Filmmaking is a process rife with uncertainty. It devours a year or two of a filmmaker’s life, and is even capable of consuming an entire decade as
For a multitude of filmmakers after the arduous challenge of achieving ones vision, setting their tale into a coherent whole, the unfortunate fate or dance of making the rounds of festivals only to become one of the ghost films remembered by the minority is not outside of the realm of possibility.
The road to distribution is no set length. It can be either a short or long, with a propensity for ease of frustration.
To the case in point – Ryan Smith’s After, and Christian James and Dan Palmer’s Stalled. Two films separated by twelve months, graduates of FrightFest classes of 2012 and 2013, yet two films that both received an home entertainment release earlier this year.
In a two part feature that finds James and Palmer reminiscing on their low budget zombie flick, to the nitty gritty of the models of film distribution, genre cinema and the future landscape of film with After’s writer-director Ryan Smith and producer Brandon Gregory.
But as they say, first things first…
Can you remember the moment when you first discovered the horror genre?
Christian James: Er, no. I wasn’t really allowed to watch horror movies when I was very young. I remember farming information from school friends who were allowed to watch Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. I would get them to tell me every detail. By the age of ten I think my Mum had given up on trying to avert my eyes from video nasties. I would go round to friends houses and indulge in the likes of From Beyond or Poltergeist 2. A year or so later I think my Dad must’ve thought, fuck it, as he had recorded Psycho (one of his favourite movies) off the TV when Mum was away for a weekend and he put it on for me. He was like the proud author of it, and after that I used to stock pile horror movies on VHS where I would keep them as contraband under the bed. I once came back from school to find my parents watching Nightmare on Elm Street 3 – they’d already worked their way through 1 & 2. My Mum turned into something of a Freddy groupie, though I’m just thankful they didn’t find my stash of gonzo porn…or did they?
To answer your question, it’s all a bit of a blur, but I think the minute horror movies became a thing I ‘couldn’t see’, they became something of a fascination.
Dan Palmer: It was a direct result of two things: the VHS boom and having an older sister who enjoyed torturing me, especially when her friends were staying over. When a video store first opened in my neighbourhood we would rent Karate Kid or Back To The Future with my family, but I would always find enough courage to steal five minutes to scurry over to the horror section and nervously study all the Halloween, Jason and Freddy movies. Then I would hurry back once I lost my nerve! When my sister had slumber parties her friends thought it would be funny for her little brother to sit and watch Freddy’s Revenge or Child’s Play or IT. I distinctly recall one of the more well endowed girls clinging me to her de?colletage when that dude got an axe to the head in Witchboard – a life-changing moment!
Christian James: Oh crumbs, I’m not a huge fan of handing out a shopping list of movies that inspired me – too many really. I kind of hate it when filmmakers I admire come out and name check movies which inspired them. Although I’m also guilty of pulling back the curtain, I do think that there is too much exposure behind the movie scenes. I freakin LOVE Jaws (Oh shit, I just revealed one), but I know too much behind the scenes info….to be fair, there was a time when I would dig out any Jaws tidbits I could find, but now I wish I hadn’t, because it interferes with the movie. I can almost feel the crew behind each shot, but hey, I don’t want to disappoint so lets just say – The Exorcist 2,3 and both the prequels, Jaws 4, Pet Cemetary 2, Robocop 2 & 3, and any Batman film…directed by Joel Schumacher.
Dan Palmer: Seeing Halloween III: Season of the Witch on a rainy Halloween night on BBC 1 via a black and white portable TV when I was ten years old pretty much fucked me up for life. Also around that time I saw a long-defunct Channel 4 movie show that was presented by Gary Crowley review A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the clip they showed both petrified and intrigued me. Being just the right age for Ghostbusters was probably a gateway drug to all the 80s horror-comedy I later devoured when old enough to rent videos. So, things like The Gate, Monster Squad, Fright Night, Killer Klowns, Vamp, Toxic Avenger, House, Night of the Creeps, Big Trouble in Little China, An American Werewolf, The Stuff, The ‘Burbs, Chopping Mall were all major players in my corruption.
