Interview: THE DEVIL’S ROCK Director Paul Campion

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Paul Campion’s The Devil’s Rock is an atmospheric horror film, which I had originally described as a ‘genre throwback’ in my review (read it here). The Channel Island set chiller follows two Kiwi commandos who attempt to foil a Nazi plot to unleash a demon on the eve of the D-Day invasion.

Campion is making the leap into directing features following a successful career in visual effects, having worked on films such as Hugo and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I interviewed Campion who discussed his career and influences, the difficulties in bringing a low budget film to the screen as a first time director and his future projects.

Where did the idea of The Devil’s Rock originate?

It came from a combination of things. Firstly I’d been struggling for a couple of years trying to get a first feature funded, and was slowly realising that I really needed to just make a first feature, no matter how low budget and prove that I was capable of directing a feature – and to find out if I actually could do it – making a short film is one thing but a feature is a whole different ballgame. Myself and writer Paul Finch had been exploring ideas that were essentially just 3 actors in a single location that I could maybe finance myself by re-mortgaging my house, but they weren’t quite working. Then I came up with an idea about a man who’s wife has died and he summons up a demon to sell his soul and bring his wife back, but I didn’t develop it any further. Then in 2009 I was screening my short film Eel Girl in the Channel Islands and I was interviewed by the local newspaper where I was asked if I knew anything about the Guernsey’s history of witchcraft – which I didn’t but I went out and did some research and found out about the Bad Books, and also that the Channel Islands were a hotbed of witchcraft in the middle ages – more witches were burnt at the stake there during one fifty year period than anywhere else in England. Then on that same trip I happened to see one of the large German WW2 towers on the island, and immediately thought it would make a great setting for a horror film. Then I just put all those elements together – the German occupation the tower, the Bad Books, Hitler’s obsession with the occult and the man who’s trying to do a deal with the devil to bring his dead wife back and came up with the basic plot.

What research did you do once you got set on the topic?

From the day I came up with the idea right up until we started shooting I was constantly researching everything I could about the Channel Islands occupations, the German fortifications in Guernsey, the commando raids, the SBS (Special Boat Service), New Zealand’s involvement in the war, Hitler’s obsession with the Occult and also a lot of research into black magic, occult rituals and also the Channel Islands history of witchcraft and black magic. I found a 250 year old book of black magic (one of the ‘Bad Books’) in a vault in the library in the Channel Islands which was quite creepy. Pretty much everything in the film apart from the demon is based loosely on some element of historical fact.

You wrote the film with Paul Finch and Brett Ihaka – did each of you take a pass at the script, one at a time offering your own skill sets? Or was it a group effort?

Paul Finch and I originally worked on the script as a tag team. He’d do a pass, then I’d do a pass. He’s better at writing original dialogue, whereas I’d concentrate on trying to keep the overall story and the makeup and visual effects achievable on our budget. We went back and forth like that for about six drafts, then we found we’d hit a bit of a brick wall. The producer suggested bringing on New Zealand writer Brett Ihaka who came onboard with a fresh pair of eyes and really trimmed a lot of the dialogue down (yes, there was more!). Finally when we were shooting I was constantly re-writing, mainly trying to trim it down further as we were struggling to make the eight pages of script per day we had to shoot. If I had the choice now I’d definitely cut out another 5 minutes of dialogue if I could.

Your background is in Visual Effects for some very large movies such as Hugo, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and X-Men – how do you go from working on those to taking the directing reins?

It’s a big jump! Working in visual effects gave me a great background in the technical side of post-production, but it’s a huge step from there to working with actors, the crew and telling a story, let alone dealing with the business side, raising the finances and selling, marketing and promoting a film. It really was a case of just diving in, picking up a camera and just making something and learning from your mistakes (and successes!). I also took a few courses on directing actors, film marketing and sales etc to try and broaden my knowledge.

How much contact would you have with a director on a big budget film? Is it just a case of simply doing your work and passing it on, or will the director be very hands on?

Generally very little or no contact whatsoever. On most big visual effects films you’re just a small cog in a very big wheel. Usually the visual effects supervisor is the one who deals directly with the director. Sometimes the director might be there in dailies, but again he’ll almost always be discussing things with the vfx supervisor or producer, not the individual artists.

