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Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Toni Harman and Alex Wakeford Interview

(Note: This interview originally appeared online in Nov. 2008.)

The British fright flick CREDO (released by Lionsgate as THE DEVIL'S CURSE in the U.S.) is a dark and very creepy supernatural horror film that suggests more than it shows and uses sound design to chilling effect.

We caught up with producer-director Toni Harman and producer, writer, and cinematographer Alex Wakeford and asked them some dark and very creepy questions about it. Their answers were chilling...

porfle: How did you come up with the story for CREDO (aka THE DEVIL'S CURSE)?

Alex: CREDO started with a location, well two locations actually. Both were vast and atmospheric buildings in central London that were lying empty and unloved. While architects were drawing up plans to turn them into luxury apartments we were drawing up plans to shoot in them. It was a race to see who got there first. Luckily we did, but only just! I remember one day in the middle of the shoot, a crocodile of surveyors turned up in hard hats and after every take they'd move in and start chalking calculations or something up on the walls and floors. As soon as they'd move on to the next room, we'd wipe the chalk off and go for another take! I often wonder now if the lines in the new luxury apartments are quite as straight as they're supposed to be!

Anyway, back to your question. We knew we wanted to make a “haunted house” film and even though we had the house, we didn't have a story. So the solution was to let the location inspire the plot.

I went to a Catholic school that was attached to a Benedictine monastery, so I was brought up on dark tales of the Devil and his demons! More recently I've become (unsurprisingly) mystified by some of the terrifying things people do in the name of their faith and I'm interested in what it is that each of us believes in this modern, hi-tech, consumer led world, if indeed we believe in anything at all. I started to wonder what it would take to believe in demons. Millions of people do, but if they were told there was a demon in their basement would they really believe it?

porfle: The word "unseen" figures importantly in the set-up to the story. Did you deliberately set out to make a throwback to the old-style horror flicks, in which the unseen is the scariest part?

Alex: I don’t think we intentionally set out to emulate old-style horrors, but Toni and I both believe what lurks in the human imagination is by far scarier than anything we could have put up there on the screen. Special FX can often ruin a movie and in any case we didn't have a budget for effects. Besides, what's NOT seen is often far creepier than what is. I loved Blair Witch because the fear that the characters feel is directly transferred to the audience, mostly because we don't see what it is they're so scared of. Can you imagine a Blair Witch with effects?

Toni: The idea of "the unseen" to me is absolutely terrifying. The point of CREDO is that it explores the things that are often not seen and not talked about. Things, I believe, that can be the most chilling to experience and witness as well as potentially be the most destructive of all.

porfle: What are some of the older horror films that have inspired and influenced you?

Alex: My favourite horrors are the ones that keep the monster off screen for at least as long as possible. The Haunting was made in 1963 and is filmed in beautiful black and white widescreen. It's an incredibly visual film, but we never see a ghost! It's all done with sound, and it scared the hell out of me when I first saw it. The Seventies provided some very chilling films starting with the rather strange yet terrifying The Exorcist, The Wicker Man and Don't Look Now and then went on to the exceptionally scary Omen series and Amityville ending with the one film I still can't watch on my own: Alien, the mother of all “haunted house” movies.

The Shining was amazing, but I wonder if it had been made by anyone other than Stanley Kubrick and with someone other than Jack Nicholson in the lead role if it would still be topping the best horror lists these days.

I love horrors that have a more ordinary and familiar setting. Domestic set horror is all the more terrifying because we feel whatever is happening on screen could also happen to us. Rosemary's Baby, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Vanishing (not the U.S. remake), The Grudge, Ring, Hostel... These all happen to ordinary people in ordinary situations and not in Gothic castles in Transylvania.

Toni: I'm a huge horror movie fan, but only of a certain type of horror flick--deadly serious horrors where there are no one-liners, no comedy throwaway scenes and surprisingly for a horror fan, no gore (okay, a bit of blood but no gratuitous decapitations!). These are my favourite horror movies that absolutely hit my horror G-spot.

