In April 2006 I had an absolute blast hanging out with Jake West on the Romanian set of his third feature, Pumpkinhead III, which was released as Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes. I let Jake get back to Blighty and get some sleep before I interviewed him about the movie in July. Parts of this interview appeared in Fangoria.
“I am about to get picture lock. Once this cut goes out, we should get picture approval which means the cut will be locked, which means we can start on all the visual effects shots and sound design can begin. Processes like the ADR, looping - music, score - all that kind of thing. The cut is done but then all the rest of the post begins.”
With your background in editing, are you more at home leaning over a hot Avid?
“This time round I actually had an editor and it was very good actually. Because of the post-production schedule being quite short on this film, they needed to start the editing while we were shooting so the rushes were being sent back every day from Romania to the UK and a friend of mine, an editor who I’ve worked with for various companies, I got him in to do the edit. That also meant, although I’m not the credited editor, when I got back to the UK I did quite a lot of the polish editing because it’s my background. But it’s very much a Jake West film because I love the post production process.”
How did you actually get involved with this movie?
“I was very fortunate. I had two bits of good fortune which led to me getting this gig. The first bit of good fortune was the fact that a woman from the Sci-Fi Channel, Karen O’Hara, saw my picture Evil Aliens when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival. Obviously that’s a really big festival. She saw the film and approached me after the screening and said would I be interested in doing a film for Sci-Fi. I said obviously I’m always interested in doing work but it would depend on the script etc. etc., what the project was - but absolutely, of course. I was quite flattered because no-one’s really offered me a film before! So that was one bit of luck which meant that the Sci-Fi Channel would approve me as a director for something because you have to have approval before you can work for them, you can’t be an unknown quantity.
There was a gap of seven years between Razor Blade Smile and Evil Aliens but this must have come together around the time that Evil Aliens was released.
“That’s right. Evil Aliens got released theatrically in the UK in March and I was in Romania prepping Pumpkinhead, which was a very unusual thing. With Razor Blade Smile, everything just went stone dead - nothing - and it was very difficult to get the money for Evil Aliens. We’ve spoken about the Evil Aliens finance: I got lucky in the end, a private investor gave me the money. So from Evil Aliens to this was a bit of a ride and I hope to continue at this rate. It’s a much nicer way of working than sitting around, doing nothing for years.”
You were originally going to do both Pumpkinhead sequels. Why didn’t you?
“What happened is that they wanted me to do Part III and Part IV. I wrote a script for Part III and Part IV but the Part III script was co-written with Barbara Werner, who has written scripts for the Sci-Fi Channel before and was one of their approved writers. But then I came up with a scenario and we wrote a script for Part IV called Dark Hell. Love Hurts seems to have inherited that title now. I don’t know if it’s going to keep it but no-one likes Love Hurts so all that remains of my original Dark Hell seems to be the title! It was a very ambitious script but I thought it was the sort of thing that Sci-Fi Channel would like.
“I don’t want to tease people too much with the details. But ultimately what happened was, at the eleventh hour, they thought about it and it got pulled. Then they asked me to come up with another idea. I had already been working on Part III and Part IV and I was about two weeks away from going to Romania to start the actual physical preparation. l said, ‘In that time I can’t prep Part III and generate new ideas for Part IV and prep Part IV and do all of the casting for Part III, start shooting Part III and cast Part IV. It’s just not humanly possible!’ Fortunately they saw sense in that so decided to cast around what other directors might be interested in doing Part IV.”
Did you know Mike Hurst at that point?
“I’d met Mike Hurst about five or six years before in Cannes one year. Just briefly, but he was a nice chap and he had just made Babyjuice Express at that point, or had just got the funding for it. That was the only time I’d met him but I knew of Project: Assassin back from the days when Roland Emmerich picked it up and that was always an interesting storyline. So I knew who he was and I’d read about some of the things he’d done. I’d met him once before and he was a pleasant guy, so when I heard that he’d got the gig for IV that was kind of cool because it meant I got to hang out with him and see what he’d been up to. And he’d certainly been up to a lot more than me!”
