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Steve Looker Interview

  Steve Looker, director of the low-budget British horror thriller Scarred, was interviewed for The Spinning Image by Darrell Buxton at Cornerhouse cinema, Manchester, over the Hallowe’en weekend in October 2005.

Darrell Buxton (DB): We’ve all enjoyed Scarred at The Spinning Image. What sort of reactions have you had to the film from elsewhere?

Steve Looker (SL): The preview was held here at Cornerhouse, and obviously friends and family loved it. But then I thought “let’s get it out there, let other people watch it”. People either seem to love it or hate it. Other amateur filmmakers have loved it - it’s got a real explosion at the end, it’s got semi-decent actors - some of whom we had to draft in at the last minute - so we get a good reaction. Some people have said it looks a bit amateur since it was shot on video, but as we couldn’t afford HD or film, we had to go for DV - which I hate, but there’s nothing you can do when you haven’t got any money.

DB: It’s good to hear that fellow amateur filmmakers have expressed their admiration

SL: I’ve got a lot of friends who make amateur films. One guy, Simon Cox, made a movie originally called Driven, now known as Written in Blood - he went on to produce corporate films, but he made his first feature ten years ago and now he’s working on another. There’s not really a network of amateur filmmakers as such, but through making my stuff, I’ve met a lot of people, amateur and professional, who ring each other up, offer advice, etc.

I sell the film via my website, and didn’t mask the fact that it’s a low-budget piece. One of my friends always looks along the shelf at the video store for Bruce Willis titles, etc., and if he watched Scarred he’d just say it was crap; but another friend, into the amateur stuff, might pick out the good points and look through the fact that I didn’t have any resources. As long as it’s entertaining, and doesn’t bore anyone. If they go in thinking ‘Hollywood’, they’re not going to be happy, but if they appreciate that it’s someone putting a little bit of money and a lot of effort into making a film, they’re going to like it.

DB: Before Scarred , you made The Devil's Backyard. How did you first get into this area of low-budget production?

SL: I thought you would ask me that question! A lot of people would answer by saying “well, I saw Star Wars, I watched Jaws…” - and I did too, I really liked them. But my first recollection of something that inspired me to go into this was seeing a picture storyboard done by my friend Gaz. This was a serial killer thing, done by taking photographs and sticking them down on a piece of card - like a cartoon strip, but with pictures. I thought it looked amazing, and so the next step was for us to take a camera into the woods, running round, throwing blood about - that’s how it all began!

We started off with loads of friends helping, but most of them soon got bored with giving up their weekends, so you soon realise you have to go further afield, do a bit of networking, getting people in to help. We went to an Altrincham cine & video club and met a guy called Alan Coulter, ex-BBC - the club seemed to be the sort of place where people just turned up for a coffee and a biscuit, but Alan could see something in us, that we really wanted to make films, and he taught us the ropes - we did a lot of things wrong, really reckless, and so he started to show us the rules of filmmaking.

We learned a lot from Alan, but we weren’t actually getting to make films, so after a while we walked away from that; and we made Devil's Backyard with no money at all. I tried to get Scott, later the fx man on Scarred, to do a car explosion on Devil's Backyard - we got the car, and the means of blowing it up, but we couldn’t get the car from my house out to the field where it was going to explode, so we couldn’t do the effect. He blew up a cardboard box instead and we put it in digitally - it looked really bad, but we had no choice. That film was shot on weekends, over about 6 months - we screened it at Cornerhouse, it went down well with mum, dad, and friends! It’s about 89 minutes long.

DB: Longer than Scarred, then?

SL: Yeah - we wanted to keep the running time of Scarred down. There’s still stuff in Scarred I’d like to cut out, but if you start cutting and cutting like that you fall below feature length.

DB: I believe the budget for Scarred was about £4000? Having said that, I found the film tremendously ambitious in places.

SL: As far as the money aspect goes… we wanted to blow up the van and the shed, and obviously couldn’t just go to a farm, ask them if we could borrow a hut, and crash a van into it! So we had to build it. One of the guys working with us, Steve Holland, is a set-builder for theatre, and he helped build what we called the ‘Butlins Camp’ hut - as it looked too new for my liking, but we couldn’t do anything about that! I gave him £250 to build the hut, but the problem was that Scott then said we couldn’t construct it using any nails, for safety reasons since it was going to be blown to pieces. So we had to glue it together, in sections.