My favourite type of horror is J / K / H-K horror. I love Asian horror as it's atmospheric, it tends to be psychological and it's steeped in a strong cultural identity. So in no particular order: The Eye, Audition, The Rings, The Grudges, Reincarnation, Dark Water and A Tale of Two Sisters.

Next, I love old-school Polanski, Hitchcock and 60's & 70's horror, where it's more about what you don't see than what you do see. So again in no particular order: Psycho, The Birds, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant, Black Christmas, The Haunting, The Exorcist, The Shining, The Omen and Amityville Horror, Don't Look Now and Alien.

Then coming on to more recent horrors which are atmospheric, clever and terrifying: Blair Witch, REC, Cloverfield, P2, The Orphanage, the first 20 mins of Jeepers Creepers.

porfle: What was your vision of how CREDO should look, and how close did you come to capturing it?

Alex: We wanted the film to look as natural as possible. Horror films often have an unrealistic look because they're set in the realms of the imagination and everything is heightened. We wanted to create a naturalistic, harsh, gritty environment with no glamorous, bright lighting. We wanted a heavy gloom and murky shadows that would impart a sickening feeling of claustrophobia.

We didn't have a budget on this film so we had to be inventive, which is always a good thing. If this film was going to get noticed, then we'd have to take risks with the way we shot it. I was putting the camera into places where there was practically no light. My light meter read ERROR half the time! But I knew this would give us something different from the usual High Definition imagery which I consider to be too sharp and flat. We also built a lot of our own lights from LEDs bought from the local hardware store. My gaffer, Pete Carrier, wired them up in different configurations to provide varying lighting effects, some of which gave off an eerie glow that seemed ideal for a horror film.

One of the most interesting effects can be seen in the scene where Scott finds Alice in his room. One problem that we worked to our advantage was that the corridor of bedrooms was over thirty feet above ground so I wasn't able to aim lights through the windows. So I used the biggest ones we could afford and directed them from the ground outside up through the windows and onto the ceilings. Just like street lamps do in real life. This provided an interesting, but murky glow that felt very natural. When the characters end up in the basement, we relied on torches and lanterns. This was supplemented by the LED lights as well as using reflective surfaces to bounce lighting back onto the actors. They did an amazing job to find these surfaces while getting on with their acting! MyAnna Buring had been doing a lot of this sort of thing on The Descent so she was a natural. I'm very pleased with the way it turned out. I feel it has a very different look from horrors that have proper budgets.

Toni: CREDO is my first feature film and I wanted to make it because of the sheer challenge of directing a multi-layered supernatural horror film that is all about the slow build of tension. I was fascinated by the idea of making a film that deals with the darkness that often runs deep below the surface of human relationships.

With the film being completely independent, it was my chance to be brave, to take risks and to really experiment with the genre. I wanted to see how long I could ratchet up the tension to build a suspense sequence, to see how hard I could push the characters and to see how far I could take the audience so that their nerves become frayed and they really begin to feel the fear on a deeper, more terrifying level.

I wanted to make CREDO drip with atmosphere, building suspense through claustrophobic palpable dread. Shots linger without cutting, trapping the audience, just like the characters, inside the horror with no escape. The general feeling of the film is of naturalistic realism. The performances of the actors are naturalistic; the characters all seem very real; their wants, needs, frustrations and fears all ring true. The audience knows these people or people like them. It was really important that this strong sense of reality be portrayed throughout the film as makes it all the more shocking when the story is turned inside out and the horrifying truth is revealed in the film’s climax.

As a female director, I wanted to make a film that would not only tick all the boxes for horror fans but would also strongly appeal to an often ignored demographic, the female horror lover. I wanted CREDO to be the type of film that someone like myself would love to go and see; a thinking person’s horror, a character-based suspense chiller with a clever story and a great twist--and that’s hopefully what we’ve achieved.

porfle: How closely did you work together on the various elements of the film?

Alex: Toni and I worked on just about every aspect of the production together. From story development, to storyboards and final shot selection. Everything happened so quickly, so that while I was writing the screenplay, Toni was holding auditions. That was the only time we were apart throughout then whole process.

