By Junsui Films | August 2012
The Director chats exclusively to Junsui Films about the challenges and rewards of self-funding, achieving maximum results with a limited schedule, and tells us just how he went about subverting the zombie genre for his latest film, HAROLD’S GOING STIFF…
Junsui Films: Where did the idea for Harold’s Going Stiff come from?
Keith Wright: I can’t remember the actual trigger moment, but there were a number of factors that steered me into the story. Firstly, I knew we had bugger all money to make the film because we were going to be self-funding it and secondly, after spending a few years going out and observing the Cannes film markets, I knew we needed to play the game a bit in terms of getting distribution and that meant choosing a popular genre. Only after establishing those confines of budget and genre did I go off and try to find something that would work.
I toyed with the idea of a vampire movie at first but it didn’t really go anywhere so instead I turned to the living dead for inspiration. Aging and illness are two of my biggest personal fears and they seemed to lend themselves nicely to the idea of being explored in a zombie movie. I had a close relative who had progressively suffered from dementia for nearly twenty years before they passed away, it was one of the most heartbreaking things a family can experience, so I drew on that during the writing process.
JF: Though the narrative offers an inventive riff on the zombie movie, were ever concerned about developing a concept within such an exploited sub-genre?
I was well aware of how saturated the genre was, but I was never concerned about it. In fact I was more excited at the prospect of trying to do something different. In a way it makes it easier to play against expectations, especially if an audience has had their fill of something, there’s more of a chance they’ll embrace anything that tries to break the mould.
JF: Much like the original George A. Romero Dead Trilogy, Harold’s Going Stiff also explores socially relevant issues such as age, illness and isolation. How challenging was it blending such poignant elements with the typical genre expectations?
Yeah it was definitely a challenge and to be honest I was never sure if we’d get away with it. I think because I decided to construct the film in a semi-documentary style I gave myself license to shift gears at almost any time during the story. I wanted to create a world that was totally believable, especially with Harold and Penny’s relationship, and yet I knew I had to spin off and tick a few other boxes to satisfy the genre. But it seems to have paid off in the main, with even hardened horror fans giving it a thumbs up.
JF: How did you go about getting the film funded and did you encounter any obstacles when pitching a movie with an ‘elderly’ protagonist?
We never had any issues raising the money because the film was entirely self-funded by myself and producer, Richard Guy. We both applied for a couple of interest free credit cards from Tesco and off we went. As you can imagine it wasn’t a lot of money, so budgeting was very carefully planned down to the last penny.
I don’t think anyone would have funded us to be honest given that we had a sixty five page script, a seventy-year-old lead and a proposed shooting schedule of just seven days (which became nine). We did explore certain UK schemes for funding, but we either didn’t meet the criteria, had missed a deadline or I was just wary of losing our creative control. At the end of the day we just wanted a little bit of money to make the film and get going.
We’ve achieved so much with our tiny little film, even when compared to many other larger UK films, and that alone makes me leap with joy inside.
JF: The relationship between Harold and Penny brings real emotional weight to the film. How did you approach the casting process and in particular the lead roles?
We never had the luxury of a casting director so we used a lot of free online casting services, watched showreels, met a few people and narrowed down the selection that way. We also had an open casting day in Barnsley where we invited people from the local area to come and have a go at playing a character. I really enjoyed that process because you never quite know who’s going to walk through the door and light up the screen. In fact two of our vigilante’s are local lads with no previous acting experience and they were brilliant.
We also met Sarah Spencer there who would end up playing Penny and she was such an amazing find. She was the first person who walked through the door in the morning and within about ten minutes of filming with her I remember looking over to Richard with a big smile on my face and nodding “she’s the one”.
Penny and Harold’s relationship is really the heart of the film, so a few days before the shoot I spent a bit of time with Sarah and Stan rehearsing a couple of key scenes at the actual location, just so we could start to get a feel for their connection. It’s really the only time we rehearsed.