“I had already been on a location recce for Part III and Part IV - for my script - in January, so I’d already been around to the studio and a lot of the locations. I had found locations for both films and did a lot of planning set designs for the military stuff too, which didn’t get made. So because I’d been there I knew what to expect. But when you first go to Romania it’s an interesting culture shock because on the one hand you’ve got a fairly modern city at the centre and then as you go out to the country, towards the studio, you see gypsies on horse-drawn carts and people selling stuff on the side of the road and it feels like you’ve gone back in time. But working with the Romanians, in terms of the studios that they’ve got there and the crews that they have: we had a full crew, we had a great kit. They’re incredibly good at building sets and just the level at which they pace themselves, which I was incredibly impressed by. The crew and all of the art department and everything was really top-notch.”
How did you cope with going from a minimal crew on your first two films to a full-size crew?
“There were about seventy people and it was an absolute delight, that’s all I can say. I had a big smile on my face because for the first time in my life I wasn’t the guy unloading the van at the beginning of the day and then loading it back up again and decabling and driving it back, whilst trying to pay actors money and organise all the travelling and trying to find food for people. So it was actually the first time I’ve been able to just concentrate on the directing. Hopefully that shows in the final product. I think it’s a much more polished piece of work. I’ve got a better level of actors, the production values and everything has just gone up a gear and that’s what money can buy you - and it’s wonderful to have that opportunity.”
“It was interesting because that’s something that you worry about when you start a project like this. But the way that I was allowed to develop the story, with another writer, in the context of what I wanted to do, I think you’ll see a lot of Jake West trademarks in there. Yes, there are things that are subject to more approval and the one thing that I wasn’t allowed to do, because of the Sci-Fi Channel rules, is: you’re not allowed sex or swearing. So this is the first Jake West film that hasn’t got sex or swearing - but some people may say that’s a good thing!”
Is there going to be an unrated director’s cut at some point?
“They could do it but I don’t think there’s really going to be that much difference. I didn’t shoot any swearing or sex and obviously the cut I’m doing is the right one. But there’s a theatrical cut and a TV version so there will be a slight time difference in those but I don’t think there’s going to be a huge amount of difference between the two. Obviously the theatrical version is the one to see if you get the choice.”
Have you had to shoehorn it into the Sci-Fi Channel structure of ad breaks and so on?
“The script was developed with that in mind because you have to be aware of those things. But because this is a Pumpkinhead film, we did ask them if they would allow us to have a much slower build-up in the first act. I think it’s unprecedented on the Sci-Fi Channel that we’ve been allowed to have about 25 minutes before the first ad break, which is quite unusual apparently because normally they only allow 15 or something. There was an argument that Pumpkinhead doesn’t build in the normal way because we are resurrecting this creature, and you have to understand the set-up of the film beforehand. So it’s a little bit different to the Sci-Fi Channel’s normal format in that respect and I think it stays true to the Pumpkinhead mythology. I’m a huge fan of the first film and what Stan Winston did in there with the actual mythology of the beast. I really wanted to keep that clear and clean so hopefully fans of the first one will really see that there’s a lot of respect paid to that.”
How important was it for Lance Henriksen to be aboard?
“I think it was amazing; to me, it was the icing on the cake. When we were first writing the script, I asked the question: would it be possible to get Lance? Although obviously we know that his character died in the first one so it wasn’t going to be the story of Ed Harley. Then the word got back to me after about a week or so that somebody had contacted Lance and asked him if he would be interested in reprising that role. And he said yes. I remember that I got to speak to him on the phone. He was: ‘Hey, how’s it going, dude?’ So I explained that I love this character of Ed Harley and I’ve got this idea of where I’d like to try and take it in terms of how he’s haunting the character of Bunt from the first film.
