“Mr Crowley’s Not Himself Tonight”… I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER director BILLY O’BRIEN interviewed

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One of the many pleasures afforded by the 2017 Mayhem Film Festival at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema was Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not A Serial Killer, a mesmerising Irish-American indie effort that pits a sociopathic slacker against a superannuated serial killer… and once you’ve just about gotten your head around this outlandish premise, out of left field comes one of the least anticipated twists in recent memory. I was keen to have a word with Mr O’Brien but for the next couple of months he was hitting the international festival circuit pretty hard and it wasn’t until the film’s UK theatrical release in early December that I managed to catch up with him for the following…

Billy, I must apologise to you actually for an intolerable breach of urinal etiquette at Mayhem. I’m the guy who was bugging you about how much I enjoyed the film while you were trying to take a leak… dunno if you remember that?

(Laughing) I don’t, actually …

There you go, it must happen to you all the time. I know you’ve been in heavy rotation on the festival circuit and I wonder how it’s been going…

It’s just come to an end, for which I’m grateful because it was pretty full-on but we got an amazing, amazing reception. I was in Korea in July for a big fantastic film festival then from September onwards all the European ones, plus the odd UK one. It’s like, every ten days I’ve been at a festival, you know? At one point I went from the London Film Festival to Sitges and then back to Mayhem, all in a run. Probably by the time I got back to Mayhem I was feeling the effects. I was saying to Chris Cooke at Mayhem, I don’t know how bands do it, I’m buggered after three festivals…

Well, they’re all probably much younger than we are… with the obvious exception of The Rolling Stones. Chris hooked us up and Mayhem is my local festival, so please feel free to big it up a little…

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I’ve known Chris for years, I met him at a dinner for directors because he had just done One For The Road. We kept in touch and he invited me to the festival, it was great to see him again and it’s a great festival, I genuinely enjoyed it. What I liked about it was there’s a real sense of community. Christopher Hyde, my co-writer and I took part in the pub quiz in the bar, and didn’t get one question… that was the hardest quiz I’ve ever done!

That Flinterrogation is tough stuff! (I refrained from mentioning to Billy that I was on the winning team… you don’t want to rub your interviewee’s nose in it! BF)

We were on a table with people from the University and what a great sense of community. What a great venue, too…

The Broadway…

The Broadway, yeah. It’s great and we got to sign the projector which has got Norman Wisdom, Ken Loach… everyone on it.

I’m going to have to check it out, I’ve never seen that…

Yeah, they’ve got a white box around the projector that everybody has signed… Chris and I were kidding them that we were going to get a big sponge and wipe some of the names off to make more room for us…

“Mister Grimsdale!?!”

No it was great, a good craic.

Did you catch anything you liked at Mayhem, or indeed at any of the other festivals?

Not a huge amount and some of the ones that I did catch were the oddities, you know. One was… and you might know this better than I do… the documentary by Paul Schrader’s brother…

… The Killing Of America?

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Yeah, I saw that in Vienna and it was incredible. The ones I kept missing were the ones I wanted to see. The Love Witch… Raw… there was another one as well… and they kept popping up but the schedules just kept clashing. Several of them, but you never get to see everything you want at a festival.

There’s too much other stuff going on in terms of networking, hanging out…

Yeah, I did meet some great directors. In Korea it was really hot outside so everybody hangs out in the bar till 2 o’clock in the morning and you keep meeting these guys at all the various festivals but everyone is on a different schedule. I met the guy who did that Turkish film, Baskin… Can Evrenol… he was just finishing his rounds of the festivals… you meet people at that end of it, others who are just starting up, so it was really good.

How is I Am Not A Serial Killer going down with the viewers? It’s not exactly your formulaic movie. I saw one comment to the effect that it was “a mash-up of Donnie Darko and Phantasm”… which I think is part of the story if certainly not the whole story.

