This interview with Julian Richards was conducted at a screening of The Last Horror Movie at the old Phoenix Arts in Leicester on Halloween 2003. The last couple of questions were added by email a few weeks later as I was crafting this into a feature for Fangoria.
"My third feature film, yes."
What did you do after Darklands?
"I did a film called Silent Cry which is a conspiracy thriller, which was made on a reasonable budget for a UK film, three million pounds. It had a nice cast as well: Douglas Henshall, Emily Woolf, Frank Finlay, Kevin Whately, Craig Kelly. We made it for a company called Little Wing Films and it was financed through a tax break scheme which existed at that time. At the moment it’s being sold by In Motion Pictures. It’s on DVD in Germany already but we’re still looking to get a UK release for it, though we’re not sure exactly how or where that’s going yet. But it should happen hopefully within the next six months."
What was the genesis of The Last Horror Movie?
"I wanted to make a low budget film. When I say ‘low budget’, I made it with my salary from Silent Cry. I wanted to control it completely, to produce it through my own company and therefore not only to benefit from the front end in terms of getting a director’s fee but also from the back end in terms of being a producer and a businessman within the film distributors."
Did this come from dissatisfaction on Darklands?
"Oh, I got screwed on Darklands big time! So yes, it did. The only way to survive in this business as an artist is to become businesswise and streetwise, to control. It’s not just a business thing, it’s an artistic thing too. Because you’re continually having to make compromises when you’re not in control, and walk around for five years making excuse about why the film isn’t as good as it could have been."
Isn’t there a flipside that having a separate producer gives you a useful, different point of view, stops you from becoming too self-indulgent?
"Yes, that’s true, but it depends on the structure in which you work. What I tend to do as a producer now is I’ll start the process going and then employ people - good producers, creative producers - to come on board and produce my film for me. They’ll tell me what I can and can’t do within a proper creative context. So the first thing I did with The Last Horror Movie was I got a pretty talented graduate from the National Film School, Zorana Piggott, to come on board and produce the film for me. She wasn’t just somebody who did the nuts and bolts of putting the production together, she also brought onto it an objective eye and a creative eye in terms of just keeping an eye on what I was doing. It was a good collaboration."
Where did The Idea come from?
"The idea came from a combination of sources. First of all, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer; the little video that Henry and Otis made. You combine that with Man Bites Dog and you also combine it with the current vogue there is for reality TV and reality cinema - and you combine that with Dogme. All of those were influences on me, post September 11th, disillusioned with fiction. I’m not affected by fiction now when I see it; reality is much more intense and effective, especially within the horror genre. You could put Blair Witch into that mix as well. So I thought: I can do something on a low budget that’s going to work within that context.
"A cousin of mine, four or five years ago, made a video diary for the BBC. It was actually a documentary that I was looking to do myself but we couldn’t get any support for it. So I presented it to the BBC video diaries; it was called Showboy: The Naked Truth, about a male stripper, which my cousin was at the time. Obviously I couldn’t be involved with that because it’s up to the subject to make the film himself, using a small, handheld camera. When I saw the results that he got, I thought, ‘Wow! Wouldn’t it be fantastic if a serial killer did the same thing?’ It’s kind of doing what Man Bites Dog did but taking it a step further. Because Man Bites Dog was essentially about a film crew that makes a documentary about a serial killer and finds themselves getting involved in the process. They cross the line and the audience cross it with them. With The Last Horror Movie, this is very much the serial killer one-on-one with the audience.
"Now, in terms of me being slightly disillusioned with the horror genre, one of the problems is the films just aren’t scary any more. I thought: well, how could I really scare the audience? Watching a horror film is a very safe experience because you’re in the comfort of your living room or the auditorium of the cinema and you know that you’re going to go through all these threatening experiences and then at the end the credits are going to roll and you’re going to feel pretty safe and you’re going to go home pretty unaffected. So I thought: what if what was happening on the screen spilled out into real life, and suddenly there was a question mark as to whether what you were watching was fiction or reality. Also if you tied it in with Ring. I actually thought up this idea before Ring and I can remember when I phoned up my manager in LA and told him about it he said, ‘Oh, they just finished shooting something like that in Japan.’ When he told me the story, I thought: well, it’s similar but its not the same."
It’s just the video cassette as horror item.
"That’s right. In Ring, it’s the characters in the story who get threatened by the horror cassette, in The Last Horror Movie it’s the audience themselves. So that for me was bursting out of the dimension where horror exists into a third dimension if you like, which is putting the audience in what could be a very threatening situation."