Have you picked anything up from the directors that you’ve worked with?

I haven’t actually worked directly with any directors, I think you need to be working with them directly on set or in the editing room to really pick up tips on how their decision making processes work. Everything I’ve learnt as a director has been either through trial and error making short films, or watching a lot of behind the scenes extras on DVD’s or listening to the directors commentaries.

As a visual effects artist, do you ever look at films you’ve worked on a think, ‘it should have turned out better’, not from your perspective, but from a general viewpoint? Did this help with directing your own film?

I think everyone always wants to make a good film, but there are so many issues involved in making feature films that the public aren’t aware of, often beyond anyone’s control that sometimes it doesn’t quite work out as well as everyone hoped it would. There’s stuff about The Devil’s Rock that looking back now that I’d like to go back and change, but at the time we had a choice – either make the film now while everything is falling into place, knowing there were bits of the script that weren’t quite working but we just didn’t have time to fix, or put it on hold and spend more time on the script but risk the finance not being available in another year and maybe the film not getting made at all. In this case it was really a question of making the film and learning from it, then moving on and making a second film. In the end all you can do is try and do your best with what you’ve got, any filmmaker will always tell you they wanted more time and money to do it better.

What was it about The Devil’s Rock that made you want that to be your first feature?

It wasn’t a conscious choice, it just happened when all the pieces fell into place very quickly. I’d had two other projects, Voodoo Dawn and Dark Hollow that I’d been trying to make first, but it was proving impossible to raise the finance. Then I came up with the idea for Devil’s Rock, thought I could fund it by re-mortgaging my house, pitched it around to the producer, to Richard Taylor at Weta Workshop, to my bank manager and to my key crew, and everyone said yes, including the bank manager, who authorised the loan a week later, and suddenly I had the money to make the film and it just snowballed from there. Then we had the issue that The Hobbit was about to ramp up, and we had to have the film shot within six months, or we’d lose all our crew, so we just dived in and went for it.

It’s a very old fashioned horror film, was it a conscience decision to stay away from the ‘torture porn’ that is popular in horror today?

Absolutely. I don’t really like the torture porn genre, I much prefer more fantasy horror rather than people hacking up people. I don’t mind gore when it’s zombies or monsters eating people, but when it’s realistic violence I think it’s better to cut away and let the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks, rather than explicitly showing everything.

How did you assemble the cast?

Very quickly and easily. Gina Varela was first onboard, she was a friend of Jeff Hurrell the editor. Matt Sunderland was a friend of the producer Leanne Saunders, and she recommended asking him to play Colonel Meyer. Craig Hall heard about the film and put together an audition tape just off his own back and sent it too us. The only part we held auditions for was the Joe Tane character, and Karlos Drinkwater just absolutely nailed the part there

What constraints did you have on The Devil’s Rock?

Money and time! We only had 6 months from me coming up with the idea to when we had to have the it shot because The Hobbit was due to start up in Wellington. We knew if we didn’t get it shot in time it would have to go on hold for a couple of years because all our crew would be gone for the duration of The Hobbit. Then we only had the budget to shoot for 15 days, which meant shooting up to 8 pages of script per day, which is ridiculously fast. The knock on effect of that is that you don’t have time to do many takes, you don’t have time to do any complex camerawork or lighting, you just have time to shoot very simple camera work, with the minimum amount of footage you need , which then gives you fewer choices in the edit suite. We did a lot of visual effects work just ‘frankenstein’ing’ shots – taking an existing shot, maybe changing the background a bit then re-using it somewhere else in the edit. Also because we shot using RED cameras, which shoots at 4k resolution (double the size of the final film) we were able to zoom into certain shots and re-frame them without losing any quality in order to get close up angles we didn’t have time to shoot.

Did your effects background help you when making the film?

Yes, definitely. Even when we were working on the script I was planning how to achieve certain visual effects shots, and how to turn the Wellington locations into something similar to the real Channel Islands locations. I had a very good idea of what we could and couldn’t achieve with our limited budget, so we didn’t try anything that was too ambitious. I also storyboarded most of the visual effects shots in advance, and in post production I created concept art for every vfx shot so all the vfx artists were 100% clear on what I wanted. There are actually about 70 visual effects shots in the film, although most people won’t notice the majority of them as they’re very subtle.