It’s been very interesting. It’s about perceptions before you go in, because the title of the film seems to make people think of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, a grim horror film and we’ve been very worried about that. Because it’s based on a book, we didn’t change the name or anything but after the fact, when the film was out there, we thought maybe we should have changed it, for that very reason. We’ll never know, I mean, in five or ten years we might have a better idea about that. What we did know was that we’d lose most of our audience if we tried to sell it as A Horror Film… half of the audience wouldn’t like it because they’d discover early on that it isn’t that sort of film and the other half wouldn’t even go into the cinema. I think the Donnie Darko thing is quite a handy label for that and Bulldog Film, who are releasing us in the UK, referenced that in their campaign… also Under The Skin, another good one. We’re really happy that, having come and gone in America like a blip, it’s getting a really good reaction here. I mean, yesterday we got four stars from The Sun and The Times so now everyone will be thinking this is some kind of right wing film! (Laughs) That’s funny but it seems to be, across the board, three and four stars and it’s coming out today…

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It’s really fortuitous that we’re talking now because I didn’t even realise it was coming out this weekend, if fact I was going to ask you WTF is happening with the distribution…

Yeah, it’s out this weekend. It’s got a bigger Irish release than in the UK, we hit a little bit of a bottleneck because there’s a slightly bigger film coming out on Wednesday, i.e. Rogue One. Every cinema in the country is showing that so this weekend, when Bulldog positioned it, was relatively empty, now there’s also Snowden, Birth Of A Nation and a couple of others there so suddenly we’ve lost lots of screens, unfortunately. We had planned to bring it out on ten but now we hope it’s going be about three or four in The UK and there are going to be a few more, hopefully, opening over Christmas. That has been a been a bit of a setback but in Ireland it’s been released on ten screens and it’s doing fantastic so I’m really pleased about that, coming as I do from Ireland. We’ll see what happens. It’s tough, you know, but we’re a small film…

The auguries are looking good…

Well, a few weeks ago we got all the magazines… Empire gave us four stars, even Radio Times gave us four stars, that made me laugh, you know? It was funny to see that. My first film, Isolation, went straight to DVD in the UK so we never got the reviews. It was interesting, I couldn’t have predicted four stars off The Sun! That was an unusual one and that’s the first time in my life I’ve actually bought The Sun! The three I got, and this is what I mean about the right wing thing, were The Times, The Financial Times and The Sun! Wow…

Maybe you’re just in tune with the zeitgeist of 2016 or something… so what is it that brings an Irishman over here to live, so I’m told, on the moors in Devon?

Yeah, I’ve lived here for about ten years, lived for ten years in London before that… I grew up on a farm in the countryside. My wife and I have friends down here that we’d visit then we came down here for six months just to get out of London, as you do and ended up staying. It’s still actually quite handy for London, you can hop on a train in Exeter and be there in two-and-a-half hours but we stayed and had kids, it’s a great little town for the kids, so yeah… we don’t tend to plan things too much, you know, they just happen.

Are you in Moretonhampstead?

No! No, you must never mention them, they’re the rival town! It’s Chagford, down the road…

“The Jewel of Dartmoor”…

…yeah. There’s been this rivalry since The Civil War when Moretonhampstead went Parliamentarian and Chagford was Royalist. The kids make jokes about Moretonhampstead but really it’s all lovely towns around here on Dartmoor.

I really love Widdecombe, with that little churchyard and the Tors and everything…

The problem living there is that it’s a complete tourist spot…

I’m part of the problem then, because I like to get down there at least every couple of years.

There’s a great writers’ and artists’ community down here. It’s really good, you know, got a really good buzz about it.

Excellent… we talked earlier about selling such an oddball film to audiences, but how did you sell it to the money men?

It wasn’t easy. The fact that it was a book probably made it easier. It wasn’t a best seller… in fact it was a best seller in Germany… but it had already been translated into 15 languages although it wasn’t Twilight, so that didn’t automatically mean that we would get funded. The problem was that it’s a 16 year old kid and a 75 year old man so there’s no Michael Fassbender role in it, also that it doesn’t sit in a neat little “horror” box… it’s a bit horror, a bit black comedy. It’s been six years now but we started off loving the book and the script seemed to work for people so we thought it should be fairly straightforward. In fact it was a nightmare, absolute nightmare… people were very, very dubious about it, it was perceived as being “high risk.” Then the seasonal thing kicked in, re financing, you know? I suppose rich people have money to invest and if you’re not ready to go, they’ll put it into another film and with us, we got to the point where they were putting it in but we were losing the snow and so we thought: “We’ll have to wait till next year” and then the money went and we had to start it all over again. Standard stuff. “Never film in snow”, they say and we got asked if we could do without it. Of course you can do anything without it, but you lose so much from the visual side of the film and the atmosphere in that unique town. The Irish Film Board came in very early on and stood by us all the way through, which was fantastic, because this is not an Irish story shot in Ireland. There’s been a broadening of Irish film over the last ten or twenty years or so, there are Irish people all over the world, that is our history… so this year at the Oscars you have Room which is from an Irish book and an Irish / Canadian company made it and shot it in Canada with Brie Larson, an American actress. And they you’ve got Brooklyn which is half-Irish and half-American, so it’s opening up there and I think it’s a very healthy thing. We shot in America but we did kind of the reverse of the big studio films that come and shoot on location. We went on location then came back for 9-10 months to finish the film in Dublin. It was quite an interesting experience to do that and quite fun, actually.