You previously worked together on Freak Out. How difficult is to get a film made especially in the current climate – could you offer us an insight into the film’s genesis and journey to the screen?
Christian James: It’s an odd one. Since Freak Out we spent years and countless thousands of hours trying to get various films going. One particular, healthily budgeted movie got painfully close back in 2009, but then fell at the final hurdle where we were mere weeks from shooting at Pinewood Studios (living the dream!) I think we were a little burned out prior to Stalled. Luckily, we kept on good terms with the producers of that Pinewood based movie and two years later, they came back to us – on the hunt for a looooow budget script/movie. As luck would have it, we were already carving out Stalled. They flipped for it and declared we’d be shooting in mere months – “Yeah, right! Heard that one before” but “fuck me” they were good to their word. In November 2011 we started shooting Stalled for fifteen days in a barn in the middle of nowhere, and a few weeks later we did two nights of pickups at Pinewood Studios – finally living that dream.
Dan Palmer: Considering the eight years of near misses since our first film, the timeline of Stalled is relatively brief. From my writing scene one to Christian yelling “Cut! You assholes!” for the last time was probably one year. We had a film set up with producers Daniel Pickering who did the hit CBBC show Little Charley Bear, and Richard Kerrigan, which was much bigger in scope. It was cast, location scouted and extensively storyboarded, and then it collapsed. About a year after that – once we had licked our wounds… our own, NOT each other’s – I came to them with this little zombie flick set in a loo. Daniel said “We have to make this” and Richard agreed. Due to the fact that everything in this movie is contained it was much more economical and easily realised from a production standpoint, so the guys relished the opportunity.
First films have been described to me as being like a dream, or even a fevered dream. From your first to your second feature film, how do you compare and contrast the experiences of the two, and could you have made Stalled without having made Freak Out?
Christian James: I can see that, but we had the opposite experience. We shot our first feature Freak Out over a 3 year period – evenings weekends etc. It was very loose and fun where it was just buddies getting together and muddling through. There were no schedules or deadlines, countless locations and next to no money. The second feature Stalled, was one location, fourteen hour days for fifteen days with a limited budget, nail biting schedules and heart stopping deadlines. Those days are a complete blur. Luckily, some heavy prep paid off.
I was fortunate in that between the first and second feature, I managed to carve out a career making various online commercials, corporate promos etc. Although most were far from showreel material, they all taught valuable lessons in efficiently handling crew, equipment, actors, egos (mostly mine) and all the facets that come with filmmaking. Those years working as an industry freelancer made Stalled a far greater and more professional experience, although I still found time between takes to ram props up Dan Palmer’s ass.
Dan Palmer: They are both completely different! Freak Out was shot on 16mm film on a beaten up old Arriflex that gave Christian back-pains as it was so heavy. We also had to cover him in the crew’s coats and jackets to muffle the sound of the camera mechanism! It took four years to shoot, whereas Stalled took fifteen days.
A question for Dan – Did you write the part with the intention of starring in it, and if so how did this influence the writing of the script? Did combining acting and writing present any challenges?
Dan Palmer: Yeah, I wrote the film with myself in mind. I said to the producers Daniel and Richard that if a relative unknown playing the role ever becomes an obstacle in getting the project off the ground, then I would fall on my sword and play, I don’t know, Leg Chomper #27. If they need Noel Clarke then go for it. Thankfully they had faith in me, which I think was ultimately good for them, because the schedule was so tight that mine and Christian’s short-hand was a real advantage. Hopefully now with this film under my belt, and getting good notices, with a great one in Empire magazine, I’ll be able to continue as I mean to go on.
A question for Christian – Does it influence the dynamic on set when you are shooting with the writer who is on the other side of the camera? How useful do you find it as a director to have the writer on set, which in mainstream production is not always a given?
Christian James: Well it’s the dynamic I grew up with and I am most comfortable with. I like having the writer available at all times so that we can re-jig/edit as we go. Dan isn’t precious about the script either, he settles in to his acting role and switches off the writer until required. Occasionally even, Dan would forget a line or beat from the script and I would have to remind him what he’d written.
I guess having a writer on set without anything to occupy them could be tough. I don’t like to throw too much direction at an actor on take one or two. I like to see what they’re bringing, and I suppose if you had a writer on the loose they may take the actors to one side and steer them in a direction you don’t want to go yet.
