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Exclusive Interview with Michael J. Bassett, Deathwatch Director
By James Whittington, Monday 7th August 2006
Michael J Bassett came to prominence with the movie, Deathwatch, a sinister and unnerving film set in the murky trenches of World War I. That was way back in 2002 but now, at long last, his new movie, Wilderness is due to hit cinemas in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Belfast, Glasgow and Dublin on August 11 so we caught up with him for an exclusive interview...

ZH: What got you started in the industry was there a single event or movie that inspired you to take this career?

MJB: The movie that most obsessed me was ‘Alien’ but I was much too young to actually see it on release. It was the first film where I became aware that it had been conceived and created by people rather than just existing as a film. I collected all the models and books I could before ever actually seeing the film. It did, of course, live up to and excel my expectations when I finally did see it on VHS and then finally when I saw it on the big screen I realised just what an extraordinary piece of work it is; oh yeah, and what a horrible crappy format VHS was.

But really, despite the appalling picture quality, the reason I love movies is because the advent of home video. Since there was no great love of movies in my house, the sudden access to enormous libraries of movies meant I could actually see movies as a teenager. I was obsessive about this and spent many more hours watching movies at home or at school friend’s houses than I ever did at school. Not a great recommendation but a sad truth...

ZH: You really made an impact with your movie Deathwatch, did this put much pressure on you to come up with another movie more quickly?

MJB: Deathwatch was moderately successful but it wasn’t a huge hit enough to propel me into some rarefied state of creative freedom. There’s no doubt it opened doors for me and proved that I could handle the pressure of a feature film schedule – which, believe me, no one prepares you for. For the couple of years after Deathwatch there were moments when it looked like a new project would get off the ground and then simply collapse before we got to production. It was hugely frustrating.

The other thing no one tells you how hard getting that second movie can be. You think it’s an enormous achievement getting movie #1 done, try movie #2; it’s insane.

ZH: Is it true that in the German dubbed version of Deathwatch, the German soldiers speak French?

MJB: I’ve never heard that before but I can’t imagine that’s true. The German soldier speaks French in all versions of the movie because they discover it’s a common language that Jamie Bell’s character can understand.

ZH: Were there any major problems you encountered on Deathwatch as a first time director? How did you convince the studio to take you on?

MJB: Deathwatch wasn’t a studio movie, it was an independent picture like pretty much every movie made in the UK these days. Since I wrote the script for Deathwatch (which was called No Man’s Land – and should have remained that way), I was able to parlay that into the directing gig. I’d made several short films which were okay but not great and so the producers and financiers asked me to shoot a short sequence from the film to ‘prove’ that I could do the job. Clearly it worked.

The film was actually financed almost entirely with German money and then sold on to distributors around the world. Luckily everyone seemed to get there money back so I, at least, managed to make something vaguely commercial as well as having some artistic merit.

ZH: What happened to your movie projects The Unblinking Eye, Eclipse and Lab Ratz?

MJB: Old scripts never die, they just get stuck in development. For anyone who ever read my 12 week stint of keeping a diary for the BBC movie website they’ll be familiar with the trials and tribulations of Lab Ratz. It came so close to production so many times but then always fell apart at the last moment. After Wilderness there’s interest in getting it going all over again but I’m not sure I’ll direct it. It think I’ll exec produce it and find a director to take it on.

The same goes for ‘The Unblinking Eye’. It’s a terrific script; smart and psychologically complex that I’ve had for a good number of years and that’s pretty much financed and ready to go. I was going to shoot it this year but another project came along and hoovered up my time for the rest of the year. Instead of just letting it fall apart and having to refinance in a year or mores time I’m going to exec produce and we’ve got another director attached to make it. I can’t say who but I’m very happy about it and think he’ll do a tremendous job.

Eclipse – being a science fiction movie – is a little harder to get made as it’s much more expensive and I really want to direct that myself. It’s pencilled in for next year but we’ll see about that.

ZH: Dario Poloni wrote your new movie, Wilderness. This is his first film as a writer, what drew you to the script?

MJB: I liked the essence of Dario’s script. The basic story idea and structure seemed like a great place to hang some interesting characters and nasty bits. Once I came on board I rewrote the script in my own way and Dario really had no further involvement.

ZH: Did you add anything to the story yourself?