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It looks so much like an American indie movie, it made me wonder if you had lived in The States for any significant period of time or whether you’ve just watched an awful lot of American indie movies…

I think it’s just the material… among the reasons I loved the book is that the characters ring true, the dialogue is brilliant, they are interesting, damaged real characters as opposed to bland teenagers in a Hollywood film…

The certainly are, yeah…

… and then there are the locations, the towns are just like that. We had no money for art direction really so we went to these towns haven’t changed in years … Virginia and Hibbing, the two Minnesota towns we shot in are old mining towns…

… Hibbing’s the birthplace of Bob Dylan, isn’t it?

It is and those towns haven’t really changed since the ’50s, you know? There’s a ‘70s feel as well because the miners like a drink and so they fill the bars with the old neon signs in the windows. That was very evocative and yet all the Irish and English in the crew grew up on films like that, as I’m sure you did, so every corner you turn it’s like: “Oh my god, this looks like a film!” We just loved it.

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Did you get some sense of this “rust belt” thing, the decline of the towns based on old industries and maybe get a premonition of the advent of Trump?

It’s funny looking back, but not so much at the time… Minnesota itself is an odd one, it’s a very rich state. And they’re very fiscally conservative, in kind of a good way. I remember reading in a local paper that the state was in profit to the tune of a billion dollars or something and they had a referendum on what to do with the money and there were three options… one was to dole out a certain amount to every person and the other two were about investing it and the most rational one of investing it in the State’s future was the one that 70% of the people actually voted for. So what I take from this is that America is a huge, complex country which the headlines are always trying to simplify into black and white.

I’m amazed to hear that they’d even entertain the idea of whacking it out to everybody… I mean, can you imagine our politicians agreeing to hand money out to everybody over here? They’d make sure it went straight into the back pockets of their supporters…

That was just one headline. Minnesota actually voted for Clinton, by a narrow margin… you see they’re all Scandinavians, Swedes and Finns and whatever, second and third generation but they still have that attitude towards money and looking after education and all the rest of it …

… the ideals that haven’t quite died out everywhere in the world…

Now where we were shooting was up near the Canadian border and it was in hard times but definitely, the conversations at the bar were Trump-like, there were quite a few of them like that so there was just a hint at that stage but certainly in retrospect and also before that… me, Robbie Ryan the DP and Nick Ryan the producer (who I know from film school, 20 years ago in Dublin) were driving around endlessly in Mid-West States like Michigan … we were in Ohio about four months before we settled on Minnesota and when we in Ohio we were on the borders with Pennsylvania and West Virginia and there was an awful to of poverty there, like in Northern England, the hopes of the industrial past which were now in tatters… we went to the famous town that all the TV stations went to during the election and Springsteen wrote the song about, Youngstown, the famous industrial town and that was a desert! It’s so sad to see it, it’s just like there’s nothing going on there and it’s a city! Detroit is boarded up, you know it’s a city that doesn’t work… we have areas of cities that don’t work but Detroit just looks like it’s been abandoned, you know… abandoned skyscrapers… it’s gutted. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise when you saw the election result because those people were being overlooked, you know.

Detroit sounds like something out of a J.G. Ballard novel…

Exactly… there were pictures on the wall in my Detroit hotel room from the 1920s… it had more cars than London had, it was one of the boom-time cities of the world and to go from there to just complete collapse…

I know it took a long time to line up all your ducks to make this film and that it was a pretty torturous process but in fact it all worked out very fortuitously for you because you got your male lead, who I know you’d been intent on for some time, when he was at exactly the right age to play that character…

