From horror in the Americas to FrightFest’s foray into spatial horror with Luke Hyams’ moorish horror X Moor and Adam Spinks’ Amazonian adventure Extinction/The Expedition. From hunting a fabled beast on the moors to being the hunted in the jungle, these two British films took the FrightFest audience from open to dense terrain for two different kinds of hunts.
In a three part interview feature we spoke with X
Luke Hyams continues the feature as he reflects on the cold harsh reality of helming a film on the moors of Northern Ireland, as well as making a path for oneself to cross the landscape of British film.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Well I have always loved film and storytelling. I always knew this was the type of thing I wanted to get into, because I used to watch TV programmes and look at the credits, even though I didn’t know what the credits meant.
Then when I was fourteen I got kicked out of school, and I ended up going to a place called Y.C. [Youth Culture] TV, which was an incredible stroke of luck, because Challenge Anneka [Rice] built a youth club with cameras that had a weekly broadcast on local cable. She built it a mile away from my house, and that just coincided with me getting kicked out of school where I was never really happy, and so then things lined up. I just went there and made the most of it, and I threw myself into learning how to shoot.
When you did you first become conscious of storytelling?
I was a huge fan of Return of the Jedi when I was younger, of which the last twenty five minutes captured my attention in a way that not much else in the world did. As I got older I started to break down what was so great about it, and I started to realise it was the gravitas of the script, the production design, the acting, the effects, and the music. So I started to think that wouldn’t it be incredible to create those things myself.
Having worked across film and television, how do you compare and contrast the two mediums?
Well as far as making it, then it is just the simple fact that the cinema screen is a lot less forgiving than the TV screen. You have to think about your framing, and how to construct your picture in a whole other way, because you’ve got more space to work with. But I think the cinema is more of a visual medium, and also as far from a storytelling point of view, a lot of the TV work I’ve done has been episodic and long running. So this was an opportunity to do something that was a contained story –beginning, middle and end in one. Anytime you can sit down and take in a journey from the beginning to the end is good.
Genre cinema inherently blurs the genre boundaries. What are your thoughts on the place of genre in the present day?
Sadly the marketing end of movies is leading films to be more clearly defined. Just from my own experience of X Moor, what I wrote was something that had as many thriller elements as it did horror. But around the scripting stage my producers were very vocal about films that had gone before that were not fully thrillers, horrors or comedies. They had fallen between the waysides of all three, and weren’t hitting hard on any level, and ended up not getting an international sale. So I took their advice on board, and of course it can be good to have rules, and they can be good worlds to experiment in, but the conventions of the genre can also be limiting if you are too penned into the rules of a specific genre.
The reason young filmmakers get into horror filmmaking is because it is one of the few genres that in terms of new ideas and new developments is pushing in all different directions. So I think it is important that people approach these genres with an eye to bending them as far as they can go.
I’ve heard it said that the best route for young filmmakers is to make a genre picture, because along with it comes a guaranteed target audience. Would you agree that it is easier to distribute a genre picture?
Definitely, and especially with horror that has a certain amount of universal appeal. It’s quite likely that the things that are scary and tense in England are likely to be scary and intense for people in the Philippines, Indonesia and Nantucket; because there is a very universal feeling of fear that good genre movies tap into. With the way the market has gone you need to be trying to make things that appeal to a wider audience, and that international audience is more accustomed to seeing genre films from other parts of the world – horror films rather than comedies so to speak.
Silent cinema was a universal language, and if we break down modern film could it be said that certain genres such as horror translate with ease, and therein contribute to a modern cinematic universal language?
I’d have to say that fear and slapstick comedy travel in a universal way, but it also seems that some science-fiction is very readily received around the world. So the best advice to young filmmakers starting out who want to make maybe a first or even a second film would be to follow that advice, and to just go for one of those sub genres.
The moor is just a wide open space, and it is intriguing how it has developed this disquieting, terrifying and even haunting identity. The philosophical expression comes to mind, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” It’s all about human perception and it makes one consider how literature and film has created these terrifying places that without us wouldn’t be terrifying. In a sense frightening spaces are only so because of human imagination and projection.
There is certainly something about the moors that has been amplified through the generations, and it is a territory that is returned to regularly in fiction, and fell into by some real stories along the way. The moor is one of the rare places or terrains in England where you can genuinely find yourself lost – this big wide open space where the weather can change incredibly quickly. The terrain can be so uneven and unsteady that it is one of those places that if you were there at night then it would be all too easy to get lost, because it all looks the same, and it might actually be better for you to stay put and wait for daylight.
