Following the growing success of Post-Apocalyptic shocker CHILDREN OF A DARKER DAWN, Stu Willis caught up with writer/director Jason Figgis to discuss his career and his latest production THE ECSTASY OF ISABEL MANN in another exclusive SGM Spotlight interview…
Stuart: Hi Jason, thanks for allowing us the chance to catch up again following our viewing of the incredible THE ECSTASY OF ISABEL MANN. First off, can you fill us in on what's been happening with your previous horror film, CHILDREN OF A DARKER DAWN, since we last spoke?
Jason: Thanks Stuart. Great to talk to you again. ''Children of a Darker Dawn'' has been very good to me in that it has been released in the US and Canada on DVD and VOD (with talks of a UK/Ireland DVD release in 2015). This film has helped propel me on to bigger things with a complete crew of those who specialise in their particular disciplines - which, as you can imagine, takes huge pressure off me as a filmmaker. What I mean is that I used to do everything; shoot, edit, post, sound, write, direct, produce ... I now have a fabulous cinematographer in the shape of the ever-joyful (and I mean he NEVER stops smiling) Alan Rogers, a brilliant bulldog-tenacious producer, Matthew Toman, various great sound people; Jordan Balbirnie and Dean Mullen (to name but two regulars), fantastic make-up artist Tori Campbell (who is still only 19 years old), a wonderful location manager Jemma Nic Lochlainn and 1st AD Ciara Whelan. This is the just the key crew. We have so many others working away in various other roles to help get these movies made.
Stuart: And what of your 2012 version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL? I understand that's been doing the rounds recently. What can you tell us about this production?
Jason: Yes, our version of ''A Christmas Carol'' was - and still is - on an interesting journey. It was completed in 2012 to be the very first new adaptation of a Dickens' classic to be released in the 200th year since his birth. It has been received wonderfully by many but also despised by others! It makes sense ... our version is quite a literal translation of Dickens' original novella. It is dark and bleak and cold and Scrooge is not represented as the cuddly misunderstood but ultimately sweet uncle. He is a twisted, bitter, thin, bent and shaven headed man who has nothing good to say or think about anyone or anything. I suspect that in our version, you might get the sense that he only changed his ways because he didn't want the alternative. I guess that isn't very Christmassy ... David Nicholas Wilkinson, the CEO of UK distributor Guerrilla Films was the first to believe in the film and give it a push in the UK and Ireland and then US distributors Pop Twist Entertainment Inc and MVD Entertainment Group - who released three of my other films ''Children of a Darker Dawn'', ''Once Upon a Time in Dublin'' and ''Cathnafola'' came on board to release on DVD and VOD in the US and Canada. Despite its vilification from some quarters, it achieved the Top 50 of DVDs on Amazon in the Horror category for 2014. It continues to be loved by some and hated by others. Ha. Ha.
Stuart: Now. ISABEL MANN. It's a vampire film, but it attacks the genre with a fresh verve. Were there any specific templates you drew from when developing the film?
Jason: I decided that if I was going to make a teen Vampire film then I needed to be as fresh in my approach, as possible. I didn't want to do what had been done before so I decided I wanted it to be more about a teen girl who is going through a change and maybe isn't a vampire at all ... but possibly mentally ill.
Stuart: For me, it was interesting how you subverted expectations at almost every turn. Many of the set-piece scenes were shot in broad daylight, for example; the script invests an unusual amount of time in its characters; one major character dies unexpectedly midway through; the light alt-pop tunes that play over the film's goriest moments, etc. What prompted this decision to turn convention on its head at every opportunity?
Jason: Again, I wanted to try something different. I feel that horror doesn't need to be the domain of shadowy alleyways and moon-drenched woods. In fact, I don't think we have one night scene in the film. I wanted the gore and the horror to be out in the sunlight for all to see and experience. I also wanted to really look at the characters as much as I could. Someone commented: 'Is it a horror film at all? Is it not more a socio-realistic take on teenage angst and possible mental illness? I was happy with that observation because I had been considering all of this when shooting the film. You will notice that the word ''vampire'' is never once mentioned in the film.
Stuart: There are flashback sequences in the film that feel almost experimental in their dreamy, dialogue-free delivery. I'm tempted to mention Jean Rollin as a possible influence here...?