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Nick Ryan who I mentioned earlier, did a short film with an Irish director named Ruairi Robinson called The Last Days On Mars and after that they did another called BlinkyTM, which Max starred in when he was 10. So when Nick read my script he said: “What about Max?” and of course I said: “He’s just a kid”, at which Nick laughed and replied: “Yeah, they do grow up, Billy!” So we met him when he was thirteen and we were in Michigan that year, I think it was 2011 and we did this little test film on 35mm, just me and Nick, to show the finance people that we could do it. So that was in 2011, we all got on and Max was a great kid. At that stage we were being canny, thinking that by the time we got the finance it would take about a year-and-a-half and he’d be 15 as the kid is in the book… and of course he was 17 but the time we made it so he was that bit more grown up and also… it was a tough shoot, you know, it was minus-20 and you were running fast, as you do in a low budget film and Max is in every scene, there wasn’t much down tine for him. It’s a stamina thing, as much as anything else, for a 14 year old to trying do that… it is an intense film, you know, he has to live it, really… and he did an amazing job.

He certainly did. I already mentioned the “mash-up of Donnie Darko and Phantasm” thing but another reference point that was going on in my head while I was watching the unfolding relationship between Max and Christopher Lloyd’s character was Hal Ashby’s Harold And Maude… was that on your mind when you were making it?

No, because to my shame, I haven’t seen it… another one that people have mentioned is George Romero’s Martin, which I haven’t seen either.

Yeah, I get that…

We had a bizarre range of films we talked about… we’re Irish, so we argue all the time, but River’s Edge was one we kept coming back to, the first non-Hollywood teenage film we’d seen, we kept coming back to that because of the sheer grimness of it. The other day I realised that a couple of my story boarded sequences weren’t consciously lifted from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but, you know… every time we talk about this we talk about a different film, primarily ‘70s and ‘80s stuff because they were our formative years. The book is a strange mix… it’s a high school movie, it’s a monster movie, it’s a psychological drama, there are so many genres in there and that has an effect on the films we thought about when we were conceiving it. I don’t think Donnie Darko came up much at that point, it was only after the fact that we thought more about that one.

How did you set about getting the rights to the book?

We got the rights in 2009…  a producer I know had hired a reader, Irene Ilias, whose job was to find projects for producers and directors… I only met her the once because she knew my agent, Michelle. I met her in the old Foyles Bookshop in Charring Cross Road for coffee for an hour or so and we talked about my favourite films… you know, growing up on a farm in Ireland you didn’t get to see many films so Brazil, Blade Runner and Mad Max were like my holy trinity. Then I went home, she went around the corner and found the book on a shelf as a paperback, which normally means forget it, because somebody else has the option by now, but in this case Dan Wells hadn’t sold the option yet. So I just wrote him a long letter and kind of poured my heart out, telling him what I fucking loved about this story. And he responded and we got the rights so that was straightforward… it was just the 6 years after that, trying to get it to the screen that was the difficult bit!

Have you met Wells?

Oh yeah, several times. He came to London shortly after that and I took him out. What do you for a writer from Utah, who’s obsessed with serial killers, when you first meet him? It was like a blind date kind of thing so we took him on the Jack The Ripper Walk in London and bingo, it was perfect, you know, he absolutely loved it, so that was great. He’s a great guy, Dan and he’s written six books now in the John Wayne Cleaver series which is remarkable. I sent him every script I did and he appreciated that, even if he didn’t agree with everything, because it’s so much different from the book but he appreciated that I sent them to him. He came out on location on the shoot for ten days and met everybody then we brought him to Austin for the premiere at the South By South West Festival and he did that thing of asking for a screener a week before he went. I know what he meant, he didn’t want to have to sit in a cinema with about 400 people or whatever and have his book destroyed, but I had to say to him: “You’re just gonna have to sweat it like everybody else, because there isn’t a screener, it won’t be finished in time.” He did come over and he loved it, you know and he after he came out we were all waiting in the lobby and he said: “Listen, I just want to say something to everybody here, that we had disagreements over the script but Billy was right, because the way he does it works in the film.”

Ah, that’s exactly what you want to hear, isn’t it?

Exactly… one of the things that he questioned from the word go was that we dropped the voice over, because the whole book is first person but when we took that out of it, you couldn’t predict what he was going to do in any scene…. and then Max’s amazing performance made it doubly that way, which was really cool. Dan actually said that when he read the voice over in the book he could see Max’s face, which is a lovely compliment. Also, the ending’s slightly different because in the book there is no funeral but what Chris Hyde and I realised was that there were no moments where Christopher Lloyd’s character, Crowley, realises that it’s Max who’d leaving the notes for him and has been tormenting him. It happens much later in the book, when he’s already transformed, we put in that scene so you’d have the two of them with their secret sitting beside each other and everybody around them not knowing anything. I thought there was a lovely symmetry around that, one of the my favourite bits is the exchange that Chris and I came up with, where Crowley says: “John, you attacked my wife!” and John replies: “You killed my therapist!” It’s almost like a showdown in a Sergio Leone Western!

