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Interview With Stewart Sparke Director Of The Creature Below
By James Whittington, Saturday 27th August 2016
I'm a sucker for creature features and any that did into the genre are brave souls. The Creature Below is coming to FrightFest today so we chatted to its director, Stewart Sparke.
HC: How did you get started in the movie industry?
SS: Straight after studying directing at film school I got a few jobs in the UK TV industry, working as an intern with the BBC and then as a Camera Assistant on the 2012 Olympics in London. In my spare time I was also making a few short films with my collaborator Paul Butler and whilst the TV work was fantastic experience I found that my true passion was in making my own films. This lead to myself and Paul setting up a production company in the north of England called Dark Rift Films and through this we have made several short horror films that have been screened at film festivals around the world. We were lucky enough to have our last short film Containment included in the Horror Channel's 666 Shortcuts to Hell 2 anthology feature film a few years ago and it was actually the feedback we received back from the judges that influenced us to get started on a feature film. So really The Creature Below is our first step into the movie industry proper and we hope it is the first of many features to come!
HC: How did the project for The Creature Below come about?
SS: Whilst making short films for a number of years gave us the opportunity to develop new skills and gain valuable experience in the craft of filmmaking our ultimate goal was always to make a feature length film. Paul and myself had been developing a number of ideas over the course of a year and choosing the right one to tackle for our first feature was quite a challenge, as we had never made something of that duration before. Paul already had a great psychological horror script set in a house in the north of England about a young couple who become trapped in a cycle of jealousy and revenge. It was very gritty and disturbing but we needed something to make it unique and really stand out. At the same time we were developing a Lovecraft inspired script about a young scientist whose discovery of a strange creature drives her to madness and we realised that the two ideas were a perfect match for each other, eventually developing them as one film. In the end we were very happy that we had come up with quite a unique and disturbing film that we think horror fans will enjoy.
HC: Was it an easy movie to cast?
SS: The casting process was a wonderful process for us as we had a great deal of interest all of the main leads which was a great boost of confidence for us and showed that people were very interested in taking on our characters. We had some really talented actors read for the roles and paired up auditions so that we could see how our potential cast members would play off each other in some intense scenes from the film and make sure the chemistry was there. With any low budget independent film it was important that we not only found actors who could embody our characters but also have a passion for the type of film we were making and be fully prepared for some tough and emotional scenes. We were so lucky to find Anna Dawson, Michaela Longden and Daniel S. Thrace as our leads and we knew after getting them in a room together that they could bring the characters of Olive, Ellie and Matt to life in a believable way as well as bring out the raw emotions we needed. Complimented by supporting cast members Zach Lee, Johnny Vivash, Libby Wattis and Lyndsey Craine we had our dream cast and it gave us the upmost confidence that they could bring the film’s grim and disturbing universe to life.
HC: You shot the movie on an incredibly tight budget, what was that like and what pressures did it add to the shoot?
SS: Shooting to a limited budget was something we were very used to with our short film projects as much of it had always been self-financed by Paul Butler and myself. This challenge was increased ten fold when we started pre-production on The Creature Below and it was certainly one of the more challenging aspects of making our first feature. One thing we are very proud of and something I would urge all low budget filmmakers to do is ensure that the hospitality of the cast and crew is always at the top priority of your budget. We made sure we had good accommodation provided and hot meals on set every day and it's surprising how quickly this adds to the budget but the benefits outweighed the costs dramatically as everyone was happy and ready to work hard through the shoot. The tight budget also put pressure on the schedule, which had to be kept to just 14 full days and a few weekends in order to shoot the whole script and get everything we needed while the cast and crew were available. We were so lucky to have such a dedicated cast and crew who knew the stakes and they worked very hard to ensure we started and finished each day on time, ensuring we finished principal photography on schedule. Whilst the pressure was on during the whole shoot, it was an experience I wouldn’t change for the world and I value all of the skills and knowledge of making feature films I gained along the way!
HC: Did you have to leave anything out of the script due to the size of the budget?
