Following in the footsteps of Peter Bogdanovich’s Stalker and Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In, Phil Hawkins’ The Last Showing returns us from our adventures on the moors and in the claustrophobic confines of the jungle to turn the place where we appreciate the filmic dreams conjured up by filmmakers into a nightmarish and hellish place.
If back in the 1980’s Robert Englund rolled over sweet dreams like black storm clouds, then three decades later his eye has turned to the multiplex where we dare to dream and lose ourselves in worlds removed from our reality.
In a special four part feature, writer-director Phil Hawkins, producer Alexandra Baranska and lead actors Finn Jones and Emily Berrington offer a series of youthful perspectives from behind and in front of the camera, before Robert Englund takes the stage to present the cineaste behind the icon.
To commence the feature, what better place to start than with the filmmaker from whose imagination this tale of terror was first conceived…
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Phil Hawkins: It’s a mixture of watching the early Spielberg movies and then watching the Spielberg blockbusters. But I do vividly remember watching Jurassic Park for the first time, and whilst I jumped onto my auntie’s knee petrified when the T-Rex started to pull the electric fence down, I was also absolutely fascinated as to how it was made. I became obsessed with how they brought these dinosaurs to life in a way that affected me so much. Then later on I was a massive fan of the X-Files, specifically the way that they were able to take you on this amazing journey every week. I started making short films with my mates to try and figure out how these things were done, and so that’s how I fell into making my own movies, followed by commercials and then features… It’s all because of that bloody T-Rex.
How important are all the projects and experiences, realised or not, in shaping you as a filmmaker?
It’s so important, and sometimes we are framed more by our failures than our successes. Working in this industry there is a lot more rejection than one would like on every level. I didn’t go to film school or university – making short films was my film school, and for every short film I’ve made there was always something in it that I wasn’t happy with, and I wanted to fix for the next one. Then there would be something in that I wasn’t happy with, and so I had to fix it. Every time I made one I was trying to better myself through making movies, and it became a bit of an obsession to try and get as close to a Hollywood look as I could with a bunch of mates, and a home video VHS camcorder.
The time to quit is when you stop learning, and I’m sure the greats still learn something every time they make a movie, if only because you are always flirting with new characters and stories. It could be a different period, world or look, but you always have to do your homework, and that kind of instinct for stories is important.
Being attached to films that didn’t get made, you still put months of work into developing the script and it’s, even though it didn’t go anywhere. That just makes your insight into story a lot stronger because in the end it all helps. So when something does get greenlit like The Last Showing for example, it is a reflection of everything that comes before it, although whether anyone sees it or not is another matter. But it’s all a journey, and I’m learning. Now I’ve made The Last Showing then the next one I make I want it to be even better.
Peter Bogdanovich’s Stalker and Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In both take the space in which we watch films, and turn it into a nightmarish hell. What was the genesis of The Last Showing – was there a similar intention on your part?
Essentially that was the genesis. I find public spaces inherently scary, and if you look at the opening of 28 Days Later, the reason that’s scary is because it is a place that is so familiar to us. It gives you this unsettling and tense feel because it is so familiar, and it is only unusual because there are no people. It’s not like it is a cabin in the woods or a haunted house, and I think that’s why Paranormal Activity works so well, because we are sat in the place where we are watching the movie. It’s that whole idea of if you see an airplane disaster movie whilst on an airplane then it’s instantly more terrifying. So that’s where the idea came from, but I actually had an experience where I was locked in a multiplex cinema – all the lights were off and it was in standby mode. The escalators weren’t running; the games machines were still on, lit and playing their sound effects. It was just such an atmospheric and visual place, but one that was scary. It just got me to thinking what would happen if we were trapped inside the cinema, and as you say turned the place of entertainment into a nightmare. Then that started the inspiration of how would they be trapped in there, and who would be controlling it?
Horror is almost a rite of passage for a director, and for a lot of feature directors there first films are horrors because you don’t necessarily need big stars, although we ended up bagging Robert Englund. You don’t need the Hollywood A-listers, and they are fairly cheap to make, and so that’s why there are a lot of horror films.
I needed to make a horror first, but it became more of a psychological horror because I find psychological manipulation a lot scarier than gore. The Last Showing became a reflection of that – a nice soapbox on the state of where horror could be going, and also the change in multiplexes in terms of the projectionist becoming extinct, and how tragic that is for those people who are out of a job because it has now gone digital. So it became a nice way of not only telling what would hopefully be a scary movie, but also commenting on the genre, the state of exhibition and the way we currently watch films.
The film plays on the importance of the projected aspect ratio and how they are their own organic entity rather than just a means to pass time, and as such deserve a lot more time, consideration and affection from both the audience and the storyteller.
Anyone can think of inventive ways to kill someone, and do it in a gory way that will scare people. As soon as you put a piece of glass through an eyeball it’s going to make people squirm [laughs]. But these are gimmicks and as an audience member rather than a filmmaker I do not like this, because I have seen it before. So I what I wanted to do with The Last Showing was to try and bring it closer to home – what would happen if you were on a date with a girl and this guy picked you out of the crowd, and did to you what he does to them?
The cinema space is one that we are all familiar with, and hopefully we can relate to not only the couple but also to Stuart. We all know people in our lives that have lost their jobs; have been made redundant or have a passion that they cannot fulfil or show. So I wanted us to understand, though not necessarily empathise with him [laughs] as this might be going too far, but to understand where Stuart is coming from – to understand his motivation instead of making him the mass killer which is again another gimmick and cliché. But the idea was to play with the clichés in the film, and that’s what I tried to do, and it’s why it ended up being a little more of a meta-horror as opposed to a straight horror – a psychological horror in that sense. So hopefully the audience will have fun seeing what we’ve done with the story.