The point about “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a wonderful one, and it is key to the type of suspense and fear that we tried to put into the movie – that of isolation. There is nobody for miles, and it is just us out there, where we are left to our own survival instincts to keep on going.
What genre cinema has always done is exploited fear of isolation, and whether not alone because of the presence of the human or non-human predator to the group of characters susceptible to paranoia, the ambition is to deprive the protagonists of any sense of security.
I can only speak from my point of view of approaching this film, and with X Moor we wanted it to have fearful elements piled on top of one other, and for the scenario to worsen for the characters every six pages. Early on I felt it was best to make the main characters American, because if you or I were lost on the moors then yes we’d be upset about it, but if we were someone who wasn’t native to this country, and who didn’t know the lay of the land and felt like strangers in a strange place, then the experience would be all the worse.
There are some great examples of this such as Wolf Creek, which was an influence on the film – the way those girls end up getting drugged by that guy in the outback, and are completely on their own. I think that’s a great example of the unsettling approach that genre can take, though you can tell a bad one very easily in that it can’t establish that edge of your seat fear type of feeling.
Conventional wisdom preaches a need to let the film simmer and build gradually, but in X Moor you were tenacious from the outset in stacking the deck against the characters. What motivated this approach?
When I thought up the movie I felt I needed to get down to Devon to write it there, and when I got down to Devon I thought there were a lot of people on smack… I’m serious. There are a lot of farms, villages and shops that have been seemingly abandoned in the night – families have just disappeared. From talking to people – and this doesn’t come across as full frontally in the movie as it did in the script, and there’s probably a good reason – it felt like the ever decreasing circles of the incredible recession that had occurred in Wall Street had spread out to the countryside, where there were a lot of people who were finding it hard to survive.
So I thought what if we don’t wait until we get out onto the moors for the trouble to start – imagine if things are happening already.
But when writing the script I thought people are paying for this movie; are paying to have this scary experience, and so why not just start giving it to them early doors. Those were the two things that inspired me to just get at it. I thought as well for you to believe there was a rife culture of prostitution in nearby cities then you had to telegraph that earlier in the movie, which is why we introduced the crack head prostitute witness early on. I wanted to give a hint of that, and I think to introduce her and to introduce the dumping ground full of bodies later on, then you had to create a world around them that it would not be unnatural for that to exist in. So it is not a completely twee countryside world, though I’m not sure what the people of Devon will think of the film… I’ll have to wait and see.
Looking back to X Moor, how do you reflect on the experience of working on a low budget feature and confronting the inevitable challenges?
The shoot was challenging because were out in the middle of the moors and forests of Northern Ireland. So there were places where there were no toilets for ten or fifteen miles, and we had to bring a travelling circus with us everywhere we went. Shooting between the 25th of November and 23rd of December, we ended up in such difficult environments, where it was incredibly cold and difficult to inspire the crew and cast in a situation where it’s difficult for them to get warm. The time of year we decided to shoot the movie, and because of some of the locations that we decided to shoot in, then that whole end of it was more expensive than it needed to be. But the movie has moor in the title, and so we needed to be out there in places where we were up to our ankles in water. We needed to be in the dirt, in the mud, and lost in the wilderness with nothing for miles around in order for it to have that right feel. So maybe when I was writing it I underestimated quite how taxing some of that might be.
Does the arduous nature seep into the performances and texture of the film, and become a benefit or useful resource for the creative team?
I’ve heard that it does on other people’s movies, but I’m not sure if it did on mine to be completely honest.
What does it mean for you to have played at FILM4 FrightFest?
In 2010 I went to FrightFest to see two or three different movies, and I was blown away not by the movies but the reaction, the enthusiasm, and the general atmosphere created in each of the screenings. It was an audience who loved what they saw; who were so supportive of it, and I had one of those moments where I thought, I’ve got to make a film and bring it back here, because this is some good s***.
So it began when I was at FrightFest, and then when my development person, a lady named Emma Lamont and I were going through the script last year, there were some things in the movie I would put in and she would say think about what a FrightFest audience would think of that – they’d probably laugh at that; they wouldn’t be scared by it. So there were occasions I actually thought forward to FrightFest, and I took things out and changed things up a little bit. So FrightFest has been a massive influence, and I really hope they like the movie, because if they do then it’s a job well done.