Tuesday 25 June 2013

An interview with Dave Jeffery and James Underhill Hart

Following on from my review of Ascension yesterday, I decided to push my luck and ask the creative team behind the film some questions.  And they responded!

Dave Jeffery is an affable bloke, friendly and supportive and it was his short story - which appeared in Alt-Zombie, from Hersham Horror Books - which kick-started this off.  Perhaps best known for his zombie novel Necropolis Rising, he has also written the YA Beatrice Beecham Series and the 2012 Edge Hill Prize Long-listed Campfire Chillers short story collection, whilst BBC: Headroom endorsed his Finding Jericho.  He has contributed to several anthologies and his work has featured alongside many zombie impresarios including John Russo (Night of the Living Dead), Tony Burgess (Pontypool) and Joe McKinney (Flesh Eaters).  Necromancer: Necropolis Rising II is slated for release through Dark Continents Publishing, Inc. in 2013.

James Underhill Hart is a self-proclaimed life-long movie fan who has now fulfilled his dream of directing a movie.  He has followed this up with the 666 short and there are plenty of projects on ‘his slate’.

So, bearing in mind that I’m not an interviewer, here’s how it went.

MW:  Dave, when you wrote the short, did you envision the screenplay at the same time?
DJ:   No. The short was written for Hersham Horror’s ALT-ZOMBIE and was only competed with this brief in mind. The concept of adapting its themes for a movie came after a discussion with James who enjoyed the story and thought it would make a good short film. I agreed to write the screenplay but we both decided that there needed to be changes to the storyline, especially the ending. Where the short story ends on a jolt, what we wanted an emotional rather than visceral conclusion for the film.

MW:   Interesting and I think the ending for the film had much more of an emotional resonance.  So was it fairly easy to write the screenplay or harder because the short already existed? 
DJ:   It was easy in some respects in that we’d already decided that changes needed to be made to reflect our aim of a film that made people think rather than just set out to shock them. The shocks are still there but are not of the kind that is cheap or disposable. We hope they have resonance on an emotional level and have people thinking about the film after they have left the theatre.
      Ascension is the first screenplay I have written and adapting what is in essence a written narrative into a visual piece was a challenge. Time place and person are presented somewhat differently and I found that once actors are involved they add their own dimensions to what you have put down on the page. It’s a fascinating process and requires an element of team working that perhaps in absent in writing a novel or short story.

MW:   So what were your producing duties?
DJ:   Too numerous to mention but I had a hand in pulling together the cast and organising promotion. Some people we need to mention are Christina Schulte and Sam Cater. Both these kind people worked above and beyond in the run up to the shoot (as well as on the day) in order to pull together and co-ordinate logistics. Great, great people.
JH:   This was our first film so I guess we had no idea what it actually meant to produce or be a producer(s). We did everything! Don’t get me wrong we had an unbelievable amount of help and support from cast, crew and friends but I think at any given point during the 6-7 months of planning, between us we were trying to cover all the bases. It was a steep learning curve but being involved in every aspect was a wonderful experience. We really couldn’t have managed though without Christina Schulte, Sam Cater and Helen O’Connor, they did so much to help us I’m almost positive Ascension would not be what it is without those three.

MW:   The acting in the film is strong across the board, so where did you draw the cast from?
JH:   All over the place really, the original plan was to get our friends and family to play the roles, then we thought we would up the ante and put out a casting call to local drama groups, then we got really brave and asked Derek Melling! Everything changed at that point. Derek introduced us to Mark, who thankfully was as excited as we were, then we approached the wonderful Fizzog’s. They knew Laurence, and then the last person to come on board was Sam Knight. Our cameraman had worked with Sam previously and spoke so highly of him we didn’t feel the need to do a screen test.
     It was a case of people knowing people or having worked with people before, it made casting one of the easier parts of the process for us.
DJ:   When James and I first started talking about making Ascension into a film we knew that it would not work without a cast with significant talent. The story is a character driven piece and we wanted to pull together an ensemble with which the audience could immediately connect. Having said that reality began to impinge and we realised that to have the kind of cast required to fulfil our vision for the film would cost way over our means. I think this was the only part of Ascension we got totally wrong. The cast we pulled together are not only gifted they are also incredibly giving and we found this out early on in the casting.
I came across Derek Melling (Joe) and Mark Rathbone (Eddie) in Alex Chandon’s INBRED movie. I approached Derek via Facebook and asked him if he’d be interested in being involved with our project. He asked for the script and within a few days – and a Skype video conversation -   agreed to come on board. This was pretty much the same with Mark Rathbone. James and I could not believe that we’d managed to get these two great guys on board and, if we’re honest, still can’t believe it. I knew the Fizzog Theatre company having worked with them before via the day job. We arranged to meet and Jacky Fellows (Annie), Deb Nicholls (Alex) and Sue Hawkins (Penny) kindly agreed to be involved. They put me in touch with Laurence Saunders (Tom) and when he read the script was so complimentary about it my confidence that we may have something special began to grow. We saw Sam Knight (Carl) in Bigger and Badder a werewolf short our cameraman (Gary Rogers) had worked. Luckily for us Sam agreed. Laura Childs (Sally) was involved in the original newsreel footage and we wanted to extend her role in the final film.