Toni: We collaborated on everything: the story, choosing the location, shot lists, storyboards etc. On set, because we had already talked through everything in advance, we barely talked to each other as we already knew what we both had to do.

As we also both produced the film too, we were involved with all the financial and business decisions too. Working together worked pretty well in general although there were times where we completely disagreed with each other and--

Alex: What are you talking about? It was never like that!

porfle: Is it true that a lot of the backstory was filmed but then deleted?

Alex: When we viewed the first cut, we found that we had way too much backstory right at the very beginning. Ten minutes or so. We felt it was a bit odd to tell the story of five theological students for ten minutes and then to suddenly switch to a bunch of new characters. So, unfortunately, we had to make the decision to cut it right down and to put it a little further into the film. I say unfortunately because it was my favourite part of the film. The start of the film is a bit slow now as nothing really happens other than setting up the characters, but I think it was the right decision.

Toni: We shot a ten minute prologue featuring Stephen Gately, Colin Salmon and Chris Jamba which covered what happens the night the five students form a human pentagram and summon Prince Belial. This prologue was fantastic, brilliantly performed and even though I say so myself, really nicely shot. The only problem was that it took the film off in another direction and so when you came back to the present day, it was like starting again on another film. That's why we decided to include the prologue as a backstory flashback in the main film. Hopefully it will be available in the DVD bonus material.

porfle: It must've been great working with such a talented cast.

Alex: The cast were phenomenal. Not only in their talent, but also in the amount of energy they put into making the film work. From the very beginning they were under no illusions how hard it was going to be, and they threw everything into it. And I have to mention the crew because they went above and beyond to make this as good a film as possible.

Toni: We were really lucky to have such a fantastic cast, all really dedicated, enthusiastic and up for trying new things.

Stephen Gately had always wanted to be in a horror film as he loves the genre. He was fantastic to work with, incredibly hard-working, really receptive to my direction, always good-natured and had a great sense of humour. Even though he has had huge success with Boyzone and has done over 10,000 media interviews, he never acted like a "star" but was just one of the gang.

MyAnna was amazing. Performance-wise, she was spot-on. She was intelligent, hard-working, fantastic to direct and completely gorgeous. Because she had just come off Neil Marshall's The Descent, she was in her "zone". She knew the different levels of fear she needed to play and she was ready, willing and able to push herself to the extreme. She is the horror queen and I would love to work with her again.

Without sounding too much of a lovee director, all the others too were fantastic, Clayton, Nathalie, Mark, Chris and Colin. All wonderful actors who I would love to work with again.

porfle: Did Clayton Watson ("The Kid" from MATRIX II and III) display any ill effects from his prolonged exposure to Keanu Reeves?

Alex: Ha Ha! So that's what it was! I did wonder what had caused some of Clay's erratic behaviour!

Toni: Clayton had probably the hardest job of all the cast as we had problems securing his work permit as he's a non-UK actor and this was an official UK production. We started shooting and we still had no idea whether he would be allowed to be in the film. We had to re-schedule all the scenes with Clayton's character Jock until later in the schedule and start shooting all the scenes without him in.

Finally he arrived on set five days into the shoot--by then everyone else was up to speed and were already well into their performances, whereas Clayton was thrown cold into the group scenes, having to perform from a standing start with no rehearsals. But Clayton is a true professional, he launched himself into the role and very quickly got up to speed and delivered a terrific performance.

Alex: The delay in securing his work permit caused untold havoc throughout the entire shoot. It probably made everyone's job ten times harder, it was that devastating. It was no fault of Clay's, but more the union flexing its muscles on a no-budget indie film.

porfle: What's the story behind that great location?

Alex: We had the run of these two incredibly spooky buildings right in the heart of central London and we felt we had to do something with them before they were renovated and turned into posh apartments. Once we'd made the decision to make the film, we moved into one of the locations, a Victorian Neo Gothic fire station, and I started writing the script while Toni set about casting. It was a unique situation to write the script in the actual location. Whenever a scene wasn't working or I felt a bit uninspired or flat, I'd wander down to the creepy basement or up to the equally nasty attic and I'd soon find myself inspired! Especially as it was rumoured the basement had it's own resident ghost, which some members of the crew later told me they had actually encountered!