For what it’s worth, most of the directors I admire are highly collaborative and involving of writers – a practice that makes a great deal of sense to me.
Is there an advantage to doing a film like Stalled low budget?
Christian James: I think Stalled is the kinda film you can only do with a low budget. With a decent sized budget you get locked into the need for a ‘star’ – which in the UK is always an hilariously transient term. With the addition of a star the audience then comes to the movie with baggage and expectation. Our budget was low enough that the producers weren’t shitting bricks about certification or having the potential to play as an in flight movie.
We purposefully made our lead character a highly unlikeable one, with questionable morals. If we’d had more money and consequently an actor from Downton Abbey, I think we’d have been forced to rethink those elements to appease their fanbase.
Dan Palmer: A week before production we had to trim a few scenes as we realised logistically that we not be able to shoot them in the alloted time. Looking back, those sequences were completely arbitrary and would have made for a lesser film. With a bigger budget we probably would have shot those moments, and so there is an argument for and against.
Pre-dominantly a one-location film, I’d imagine the restrictions of the spatial narrative came with both advantages and disadvantages?
Christian James: Yes, the huge advantage is that no one can get lost coming to set on day two of the shoot. There aren’t any time consuming location changes, and you get to shoot chronologically (well partially). The downside is that by day eight you’ve gone clinically insane.
Dan Palmer: For me as a performer it was fine. It was our director of photography and Christian who had the real challenge of how to keep this finite location visually interesting. I found sitting in this little box on my own between takes quite meditative.
We are not far off the centenary of horror cinema. In 2020, 100 hundred years will have passed since the inaugural horror film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was first screened. What does Stalled bring to the horror genre?
Christian James: It brings Dan Palmer, and a movie set entirely in a toilet cubicle. For fact fans, it is also the lowest budget movie to shoot at Pinewood Studios – we filmed some pickup shots in a garden shed at the back of the studios, over the Christmas break.
Dan Palmer: Hopefully a reminder that horror can have heart no matter how ridiculous the concept, and that horror heroes are something to be recognised. The antagonists for some reason capture the public’s imagination of late, and we wanted to hark back to your Ashes, Jack Burtons or Nancy’s. Yes… I’m a Nancy!
Were there moments when you had to be cautious to treat the material seriously, to step away from the comedy to ensure the audience didn’t get the sense that there was a lack of respect for the material?
Christian James: Yeah, that is a tough balance. Luckily we shot as chronologically as possible – a few exceptions being zombie crowd days and the odd day here or there where a specific actor or prop wasn’t available. Shooting in sequence allowed us to ebb and flow along with the tone of the movie. We set up a lot of rules prior to shooting, such as where the comedy could come from. I’ve always felt that one or two shuffling zombies aren’t scary, and so when we were dealing with low numbers I felt we had the license to play with the humorous aspect a little more. Then when the numbers increase, we deal with the drama.
Dan Palmer: I think what festival audiences have appreciated is the surprise that this film that is set in a crapper actually has a little something to say, and that the makers are quite clearly fans of the genre. We’re not just a Shaun of the Dead knock off.
What’s next for you both? Would you rule out a Stalled sequel and franchise which could possibly end with Stalled 9 set in space?
Christian James: I keep hearing it’s good to have your fingers in a lot of pies. We’re hesitant to jump on the Kickstarter fad (at this rate, I’m sure my Mum will soon be emailing me about crowdfunding a zombie western or some such), but if we were to dabble in that field, I think Stalled number two would be a good candidate.
Having had so much time between our first and second movie, we have a lot of great projects in the pipeline, and it’s just a matter of matching the right script with the right producer. We’re just keeping our steak and kidney covered fingers crossed.
Dan Palmer: We have plenty of differing projects ready to go, and we are currently looking for the right places to set up camp. As for Stalled, the DVD and Blu-Ray are out now, which are overflowing with bonus features. You can also check it out on iTunes. I would like to see it re-imagined as a stage-play. We do actually have a sort of sequel on the way – there is a phone app game thingy… Y’know… for kids!