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Fantastic… has Dan got any of this oddness about him personally, or is it the other cliche of a very straight, bourgeois writer who just has this warped imagination?

Well Dan is a Mormon, lives in Utah which is a real hotbed of Fantasy and Horror… his best mate’s Brandon Sanderson who’s one of the new York Times’ Top 10 Fantasy Writers, he writes all those really fat fantasy books, you know, Lord Of The Rings-type stuff and of course the really famous one is the Twilight author, whatever her name is…

Stephenie Meyer…

… Stephenie Meyer, right. No, Dan’s a lovely guy, wears an Indiana Jones hat that everybody jokes about but he’s a very sharp writer. He told me that he was talking to Sanderson about serial killing and his fascination with it and Sanderson said: “Well why don’t you write something about that, then?” He likes all of that and for me, I don’t have the same passion or interest in serial killers that he has. Chris Hyde and I did some Wiki research when we started writing this and it’s obviously real people who are affected by it, you know and we thought we won’t be able to bring any humour to it if we keep reading this stuff so we decided to leave all that to Dan, after all Dan wrote the book. There’s stuff in the book that is written so well but I didn’t go any further into it.

There’s an allusion in the script to John mistreating animals but you have to pretty much throw away that line because if you depicted it explicitly, there’d no way the audience could retain any kind of sympathy for him…

You’re addressing one of the biggest things about the film, which is getting that balance right. Early on in the process, when we weren’t fully settled on how we were going to adapt it, we met some other writers in London, quite a few of them very prestigious crime writers, of the top BBC / ITV crime things and they all got completely hung up on the serial killer side of things. One of them outlined a scene he wanted to do, kind of a garden shed scene where Max had made a torture contraption with a small animal on it and I told him nobody would ever have any sympathy for the main character if we did that, y’know? It’s just the tone and I had to remind people that John is 15 and it’s not a grown up serial killer’s story. One of the reviews the other day described it as: “The story of a serial killer hunting other serial killers” and I thought: “No, that’s not right because he’s not a serial killer, he’s a kid desperately trying not to be a killer.”

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They’re just getting carried away with the Dexter parallels, aren’t they?

Yeah, exactly… that’s been really boring, actually. I talked to Dan Wells about that the first time I met him, he was aware of it but he’d started writing his book a few years before the first Dexter book came out. Something he mentioned, which I didn’t know, was that halfway through the Dexter books… and I haven’t read any of them … Dexter hears voices and this is something that completely alienated the Dexter audience. Halfway through it be gets possessed by some sort of demon. That didn’t make its way into the TV series obviously but if you look at it, it’s amazing, the consequences of it are hilarious. This is one of the problems we had that Dan warned us about , that crime “fans”, if you like, are very pragmatic, they’re very logical and they want to know what solves the mystery and if you throw in the supernatural, you’re going into an area with no rules… and they absolutely hate this. So from the word go, when (and I’m trying to be careful and not give too much away, here)  the change happens in the book and the film it turns the world upside down, that was what I loved in the book, made me think we’re going into exciting areas here and yet for lot of people that was where it went off the rails, so… you just have to live with that, really.

You pays your money and you takes your choice…

Yeah, exactly.

I read somewhere that his collaboration with you actually inspired Dan Wells to revive the series…

Well, being pragmatic about it, he’d written a trilogy and now he’s gone back and written three more books… he probably already had the ideas to do that but I’m sure his publisher was encouraging him, saying: “Look this film is coming out, so …” I’m not saying he’s written them just for that reason, his ideas are too good for that but clearly it would have made sense to do that. Between the two trilogies, Harper signed him to do books in a dystopian Hunger Games type of series called Partials, so they didn’t come from Dan’s Mind but he wrote them and they’re massive books, became huge best sellers. Once he’d done those, I guess, he had kind of unfinished business with John Wayne Cleaver. When we met him, Chris Hyde and myself, that time in London, he hadn’t got a fully formed mythology about where the Crowley character came from and (again, being careful) by the time the film was made he had the whole mythology, where he’d come from, which would have been too expositional for us and way too deft for us, anyway.  I think audiences kind of lean forward and pay a bit more attention if they’re figuring something out, nobody wants the Lost situation where you realise by the end that nobody actually knew where they were going, that’s never the case here, but also you don’t want a character standing in the street saying to somebody: “Well, clearly the criminal here is…”, you know, those long explanations are so boring and alienate the audience really quickly. It’s about getting the balance right and we used to to talk about it a lot in editing, the editor Nick Emerson and me, about where is the audience in this very scene or this very frame… are they behind us, are they exactly with us or ahead of us? We constantly double checked, all the way through, to make sure they were slightly behind us or with us but never ahead of us, because if they’re ahead of you they get bored and then you’ve lost them.

