Sightseers co-writer and star Steve Oram delivers his demented directorial debut AAAAAAAAH! at FrightFest this Friday 28th August. The mad as a plate of badgers, monkey horror/ sci-fi hybrid previews in Discover Screen 1 with Steve, Toyah Wilcox and other cast members due to attend.
With stateside screening dates booked, AAAAAAAAH! looks to destined for cult status and is sure to set Steve on a path to greater film-making opportunities. We chatted to Steve about AAAAAAAAH!’s inception and production along with the state of modern indie cinema and the secrets to mining comedy genius.
How do you pronounce the title is it AAAAAAAAH!?
However you want, I will leave that to the viewer. You can say it like AAAAAAAAH! or AAAAAAAAH! or AAAAAAAAH!
How did you come up with such a warped idea? Did it evolve from something else or was it more of a light-bulb moment?
It’s something that has always fascinated me: how ape-like we all are and yet we rarely reference it in our every-day lives. I’ve always been a big fan of Planet of the Apes and did a short film with the same concept a couple of years ago. So I guess it grew from there.
As well as being a comedy, AAAAAAAAH! has the feel of the 70s dystopian sci-fis like Soylent Green and A Clockwork Orange. Were those films inspiring to you?
Yeah all of that stuff, anything subversive, I bloody love it. You rarely get films like that nowadays and that was the era for them. That golden phase when the primal scream, punk works emerged. It’s a shame there aren’t as many being made now.
Are you a sci-fi fan in general?
Definitely, I love films and novels about alternative worlds where you can see traces of the present day. I loved Gulliver’s Travels, the Jonathan Swift book, which I read when I was growing up. AAAAAAAAH! is like my version of that.
Did you always intend the film to be the way it turned out or did it change during the writing process or production stage?
The film was written knowing we’d make it with a very low budget so I kept that in mind from the start. I also started thinking about what locations we could use and the actors we could get so in that respect, the script was very well planned. I think you have to be when doing low budget stuff. But then it changes from page to screen, when it comes alive with the actors. It’s amazing seeing it live for the first time and I had such an amazing bunch of maniacs to work with.
The story feels loaded with metaphors and subtexts along with social commentary on modern culture and technology. Was there stuff that you were consciously trying to weave in or is it all just open to interpretation?
It’s totally open. All I was really interested in was the human story, the simple story of this weird ape like love and feud. I wanted a traditional love story structure but done in a very different way. There are no metaphors and no intended comments. It’s just details that I hope people will enjoy, find funny and laugh at.
Was it an easy casting process?
I always had a few names in mind: the two Julians (Rhind-Tutt and Barratt), Tom Meeten but Toyah Wilcox I wasn’t expecting, I just sent her the script which she loved and was very enthusiastic about. I think if you tell an actor they have to do run around being a monkey, they’ll probably do it. They love that sort of shit.
Did you do a lot of ape research?
Yes, the hardest thing was getting the language right. At the writing stage I thought it would be easier but it wasn’t until I worked with the actors that the process solidified. We had workshops but it worked better when it was simpler. We started just talking gibberish and it just sounded like a weird language we couldn’t understand. It was better when it was more direct and less monkey-like and jokey. I think you could do almost any scene from any film in a monkey voice and it will work. Maybe not with any over-intricate word play but I’d quite like to see someone give it a go. When we first started out we had some quite long and boring dialogue scenes and I just had the actors talking ape for ages which was actually quite boring.
You studied film at university before going on into stand up comedy. Do you have any favourite comedians that inspire you?
Yes and there are so many buried influences in AAAAAAAAH! Comedy was a big focus of mine in my early career. I was always a fan of the character comics. Vic and Bob, Peter Sellers, Ronnie Barker, Julie Walters, Allison Steadman, I can name so many. Watching them and learning from them set me off into writing and helped me visualise then conceive characters of my own.
