Earlier today I was lucky enough to grab 15 minutes with the director of British horror film The Devil’s Business. In this interview, the wonderfully interesting Sean Hogan discusses the problems of horror films today, his love for The Thing and the struggles he faced during the filming of The Devil’s Business.
The plot for the film is as follows:
Two hit men are sent to murder an old associate of their underworld boss. But things are not all what they seem in their quarry’s house and the discovery of a make-shift black magic altar – and its shocking sacrifice – sends the uncomprehending duo into the shadowy darkness of their own tortured souls and terrifying confrontations with their worst primal fears.
How did you get in to filmmaking in the beginning?
Kind of by accident, really. I always liked writing and I was really in to storytelling and stuff like that. Originally, I thought I’d go in to art, I went to Art College and hated it! The only thing I did that I liked while I was at Art College was get my hands on video equipment and make a short video. I always loved film, but when I was a kid in the ‘80’s there was no film industry. It wasn’t something that someone with any real ambition did. It was like, “No one makes films in this country.” It didn’t seem like a realistic ambition. After I left Art College I ended up on a course where I did Film and Drama and it all just came together for me. I was like, “F*ck it, I want to make films. I don’t care if people don’t do that in this country. I’m going to do it anyway!” It was a long road of me banging on doors and trying to get things made, which I did.
When did the story for The Devil’s Business first come about?
I was in the process of trying to raise money for another film I eventually did called Little Deaths and it was taking a long time to happen. I was talking to my producer and another director friend of mine and we were sort of saying how we should just go and do something for a small amount of money. There’s a Harold Pinter play called The Dumb Waiter, Pinter was a big influence on me when I was learning to write and I suddenly thought, “You could do a horror version of that.” The play is about two hitmen waiting for their victim to turn up, in the play he never does. That’s where it started, it sort of snowballed from there. A lot of this was very instinctive and very organic. I just sat down to write and the story sort of told itself. That doesn’t always happen, but with this one it did.
How was the writing process? Was it hard to combine the horror and comedy elements?
Sometimes when you write a script, it really is like pulling teeth. This one was surprisingly easy and it changed very little from the time I wrote it to actually making it. The comedy kind of crept in there. The very moment I started writing those two characters, they just started bantering. I’ve no ambition to write comedy, I don’t even watch that many comedies but, it just seemed in character for them and it was fun to write. Obviously, the actors really clicked with it as well. The nice thing about watching it with an audience is that it does get a lot of laughs; sort of like an unexpected bonus. It happened really naturally, I didn’t really plan it.
How did you go about casting Pinner and Cully?
We didn’t have a casting director; it was all done very quickly on a low-budget. Essentially, it was me and the producer going through Spotlight looking at actors, looking at show reels and just trying to look at people’s faces and asking, “Can I see this person as that character?” Billy Clarke (Pinner) and Jack Gordon (Cully) – I didn’t know either of them before but I found Billy on Spotlight and Jack was recommended to us by his agency. They just came in and made my life really easy. I’ve had horrific casting sessions where you can’t find people, or they don’t show up . Billy was the first person to come in and he was great and even though I saw many people after him, Billy stole my heart! *laughs* It was quite a simple process.
Did you encounter ANY problems when making the film? The writing was easy..the casting was easy..what went wrong?!
*laughs* The film NEARLY didn’t happen! It was a last minute scramble. We had a location that we had booked which was up near the Welsh border. We’d looked at photos, but hadn’t actually been up there to see it. Three days before the shoot was due to start we flew our DP in from the States, so she arrived and the next day she and the producer were going up to the location to recce it. I couldn’t go, so I was back in London waiting for the phone call to hear, “Yeah everything’s fine..” and I literally heard nothing all day! I knew something had gone wrong. I called my producer..I called her husband! That evening, I finally get a call from her saying we’ve lost the location. I was like, “How? We’ve paid for it. How could we lose the location?” It was the landlady. She Googled us and decided we were Devil-worshippers and pornographers and this kind of thing. Basically, we had two options at this point, my DP said “Either we don’t do the film, because we’ve spent the money now and if it doesn’t happen next week then it’s not going to happen. Or else, we do it at my in-laws house.” I had never been to her in-laws house, never seen it. She said, “I think it will work but you’re going to have to trust me.” What choice did I have? So, she sent me through a floor plan of her in-laws place and I was thinking about what scenes I could do and where. This was literally 2 or 3 days before we were meant to start. She then had to re-house everyone, the old place was in Wales and her in-laws place was in Winchester! It was an absolute nightmare, but she pulled it off. I went down the day beforehand and rewrote the script to fit and, in some ways, I think the location was better than the one we had. It worked out very well in the end but it was a complete nightmare when it happened.
When you finished the film, what effect were you hoping it would have on your audience?
A movie like this, you hope it’s frightening or disturbing and that it has an atmosphere. Beyond that, I hoped they would be engaged by the characters and the story. For me, what’s lost in horror movies is precisely that. They aren’t about characters or anything like that, they’re about “Boo!” moments and effects. I grew up on 70’s movies that were much more character-based and idiosyncratic. I want to make movies like that. Horror movies have a lot of potential that isn’t exploited. I’m hoping people get that from it, and enjoy that.