Toni: Whilst location hunting we visited over 50 properties, most derelict, most hundreds of years old, with grand staircases and long corridors that gave way to darkness and boarded up rooms with no natural daylight. Then we came to the one we actually filmed in--a derelict six-storey eighteenth century Georgian townhouse in central London. It used to house a foreign high commission but had been abandoned for a decade.

The basement was by far the creepiest basement I had been to in my life. The layout itself is confusing. There's huge cavernous cellar rooms interconnected by long winding corridors. There's holes in the walls and ceilings, so every now and then you glimpse the floors above, sometimes, you can even see up to the sixth floor. Some walls are lined with broken white tiles, giving the feeling of an abandoned psychiatric hospital. And then there's the smell. A rotting stench of years of neglect.

porfle: Did filming inside a large, decrepit old building present any problems?

Toni: There were tons of problems but none that were insurmountable. Most of the production headaches were due to the fact that there was no power in the eighteenth century Georgian building, plus no water, no working toilets, no clean rooms etc. The crew had to wear face masks to protect themselves from the dust. It was pretty horrible. By the time we got to the fire station, again with no running water, limited toilets, no clean rooms--the 1960's original flocked wallpaper and swirly carpets seemed like the lap of luxury!

Alex: My main problem as a cinematographer was that the rooms themselves were tiny. The corridors and staircases were fantastic, but in some of those little rooms once we'd got the camera and lighting in place, there was hardly space for the cast! However, having written the script in the fire station, I knew that we could achieve everything in it. That was a huge bonus.

porfle: How much of it was done on a soundstage? Did you have to build that spooky sub-basement tunnel that the characters end up crawling around in?

Alex: There was no soundstage work, but the fire station did have the added bonus of having a large garage for the fire engines where we built the tunnel set.

Toni: That was a bit of a story because one of the production co-ordinators, Dave, was responsible for building the tunnel. He had no previous DIY knowledge and I was putting him under huge pressure to build this amazing tunnel. During preproduction and the shoot, every day I would walk past this DIY disaster in the garage, built out of bits of wood, chicken wire and papier mache and my heart would sink--but in an amazing feat of engineering, Dave pulled it off at the last minute and the tunnel looked fantastic on screen. But words don't do this story justice. You can follow the building of the tunnel on the “Making Of” film which will hopefully be included on the DVD.

porfle: Did any mishaps or unforeseen events disrupt the making of the movie? Anybody get creeped out?

Alex: As far as I can remember, just about everyone got creeped out at some stage during the production! These were very intimidating buildings we were working in, one of which was derelict from years of neglect. Most people felt low and depressed in the big Georgian townhouse, maybe because there was no power there so the building was almost always cast in a heavy gloom. During preproduction, the art director would often find herself working on her own in the basement and she would hear a howling coming from somewhere in the supposedly empty building. We actually had to halt production at one stage so that we could mount a full scale search of the building because several crew members had seen a mysterious intruder lurking in the shadows watching us. But even though there was no way “he” could have left the building, we couldn't find him anywhere.

Toni: As there was no power in this building, during preproduction we'd have to use torchlight to guide ourselves around it. Several times, when we tried going down to the basement, which was our main set, our torches would dim and we'd be plunged into almost total darkness.

Despite the fact that we were in the city centre, the only sound would be water dripping on the stone floors from pipes that had been turned off years ago. We had to use the light from our mobile phones to navigate our way out. The really strange thing was that as soon as we climbed the steps back up to the main part of the building, the torches would suddenly start working again.

Alex: The fire station had its own “quirks” too. Several crewmembers reported seeing a grey figure darting into a room at the far end of the basement. Stephen Gately told us that he heard someone whispering in his ear in that room. That was the last time he dared visit the basement! But for me, it was the top floor of the building that creeped me out the most.

I had an ultrasonic detector that's usually used to listen to bats. Paranormal investigators have apparently started to use these things to tune in to those parts of the audio spectrum that lie beyond human hearing as they believe there are certain very high frequencies that contain voices of the dead. It was the inspiration for the odd bit of kit that Scott keeps tinkering with in the film.