Even Hitchcock got flack for that, didn’t he? There are people who think that the psychiatrist’s wrap-up at the end of Psycho is surplus to requirement…

Yeah, again he’d done so many great things that you can forgive him.

It works fine for me, I think it sets up Norman’s final nutty soliloquy but it does have its critics… are you gonna do any more John Wayne Cleaver films?

Never say never. There aren’t any plans afoot right now because obviously it isn’t automatically the kind of block buster that dictates further films but it wouldn’t be a great chore to do because the second book picks up a month after the close of the first one so you could certainly delve into it and it would be a genuine reason for doing a film, unlike the situation where you’ve killed off all your characters but everybody wants to to do it for the money. So there’s that and there’s the possibility to adapt it for television at some point because there’s a real wealth of material there. That remains a possibility but as I say, nothing right now.

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I don’t know where the character goes because I haven’t got round to reading the Wells books yet but I imagine part of the draw is that Friends kind of thing: “Ross and Rachel, will they get it together?” only it’s “John Wayne Cleaver… will he kill someone?”

That’s it! The second one definitely gets a lot darker, it’s a lot more straight horror than the first one but I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that the first one is about love… because that’s what Crowley is killing for, he needs to keep that body going because if he moves on to another one then he’ll be a different person and she won’t love him… in the second one the key isn’t about love but pain, so naturally that’s a lot darker and he’s hunting John so that’s a different and interesting thing… quite brilliantly written, I have to say and when you’ve gone all the way through the book… there’s so much in these kind of books that’s all about plot but with Dan it’s all about characters, he has such a knack of writing teenage dialogue and the relationships are fascinating… and quite funny, you know, that’s what I love about it.

The other angle in this creative constellation is your co-writer Christopher Hyde… from what I know about him, he sounds like a real Renaissance man.

He’s younger than me… we shared an agent and I didn’t want to take on adapting Dan’s book on my own. I write on my own all the time but this one, I just felt it would be really good to discuss it with somebody. It was a pain in the arse because Chris is from Barrow In Furness and I’m on Dartmoor so we chose to do, geographically, a really difficult thing. (laughs) So I pulled the old… “You’re a younger man than me, Chris and I’ve got a family so just hop on the bus and come down, it’ll only take you eight hours!” We just brain stormed… because I come from Irish culture I like to do things visually, get an A1 sheet of paper, put all the characters on it and draw lines between them and figure it all out.

Diagramatically…

Yeah, it was really good. Most of the work Chris did was the first couple of drafts and then I think I did a couple of my own, coming up to the shoot, but the back was really broken in those first couple of drafts. We had fun, a lot of fun and after that we adapted  three books and turned them into one film for Random House. I don’t know what’s happening with that, whether it will ever come to the screen, but it was another adaptation and the material wasn’t as good as Dan Wells’, so that’s problematic but in a way it gives you more freedom. With Dan we were always really careful, being aware that we didn’t want to kill off a character that could come back in a subsequent episode, you never know… but with the Random House thing that wouldn’t have been a problem, shall we say, so we had a lot more freedom with that. Anyway, we worked together just great…

I imagine you’ve got a lot of projects on the go, what are we most likely to see next?

There’s something I’ve been trying to get going for a little while… oh God, the pitch is “a folk musical with horror, black humour and cannibals, set on Dartmoor and based on a 19th Century book called Lorna Doone”… it’s kinda partly a Western as well, so I imagine financers will just banging my door down to get that one done! (laughs) It’s great fun and I never, ever intended to do a Musical but I’ve been listening to loads of contemporary film music while writing this and I’ve made it really darkly funny, more Delicatessen than Cannibal Holocaust, you know? it’s Delicatessen mixed with the Wicker Man and there’s a lot of folk music in it so it’s gonna be a balls to the wind Musical and let’s have a bit of craic with it. So I’m in the middle of that, let’s see what happens. I’ve got a couple of other projects because I can’t afford to spend all my time on one project so I‘ve got other things on the go as well. I’m always keeping my eye out for another good book or another good project out there.