The dialogue scenes are really lengthy and engrossing. It’s such a short film – only 70 minutes, but it doesn’t feel that short at all.
Yeah, one of the conversations I had with people was, “do you think the length is going to be a problem?” And I was thinking, “well, it’s not for me.” For me, it’s a b-movie in the best sense of the word. If you look back at the older horror movies of the 40’s and 50’s like the Val Lewton movies, some of them are just over an hour long but, they tell a story in that time. Movies these days are too f*cking long, half the time! Especially if you haven’t really got much in the way of money. I’ve seen Indie movies that are like 2 hours long and you think, “you’re just dragging it out, get to the point!”
That was something that was really good about your film. It didn’t have a really, really long introduction, it just started, they were there.
Yeah! I just didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. If I can tell a story in 70 minutes, then that’s what I’ll do.
What scene would you say was your favourite?
There are a few. I do like the monologue, obviously. There were loads of questions surrounding it, “was it gunna work? Was it gunna hold?” Billy did such a good job with it. It’s one of the scenes that a lot people come up to me and say it was one of their favourites in the film. I, also, like the scene where he comes back to the car and he just thinks. He knows if he goes back to the house he’s going to die. The music there as well; the composer did a really good job.
One of my favourite things about the film is how you used the sound and music. What did you think was the most important element of the film?
I try to pay attention to sound and music. They are both so important in horror movies. One thing I hate in movies generally, and horror movies, is over-scoring. You do not need to drive everything home with loud music cues. There is more to being scary than a loud cue going “BOOM” you know? It’s about having interesting music, but not too much of it and knowing when to let the sound just play. Sound design is so crucial. Even if you are on limited means as we were it was still something that I paid a lot of attention to. There were certain things in there sound-wise I knew from the get-go I wanted in there. The ticking clock in the dining room, the way that keeps coming back. That was something we put in at a very early stage. It’s equally as important as the visuals.
It makes it seem more realistic. You know you’re watching a horror film and you know it’s not real but, having a lot of music takes away ALL the realism. You don’t have music playing in real-life and when it’s silent in horror films it’s scary and a lot more effective.
In horror movies it’s a good thing to know when to use silence because silence can be creepy.
How long did the film take to shoot?
It took 9 days. It was a mad scramble, we were shooting from 4 in the afternoon til 4 in the morning every day. It was pretty intense. Not saying that I’d want to do it again, but I quite enjoyed it. We got in to this weird sort of rhythm where we’d finish at 4, we’d sit down and have a beer or 2 and wind down, and then get up in the early hours, have breakfast and then do it all again! It gave us a weird sort of energy. Even though the first couple of days were tough, we got in the rhythm of it.
What would you say the atmosphere was like on set? You must have spent most of your time together, like a family.
*laughs* Yes! I mean, you don’t ever want to get too lovey about things, but the only way this film could have worked is if everyone would band together. We’re all in this together, let’s just plough through it, and that’s what we did. Everyone was not there because we were showering them with riches, let’s just put it that way. They just responded to the script and just thought that we were doing good work and liked the actors. It was a very happy shoot, tiring but happy.
You must have watched the film, now it’s been made. Is there anything about it you’d like to change?
I have, several times. It’s difficult for me to say. I think we made the best film we could with the time and money that we had. I look back at it, and I think I would have liked 5 or 6 more days of shooting, more cameras to play with. The film I would have made with a bigger budget would be different, but equally I look at it and think, “You know, it is what it is.” I am very happy with what it is. Maybe it’s the way the film should have been made. I think we would have had difficulty getting thing through it if it was made with a bigger budget and a conventional production company. I think we would have had a lot of problems. I’m very happy with it.
What was the last horror film that you watched for the first time?
I was a bit behind in seeing it, but Stake Land.
What did you think?
I loved it. I thought it was great. It’s the kind of horror movie that I like to see. It’s well-written and has a strong character base. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but I enjoyed it.
Out of the horror classics, which one do you wish you had directed? Which one do you wish was yours?
Oooh! I had to do my top 10 horror films for Time Out earlier this year and it’s always tough, I hate ranking things, but my number 1 was The Thing. It’s close between that, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Don’t Look Now. Those are the kind of films I keep going back to. If I had made The Thing I would been very very happy with myself.
I think most people would! Would you say that was your favourite horror film?
Yeah, I mean, it may change slightly on different days but that is definitely a film I can keep going back to. In a lot of ways, it typifies what I aspire to do.
I’ll give you my final question, then! What advice would you give to first-time horror directors?
I would say try to do your own thing. Do not try and imitate whatever else is out there. Everyone has their influences and that’s fine, I certainly have mine. But don’t think you’ve got to make something with zombies in because everyone else is. That is something that is getting increasingly tiresome. You need something with an original voice to it, there’s no excuse for not having a good script because it costs nothing. Get it the strongest you can get it and cast good actors. You may not be able to afford stars but you can get good actors. There are plenty of good actors out there that will do it if they think you’ve got a good script. Don’t just cast your mates! Too many indie films and horror films fall down with the script. They might look great and have great effects, but if the script and the actors aren’t there, no one cares.
The Devil’s Business will be released on August 17th 2012.