I recently got the chance to talk to director Sean Hogan about his new film, ‘The Devil’s Business’. Here, Sean talks about how the idea for the film came about in the first place and which directors have inspired him…
Hey Sean. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film, ‘The Devil‘s Business’.
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
‘The Devil’s Business’ is a noir/horror film concerning two hitmen who turn up at an isolated country house one night in order to carry out a contract killing. But when they make the grisly discovery of a sacrificial black magic altar in the house, events take a supernatural turn and what was meant to be an easy hit quickly spirals out of control.
You both wrote and directed the piece – how did the idea come about in the first place?
The idea was originally to write something that could be done on a low-budget. I’d spent two years trying to raise money for another project and was getting quite fed up with waiting around. So I wrote ‘The Devil’s Business’ with the intention of having a script that could be done very cheaply, guerrilla-style almost. It’s very contained, with only a handful of characters, so it was achievable on a small budget. And I think those kind of financial restrictions can really work for genre films – the claustrophobia of having a single location, and the need to suggest things rather than show them. The Val Lewton productions and Polanski’s early films were very influential in that regard.
Then the other project finally happened, so I put this script to one side. However, that production quickly turned into a nightmare – I ended up working with some extremely incompetent, dishonest ‘producers’ on it – and I was so sick of the whole process that the idea of going back to basics and making something small and controllable was very appealing. Jen Handorf – (who produced the film) was a big supporter of the script and her idea was basically to set a start date and make the film for whatever money we could raise by that point. And that’s essentially what we did.
How hard was it to put the film into production?
It actually wasn’t that hard. It would have been a lot harder if we’d tried to raise a bigger budget through official channels, because the film takes certain narrative risks and I guarantee you we would have been bombarded with less than helpful development notes. But we had a small pool of private investors and a limited budget, so we were basically calling the shots ourselves, which definitely helped push things along.
The only real problem we had was when we lost our main location three days before the start of production. What happened was that the landlady Googled us and discovered some promotional stills for the film, and decided that we were devil worshippers and pornographers and all sorts. So she withdrew permission to film – (she didn’t have any qualms about cashing our cheque, though). Which essentially left us with a choice between either cancelling the film or else shooting it in the only location we had available to us at such short notice – Jen’s in-laws’ house. I’d never been there, but she insisted it would be workable, and it was either trust her on that or not make the film! So I travelled down the day before and rewrote the script to fit the house. And in some ways, it was better than what we’d had originally.
How would you say this film is different and unique within a director‘s standpoint?
I’m not sure. As a genre film, it has an emphasis on dialogue and character that isn’t always common these days. And it takes its time – I believe that a patient, slow-burning approach is often scarier than a jump scare every five minutes. However the other thing to say is that the running time is relatively brief – I see too many independent films that are padded out in length, and I wasn’t interested in that. If you look at older B movies a lot of them are 70 minutes long and tell a great story at that length, and so I just wanted to get in, get out and not waste anyone’s time.
So there are a lot of things about the film that hearken back to an older style of filmmaking. But that’s probably just down to me being a grumpy old bastard who gets irritated by a lot of current trends in the horror genre today!
What tricks as a director did you try to throw in?
With a film like this, that has a limited amount of locations and is largely interior, you’re basically looking for ways to keep it visually alive. So it’s very carefully lit – we used light and shadows and coloured gels to give it a certain mood and texture. We also shot at a 2:35 ratio, which helps give it a more dynamic, expansive feel. Beyond that, we had a very limited shooting schedule – 8 days – which really restricted me in terms of what I could achieve. You’re often left looking for the simplest way to shoot a scene, because lack of time precludes anything else.
But what you then try to do is to find interesting angles or odd little shots just to break a scene up and keep it interesting. We didn’t even have much in terms of a dolly or anything like that. But I like to move the camera, so whether it meant taking the extra time to put it on tracks or physically strapping it to an actor or just going handheld, we tried to give it some visual energy wherever we could.
What’s the reception been like to the film so far?
It’s been wonderful, I have to say. Because it was such a small film I really had no idea what the reaction would be, or whether it would even be seen by anyone. But Frightfest were very supportive when they saw an early cut, and then when it premiered there last year we had two sold out screenings and got a lot of great reviews. Which then led to more international festival play and it finally being picked up for UK distribution via Metrodome. And now that it’s coming out even a lot of the mainstream non-genre press have been very supportive. So that’s been very pleasing, and feels like a validation of what we tried to do.
The film stars Billy Clarke, Jack Gordon, Jonathan Hansler and Harry Miller – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set? Any good anecdotes?
