I recently got the chance to talk to director Paul Campion about his new film ‘The Devil’s Rock’. Here, Paul talks about how the film was developed and about his career as a visual effects artist….
Hey Paul. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me. Of course, we‘re here to talk about your new film ‘The Devil’s Rock’ which is in selected cinemas right now.
I suppose the first question I should ask is quite a generic one – how did the story originally come about in the first place?
It came about incredibly quickly. Myself , co-writer Paul Finch and producer Leanne Saunders had a very limited opportunity to make the film so we grabbed it. I’d spent a couple of years trying to get several other feature films financed, and I’d got to the point where I realised I needed to get a low-budget feature under my belt just so that I could prove I could direct a feature and hopefully start my directing career (and also find out for myself if I could actually do it – it’s a big leap from directing short films to directing a feature). Back in 2009 I went to the Channel Islands to screen my short film ‘Eel Girl’, and while I was there I was interviewed by the local press, who asked me if I knew anything about Guernsey’s history of witchcraft. I did some research and came up with the basic story based around the German occupation, Hitler’s obsession with the occult, and the discovery of a book of black magic by the Germans. Then later in February 2010 I was back in New Zealand, where I live, and I’d heard from different sources that ‘The Hobbit’ was delayed and that a lot of film crew and facilities were available, and I thought perhaps we could make ‘The Devil’s Rock’ in Wellington. We quickly approached a lot of the same crew who worked with us on ‘Eel Girl’, including Weta Workshop and production designer Mary Pike and everyone said yes. Originally the idea was to shoot the film using money I was going to raise by re-mortgaging my house, which is why there are essentially only four actors in the film and it takes place mainly in two rooms. We only had six months to write the script and shoot the film before ‘The Hobbit’ ramped up speed and we would lose all our key crew – and thus wouldn’t be able to make the film in New Zealand for a few years. Leanne Saunders then suggested we apply for additional funding from the New Zealand Film Commission and Paul Finch wrote the first draft of the script in a week. The NZFC said yes and came onboard with additional funding, then we went straight into pre-production.
How would you say the film is different from other action dramas released this year?
It has a lower budget for a start, and I doubt there are many feature films out at the moment that were shot in just 15 days. I wouldn’t really describe it as an action film, it’s more a supernatural horror. It was never meant to be an action film as we didn’t have the budget for that.
What tricks as a director did you try to throw in?
I’m not sure I have any tricks yet! I think you need to be a much more experienced director before you have a bag of tricks you can use – this was my first feature film so the whole thing was really a huge learning process. My favourite shot in the film though is the one where Meyer bashes the ‘deep throat’ German’s skull in to remove his brain for the ritual. You don’t see anything, but you hear what’s going on, which for me is far more effective – the audience can imagine what is happening rather than being explicitly shown it.
How has the reception been to the film so far?
The response from the genre reviewers and fans has been very positive. We knew when we were making it that it was going to appeal more to the genre fans than a mainstream audience, and a lot of people seem to appreciate that we were trying to do something without a huge budget and make a more traditional horror film with good acting and traditional prosthetic makeup rather than something that has flashy CGI effects.
The film stars Craig Hall, Matthew Sunderland and Gina Varela – what was it working with the cast and crew on-set?
They were all fantastic to work with, very professional and very hard-working. I was probably the least experienced person there and the first couple of days were very nerve-wracking for me – it was just a case of finding out if I was capable of directing a feature film and particularly directing actors. The whole shoot was incredibly tough – 15 days to shoot a period feature film with extensive makeup and visual effects (there are 73 vfx shots in the film but they’re all there to enhance the story), but everyone gave 110% to make the best film we could in the time we had.
Let’s talk a bit about you Paul. What made you want to get into the directing chair in the first place?
I’d spent 8 years working in visual effects and wanted to get behind a camera rather than sit in front of a computer. I already had two short films under my belt and in 2008 I stopped working full-time in vfx to concentrate on directing.
What advice would you give to people wanting to pursue a career in directing?
Try and surround yourself with people who are more experienced than you and give them the freedom to contribute to your film. Also, don’t give up. It’s a long slow process and you need to be in it for the long haul.
What films have inspired you as a director? Do you have any favourites?
Steven Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ is a masterclass in camerawork, lighting and screen language. I can watch that film over and over again, studying how he’s shot it. Other films would be ‘Alien’, ‘Jaws’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Seven’, ‘The Devil’s Backbone’, ‘The Thing’, ‘American Werewolf in London’, ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Black Hawk Down’.
We should probably mention that you’ve also got a career in visual effects, in movies like ‘Lord Of The Rings’, ’Percy Jackson And The Lighting Thief’, ’Clash Of The Titans’ and ‘Fantastic 4: Rise Of The Silver Surfer’ – how did you get into that part of the industry?
I started out my career as an illustrator but since a very early age I’d always wanted to work in the film industry doing visual effects, back when it was all practical effects such as model-making, matte painting (on glass) and prosthetic makeup. After 10 years of working as a freelance airbrush illustrator, Photoshop came along and pretty much killed off airbrushing, so I went back to University and re-trained, doing a Master’s Degree in Computer Animation. After graduating I got a job at Framestore working with the team who’d just made ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’. From there I landed a job on Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’, which was my first feature film job.
What do these jobs usually consist of, for those that don‘t know?
Visual effects these days are 99% done on a computer, so it’s generally long hours sat in front of a computer in a dark room. The jobs are very specialised, with people just concentrating on one particular part of the process – so you’re generally just a very small cog in a very big wheel. The parts I was involved with were texture painting, which is painting the surface of the digital models – on ‘Lord of the Rings’ I painted the skin texture for the Balrog in ‘The Fellowship Of The Ring’, the Mumakil in ‘The Two Towers’, and Shelob in ‘The Return of the King’. I also did matte painting which is to extend or create new environments. On ‘Constantine’ I worked on the Hell sequence, painting decayed buildings and cityscapes.
What does a Paul Campion day usually consist of?
At the moment its a lot of time spent answering emails, doing interviews and preparing for screenings and Q & A’s for ‘The Devil’s Rock’. Then its reading scripts for potential future projects. If I have any time left these days I’ll be continuing my research into the Long Range Desert Group for a feature film script called ‘Scorpion Raiders’ that I’m co-writing with Paul Finch. The LRDG was a combined New Zealand/British Special Forces unit operating in the deserts of North Africa in World War II and the film is about the true story of the Barce raid, which was a daring raid on an Italian airfield 2000kms behind enemy lines – very much ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ meets ‘Black Hawk Down’.
What’s coming up for you in 2011?
I’m off to the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal at the beginning of August to present ‘The Devil’s Rock’ there, then back to New Zealand for the cinema release there in late September.
Thanks for the interview!