Anyway, when we first moved into the fire station I took to wandering around the building, tuning into different frequencies to see if there was anything unusual. I think I was trying to find some spooky inspiration for writing and I also had this silly idea (which I never actually believed would really happen) that if I could record the voice of a ghost, then I could write it into the screenplay and then be able to say that it was co-written by the dead! Like I say, very silly!

Anyway, I didn't get much from the “bat box” until I got to the top floor where I started to pick up what started as a low moan. As I approached a bathroom at the far end of a long corridor, it turned into a wailing and when I opened the door it became a horrendous screaming. It hurt my ears it was so piercing. I ran like a girl all the way back to the production office! I've only recently been told that someone actually saw a shadowy figure of an elderly man standing in that bathroom, looking very mournful. When she related this to someone else, apparently she broke down in tears about it. The mournfulness had somehow transferred to her I guess.

In the “Making Of” documentary which will hopefully be included on the DVD, there's a clip of Clayton Watson doing pretty much the same thing with the “bat box”, but he didn't go all the way upstairs. Instead he went to the room directly below the bathroom and you can just about hear something that is picked up by the camera microphone. The production designer also had a few hair-raising moments in those rooms too. There's too much to go into here, but I'm currently compiling a list of all the stories and they'll be going on my blog.

Just as a postscript, we had originally intended to shoot in a third building, one that was even bigger and creepier than the other two put together. However we experienced such terrifying and violent events in there that we decided not to go back in there again. And it was definitely no place to be risking the health and safety of our crew. We had been told by a member of staff at the property company, and this was someone who had a reluctant psychic ability, that there were several spirits in that building, most of them harmless, but there was one, a male, that was extremely angry and had actually pushed her down the stairs on two separate occasions. She refused to go back into that building and we didn't take any more persuading than that! You can read the full story on the blog.

porfle: How did the post-production process go?

Alex: Preproduction and the shoot happened like a whirlwind as it was driven by manic energy! However, post took a whole year, mostly because of the re-edit. It meant we had to do everything twice over. We've learned our lesson now!

porfle: Were you closely involved with the film’s elaborate sound design?

Alex: I had intended to write in all sorts of ghoulish audio descriptions in the screenplay, but I ran out of time, so I wrote vague things like “scary sounds echo up from the basement”! So when it came to sound design, J.J. Maurage the designer had pretty much a free reign. He was amazing. He would work into the night scaring himself silly with spooky sounds. Kim Halliday, the composer, did the same thing. He said he'd only work on the scary scenes at night!

We were extremely fortunate to have a cinema sized re-recording studio at the famous Shepperton Studios for the final mix. It's where Kubrick mixed some of his films so we knew we were going to be well looked after. J.J. was in his element. He had a mixing desk as long as a London bus!

Toni: I think J.J. is a sound genius and seems to be able to "see" sound in all its complexities and nuances. He teamed up with foley artist Alex: Robinson to record all the foley live at the actual locations, which is apparently quite a rare thing to do, but it produced an authentic quality of sound.

Alex: He recorded a lot of the particularly spooky effects in the top floor bathroom, the one where I encountered that horrendous screaming! The one where someone saw the figure of the mournful man. No wonder the sound design has proved to be so authentic and effective!

porfle: What are some of your previous filmmaking efforts that led up to this?

Alex: Toni: and I met at film school in London so we've made a lot of short films together, some of which were bought by Universal and have been broadcast all over the world. Our last short (Daddy's Boy) won best European short film at the Fantastik Film Festival a few years ago. But when distributors stopped buying shorts (mostly because of the huge rise in numbers of films on sites such as YouTube) we knew it was time to take our leap of faith and dive into a full length feature.

porfle: What did you learn while making your first feature film that will come in handy next time?

Alex: Show people your edit as early as possible. We had this crazy idea that we wanted the cast and crew to see the film in its best possible state: graded, sound designed and fully scored etc. It was only then that we realised it was too slow in places. So it cost a lot of money and huge effort and heartbreak to recut the film. It's only when you watch the film with an audience that you actually see it through their eyes, that you can step back enough and see it properly.

