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FrightFest: Interview With White Settlers Director Simeon Halligan
By James Whittington, Saturday 23rd August 2014
Simeon Halligan’s latest feature, White Settlers is to get its world premiere at FrightFest today.
This superb movie crosses genre boundaries mixing house invasion terror with some social comment. Add to this one of the most exciting ensemble casts I’ve seen in a long time, the film is a nerve shredding, tension filled experience that needs to be experienced on the big screen.
We’ve had the chance to chat with Simeon about this movie which people are calling the “Scottish referendum horror movie”!
HC: How did you come to direct White Settlers?
SH: The original screenplay was written a few years ago. Rachel the producer and I had read it and were keen to make the film, it was a brilliantly written ‘edge of your seat’ piece. It’s not often you read a screenplay that you don’t want to put down as the format is pretty dry, its not like reading a novel. Therefore finding screenplays that grip you isn't an easy task. This one did. We kept going back to Ian until we ground him down and he let us produce the film, his original intention was to direct it himself as he’s made some really impressive short films previously. But I think when we knew we could raise the budget it was a matter of, look , if we go now we can make this. It wont be on a big budget but we’ll make up for it with enthusiasm and WE will have a finished film at the end of it. I think Ian had heard too many people talk for too long about making films but never actually doing it. So quickly moved into pre production in early 2013 and we were shooting in the spring, a really quick turn around.
HC: The location is quite stunning, did it take you long to find this area?
SH: I have to admit that finding the location was incredibly difficult. One of the things I loved about Ian’s screenplay was how it was very prescriptive about the environment. He built suspense by describing the way characters moved through space- building tension through the shadow play of the environment. With a background in production design, I was keen to build a composite set in a studio, to have maximum control over the environment. But the budget was tight, and we couldn’t afford it- It was absolutely vital to figure out how this space would work- and trying to find a location that exactly represented Ian’s vision in the script, was almost impossible. We worked very hard to find the right location. The best we could find did not match the screenplay description, so Ian and I had to redraft the script a little to make this new environment work. The art department then set about turning a nice family home into a battered old farm house.’
HC: What sort of a budget did you have to play with?
SH: Not a lot! We were determined to make something that looked like it cost a lot more than it did. We knew from experience and from seeing so many genre films submitted to Grimmfest that the trick is to make something fresh and involving but with limited locations and limited cast. This doesn't always work and that generally comes down to a badly written or tired generic screenplay, bad performances and maybe a lack of ambition in terms of visual style. I think you have to go into every film project no matter how small with the ambition that you want the film to really hold up on the big screen if at all possible. If you can get your hands on the best camera and team then bloody well fight for it. We found that Ian’s genuinely gripping screenplay went a long way to attracting good all round talent on very little money coupled with our enthusiasm to make something great. despite the incredibly tight budget constraints, we managed to assembled a crew of the industry’s finest, which, amongst others, included Director of Photography, James Swift (Powder, The Street) Camera assistant, Keith McNamara (Gladiator, Casino Royale). Make up designer, Paul Boyce (Harry Potter, Clash Of The Titans), Costume designer John Lindlar (Silent Witness, Prime Suspect), Production designer John Ellis (A Boy Called Dad, Mischief Night), Editor Ewa Lind (The Warrior, L.A.Without A Map) all of which helped us to produce a movie that totally surpasses its budgetary limitations’.
HC: The small cast really bring an authenticity to the film, did it take long for you to cast?
SH: We knew we really wanted to work with Pollyanna. She attended Grimmfest in 2013 and we just thought she was something special. We’d also seen her in The Woman and Him Indoors. We asked her if she would consider looking at possible roles for an upcoming film production and she said yes. Initially we sent her a different screenplay, but it wasn't for her, so I sent her White Settlers. I didn't expect her to read it straight away but within hours she had got back to me and said she loved the screenplay and really wanted to do it. So that was really the start of things moving forward. We knew it was going to be a very low budget production but we figured our enthusiasm and Ian’s gripping screenplay would take us through and it did! We also knew Joanne from Before Dawn and again we sent the screenplay straight to her and just asked her if she would do it. When it came to Lee, it was a bit more tricky as we’d looked at a lot of possibles and done auditions for the role but for various reasons no one was either available for the dates or seemed right. Lee became aware of the project pretty last minute and it was getting scarily close to production but as soon as we saw him we knew he would work really well as Ed. And although he joined the production pretty late he bonded immediately with Pollyanna which made their relationship really shine on camera. I’m so pleased to have had such a talented and dedicated cast.