Do you think there’s a secret to writing good comedy or is it just a case of coming up with an idea you think is funny and hoping everyone else does?
If I could tell you the secret to comedy I’d be a bloody rich man. It’s a weird alchemy that exists within the person that reads or perceives the material. It’s all subjective but my favourite stuff is all about the character then creating and placing them in believable and hopefully hilarious scenarios.
There’s quite a lot of dark material in AAAAAAAAH! did you find it tricky balancing that with the humour?
It’s a style I’ve worked with for such a long time and the trick is to never get too serious. Whenever you think things are getting too dark you just chuck in a couple of bad jokes. There’s also quite a lot of physical comedy in there too so hopefully people will find lots to laugh at. AAAAAAAAH! is also in the tradition of a lot of American films by directors like John Waters and Ed Wood.
Is there still a place for slapstick and fart jokes?
Of course! They will never die. People will always find a fart funny along with people falling over and hurting themselves. A good fart is timeless. I hope it never ends.
Julian Barratt’s character in AAAAAAAAH! and his relationship with the Battenberg cake is particularly hilarious: any chance of a short spin-off film?
Yes, maybe a little something with Julian. Man and cake and their relationship. They can share a flat together. Let’s write it up, see if we can get it commissioned.
How did you find directing a feature for the first time?
It was difficult because you have to think about so many things you didn’t realise you’d have to. I was also the costume department, amongst various other jobs as well producing it with Andy (Starke) so it was a crazy time. But I practiced a lot making short films and mercifully it was only two week shoot so it ended quite quickly.
Do you think more intelligent low budget films like this will eventually be embraced more by commercial audiences?
I think it’s in an interesting time for these types of film because essentially they are the modern B-movies. There has always been a big appetite for leftfield ideas that only tend to exist in the low budget stuff but I think there will always be a stronger craving for blockbusters. I always get a bit annoyed when people who don’t have that much money somehow manage to make a film that looks really slick and amazing when they should play to their strengths and make something rough and ready with weird ideas. I think that’s how it should be at our level.
The soundtrack to AAAAAAAAH! was pretty amazing. As a musician, did you have much involvement?
The main person who provided the soundtrack was Robert Fripp who donated a largely improvised album to us to use however we wanted. So that’s all just the genius of Robert really. I did most of the shit stuff that sounded like an ape made it.
Do you want to continue directing films?
I do, definitely. This is hopefully the start of something. I have another couple of scripts at various stages so hopefully I will be making another fairly shortly. I want to continue doing stuff in this style because it’s something I really enjoy and there’s not enough of it. Life’s too short. Let’s get out and do some mad shit.
Can you see yourself going to Hollywood? Will they let you?
If there’s something for me there I’ll definitely go but we’ll see. We have a couple of American dates already at festivals so we’ll see how they do over there. I think AAAAAAAAH! is universal film that will play anywhere in the world. It doesn’t have any language in it so it should appeal to every culture.
On a final point: was that really your penis in the film?
It was a prosthetic. We had two quite impressive penis’ constructed by a brilliant SFX guy called Dan Martin who also worked on Sightseers and other Ben Wheatley films. He is something of a cock expert. He also made the erect one with a detachable bell end. If you ever need any cocks look Dan up. He’s the best.
I’ll bear that in mind. Tom Meeten was boasting about touching it at the press screening.
Yeah that’s the sort of thing he’d say.
What are you doing next?
I’m doing a lot more acting. I’ve been playing an occultist in Irish horror film with Catherine Walker which was cool. We’ve just finished that in Ireland. Now I’m on a Victorian, supernatural, BBC drama, playing a farmer.
Really getting into the horror then.
Yeah I’ve just got one of those faces. It must be my calling. It’s great though. The stuff of weird dreams and nightmares.
AAAAAAAAH! is screening at the Picturehouse Central, followed by a Q & A with Steve Oram, on 4th September.
Click Below to see our Ten MUST-SEE films at this year’s FRIGHTFEST