MJB: I added most of the dialogue, the major horror beats and the general sense of nastiness and cruelty that pervades the piece. My credit is ‘additional’ material which I find strange because I contributed a huge amount of material but that’s contracts and credits for you.

ZH: Was it a smooth shoot?

MJB: It was a great fun shoot in Northern Ireland. Very physical and tiring but I had a great crew and a terrific cast, so even though we had lots to get through and it was very hard work, it was never anything but great fun. Things always go wrong and stuff is never exactly what you hope it will be but part of the job is to be able to have an overview of the whole project and be able to adjust your plans accordingly but there was nothing major.

ZH: Did you feel more control of this picture than your first movie?

MJB: I knew what to expect and I had a good relationship with my producers so there was very little tension beyond the normal angst of trying to get things done in a tight timeline with too little money to do it.

The dogs were a tricky variable and they ate up time as does anything involving special effects or prosthetics. Oh yeah and shooting stuff in the sea took more time than I expected because it was so damn cold the actors couldn’t spend very long in it without having to come out and be warmed up.

I wasn’t intimidated by the process and as I operated a camera all the way through this shoot I felt much more connected to the filming which was much more satisfying for me.

ZH: Was it easier to make a movie set in this day and age rather then a different time period seeing as though Deathwatch was set during the First World War?

MJB: Actually there seemed very little difference to me. With Deathwatch, once all the costumes and props had been sourced and the trench dug we pretty much just lived in that closed off world of 1917. There were a few historical mistakes along the way but it came out very authentic feeling which is what I was obsessed with.

I liked making a period movie because it felt very much that I was creating another world which, to me, is the very essence of the movie experience. With Wilderness it was the very contemporary nature that was a challenge because it felt almost ordinary – so again, you try and find something which makes it exist in a different way. Oddly enough, one of the things I like most about Wilderness is the very grounded and ‘real’ feeling it has even though it is just a regular slasher film in many ways. Something about the way the acting and directing came together just lifted it into a slightly different place. Seems to work for the audience too, which is nice to see.

ZH: Do you limit yourself to on screen violence? Do you think there’s a limit to what should be shown, gore wise etc?

MJB: I was astonished that Wilderness earned a UK 15 certificate as it is a very violent feeling film and I conspicuously wanted that. I was sure it was going to be an 18 but clearly you can get away with a lot these days. I’m not one to bottle out of these things ( Deathwatch felt a little soft on the gore and shocks in retrospect which I think lost it some support from the horror fans) and it seems to me that if you’re making a horror movie then you should really deliver a few cool ‘gore’ moments. The producers were nervous about how far I was taking some of the gore but then again, I’m a horror fan and I just felt that’s the kind of cool stuff I wanted to see. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Seems pretty simple to me.

It is interesting, as the film maker, that you become a little inured to the effects of gore and violence within your films. Obviously I know it’s just a load of rubber, ultra slime and fake blood but people do respond to it as real and come out shocked at how gory it is. Also, certainly with Wilderness, the gore is often alongside some pretty ferocious feeling performances and that sets people on edge a little.

ZH: Are you happy with Wilderness and have any scenes been removed (for time or any other reason) that would be put back into the DVD release?

MJB: I’m pretty happy with Wilderness but there are loads of things I’d change or do differently. No sense in dwelling on it now though; the movie is done and it’s up to the audience to decide if they like it or not. I want the actors to get full credit though because some of those young guys and girls did really great work which lifts the film to new places for these kinds of pictures.

There are a few scenes that I took out, mostly for time and pace reasons but I don’t imagine there’s going to be anything like a recut DVD version with extra ‘unrated’ sequences. That kind of thing costs money and we all know how thin on the ground that stuff is these days.

ZH: So what’s next for you?

MJB: Right now as well as producing a few other movies based on my scripts, I’m working on an epic fantasy adventure based on Robert E. (Conan the Barbarian) Howard’s ‘Solomon Kane’ character. I’ve written the script and am preparing the film for a late 2006 or early 2007 shoot. I’m incredibly excited about this project as I’ve always loved fantasy novels and wanted to really bring something dark and compelling to the sword and sorcery world. You can be sure it’s going to be very intense and unlike anything that’s gone before.

ZH: Michael J Basset, thank you very much.

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