SS: One thing Paul and I were very conscious of during the writing stage was keeping the script realistic, this was our first feature after all and we needed to make sure it was achievable. At the same time however, we had a great deal of success on previous projects getting access to some amazing locations and knew some very talented people who could bring our ambitious ideas to life so we didn't want to shy away from some incredibly ambitious sequences making it into the script. Whilst Paul was writing the screenplay I made sure that I was speaking to the relevant people to make sure we could accomplish what the script demanded. By talking to fantastic special effects artists like Neil Stevens, Paul Wilkins and Simon Brodie this early in the process we were confident that we could bring the creature to life whilst at the same time I was able to get permission to film on an old fishing trawler and shoot with the stunning Humber Bridge in Hull as a backdrop in a number of scenes. Likewise, visual effects supervisor Jeff Blyth assured us that we could accomplish an ambitious deep-sea dive sequence and we worked with him during the scripting stage to ensure it would be achievable when it came to shooting the film. Securing these key elements early on during the script writing process meant that we did not have to scale back our vision and I'm happy to say that the finished film stays true to our original ambitions.
HC: The SFX is key to many scenes, how did you design the look and feel of the creature?
SS: The design of creature in the film and each stage of its life-cycle was a collaborative process between myself and a number of talented artists whom we had worked with in the past. It was important that the smaller version of the creature you see was almost cute and that audience felt an emotional bond with it much like Olive in the film. Big bulbous eyes and some great sound design from Dave S. Walker were key in making that happen and it's a contrast to the huge hulking creature it eventually becomes which has smaller eyes and a more menacing form. Graphic novel artist Lee Lightfoot did a fantastic job at realising my initial ideas into concept artwork, which we then passed onto our creature FX team, who were able to draw up blueprints to build practical versions of the creature. With each one being some form of puppet we had to make sure that the creature could withstand the wear and tear of shooting and be fully interactive with the actors and the creature FX team were great at making sure the practical effects met the demands of the script. At the same time SFX makeup artist Simon Brodie was on set to manage the fake blood and guts and how that would interact with the puppet. VFX artist Jeff Blyth also had to make a CG version of the larger creature for a few scenes where a practical creation was not possible and used the same concept artwork to ensure the creature maintained the same look at style as had previously been seen.
HC: This is your first full length feature, what did you learn whilst making The Creature Below?
SS: I've probably touched on a few of the things I've learned earlier in the interview but overall it's that collaboration is key. I always remember a quote from indie filmmaker Pat Higgins where he said that the key to successfully making your first feature is finding people who have all of the qualities you don't have and listening to what they have to say. That was so important on this film and I was lucky enough to be surrounded by so many talented people who all had their own amazing input that made the film even better and overcame so many hurdles. From our costume designer Natalie Roe suggesting different colours for characters based on their emotional states during the course of the film to our Director of Photography suggesting a new camera move that made the scene even more impactful, all of this collaboration made the film even better.
HC: Are you nervous that the movie is getting its world premiere at FrightFest?
SS: I would be lying if I said I wasn't! The Creature Below is our first feature so we really hope people respond well to it. FrightFest was always in mind as the first festival we would submit our film to and we even built our schedule around getting the film finished in time so it's a huge deal to us that we were accepted. It's also the first time all of the cast and crew will see the film so what better place to watch it than on the big screen at one of the best horror festivals on in the world!
HC: Will you watch with the audience?
SS: I will be there on the front row biting my nails hoping that the audience jump/laugh/scream at the right moments. Most of the cast and crew will be there too and we are very excited to see it with fellow horror fans!
HC: So, what are you working on at the moment?
SS: Paul and myself are busy developing a few ideas for our next feature but everything is at an early stage right now so I couldn't mention anything specific but it's safe to say that another horror film is on the cards. As for other projects we have been having a great time working on a web series called Slice of Horror on our YouTube channel. In the series we travel around the country to interview other indie horror filmmakers and attend film festivals and conventions covering everything horror related. This has been fantastic for us to meet other people doing the same thing we are and learn more about their approach to making films and share it with the world. We also review independent British horror films, many of which have screened at FrightFest in the past and try and get the word out about some undiscovered gems.
HC: Stewart Sparke, thank you very much.
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