It is often said that everybody’s got an idea for a novel or a film, but in The Last Showing Stuart takes it to the extreme. Contemplating Stuart’s role in the film and the debate that violence is bred by mass entertainment; do you believe that the violence originates from within us or as a result of the mass media?
I don’t subscribe to the fact that someone walks into a violent film and goes out and performs a violent act. It is too simple, and humans are more complicated than that. I think that when video games and films are blamed it’s because people want something to blame. As human beings we come across experiences that are so awful that we want some understanding, and looking to the next best thing we sensationalise the reasons. But I don’t subscribe to the idea that people are inspired or driven by video games to do these horrible things, because if that was the case then everyone would be going out and doing horrible things, which is not the case. There are of course some inherently horrible human beings out there that have this tendency in them to perform terrible and unimaginable acts, and they can blame TV all they want, but it’s because it’s within them already as opposed to what they see on the screen.
How did Robert become involved in the process?
When I was writing the script the character of Stuart became a character that emerged from both horror and cinema, and I naturally thought it would be amazing to have a horror legend play that role. When you think of horror legends there is a very short list of people that you instantly think of that are recognisable. We all know Jason, but do we know what he looks like? But now Freddy Kreuger…Robert Englund has so much weight to him not only as an actor, but also possesses that legendary status. So whilst Robert felt like the perfect choice, I never thought we would get him – we were just this British independent, low budget movie and he was in the U.S. So it seemed impossible, but we thought all we could do is ask, and if he says “Yes” then we will do whatever we can to buy that plane ticket [laughs].
So we just sent the script to his agent, and later Robert told me that his agent read it and called him in the middle of the night and said, “You’ve got to do this, it’s brilliant.” So Robert read it and then the next day or so I was on the phone with him for hours talking about the character.
He has this amazing encyclopaedic knowledge of not only horror but of cinema, and he just got the character, and could see the nuances I was trying to bring to the film. He’s a director in his own right, and he gave it this whole new life. At that point we were trying to cast the other roles; find the location and it all came off the pre-production period of trying to pull it altogether, when you then have Robert come on board and give it the stamp of approval. He had so many ideas and he shaved off his trademark beard which he never does. He was so committed to the role, and I think his commitment came from the fact it gave him the opportunity to lead a film. Obviously he loves and embraces the horror scene – appearances, signings and talks because he respects the fans, but he really pulled off the theatricality of the character.
He’s an amazing actor even if he is behind an inch thick of make-up – it’s what he brought to that role that made him so memorable, and then you see him in V and Phantom of the Opera – he’s done so many amazing roles, and it was just a thrill to give him the opportunity to lead a film again.
The film strikes an effective balance onscreen with its young cast versus the veteran actor – the young blood versus the old blood as it were.
These two engines were great to play with, and although they approached it in very different ways they really spurred each other on. Robert has this amazing old school approach to performance, and then you’ve got actors like Finn and Emily who as you say are the fresh blood. They are rising stars in their own right with amazing CVs – from Game of Thrones to 24.
They worked very well together because it was again old school versus new school – the old ways of film, projection and exhibition versus the younger and fresher way of film, where no one cares about the picture or why is not in 3D? All of these new things that we have to get people watching movies are a good way of contrasting the two, and hopefully it works.
Watching the film, the use of the themes and melodies to create an emotional pull on the audience places the music as the beating heart of the film.
Sound and music in movies is everything, because on set it is not very scary at all. I’ve worked with the same composer for my previous feature films and commercials. But maybe it is again growing up in the Spielberg or Star Wars generation of giving characters themes and playing with those themes – we can all hum the Jaws, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars themes if only because they are classics, and we have heard them hundreds of times. But within a film they are designed in a way to make you associate emotionally with certain characters or themes, and I love to bring that to film, because sound and music is so important for any film – especially this one.
Again it was to try to take it out of that low budget feel, and if you listen to it in isolation then it’s a rather big orchestrated score with a lot going on in it. It wasn’t what you would do in your typical low budget film, but I wanted to give it a gravitas, a weight. But it remains one of my favourite things about the film.
Do you think there are those films that thrive on low budget, and is The Last Showing one of those films?
I think it depends on the story. What I tried to do was make it look as close to a glossy Hollywood movie as possible. You’ll notice that there are no handheld shots in my film. Ninety five per cent of it was shot off a crane, and so hopefully it has a very cinematic and stylistic look to it. I was thinking about how the Americans would shoot this movie; how would they get that video gloss to it instead of going down the whole handheld route, which inherently low budget film has become.
What I wanted The Last Showing to be was yes a low budget film, but I didn’t want the audience to see that; I didn’t want to make excuses for the fact that we had a low budget. Rather we were going to do what’s right for the story, and it looked far more expensive than it actually was, because nobody thinks about the logistics and the cost of shooting in a working cinema overnight for five weeks in these big spaces – the crane, the cast; it all adds up. Essentially it is quite an ambitious film to make on a low budget, but we really wanted to give it the quality that the story and the audience deserve. It is easy to not think about the look of the film, and it easy to just pick up your phone and go and shoot something, which is fine if you are shooting found footage, but this isn’t that movie. We decided to make it look as good as possible, and it is a low budget film when you compare it to Man of Steel. But then it depends how the audience looks at low budget, and whether they look at in a very different way from more of a practical perspective. But I think what we tried to do was make a film that didn’t need or want to make excuses for its budget – we wanted to make it look as good as possible.