The film stands or falls on its lead actor. How did you cast Max?
"We were going for reality and we really did want to present our audience with something that they actually couldn’t see the cracks and the seams; what they see is very much real. So we couldn’t get a known actor. We couldn’t get a star, we couldn’t get somebody from TV, we couldn’t get somebody who had been in commercials because it would have blown our cover.
‘Crikey, I’m being stalked by that bloke off the lawnmower ad!’
"Exactly! So what I did was I used a great little organisation in the UK called PCR. It’s a little bit like The Stage newspaper, where you can advertise and you get sackloads of aspiring actors sending you their CVs. And I really mean sackloads. There was a special delivery to my flat in London every morning with about five hundred envelopes. So I waded my way through all these envelopes and shortlisted maybe about sixty or seventy actors to play Max. I auditioned about twenty of them, maybe thirty. When Kevin Howarth walked in I didn’t really notice him because I was videoing the interview and I was just snowblind with actors coming in and out of my flat. It wasn’t until I looked at the recordings I’d made, afterwards, and saw his presence on the screen and his charisma, that I realised that I’d found my man.
"This film lives or dies by its casting, which is something I’ve always believed in: a film is only as good as its worst performance. But this film in particular is only as good as its worst performance. The other thing which is interesting is that I decided not to write The Last Horror Movie. I came up with the idea but I thought: I know somebody who’s going to be better equipped to write this than I am. A friend of mine who hasn’t written a script before but he’s got a PhD in philosophy and he’s really quite an expert on serial killers. So I got him to write it. I gave him a ten-page outline. I knew what my beginning was, I knew what my end was and I knew the kind of character I wanted. We collaborated, and James Handel who wrote the script, brought a lot of really interesting ideas and intelligent ides to the whole process. But what he also brought was humour, satire, black comedy - which I didn’t expect.
"There’s a tendency in films, especially horror films like this, to play the serial killer as a drab, lonely, working class guy - your typical Henry. If you have a look at Cassavetes films for example, some of his characters in Husbands or A Woman Under the Influence, are eccentric, slightly mad. they say things that are very funny. Human beings generally act in that eccentric way - that is reality. So I was trying to find the balance between what the writer was doing and what I wanted, and we eventually struck that balance in the cut. So when he says, ‘Is this a joke or is it real?’ - you don’t know. It’s kind of funny but pretty sick as well and very convincing."
Are you trying to make the audience feel any sympathy for Max? What he does is loathsome, but on a personal level, he’s quite pleasant.
"We knew that in order to keep our audience with the story, because Max is taking us through it in such personal way, that he would have to be likeable in some ways. I have had people in the audience, especially women, saying, ‘God, it’s a kind of weird film because we like Max. He;s attractive, he’s charismatic.’ And I thought about Count Dracula in that context, especially Terence Fisher’s film: that scene where Christopher Lee appears out of the shadows and you’re expecting this monster and instead you get this tall, dark, handsome stranger. So that’s what I was going for.
"Plus I think that there’s a certain side of dilettante, slightly anarchic side to Max. He’s carping from the sidelines where he always feels slightly disaffected from normal life that we can all relate to. He lives very much in a middle class world; the film is in many ways an attack on middle class suburban life. He’s not convinced by his sister’s marriage, he doesn’t like his brother-in-law. The jobs and careers that a lot of his victims have, he can’t relate to either. There’s a side to Max that represents the disaffection and disillusionment with everyday life that we can all relate to."
How closely scripted was the film, and how much was improvised?
"To be honest, the original script was very dialogue heavy and overstated some of the points and issues. So when I rehearsed with the actors, we script-edited and improvised it, reduced everything down to its core point. We did a couple of days of rehearsals, doing that, that’s where a lot of the improvisation took place. So that on the day we were shooting very much what was on the page. So yes, most of it is written, even though it gives the impression that it’s improvised. But that was very much to do with the way we filmed it as well. Because I wanted to set myself a bit of a directorial challenge.
"I was pretty bored with the conveyor belt, production line approach to film-making that I’d experienced on Silent Cry for example, where the director breaks down a scene into 25 shots and you go through a process from nine in the morning to nine in the evening, just doing one shot, then the next and the next. Leaving in to the editing room in order to see whether what you’ve got is any good. With The Last Horror Movie every scene is shot in one shot. Sometimes we had a six or seven minute scene, from beginning to end, where the choreography of events had to be such that the scene was never dull, never boring. So it really was an exercise in using the set, in direction really.