It was ultimately a lot of fun. We had a mad scramble to cast everyone in time, and no possibility of rehearsals, so it was basically a gamble that everyone would click and get on. Billy and Jack met for the first time on set, but luckily they found a great chemistry together, which is one of the main reasons the film works. Overall, I think the actors just responded to the script and had fun doing it – they certainly weren’t in it for the money! – so in a sense it was just a lot of like-minded people getting together and playing with the toy set of making a film.
When you’re working with such limited means, you all either have to bond and enjoy the process or you run the risk of wanting to kill each other, because it’s such hard work. But luckily we quickly found a groove. We were shooting from 4pm to 4am every night and so you just have to keep your focus and carry on pushing forward. We would also all gather for a beer or two as the sun came up every morning after wrapping, and I think that really helped everyone to get to know each other. So alcohol definitely helps!
There were a few specific anecdotes that spring to mind. I remember shooting the scenes involving the sheep’s head – it had been a hot week and the damn thing was getting a bit ripe by that stage, so we did get to the point where the actors were trying not to gag when they were on camera with it. Off-camera people were literally stuffing bits of lemon up their noses or whatever else was to hand.
And then there was the time we were shooting a death scene at 3am, and the police turned up because they’d had reports of someone in distress. But of course we had actors wandering around carrying replica guns whilst covered in blood and whatever else, so I quickly ordered everyone to hide in the garage whilst Jen and I went out to face the music. So when they asked what was going on we told them we were shooting a film in which someone was being attacked by a demon. Amazingly, they just nodded and politely asked us to try to keep it down a bit – they didn’t even ask to see any evidence to back up our story! In London we probably would have been thrown into the cells without trial…
Let’s talk a bit about you Sean. What made you want to get into the industry in the first place?
Temporary insanity, most likely. I don’t know, I almost fell into it by accident. I always loved movies, but when I was a kid there was no industry to speak of in the UK. So it just wasn’t something anyone you knew did. But I ended up going to art college, and hating it. The only thing I enjoyed doing whilst I was there was shooting a short video, so when I bailed on that I found another course that involved film and drama. And after two years of doing that all I wanted to do in life was make movies, any way I could.
So after that I did a film degree and then there was a long period of just writing scripts and making shorts. I didn’t really see the point in trying to work my way up on a film set, I’ve always been a lot more independently inclined than that. But eventually I wrote a feature script for myself to direct and found someone willing to produce it with me, and we eventually raised some cash and made it, which proved to be my foot in the door. And it was all downhill from there!
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in the industry?
Well, you have to be stubborn. And persistent. The thing is, people are actually looking for reasons NOT to give you money, especially if you haven’t done anything. So just keep trying. And practice – keep writing, and making shorts or whatever else any way you can. Don’t get hung up on needing massive budgets – too many people sit around waiting for someone to shower them with money, when they should be out there making stuff. With digital technology today, it’s entirely possible to make good-looking films for very little money. ‘The Devil’s Business’ is actually the smallest film I’ve done, but we just wanted to make it our own way.
And please God if you can’t write then find someone who can. Good scripts cost nothing, and yet you see so many bad ones being made. Likewise, audition properly and cast good actors. You may not be able to afford names, but there are plenty of talented actors out there who like to work and will do your film if they think the script is good. Again, too many indie films suffer from mediocre performances, and there’s no need for it.
What films have inspired you as a director? Any favourites?
Too many to list. I recently did my top 10 horror movies for an online Time Out poll, so anyone who’s interested can look that up. Beyond that, there are plenty of directors who inspire me – Lynch, Scorsese, Cronenberg, Hitchcock, Welles, Polanski, Kubrick…and so on and so on…
If you could have dinner with three guests – (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
Let’s say Bill Hicks, Tom Waits and Orson Welles. Three great raconteurs. All I’d have to do is kick back, eat, drink and listen.
On your off-days, how do you like to kick back and relax?
I don’t have days off. Seriously. But if I have a few hours to myself, I can normally be found watching a movie or propping up a bar.
What’s coming up for you in 2012?
I’m currently directing a play called ‘The Hallowe’en Sessions’, which will premiere at the Leicester Square Theatre this October. It’s a portmanteau horror play written by UK genre writers Kim Newman, Stephen Volk, Anne Billson, Maura McHugh, Paul McAuley and myself, and promises to be a lot of fun. We should be announcing the cast fairly soon, and there will definitely be some names in there that genre fans will recognise.
Beyond that, I’m talking to various people about making another film. I have a couple of pet projects I really want to do, and am working on a few other ideas as well. So fingers crossed something will come together shortly – one of the films is supposedly close to happening, but I get superstitious about saying too much!
Thanks for the interview!