LATEST | FEATURES | INTERVIEWS | NEWS | FRIGHTFEST | REVIEWS Interview with Simeon Halligan, director of Habit
By James Whittington, Sunday 9th February 2020
Simeon Halligan is one of the busiest people working in the industry today. Writer, director, producer, director of celebrated film festival Grimmfest, in fact the list goes on.
His latest film is the neon tinged, blood-splattered masterpiece Habit which is showing on Horror February 14th so we thought we should get the story on how he brought this shocker to the big screen.
HC: When did you first become aware of the book by Stephen McGeagh to which Habit is based?
SH: I read the book a couple of years back and really liked it. A combination of gritty realism and dark fantasy; set within a very recognisable Manchester. There's a juxtaposition in the book; from a kind of social realist diatribe that pictures a gritty northern city, warts and all (the Manchester Stephen grew up in, in the nineties); into a bloody horror story that imagines something altogether darker beneath the surface. I really liked that mash up. The young lead character, Michael, lives on the edge, eking out an existence, through dole money, booze, drugs and nights out in Manchester. Having lived in Manchester since the 80s, on and off, I recognised that character and the World he inhabited, I knew people just like him. But then that character is introduced to a bizarre cult that exists just under the surface of the city and he's slowly initiated into the group and discovers their horrific dark secrets of which he, reluctantly at first, becomes part of. This aspect of the story appealed to my love of horror stories. Basically, it was like taking a world I knew and then flipping it on its head. I connected with it and I knew I could bring this story to the screen.
HC: Did it take a long time adapt and did you have to miss any characters out?
SH: I'd never attempted to adapt a novel into a screenplay. I co-wrote my first feature film Splintered and worked with an existing screenplay on my second feature White Settlers, so it was a totally new experience for me. To start with, I was looking out for a screenwriter to adapt the book, but I came to realise that if I wanted to stay true to how I saw the novel, I would need to do it myself. It wasn't a quick process and it required a hefty amount of editing to pare down the 220-page novel to a 90-minute film. Some characters had to go, many extraneous scenes (Many of which helped to give the flavour of downtrodden Manchester) had to go. It was a hard process and I often sought help from other writers I knew, to advise. One of the big challenges was that the main character, Michael, in the book, doesn't talk much, he tends to internalise his reactions and thoughts about what he witnesses and that is very hard to convey on film. How does he emotionally react to the bizarre events he witnesses and what is his arc as a character? I had to explore these aspects in depth and heighten them for the visual medium.
HC: When writing did you have a cast in mind and what is your writing process like?
HC: We saw Jessica Barden (The End of the F***king World) pretty early on in the process and we knew she would make a perfect female lead; she is the character who leads Michael down the rabbit hole (So to speak) and introduces him to the other characters who are all part of a secret cult. She's a wayward, eternally young-looking girl with an awareness of the World, that suggests she is much older than she first appears. Northern, sassy with attitude. We had a Manchester actor in mind for Michael, but he dropped out early on and we were lucky enough that Elliot Langridge (Northern Soul, Killers Anonymous) was offered up by his agent right at the last minute. He turned out to be perfect for the role offering a wonderfully considered and understated performance that I think viewers identify with. Beyond that our casting director Michelle Smith helped us fill the roles with some fantastic and versatile northern actors such as Sally Carmen (Coronation Street), William Ash (Waterloo Road), Louis Emerick (Zapped), Roxanne Pallet (Emmerdale) Andy Ellis (This is England) and Joanne Mitchell (Bait). I was really blessed with a talented cast. I can't say I had all these performers in mind while writing but I had 'types' in my head and that helped decide who to cast once in the auditioning process.
HC: Talking of the cast they really do throw themselves into the nightmarish world, did they have much rehearsal time?
SH: As with most movies made on tight budgets, we didn't have much time to rehearse, just a day or two. Which is a pity. I really value that space to explore the story and the characters with the cast. The more time you have to share your thoughts and ideas and inspirations and the more time actors have to try things out and find the character inside themselves; the better. It's really crucial to build this connection before you come to shoot but sometimes you have no choice but to work on this aspect, literally, between takes while shooting, if your rehearsal time is curtailed. One trick as director, is to make sure you surround yourself with really experienced actors. If you give 'Good actors' a solid grounding to build upon, they will give you something wonderful. Performance is everything! Again, I was lucky, my cast were very giving, even when I asked them to do rather unsavoury things, that included blood guts and nudity, they gave it their best. I think that was, in part, because they connected and believed in the characters they were playing and bought into my vision for the film.