What about the technical set-up? Did you have lights and a boom mike?
"We literally shot the film out of the boot of my car on a little handheld Sony PD150 mini-DV camera with predominantly available light. If I was filming in a location like this cafe, I wouldn’t need any lights. That’s the wonder of digital video; you’re not surrounded by the circus that turns up with their generators and their heavy lights - which allowed us to film it in 18 days. Occasionally we would have to expand ourselves: the wedding in the countryside, there were no natural light sources that we could use. Then maybe we would have to splash out on some lights, but they were usually practical lights that existed within the shot. So the film is not lit, it’s practical light sources that are controlled and manipulated to suit the mood that we’re trying to set."
"The only thing that we did in post-production was very much an afterthought. There’s a scene where a guy is strapped to a chair and he gets beaten with a steak tenderiser - and he knocks the camera over. I can remember that on the day the cast and crew were saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to splatter the camera lens with some blood.’ We don’t see what’s going on, but if a bit of blood got on the lens it would help the suggestion. I thought: well, I’ve got so much to do on this day, to try and choreograph that and get it right - I’m not going to bother. It wasn’t until I saw the John Simpson news report from Iraq, the friendly fire incident when the BBC cameraman ended up bleeding all over the lens, that I thought: God, yes, that’s actually something that we can incorporate. So I blue-screened some blood splattering on the lens in that shot and it certainly does the job."
What about your special effects?
"Again, those were difficult to achieve because normally effects like that involve tubes with pumps and people just off-screen pressing the pumps to spray the blood. When we’ve got a three-minute developing shot, following somebody moving through a house before they eventually get killed, there’s no place for any of that. So we really had to be quite clever in terms of how we achieved that. The guy who did the effects on Andrew Parkinson’s film Dead Creatures was Paul Hyett. I saw Andrew Parkinson’s Dead Creatures at Fantasporto last year and was impressed with the effects, and I thought, ‘Paul Hyett’s my man.’"
"Yes, he did. So I met with Paul and we worked out how we were going to do it. One of the most effective and chilling scenes in the film is where a guy gets torched alive. The weird thing about that scene is that a lot of people have said, ‘How did you do that? Because it looks so real.’ That’s actually one of the few things where we had to use editing to switch the actor with the dummy. The dummy was actually pretty low-tech to be honest, it was like a Guy Fawkes , but it had springs on its joints and it had a full-head prosthetic - with real hair that was punched in - and hand prosthetics. So by the time the camera cuts back, you haven’t noticed that it’s been switched. Not only that; when it’s burning, it moves and the hair flicks around. It shakes and shudders and - apart from the edit - there’s no way you can tell that it’s not a human being who’s being burned there."
The only clue is that even the best stuntman isn’t going to sit there for that amount of time.
"We had two choices and we eventually went for the third, better choice. The two choices were to CGI the flames in afterwards but that’s never convincing, or the other choice was to have a stuntman in a big, asbestos, ‘Michelin Man’ costume but suddenly he’s doubled in size so I’m never convinced by that either. Plus, as you said, you can only burn for so long in asbestos suits anyway and in Last Horror you see him burning for a lot longer. In the end, this prosthetic switch that we did, I don’t think it’s been done before in film but it’s highly effective."
What was the reaction like at Cannes?
"We had a pretty interesting marketing campaign in Cannes where we put up murder posters all over Cannes, a police appeal for assistance: a serial killer’s been discovered in the UK, a body count of at least fifteen, he’s fled the UK and is now on the Cote d’Azure, and apparently all his murders were linked with people who had seen The Last Horror Movie. And The Last Horror Movie is this Hollywood slasher movie which has been released and has been withdrawn since the murders. And that really caught people’s attention. You had big Hollywood companies spending lots of money on huge posters and marketing campaigns, and there was myself and Kevin Howarth with this guerilla strategy that people stopped and read. We had two screenings - in fact we had three eventually because the first two sold out - and we actually got a UK theatrical and a US theatrical out of those screenings in Cannes. So highly successful."
"That’s going to be February/March next year. And the US theatrical is through Bedford Entertainment in association with Fangoria at roughly the same time."
The film is always going to work best on video, so are you surprised at the success of your theatrical screenings and the interest from theatrical distributors?