“What’s interesting about this Pumpkinhead - even the design on the Pumpkinhead is slightly different from the last one - the idea is that this time, the physical remains used to become the beast are the physical remains of Ed Harley. So it’s actually a different monster from the first one, in that sense. Physically it has regenerated from different flesh. So I like the idea that the person doomed to become the next Pumpkinhead gives a slight physical difference to it each time round. This Pumpkinhead is very wiry and athletic and a bit sharper in terms of its joints. Lance was at such a physical peak when he played Ed Harley in the first film, I really like that wiry look that he had and we tried to put some of that into this one.
“Some fans may be upset that it’s not an exact copy of the last monster but I thought that it would be wrong to do that actually and it would be interesting to try this as an idea. Whether that will work or not, we’ll see whether the fans go for it - but it’s still recognisably Pumpkinhead and, compared to the embarrassment of Part II, I think that we’re on the road to where it should be. As for Lance, the guy’s instincts are absolutely spot on. He knows how to make these things work, he knows just what to do, he’s very instinctual. And when you meet him, he’s just so relaxed. And he’s so easy to collaborate with.”
Everybody’s very down on Part II which, if viewed as separate to the franchise, is an okay monster film in its own right.
“Yes, but it doesn’t have respect for the mythology of the subject. I just felt that the mythology set up in Part I was the thing to follow and therefore this is actually a continuation of that storyline because we have the Bunt character who’s grown up. He’s got his sister there and he’s got involved with this dodgy town doctor played by the wonderful Doug Bradley. Then we’ve still got Lance because he’s haunting Bunt but also he becomes Pumpkinhead, he physically regenerates into the monster as well. So you’ve got an interesting level of play, I think. On the one hand you’ve got Lance as the beast, on the other you’ve got him as this kind of mentor who’s trying to get Bunt to do the right thing. So there’s an interesting dichotomy between the two things that he is in this film.”
With Brad Krevoy being involved with Part II, is he aware that it’s not really liked?
“Brad Krevoy himself acknowledges that it’s not a very good film but he wouldn’t want us to be slagging it off because I don’t think that would help. The approach is very much that Part III is very much a continuation of Part I, it’s a truer sequel to Part I, and I think if we can keep it in that field then everyone will be happy.”
It must be a thrill to have Doug Bradley aboard.
“It’s a great thrill. I had actually met Doug about three times. What’s really interesting is that the first time I ever met Doug Bradley was when they showed some Hellraiser shorts at the NFT, back in the early ‘90s. As part of that slot, because the guy who programmed it needed some more stuff to put on, they screened my short film Club Death which, as you know, is on the two-disc edition of Razor Blade Smile. Club Death was my graduation film which I then finished after I left. It was quite a bit overly ambitious for a £3,000, 16mm film. So that screened with those shorts and Doug Bradley came down to introduce those shorts - and that was the first time I ever met him. He obviously didn’t know who I was and he had forgotten that himself.
“But then I met him again when we filmed the Hellraiser extras for the Anchor Bay UK ‘cube’ set, so it was great seeing him again. And then, by another piece of good fortune, Evil Aliens was invited to the Luxembourg Fantasy Film Festival, Cinenygma, and Doug was on the jury there. He was one of the guests at the festival and we shared a plane ride together back from that festival. We were on the same flight and I was just reading a draft we had finished of Pumpkinhead III. I mentioned to him that I had a film coming up which I might have a good part for him in but I didn’t tell him it was Pumpkinhead at that point because I didn’t know whether it was going to go ahead. This was before script approval.
“And then, lo and behold, when we got to the casting stage I managed to get Doug. Because obviously as a horror fan and a horror aficionado, to work with Doug Bradley is working with a horror star. He’s a bona fide British horror icon and I think he’s one of the only few now. And a top bloke and a great actor. Very underused, I think he carried forth the legacy that was started by people like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, he is of that ilk. So it was a real coup for our film to get him, and I remember Mike Hurst, when he knew I’d got him, was like: ‘You bastard! You’ve got the only British horror icon left!’ I said, ‘Well, you could try for Christopher Lee but he won’t get out of bed these days for this kind of thing.’ So yes, that was a big thrill, I must say.”