Jason: I am a big fan of Jean Rollin so it is very possible that he was in my subconscious when shooting the film but I was not consciously referencing him. I also wanted the flashback pieces to have a very fly-on-the-wall feel and it helped that Ellen Mullen (Isabel) and Saorla Wright (Jay) are best friends in real life ... so that really helped the naturalism of these sequences.
Stuart: Alan Rogers does a great job of capturing the natural beauty of the Irish countryside. So much so that the setting really is another character in itself. Can you speak a little about that?
Jason: It was important to me to make a rural set film - as I feel at my best when out in nature - so I wanted to put as much of this beauty on film as possible. I also wanted to show that no matter how tranquil and beautiful the setting, horror can still lurk in the leaves ... Ha. Ha.
Stuart: You were shooting in HD too. How was that experience for you?
Jason: I loved working in HD (as ''Children'' had been shot on the inferior and grittier HDV) and frankly could never go back. We have since moved on to 4K cameras for my latest feature film ''Urban Traffik''.
Stuart: Let's talk about the cast too. As with CHILDREN, you've once again elicited phenomenal performances from a largely young cast. What preparation went into their roles?
Jason: With this film, we left nothing to chance. We spent ten weeks working on developing the background stories to each character in the film so that by the time we got on set, each child actor knew exactly who they were playing, what was going on and who their character related to in the film and why.
Stuart: There's some very violent imagery at times. How did you go about filming these scenes without leaving yourself open to accusations of distressing your younger cast members?
Jason: I was concerned about this myself but it was the kids who put me at ease with their enthusiasm for the horror and gore. As soon as the cameras stopped rolling, nothing but laughter erupted from the kids. It was a very easy set to be on. One child, the fantastic Karinanne Cosgrove even told me she felt there wasn't enough blood on her and wanted more! Ha.
Stuart: One link I made between CHILDREN and ISABEL MANN - and you can shoot me down if I'm wrong! - is that both films centre on children having to adapt to a new way of life. They both feel rather timely, given that we live in an age of 'broken homes'. I wondered if you personally have had a similar upheaval of some description in your youth? If so, are the themes of your films consciously influenced by it?
Jason: I was definitely a troubled kid who was always getting into fights and even running away from home but the family environment I grew up in was very stable with parents who always pushed us to indulge in our artistic leanings and immerse ourselves in that world. I had some bad experiences growing up (some very traumatic) but I am sure most of us have had similar experiences and probably bring elements of that to all of our creative endeavours.
Stuart: I've been following responses to the film online and all reactions I've seen have been great. How have you found the feedback ... and when will we see it getting an official release?
Jason: I am very happy with the responses so far - obviously some are mixed - but I have come to expect that from all of my work. Some connect with it; others don't. That is the nature of what we do. Some of the favourable quotes have been quite spectacular though, so I am very happy with that. The film has just come out of the American Film Market with some very good feedback so I am hoping that we can secure some kind of decent distribution as soon as possible in 2015.
Stuart: Can you give us a little insight into your forthcoming revenge thriller DON'T YOU RECOGNISE ME? My understanding is you have a starring role in this film!?
Jason: ''Don't You Recognise Me?'' is an extreme horror feature about a documentary director who puts out social-network feelers to produce a ''Day in the Life'' documentary. Troubled ''K'' answers his query and so begins 24 hours of terror. I don't have a starring role in this film but play the supporting character of Nicky ''Babyface'' Gallagher who is, let's just say, brought in to do the heavy lifting when it comes to violence!
Stuart: What is else is on the horizon? More revenge thrillers I hear!
Jason: Yes indeed. There is a bit of a trend happening here. We have completed shooting on ''The Paper Child'' - about a middle-aged couple seeking revenge for the murder of their daughter. We have also completed shooting (and almost completed post production) on another revenger called ''Family'' about a former gang enforcer who returns to Dublin from Munich following the very brutal murder of her younger brother. She intends finding out who is responsible and killing them all. Does she succeed? You will have to wait and see. We are currently shooting a Sex Traffik revenger called ''Urban Traffik'' - my first 4K shoot and it is looking beautiful, despite its dark subject matter.
Stuart: Cheers Jason, it's always a pleasure speaking with you and I can't wait to see the results of DON'T YOU RECOGNISE ME? etc.
Jason: Thanks so much Stuart. You will be amongst the very first to view all of them. I really appreciate your continued support.
Special thanks to Jason Figgis and October Eleven Pictures Ltd