I noted a distinct John Carpenter feel to the film, is he a hero?

Actually a couple of people have said the same thing. John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favourite horror films, but there wasn’t any conscious effort to make a ‘John Carpenter-esque’ film. I’d say I’m more influenced by Sam Raimi, Guillermo Del Toro, Steve Spielberg and Ridley Scott. In the end the feel of the film was a result of the budget constraints – I would’ve liked to have done more with the lighting and camerawork, but we just didn’t have time. Every day on set was just a struggle to shoot the bare minimum we needed to edit the film while trying to make it look like a much more expensive and slick production. I’m not a big fan of ‘shaky cam’ filmmaking, and there was a conscious decision to try and keep it simple, well composed and without too many fast cuts or editing.

As a first-time director, how do you go about raising the cash for an independent film these days?

With great difficulty! For The Devil’s Rock, I remortgaged my house and put my own money in. Initially the film was just going to be made with just my money, which it’s why the story is essentially just three people in two rooms, then the producer Leanne Saunders suggested applying for additional funding from the New Zealand Film Commission, who came onboard with enough money to really increase the production values. Generally though most independent films are financed through a combination of private investment, tax breaks from the country you’re shooting in, and then trying to raise some money by pre-selling to some distributors. That’s pretty much how it goes for any film.

Then once you get it made, how difficult is it to get a release?

Selling a film is 50% of the filmmaking process. Generally in order to get a film financed you have to have a sales agent attached while you’re still developing the project, which shows the film is commercially viable. From there on it’s down to the sales agent to sell the film to distributors in different countries, the it’s up to the individual distributors to decide how they’re going to release the film in the country. It’s really up to them if it comes out straight to DVD/VOD or if it gets a cinema release and also how much money they spend on advertising and marketing.

Are you happy with how well the film has done, both critically and commercially?

Any filmmaker will always want their film to do better, but overall it’s achieved what I set out to do, which was to get a first feature under my belt that will allow me to prove I can direct, and allow me to move onto a second film with a bigger budget. That’s also one of the reasons why the New Zealand Film Commission backed the film, to support me as a New Zealand filmmaker and the New Zealand film industry in general. From an industry standpoint, just getting a film funded, finishing it, and then getting it distributed – in our case theatrical distribution in the UK and New Zealand and so far we’ve sold to around 30 territories is an achievement. I’m pleased to say that I have made my investment back (within a year of finishing the film), which again is an achievement, plus I’ve still got somewhere to live! Critically it’s split people pretty much 50/50. It’s done well with the horror fans, particularly in the US where it’s been getting a lot of great reviews. The hardcore horror fans are liking it because it’s a little more intelligent and not just a bunch of nubile teens running around getting slaughtered, whereas the mainstream audience don’t like it as much because it’s a bit slow, a bit too talky and there aren’t nubile teens running around getting slaughtered.

The concept of Nazi’s and the occult has been touched on by some great filmmakers, like Michael Mann, with The Keep. However, it’s something of an untouched sub-genre – why do you think that is. I mean surely, the greatest villains getting their ‘comeuppance’ should be fodder for most filmmakers?

Well there are a lot of Nazi zombie films coming out shortly – Outpost: Black Sun, Outpost: Rise of the Spetznaz, Frankensteins Army, The 4th Reich, do they count or are they all more ‘mad Nazi scientists creating zombie armies’ movies? Maybe it’s just the cost – making any period WW2 film is just going to be more expensive (one of the reasons why ours was just set in a couple of rooms), but it would seem like there is a wealth of material to be mined.

What’s next for you?

Hopefully next up is the movie adaptation of US horror author Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow, which is about a quiet Pennsylvanian town terrorized by a satyr, a supernatural half-man half-goat creature. We’ve just set up a facebook page (check that here) and there will be a teaser trailer coming shortly.

Then I’m attached to direct a film called Roundabout Way, which is a fantastic Pulp Fiction/Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels style black comedy/crime thriller written by a US writer called Kevin C Smith.

Then in the meantime Paul Finch and I are working on the story for The Devil’s Rock 2, as well as a true WW2 story called Scorpion Raiders, which is about a famous raid on an Italian airfield in the deserts of North Africa by the Long Range Desert Group, a combined New Zealand and British special forces unit who were instrumental in the formation of the SAS.