HC: You've captured Manchester in a totally different light to what we are used to, a neon-noir if you wish. How hard was it to shoot the movie on the streets?
SH: Thanks for saying that. Yes, I was keen to show a part of Manchester that isn't seen very often and present it in a cinematic way. The DOP, James Swift and I, explored lots of different inspirations, from other movies to photographs and paintings. Colour palette and use of light was important to us. We wanted a kind of Neon tinged vibe for our night time scenes. For me, this is when MCR comes alive. Exciting and sometimes a touch dangerous and edgy. So, we shot much of the film in the back streets of the Northern Quarter. Many of the main streets in the NQ are now filled with trendy bars and clubs but the back streets still reflect the somewhat seedy past that this area of Manchester used to have. And much of our story takes place in a dodgy massage parlour down one of those back streets. To be honest, it was tricky gaining permission to shoot on the Northern Quarter back streets. We had a great location manager, Mark Wilson, who managed to pull some strings and so we did a lot of night shoots in the area. One favoured back alley that we used for the rear of the massage parlour has featured in everything from Sherlock Holmes to Captain America, so we were actually shooting on some pretty famous locations, even though the many passers-by, wouldn't know it. Shooting into the early hours of the morning, just streets away from popular bars and clubs did bring its difficulties and there was more than one occasion when we attracted unwanted attention from drunken revellers, attracted by the big lights, vehicles and crew. It's impossible not to draw attention to yourselves when the 'Circus' of a film crew is in the middle of the city!
HC: What did Mancunions think of the movie?
SH: We hosted the UK premiere at Grimmfest in Manchester to sold out audience which was great. I was surprised at how excited people seemed to be for the film. But it occurred to me at the time, that there hadn't really been a horror movie set in Manchester since The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and that was in 1973 (and despite the name, even that film wasn't really set in the city). So, I guess it's a bit unique and having lived in MCR most of my life I'm proud I managed to combine my love of MCR with my love of horror. I encourage everyone to see the film but in particular if you know Manchester, you might get a kick out of recognising not only the places pictured in the film but also the attitude of the people. Like the Manchester music scene, I'd like to think Habit holds a touch of swagger; it's in your face like Shaun Ryder, Ian Brown and all those cheeky Mancs! It's a horrific celebration of Manchester and I think lots of Mancunion's have connected with that.
HC: There's a lot of blood in the movie, how much fake stuff did you use?
SH: Good question. I don't actually know. I know my Makeup designer, Mel Lenihan and Production designer John Ellis, had buckets of fake blood that were used to dress certain sets and for sequences with gore. But how much they ordered; I don't know. I'm guessing we blew our budget on fake Blood! Mel also did a lot of amazing prosthetic work on partially eaten dead bodies guts and innards, gouges, bites, knife punctures, throat slits and a whole bunch of other unsavoury effects. She we always busy!
HC: Which sequence was the hardest to shoot?
SH: Scenes with gore effects and fights are always the slowest and often the hardest to film. For a director, you are always battling against the shooting schedule and trying to shoot the very best material you can within tight time restraints. Gore effect shots can be tricky to get right and often take a whole bunch of retakes. But as you can imagine, blood effects have to be cleaned up, blood covered costumes, replaced with clean ones etc, every time you reset a scene with gore effects. The balance between knowing you've got the shot in the can; that its good enough or doing another take to improve it, can impact on how much time you've got to shoot the next scene. Often hard choices have to be made. There was one main scene that was probably the hardest to shoot. It required many of the cast members to strip down to their underwear and roll around in blood, gore and dismembered bodies, essentially an orgy of gore. Now that was tricky to shoot!!
HC: You're connected to many different projects and events; you must be amazing at time management?
SH: I wish I was! Myself and my Habit producer Rachel, do a number of things within the World of genre cinema. We run Grimmfest, the Northwest UK horror and genre film festival, which takes place early October every year. It's our twelfth year in 2020 and will be by far our biggest, with more exciting elements being added as we speak. A multitude of movie premieres, film makers, film stars and fans alike all congregate at the Odeon Great Northern for 5 immersive days. It's like a wet dream for horror fans! On the back of that we are also developing a slate of new horror films from many of the amazingly talented Grimmfest alumni; through our new production arm, Grimmfest Films. We are also developing a new UK centric Horror anthology TV series that will bring exciting new horror stories to the small screen.
HC: So, what are you working on at the moment?
SH: In terms of more directing work, I have one or two feature film projects in development that I'm keen to get into production. One is a creature feature and the other a serial killer thriller. But, as with every film project, it's a long journey from development to finished film and I hope one or the other will go into production soon.
HC: Simeon Halligan, thank you very much.
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