HC: There’s some incredibly tense moments, how do you approach shooting such scenes?
SH: I have a design background, having worked as a production designer for film and TV for years before I started directing. I first directed shorts and then eventually directed a feature film called Splintered which was released in the UK in 2010. So, I think visually and I like to storyboard sequences as much as I can. One very important element to WS, for me, was putting the viewer in a first person position, making the audience experience events alongside/with the protagonists. From a visual perspective its important to keep that camera hovering over Sarah’s shoulder as she’s tip toeing around the shadowy house. Then use point of view shots so that the viewer sees what she sees. Hitchcock was the master of all this, you can learn so much from watching Vertigo or Psycho. The other incredibly important element is, or course, performance, you've really got to believe the predicament your characters are in and how they respond to the situation. Ian wrote likeable believable characters and our two leads Pollyanna and Lee made them real, to the extent that (I hope) the viewer is there with them, trying desperately to survive the situation rather than just watching events play out.
HC: What was the atmosphere like on set and how tiring is shooting at night?
SH: Its was, as always, a hard slog. We had a very short schedule so we had to cram in as much as we could while also trying to maintain a level of cinematic quality. Shooting in forests and at night is always slow, which doesn't help. The main house location was pretty isolated which wasn't a problem in its self but if we needed anything it was always a slog to get it. But we had an incredibly patient and talented crew so this made up for the rain drenched night shoots and the fatigue.
HC: The film has already made headlines because of its (possible) underlying political context; did you expect that to happen?
SH: The film always had a political underbelly but what drew us to it was its intensity as a gripping suspense thriller the political and Scottish aspect was always secondary. I guess we always knew that the subtext to the story might ruffle a few feathers and the UK release strategy has really grown organically, we knew the film would ultimately come out in the UK this year but the connection to the referendum is only something that started to make sense recently. What is often strange about these things is that if enough people start to tell you your film is this or that, its about something or its inspired by something, it starts to colour your feelings about your own work. I think most artists, film makers, writers have an unconscious urge to deal with certain issues in their work but often its only when others view it and make definite connections that its context becomes apparent. For example, we never saw White Settlers as a political movie as such but the recent Guardian headline ‘The Scottish referendum horror movie’ has caused quite a stir, particularly in Scotland and clarifies the films subtext, I guess.
HC: How do you think it’ll play south of the border?
SH: I think were more concerned about how it will play north of the border! As it stands two of the main UK cinema chains have said they won’t play the film in Scotland in Sept on the run up to the referendum because of its contentious content, which is a bit of a blow for us but I guess it’s another great interesting part of the story. We’ve also been asked to be on BBC Scotland and other Scottish TV shows to talk about the political context of the film, which is kinda funny. Judging by the responses to the Guardian article, it seems some people in Scotland actually think WS is a piece of Westminster propaganda. South of the border i suspect it will be viewed more on its own terms as a thriller and I hope people enjoy it for what it is.
HC: Are you nervous the movie is getting its world premiere at FrightFest?
SH: No, it’s great to be screening WS at FrightFest. It’s one of the biggest and most renowned genre festivals in the world and it’s so important these days to gain exposure and recognition for your movie at good festivals. The FF team really get behind the films they select so were chuffed to be part of it. Our UK release of the film will springboard off the back of the screening at FF and will tour cinemas in England and Scotland through September and we will also host 4 nights of special screenings in Manchester. WS has also been selected for a number of other high end genre festivals around the world and I’m so excited to see how it will play in other countries.
HC: So what are you working on at the moment?
SH: Well, were developing a new horror comedy called Dearly Beheaded by a new writer called David Scullion, that I’m very excited about, it all centres on a stag doo that goes horrendously wrong with very bloody consequences. It’s early days on this, we are yet to raise the full finance or secure the full cast but I can say it’s a brilliantly funny screenplay. We’ve also got an amazing monster movie called The Besieged lined up that I’m also desperate to take into production.
HC: Simeon Halligan, thank you very much.
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