JF: Let’s talk about the shoot itself, and how you were able to achieve such impressive results with such a limited budget and schedule.
Originally we were crazy enough to think we could do it in just five days, especially when we saw what Shane Meadows was doing with Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee, but after sitting down and looking at the schedule and the script it seemed a bit too crazy and would have been detrimental to the film, so we added a couple more days.
I knew we had to move fast to keep on schedule, so I chose to shoot the film myself with a small digital camera using only available light and completely hand-held. That combination offered us an incredible pace whilst on location because there was no lighting set-ups, no tracking shots, no tripods to lumber around, we could literally have a scene in the can within no time at all and be ready to move on.
It was gruelling, but also oddly liberating for the actors because there was no real down time in between scenes, they just bounced from one scene to the next keeping the same energy levels. It’s become part of the film’s character in a way, you can maybe notice a few of the rough edges, but I like that, I think it sort of gives the film a genuine sense of realism.
JF: You also served as editor on the film. How difficult was it balancing so many roles?
Being so buried in every stage of the film can be tough. I love and hate it at the same time, because on the one hand you have a lot of creative control which is so important to me, but on the other hand you can become so numb to it that you stop seeing what is and isn’t working.
I really like to do test screenings when getting close to picture lock, just so I can get a gauge of how it’s working and where there might be problems that are causing confusion or concerns. It’s nerve shredding when you sit down and watch it with an audience for the first time because you really want people to enjoy it, get it and talk about it. After our first test screening we actually went out and shot a few extra scenes to help clarify the story and even after the second test screening I chopped the film about again until I was happy.
JF: The film enjoyed a successful run on the festival circuit. How pleasing has it been to see it so well received by audiences, and how crucial do you believe it is for a low budget film like Harold to gain festival exposure?
It’s been brilliant. Festivals are all about the love of film, people are there because they want to see something that’s maybe a bit different. So to have played at so many festivals is a real privilege in itself, but to be winning awards as well is even better. I mean to have someone like George A. Romero sit and watch your film and tell you how much he enjoyed it afterwards is an absolute buzz.
JF: What challenges have you faced securing distribution for the film and how important was it for you to see Harold gain a theatrical release?
There’s so many films out there now competing for that all important distribution deal that it’s just making things even tougher for tiny films like ours. Myself and the producer decided to spend some time exploring the Cannes Film Festival to understand how the markets worked in terms of sales and distribution. That was a real eye opener and I would recommend it to any filmmaker to go out there and really have a grasp of how films are bought and sold.
In the UK we were lucky enough to secure a DVD distributor quite early on, but there was no interest in pushing it out as a theatrical release because it’s such a small film with no star pulling power. But I really wanted people to have the chance to see it on the big screen where it was intended to be shown, so rather than let it go we decided to try and release the film ourselves by just cold calling cinemas and telling them how great we thought our film was and why they should play it. It actually worked, we got several screenings confirmed which meant we could get listed on the FDA (Film Distributors Association) which meant we could get into the cinema release sections of magazines like Total Film and Empire. All brilliant for publicity.
Again, it’s a bit like the film, if you don’t have the money to throw at it you have to be more inventive and find people that are prepared to support you. We’ve been really lucky that some people have championed the film and helped drive the awareness of Harold. I know it would be easier to throw more money at it, but in some ways the rewards are far greater when you’ve managed to achieve so much with so little.
JF: What doors has the film opened for you as a filmmaker, and what next for Keith Wright?
I’ve got several projects in a state of flux, but one is prominent for me at the moment, Crack of Dawn which tells the tale of a misfit craft group who encounter some nasties during a field trip and have to turn to the dark side in order to stay alive. It’s a survival movie with a woman who knits tea cozies. I really want to explore that survival instinct that’s buried within all of us and examine how that can change people once they’ve done something life changing.
Harold’s Going Stiff is out now and reviewed here.