"Yes. I was not convinced that the film had any theatrical legs at all. In fact I thought that it would do it a disservice theatrically because it would blow its cover. And there’s a part of me that still feels that way. But when we screened the film at Frightfest, I think we had an audience of four or five hundred and I saw the film ‘transgress itself’! It was extraordinary. To see Max that big on the screen, leaning right into the camera so he fills the screen. You could see the audience, when he did that, move back in their seats. So even though the twist at the end doesn’t have the immediate effect that it’s meant to have, people get the idea and have fun with the idea. I’m sure that after seeing it theatrically the first thing they’re going to want to do is go and rent it or buy it when it comes out so they can play jokes on their friends."
Watching it in Manchester, I felt the twist still works because I thought, ‘Thank Christ I’m not watching this on video’! It’s a shame you didn’t make this a few years ago when VHS rentals were at their peak, because a lot of people will see this on DVD.
"Chris Jones, who helped me in post production on this by letting me use his editing equipment, said, ‘If you’d made this ten years ago you’d be a millionaire.’ It’s probably true. I know that VHS is being phased out in many European countries now, so it’s probably the last video horror film. We thought, whilst we were shooting, that we should shoot different versions for the DVD but then how can you say ‘author’ instead of ‘record’? It just sounded a little bit too technical. And how would Max actually record over an existing DVD? You actually can’t do it. It just wouldn’t convince. At the end of the day, both theatrical and DVD have the same setback, but there’s enough going on in the film, there are enough ideas, for people to enjoy it for what it is."
Has there yet been any moral outrage?
"No, but I’m looking forward to that. We did have a couple of scenes where Max did things with copies of the Daily Mail but we cut those out because that was the humour and the farce that I decided the film could do without. The film has moral ambiguity but for me that’s just part of my interest in film-making, in being an artist in some way. It’s embracing the mutant. If I see something that is violent or sick or subversive or perverse in any way, I want to study it and analyse it and understand why, rather than brush it under the carpet and hope it doesn’t come and bite my behind. That’s just part of my agenda."
But are you prepared for ‘certain newspapers’ to say this encourages violence? ‘Ban this sick movie’?
"There’s often a reaction and people like that seek an easy answer or seek a scapegoat. I know there’s going to be that reaction and I don’t really care much about it, to be honest."
What’s next for you?
"Next is a difficult decision. There’s a possibility of an American remake. There’s a possibility of a follow-up with Max in America. I’ve got several scripts on the boil at the moment, including one I’ve written myself which is a romantic comedy, would you believe? There are others that other writers have written which are within the horror genre. To be honest, The Last Horror Movie’s a difficult film to follow because it sets expectations, it puts me into the Takashi Miike mode! How do I follow it up? So I think maybe a romantic comedy would be the best way to go!"
There is a British horror revival at the moment. As a director working in the genre, do you think it has become easier to get horror films made in the UK in the past couple of years?
“I think it's more of a coincidence than a revival that the quota of UK horror production between 2001-2003 has increased. A few companies did emerge that professed to specialise in horror (The Dark, Ministry Of Fear and Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse) but so far The Dark/Shine Entertainment has folded without producing a single film. Ministry Of Fear/Little Bird Films are in post-production on Trauma (directed by Marc My Little Eye Evans) and Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse/Random Harvest have committed veritable Harikiri with two of the worst UK horror films to be produced in decades (Octane, LD50). There are rumours that Hammer Films will move back into production soon but I've yet to be convinced that the new owners intend to do anything more than profit off the back catalogue.
"What that leaves is a cottage industry with a few small independent film makers risking all to make a genuine contribution to the genre and whilst this is commendable, many of these films are mediocre and fail to return the sort of profit margin that will persuade the industry power brokers to invest in British horror. On a more positive note, Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers struck an interesting chord and there are signs that the UK Film Council and Lottery funding bodies are waking up to the potential in the genre that Hammer realised in the '60s when they recieved the Queen's Award For Export. For example, Neil Marshall has development finance from the UK's Film Council to develop Outpost and Phil (Alone) Claydon has just received Welsh Lottery funding to develop Zombie Island.”
How thrilled are you that TLHM has been picked as the first theatrical Fangoria release?
“One of the contributing factors to me making a film like The Last Horror Movie is that I have been an avid Fangoria subscriber for over 25 years. Many of my thoughts and ideas have been informed and moulded by Fangoria and it is therefore most befitting that The Last Horror Movie should find a home in North American distribution under the Fangoria banner'.”