I’d pay good money to see Lorna Doone with cannibals…

Good stuff, just you and me in the cinema, then! (Laughs)

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Christopher Lloyd… did you think you’d actually get him? And how was he?

He was kind of the opposite to Max in that it came quite late in the day. We were trying various actors and each financer had their favourites but once you get into the A List they’re all business and a lot of them aren’t interested in doing an independent film. So we hadn’t approached Christopher Lloyd directly but we’d been getting a bit jaded from getting rejections in general and then it turned out that Robbie Ryan, the cameraman, had been pouring his heart out to somebody and they said: “Give us the script, we’ll have a look and see if we can help” then they came back and said they’d given it to Christopher Lloyd. Less than a fortnight after that I got a call here in Devon from Christopher Lloyd in Santa Barbara. It was great, I was kind of tongue-tied to be honest and he’s also quite shy actually but when he was talking about the script you could almost sense that he had made pencil notes all the way through and it became an actor / director discussion, began to dawn on me that he wasn’t just thinking about it but was talking in a practical way about when we would do it. So he never actually said that but he was just a very practical professional, it was great. We discussed it for an hour and then yeah, he came on board and it was the character, Crowley… he said he hadn’t come across a character like that for a while and he liked it and that got his interest up. When we met him on location I got the sense that he wasn’t being offered such interesting stuff anymore and in a way this is a problem with the gatekeepers, l because if it’s a low budget film they’re naturally shying away from it because there’s not as much money involved. If any film makers are reading read this, the moral is never give up, try and get your stuff to them if you think it’s good enough.

This film is an object lesson in “never give up”, isn’t it?

Yeah but you have to have interesting stuff for them to do, you know… I think that on some of the independent films Christopher Lloyd did over the last couple of years, some of the directors were saying to him: “Just play Doc Brown” and that’s such a shame! So if you have interesting material for an actor that you think would get them excited, do whatever you can to get it to them because if you do, there’s a good chance they’ll say: “Wow, we haven’t been seeing stuff like this!” At that age, from getting into their ’60s on, they’re not going to be offered much of the good stuff and yet they’re still great actors, you know? We did approach Sam Shepherd, I remember, who I love, think he’s amazing, and he just said: “I’ve never done a monster film and I never will” and that was perfectly reasonable… and another one was John Hurt, who wrote us a lovely letter, which shows the class of these guys because some actors, of any age, you just never hear back from them. I can’t remember exactly what John Hurt said but the gist of it was: “My dear boy, at my age and in my state of health I’ve got no intention of being out on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere!” (laughs) and it’s a joy to get a letter like that, we just roared laughing… you like him even more because its completely reasonable, you know?

I can see how IANASK would pique Lloyd’s attention because it’s so off the wall…

I can’t do straightforward horror films, I get bored when it’s like we’ve been here before, you know? I’ve said before that watching Brazil was like a formative experience in my film making life because… how do you categories what genre that is? I remember that my first film Isolation was described “a horror film”… I don’t remember the term “genre” being bandied about, as much as it is now, as a way of denigrating something. Everything’s become a lot more boxed and where  do you fit in the kind of wild, maverick directors that I like? I’ll watch Terrence Malick one night and then I’ll watch a great comedy the next, anything so long as it’s got a great story and is brilliantly acted. I hate the fact that things have got so compartmentalised. I did an interview for, I think it was a German student radio station, they asked me what my favourite film was and I told them Billy Wilder’s The Apartment…

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I’ve lost count of how many “horror directors” have cited that one to me…

Well, they literally stopped the tape and said: “Could we make it your favourite horror film?” For me it’s just gotta be great films, you know and The Apartment is one of the best direction jobs ever.

Steve Barker just enthused to me about that one… his film The Rezort is in a similar position to yours, in that it was held up but now it’s coming through strongly at festivals…

I’ve heard about that film but I don’t know a lot about it… is it a zombie film?

Yeah, it’s a very clever one that’s got a lot to say about the mess we’re in at the moment, it’s a satire and it’s interesting that these thoughtful films are coming through.

