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Interview with Simeon Halligan, director of White Settlers
By James Whittington, Saturday 18th August 2018 Horror Channel's FrightFest Season includes some truly memorable movies from past events and one of the strongest is Simeon Halligan's, White Settlers which is showing on the 19th August.
We had a quick chat with Simeon about this superior shocker as well as his own festival, Grimmfest.
HC: How did the script for White Settlers come to your notice?
SH: It was a strange situation, I had read the script a year or so before we set about making the film, I think it had been sent us by Ian Fenton's agent but then we found out that Ian was thinking of making the film under his own production company so we thought it had gone away. Then, once we had raised finance for a new movie project (We had the money pledged before we had the project, which was amazing and not likely to happen again!) we double checked with Ian about the script and it hadn't been produced so we persuaded him to work with us and allow us to turn his script into the movie. We basically said, we can get this made now, we have the finance in place, its not a huge budget but we think we can just about do it justice on this budget and we will all get a feature made. He finally agreed and then we worked closely together to finalise the screenplay.
HC: White Settlers was released around the time of the Scottish referendum, was this deliberate or pure coincidence?
SH: Initially it was a total coincidence. It was only just after the film was completed that we started noticing that the proposed timing of the release fitted nicely alongside the upcoming Scottish referendum. Essentially, White Settlers is about an English couple who decide to buy a ramshackle old farm in the Scottish borders and discover they really are not welcome there. So the film does touch upon contemporary UK issues, like the divide between the wealthy and the poor, the divide between the English and the Scottish and makes a political point about people with money buying up properties in rural areas, that the locals can no longer afford. Obviously it's done under the guise of a suspense thriller, which means its actually fun to watch, the issues are really subtext to the action. At the time, I remember tweeting, 'Could WS be the Sottish referendum horror movie?' Someone from the Scotsman newspaper picked up on this and asked if they could do a piece on the film within the context of the imminent referendum. Once that story went live, The Guardian newspaper followed suit and soon the film was hitting headlines and causing controversy particularly in Scotland. Some people felt it was a cynical attempt to cash in on current events but I assure you it just kinda happened, it wasn't deliberate.
HC: How did you go about casting the movie?
SH: To be honest, I had met Pollyanna McIntosh at Grimmfest before casting her in WS. She attended in support of Paul Davis's very funny short film, Him Indors of which she starred along side Reece Shearsmith. So I was already looking out for something that she might fancy starring in. I remember sending her something else to start with, which she wasn't that keen on but then we secured the WS screenplay and I sent it to her. In all credit to Ian Fenton, Pollyanna read it immediately and got back to me within a few hours, expressing her interest in the project. We also cast Joanne Mitchell, who we also knew from Grimmfest, She'd been with us for Before Dawn and over the years we've struck up a strong relationship with her and Dominic Brunt, as, I guess, we have fair bit in common, both being northern genre film makers. And finally Pollyanna's partner in the film Ed was played by Lee Williams, who came on board, literally at the last minute when our previous Ed fell through, literally days before shooting commenced.
HC: What sort of budget did you have to work with?
SH: It was tight. I wanted to make WS the very best it could be despite the budget limitations. I wanted it to look like a high end movie. I was influenced by movies like The Strangers and ILS (Tehm) and I recognised that neither of those films cost that much to make (probably a fair bit more than WS, though!!), they worked on the premise of using limited locations and cast, they were about building tension and suspense. These elements combined don't necessarily require massive budget power to be successful but they do require careful planning and thoughtful direction. Obviously because the budget was so tight, we only had limited shooting days, I think we had around 18 days in total. In the end we were forced to shoot 2 days of pickups later on to finish the film. It was certainly a challenge all round but despite the limitations WS has gone on to become pretty successful. Its screen all round the world at high end film festivals and has sold to many countries. And it's still finding new viewers as it moves onto terrestrial TV. It's great to see it playing on the Horror Channel.
HC: It's a home invasion meets Deliverance kind of movie, is that right?
SH: I guess you could describe it that way. I think Ian Fenton was inspired by films like Deliverance and Southern Comfort and I was looking at films like ILS (Them) for inspiration. The press made comparisons to Straw Dogs when it was initially released. To be honest, I'm more than a little humbled to be mentioned in the same breath as those movies.
HC: Was it all shot on location, and if so what was the hardest scene to shoot?
SH: Yes it was. Probably the hardest stuff to shoot was the 'pick ups' we shot months after the original shoot. We couldn't afford to go back out into the depths of the countryside and had to keep the shoot within the Manchester Area. We needed to complete some of the forest sequences but we couldn't find any forest!! We worked hard to secure a local country park but at the last minute they decided they wanted an extortionate fee to shoot there and we couldn't afford it. I took a walk from our office, scratching my head, desperate for ideas on how we could shoot this extra material, that's when I literally stumbled across some overgrown waste ground near the office, that, if shot at the right angles, at night, might just work as forest. The shoot was tricky, we had to block out nearby street lights and plan our shots very carefully but we managed it. I challenge you to identify those shots within the finished film!!
HC: What did people in Scotland this of the movie?
SH: I think it got a mixed reaction. Many people saw it for what it was, a fun suspense thriller with a touch of social comment, whereas others felt offended by its content. I think it often depended what side of the referendum debate they sat on. I'd be interested to see what viewers make of it when its aired on the Horror Channel.
HC: It has a very British feel to it, how was it received overseas?
SH: I never thought of it that way. I guess it does but crucially, despite its context being rooted in the UK, it plays out in a recognisable way, its a home invasion movie and audiences the World over recognise that horror 'sub genre' and so it has enabled WS to travel really well. If they don't get the social/political context in say, Japan, it doesn't really matter as long as they enjoy the ride. It's played and sold all over the World and continues to do so, it recently sold to yet another territory despite being over four years old now. I'm proud to say it keeps finding new audiences.
HC: Your own celebration of the genre, Grimmfest is 10 years old in October, how has the festival changed over its first decade and do you plan to expand it at all?
SH: For those that don't know, I also run Grimmfest which is one of the UK's largest genre film festivals. It takes place first weekend of Oct in Manchester. We started it in 2009, really as a way to showcase our own movie Splintered, which was my first feature length film as director (it has also played on Horror Channel in the past). But it just grew in scale very quickly. Initially we never intended to run a film festival but the enormous interest it gained meant that we were offered loads of movies to screen. Fast forward 10 years and Grimmfest is bigger than ever. This year we take over the Odeon Great Northern in Manchester from the 4th to the 7th October. We are just finalising our movie premiere line up and guest list. This year we have some amazing UK premieres, all of which will be announced on the 3rd Sept. Our special guest this year is horror movie icon Barbara Crampton who will receive a Horror Channel lifetime achievement award and join us for a special screening of Re-Animator and a number of her brand new movies. Not to be missed!
HC: What are you up to at the moment?
SH: Busy, busy as usual! Deep in preparation for this years Grimmfest and also busy putting the final pieces in place for my next movie which is called The Besieged. The simple pitch is, Dog Day Afternoon meets The Thing!
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