MW:    I liked the newsreel footage that was ‘leaked’ to YouTube but it works much better in the finished film and Laura does really well conveying the sense of disbelief and urgency.
    So to follow on, where did you draw the technical crew from?
JH:   We worked with a relatively small crew for the entire project, more people came on board as we got closer to filming but for the main, it was friends and friends of friends that formed the crew. Gaz (Gary Rogers) as the camera man was one of the first people to come on board and he was invaluable to the process. Not only did he bring commitment and enthusiasm to Ascension but he had access to some great equipment and his own mini crew. His daughter helped out with sound and as a runner, not only on set but when we were doing the test shoots. Jeremy P Stephens, who did the sound, is a very experienced technician and he was so generous with his time and experience on set, he was great to have around. We had a few difficulties with make-up and special effects during the project but on the main shoot Silent Studios provided the zombies and effects. Justin Becker and Ben North were responsible for the FX make-up and they did a great job in a very short space of time.
     After the shoot though, [there were] two guys who really made a massive difference! Richard O’Connor who was our main editor, as well as a producer, put countless hours into every aspect of the edit, I think he did an amazing job and really put his own stamp on it. The other was Carl Braid who also put more hours in than he is willing to admit. Carl put the opening sequence together, did all the digital effects, stabilised some of the shots and generally helped in technical ways that me and Dave don’t really understand.

MW:   The film has a great look and a good sense of location.  Where did you film it?
JH:   We mainly used two locations.  The Hill and fields were privately owned land just outside of Studley in Worcestershire and the compound that formed part of the village was in the Licky Hills area of Bromsgrove. The compound was previously a landfill and heavy machinery repair site.

MW:   So, Dave, what’s the Blakewell Spirit?
DJ:   The Blakewell Spirit is an ethos that the villagers have adopted in order to maintain their concept of humanity. At its heart the tenet creates a utilitarian infrastructure that gives hope to the community through the perpetuation of family and order. There are no formal relationships, no rights of ownership of person or property, the communal nature of the Blakewell Spirit has eradicated the need for feud and lawlessness prevalent in The Wilderness, the name that Blakewell has given to the savage world outside its borders.

MW:   And what gives you the biggest thrill - the story in a book or the film?
DJ:   Both. Cop out? Probably, but seeing what you have written come to life either on a page or on screen is a thrill of which I will never grow weary. I’m in a privileged position and I’ll never take that for granted.  Having said this, Ascension the short story and Ascension the film are separate entities both structurally and in terms of narrative. As the writer, recognising this makes it easier to appreciate both without feeling as though there is a betrayal of the source material.

MW:   One of the surprises of the film for me, on a technical level, were some great aerial shots which really opened the whole thing out in terms of scale.  It took me a while to get it but I did, so who came up with the idea of using a remote controlled plane?
JH:   It wasn’t originally going to be an r/c plane, at one point we were seriously looking at two man gliders and small light aircraft, I think our heads were in the clouds at that point. The shot itself was going to be very, very different. I really wanted it to be the view from a Bird of Prey, the bird would be soaring and would fly over the moving Land Rover, then it would see the infected eating and then return to the Land Rover. I was aiming for it to be a metaphor for the main characters. The elements put a stop to that though so we recorded as much footage as we could before the wind pushed the plane into a tree. My brother, Mark Beacham built us a custom plane from scratch and put a GoPro in it to record the footage.

MW:  On the zombie front, how easy was it covering actors in blood then letting them run around in the cold?
JH:   The guys from Silent Studios were very obliging…they were often waiting around for hours in the freezing cold with very little on in the way of clothing. We did the best we could to look after them but they were visibly freezing for much of the time. I think they enjoyed it though, a few of them have asked to work with us again! The filming on the Hill was a lot less comfortable than at the compound.
Filming the kill scenes was great fun and all the actors really enjoyed it, we were a little taken back by how much they enjoyed being killed on screen. Again though they were really cold and tired at this point, I think we were filming till around 3am on that day, I left set at 4am so it was a late finish for many of the actors.

MW:   So finally, how close is the finished product to your vision?
DJ:   In terms of script, some elements had to be adapted due to the weather and logistical issues at the time. Other than that the story I was trying to tell is there on the screen. And then some.
JH:   Pretty close I think. We had a lot against us on the actual shoot, many of the shots we had planned were impossible because of the snow and we had to change some of the scenes, including dialogue because we couldn’t get all the vehicles on the field. Some of the flying footage was lost because of the crash and a few other little things cropped up along the way but Richard and Carl worked really hard to get everything I wanted on screen. I’m really happy with what we created but, given half a chance I’m sure we could make some improvements.

Thanks gents, I appreciate your time.

You can find out more information about Dave, James and Ascension at the Venomous Little Man website

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