This is another thing about the ten years since I made Isolation… I made other films in the meantime but probably the two big festival films would be Isolation and this one… it’s so much harder now and you’d think it should be easier with social media and so on but the problem is that there’s so much more of everything so getting people’s attention isn’t easy. We’ve had great reviews and there seems to be a healthy buzz right now but none of us are expecting to have people queuing around the block to see the film, there’ll be half filled and empty cinemas this weekend because Rogue 1 and the others are spending a hundred million on advertising, it takes that to get people into the cinemas now because they’ve got so many other things on our minds than film, so many other ways to spend their time…

… and so many other ways to watch film…

… you get a flurry of comment on Facebook and Twitter and people say: “Oh good, finally I’ll be able to see this film” but it’s been on VOD for ages and people only wake up to it when it’s on Netflix… then, they think they can see it… I don’t get this, myself.

Nor me… I’m still a bit too attached to physical media but that’s my problem, I guess…

Well I’ve got a shelf about 8 foot long and 6 foot hight stuffed with DVDs and we were just going through them last night trying to pick a few to watch. I’ve got a projector, you know, I love watching things really big.

You can’t do that on a smart phone.

Exactly… that’s why I would prefer it… if I was Donald Trump, my first rule would be to make everybody watch everything in a cinema!

Yeah, forget about the fucking wall, Donald and get people back in the cinemas! Finally I just wonder if you could tell me something about your effects guy Toby Froud… he was the baby in Labyrinth, wasn’t he?

He was the baby in Labyrinth. His father Brian Froud, who lives two miles from where I’m sitting right now, designed all the amazing creatures in the worlds of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and his mum Wendy was one of the designers of Yoda from Star Wars so he comes from a high pedigree of puppetry… Toby now lives and works where Max comes from, that’s Portland in Oregon, sculpting on all these films like King Kong and The Boxtrolls. I’ve known Toby since I met his dad about ten years ago. He was still at school, I think. He’s a lovely kid and really talented. Another person on our crew, William Todd-Jones who has been an amazing puppeteer for years now on all the Henson stuff, introduced me to the Frouds and Todd worked very closely with Christopher Lloyd and Max on the film on location. I guess it was a couple of years ago that Toby designed the monster and Toby was up for it, he did it in his garage in Portland with three or four friends. It’s a puppet so he packed it in a suitcase and brought it over here to Devon. I had decided that it would be chaotic to try and do this in minus-20 in Minnesota in an actually morgue, so let’s do it my garage. During editing, I think it was in October, we brought Toby over and we flew Max over as well because Max really wanted to come and see the monster. So we had great fun in my garage for four days with a puppet monster and a green screen and Robby shot it as usual and it was great. Nick Ryan was very good at the compositing of that, obviously as a great director and producer he put it all together for us. So yeah, it was great and it’s got kind of a “home made” quality this film, from the 16mm we shot on to Adrian Johnstone doing all the music in his chapel, he did everything live while we projected it on a sheet on the altar in his chapel. We just kept the analogue feel because it’s a folk tale really and that kind of all fitted into it, not being a snazzy CGI kind of thing but home made and fairly clunky, I’ll be honest, because of our budget, but it’s a beautiful puppet and the whole film has a very interesting feel to it, you know?

It certainly does, I didn’t know anything about your film when I rolled up at Mayhem and I came out of it very impressed…

Thank you very much, it does seem to be emerging very much as one that people want to go back and watch a second time. When Delicatessen came out I was in film school in Dublin and I used to cycle there on my bike and I can remember cycling to the cinema to see that eight times because it absolutely blew me away. And I must admit… perhaps it’s age as well… that there are not to many films these days that I’d even go back to see a second time let alone eight times…

… there are plenty that I regret seeing even the once…

Yeah, me too but what I’m glad about is that quite a few people come up to me at festivals and say that they’re seeing our film for the second time and that they get so much more because… it’s a very rich film, there’s a lot going on and it is quite hard to take all of it in the first time so that’s very rewarding to hear.

That pleasure awaits me because I’ll certainly be seeing it a second time…

It’s all in the laps of the gods, now.

Well, the gods had better do their stuff because you guys certainly did…

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This was originally written for a long established mass circulation genre magazine which subsequently passed on it. The four star Sun review, Billy tells me, was also pulled. So much for the gods doing their stuff. Chris Cooke did his, though and I’d like to thank him for setting up the interview you just read.

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