“Gary Tunnicliffe is an absolutely top, smashing guy but his shop is based out in Los Angeles so I had numerous Skype conference calls and conversations with him. He sent designs through and we chatted. He’s just great, he went above and beyond the call of duty in what he did for us in terms of the money we had. He even offered to build the transformation effects. I think he may have spent all of the profit he might have made by ploughing it back in! Because he got really enthusiastic about doing the beast, and then he sent over a great crew of guys that you met: Mike, Blake and Mitch. They were really experienced, they’ve all worked on other films, but Gary is this presence behind them. Everyone’s always telling you stories about Gary. Obviously Doug Bradley had worked with Gary a lot as well, so we had a lot of laughs. So I feel that I know him, even though I’ve never met him in the flesh. When I get out to LA I’m going to meet up with him and take him out for quite a few beers because he’s a top guy.”
When you were actually shooting in Romania, what was the biggest surprise?
“I think I was surprised because I wasn’t sure that I was going to be allowed to do stunts and blow things up. I didn’t know that I could do that because that’s outside my realm of experience from working on lower budgets. When I first met up with the stunt supervisor, he showed me a reel of things that he could do: these guys on wire rigs and jerk-backs and pyrotechnic stuff. Then the next day I phoned up Barbara and we discussed this and we started writing a lot more action into the script. That was something that I was really excited about because I just didn’t realise I would have it. We were in Romania and obviously the dollar stretches a lot further out there. But we did some pretty major stunts. You saw that explosion: it was pretty fucking incredible! So things like that was my biggest surprise and delight, because when I was originally working on the script I still had my low-budget head on and I was avoiding things which I thought would cost a fortune. And then we managed to write in much more in there than I had ever envisaged I would be allowed to do.”
Are you comfortable now working at a TV movie level rather than an indie movie level?
“I never approached this film as a TV movie. We completely approached it as a theatrical film. There seems to be a good chance that it will get sold theatrically in some territories. Obviously because it’s funded by the Sci-Fi Channel they’ve got their cable premiere for the US but I believe they’re talking to a number of companies about the possibilities of doing theatrical releases elsewhere. That depends on how it goes. But I don’t think: this is a TV movie, I’ll put less effort into it. I put exactly the same amount of work and passion into it that I would do for any film I work on.”
I was thinking that the scale of the production is bigger than your last two films. Is this how you want to work now?
“Well, I’d like to work on a bigger scale! But Evil Aliens was a big leap up from Razor Blade Smile. On Evil Aliens we had £227,000 or whatever but to me that was a huge leap up from £20,000. So this exponentially is a similar kind of leap up from there.”
By your fourth or fifth film, you should be making Titanic II!
“If I could approach any James Cameron level budget, I’d be very happy! But ultimately it depends on the film and what the budget needs. If I had a low budget film idea and I really wanted to get it made, I would still consider making an independently financed picture, but if I get the opportunity to make bigger films and work with a better level of talent, which is really what the budget buys you. When you work with someone like Lance Henriksen, it gives you the bug to want to work with that level of actor. It’s a different league of performance that you’re getting.
“One thing you continuously get criticised for on your low budget films is always the performances. I think that’s unfair. It doesn’t make you a better director because you’re working with better actors. The acting is better because these actors are just naturally better: they’ve had twenty, thirty, forty years of experience. And you can’t get that when you’re working on low budget films. That is one of the things that I think sometimes fans are too overly critical of. I think they should cut people more slack because actually people are just trying to forge their careers and you only get good by practising, you only get good by working. So therefore I’m very keen to work and continue working and also continue pushing myself creatively and challenging myself.