Toni: One of the things that I really tried to do was experiment with the actors' level of fear. I thought if the actors are genuinely scared then this is communicated on screen audience and the audience will get scared.

So on set I would do things like send an actor down to the scary basement for five minutes on their own armed with just a torch to really psyche them up ready for the scene--that really worked and some of the best scenes were shot after I had put the actors through their psychological paces.

For my next film, I want to push this even further and to really terrorise the actors--and strangely enough, the actors seem to love it!

porfle: How did the distribution deal with Lionsgate come about?

Alex: We had intended to do DIY distribution with CREDO because that's where the digital “revolution” is really happening. But, somewhere along the line we got ourselves a sales agent who took it to Cannes and the American Film Market in Santa Monica which is where Grindstone Entertainment liked the trailer enough to watch the film. They'd just been acquired by Lionsgate which is why it's a Lionsgate release.

porfle: How do you feel about the title change from CREDO to THE DEVIL'S CURSE?

Alex: I found out about the title change on Google! I thought it was funny at first that someone had made such a glaring mistake, but then I saw there were loads of other sites making the same mistake. I clicked on one and there it was... the new poster, the new title! I don't know, maybe CREDO was too obscure a title.

The strange thing is that no one bothered telling us which I thought was a bit odd. But, it's all legal--it's in the contract that they can do just about anything they like!

Toni: I love THE DEVIL'S CURSE, in fact I wish I had thought of it! For me, it says horror, it says what the story is about and it says this is not a slasher but a supernatural sort of horror. Saying that, I also love CREDO as a title as it is enigmatic and says it's a film all about belief. The problem we've encountered is that not many people know what CREDO actually means--it's Latin for "I believe."

Alex: Toni: may like the new title, but I'm still trying to figure out where the Devil comes into the story and what's with this so-called curse? The mind boggles!

porfle: How has CREDO been received so far?

Alex: I keep seeing comments on the web and mostly they are really amazing. There are a few negative comments, well actually they are really angry comments! But they're from gore fans who are absolutely furious with us for not providing blood and guts by the bucket load! I completely understand their anger! They've had to sit through 90 minutes of an invisible “monster” with no blood and no sex. Poor souls!

But I am ecstatic that the film has found an audience. They're really buying into the atmosphere of the movie and they love the twist ending. I had originally thought that we should keep the fact that there is a twist quiet, but now I see that this is probably the way to market it. I was also a little worried that the twist might be a little too obscure and complicated, but most people are getting it!

Toni: We're made some international sales which in this financial climate, I think is quite amazing and a huge relief! It's had some mixed reviews; people who love slasher gore horror films unsurprisingly don't get CREDO, and those that like films with a psychological twist seem to respond really well to it.

porfle: What do you have in store for us next?

Alex: We're developing several projects together and the next one is a very dark psychological horror that we're really excited about and we just can't wait to get shooting!

Toni: We've got three films in development, an internet-based horror film and two psychological thriller/horrors, so hopefully they're all going to be made in the next couple of years. I can't wait to direct again as I loved every minute of it, even though I did become maniacal at times!

Alex: We've also got the UK release coming up which we're really looking forward to as we're going to be doing something very different to the usual cinema/DVD release. We've been developing all sorts of new and interesting ways of bringing the audience to our film. We're going to have some very spooky events held in very creepy locations. They'll be more than just screenings as we believe the age has finally arrived where films can be set free from the constraints of movie theatres and can thrive on a whole new level in both the physical and web worlds! Check the blogs and web sites soon to find out more.

porfle: Thanks very much for taking the time to chat with us today. Any parting words for us?

Alex: Thanks for the interest. I really hope that CREDO (THE DEVIL’S CURSE) can go on and prove that really small indie films can actually compete against the big guns.

Toni: I hope that people enjoy watching CREDO and if they like it, to tell other people about it! The more people watch our films the more chance we get to make another film.

Also have a read of our blogs!

Toni's blog
Alex's blog

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