it at all – and it was all offline quality believe it or not. Its only going to get better and better. The technology today is astounding. I can’t wait for the red cam to become more available. It’s going to smash the doors down.
On this one I worked with a DoP called Stuart Brereton, who I’ve done a shit load of music videos with in the UK. He was 2nd unit DP on The Devils Chair. He really pulled it out of the hat with Blood River. He’s a great guy, which always helps, and I think this is probably the opportunity he’s been waiting for to show what he can really do. Like me he’s been struggling to get heard for the last 10 years.
We both have very similar influences, so on set it was great. We were working totally in synch. It was perfect because I’ve been wanting to work more with the actors than I have been able to on the past two movies. For me that’s always been the hardest part of directing because it’s really a different language you’ve got to learn. And I really got that opportunity on Blood River.
People seem to forget that in a lot of horror movies - that essentially all you have up on screen is the actors. Without them you are royally fucked.
Really all you need to make a good film is a good script, good actors and a good DoP. Unfortunately all those three things are very hard to come by.
As for me and Stuart… we’d discuss the scene before we went into it – and he already knows how I like to cover stuff, so he’d just point the camera and go ‘Mason – have a look at this’…. Most of the shoot we’d just be grinning at one another. The landscape was fucking awe inspiring and the natural light – or the quality of the light was glorious.
We weren’t sure whether to shoot film or HD. I’ve always shot digital with my feature films, whereas with music videos it was film or HD depending on the budget. I tend to shoot quite a lot of footage, which becomes expensive on film. I like to shoot 50 or 60 hours of stuff.
With Digital we were mostly worried about the contrast levels out there – basically that the sky would disappear to nothing when we exposed for the actors faces. But the camera we used was phenomenal. State of the art. We couldn’t have been more happy with the way it looked. In a lot of ways with the location it was like we couldn’t go wrong.
Stuart's another one that, like Howard and Simon, will go on to do great things. Its like that old expression about standing on the shoulders of giants. Its easy for me to sit here and take all the credit – but without them, or the other two actors, Tess and Ian, who are also incredibly talented and beautiful (well Tess is – Ian’s fucking ugly), or SFX Tristan, or production designer Neil, the film would be a pale washed out shadow of what it is.
Its easy to gush isn’t it… but you’ll see. Give it five years and these people will be ruling Hollywood.
Can you talk a bit about your approach to FX here? The first thing that stuck me with Broken was just how much you could do with a good physical prosthetic while Devil's Chair had a bit more CG. Am I right in thinking you prefer the physical stuff? I've also always been struck by how you use your effects - there may not be that many gore shots but you hold on them for a LONG time to give the actors time to work with it, which is an unusual approach and really effective.
Well I generally hate CGI in movies. I’ve done loads of fully CCI music videos and it works much better in that medium I think. I love movies like The Thing… and find that kind of magic irresistable whereas something like Transformers I consider to be utter utter wank. It doesn’t impress me when something has been built inside a computer. But you take someone like Rob Bottin – you’re talking about a great great artist essentially producing the most amazing sculptures of our times. Some geek at a computer is not what I would consider to be an artist. Call me old fashioned if you like. Its just when I see something like Transformers I think ‘so what’.
Devil's Chair needed some CGI as it was very much pretending to be one of those types of movies.. and I’m pleased with how it turned out. I think there were about 200 shots in the end but it was all non-obvious stuff. I enjoyed combining the physical FX with the CGI on that one. But the end of DC, for example, or Broken or any of Blood River – I would rather die than use CGI. It totally breaks your immersion into the film.
Lots of people are rushing to declare this particular type of horror dead. Is it? Will it ever be?
Well I can’t see the horror genre ever dying can you? I mean a good film is a good film, and its pretty rare that a great film goes totally unappreciated. The problem with the whole torture porn thing - or whatever you want to call it – is that it became a bandwagon that the studios jumped on. Then the market gets flooded and everyone gets fucking sick of it. I know I do. But the fact is that Switchblade Romance is a great movie, Wolf Creek is a great movie…. Those are the films that will be remembered from this era. The rest will be forgotten, and rightfully so.
You’ll be surprised when you see Blood River because its not ‘that kind of film’ at all. Its not at all like Broken or Devil's Chair. Don’t get me wrong – psychologically its probably the most disturbing thing I can imagine, far worse than my last two. But there’s nothing in it that’s like Hostel or one of those types of films. And in that sense it’s a great departure for me.
I think it will blow away the kind of people who love those movies, but also will appeal to a general audience in the way that Seven or something like that did back in the day. I can’t wait to see what people make of it.