We shot the film in 8 days and did all the effects on the 9th day. None of the ‘Blood Shed’ set was built, so within the 9-day period everything had to be constructed. For instance, I’d do a full day’s shooting on the Tuesday, then head over to the field to oversee the set construction - it would be pitch-black by the time I got there! In the morning I’d be off to Victoria Hall in Bolton for 7 a.m., to help build the interior set. It was absolutely manic. If we’d thought ahead, we could have started the sets a week earlier, but the farmer didn’t want his field used a week early, and we could only get Victoria Hall for a week, so we couldn’t really do that. We couldn’t have done it any other way without it costing us more. Luckily, the farmer, Andrew Norcott, said we could have the field for nothing - and we were told that we could use Victoria Hall for £500 a week. But you can imagine how low the budget was - I would have loved to have gone in a week earlier and prepared everything, so the actors could have walked in to a great set, instead of arriving to see bits of wood being put up! You can guess what they must have been thinking at the time! On the DVD, we also talk about the hospital set - we did build that up at work a week beforehand.

DB: I think that is the best set in the film, although the ‘Blood Shed’ obviously has a more iconic status. In practical terms the hospital set looks really authentic, almost like something out of ‘Casualty’.

SL: We thought about how we could make that set look really good, and I decided that wallpapering and painting it would be best, so that’s what we did. The ‘hospital bed’ was simply a child’s bed. If you notice, we used the same set for the ‘Blood Shed’, but just painted it brown!

DB: Many people might see the set-building as a mundane part of the process, but you’re clearly well into it! But let’s move on to something more traditionally ‘exciting’ - explosions!

SL: As we were making a low-budget film, we thought “what’s never been done in a film at this level?” - a real explosion! You always see digital explosions nowadays, and as me and my friends are all avid low-budget film viewers, whenever we see someone setting up and explosion we all shout “go on, go for it!”, but they never do and we feel really let down. So I said to Scott, the fx guy, that I needed a van to drive into a hut and the whole thing to blow up. I asked “how big is ‘big’?”, and he replied “as big as you want it”, so I said “go for it!”.

On the 9th day, we shot all the effects - burning a body, which you don’t see in the finished film as it didn’t quite work; then we had to set up the van, cut the hut up and drive the van into it to stage the shot, before blowing it all up. We let the van tyres down, broke all the windows, and then drilled holes in the hut walls so it would collapse in the right way. Scott put a heck of a lot of petrol inside the hut and the van, and then I asked him where we would all need to stand, as we didn’t know how big it was going to be. We set up 6 cameras - we dug a hole and put one in the floor, I manned one off to the side, there were another couple in front. What I didn’t tell anyone was how big it was going to be! My friend Mark was on a camera facing the hut, kind of a close-up on it, and we had another one even closer. I knew - when you see the film, you’ll see we have a wide shot of it all - I brought the camera right back, zoomed right out, but everyone else seemed to be close-up. Scott told me to shout “speed” and get the cameras rolling, that he would then count 3-2-1, and then it goes! The main actor, Neville, had his camera filming it, and you can hear him when the first explosion goes off, shouting “bloomin’ ‘eck!”; the second one which blows the doors off, “bloody ‘ell!”; and then the third which obliterates everything, by which point he was running… “Jesus Christ!!”. The power from it was unbelievable, just to be there was a real experience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in an amateur film. It was amazing - it was a good day!

DB: Had you seen Switchblade Romance before shooting Scarred? It occurs to me that the films end in a very similar manner.

SL: No, I hadn’t seen it then. I like Switchblade, but in Scarred we’ve got someone telling the story, that was our angle. The problem we found while scripting was that every time we came up with an idea, it seemed ridiculous, but we fell back on the fact that our main character was telling a story - once you start doing that, the audience might think “hang on, some of this isn’t quite right”, but obviously in the end it all falls into place, it shouldn’t really matter what he’s said in the past.

DB: As our review points out, any flaws or inconsistencies in the film itself can almost be explained away by the fact that the main character might be lying throughout.

SL: We didn’t set out to do that, but it just happened that way. We did want a twist at the end though.

DB: Tell us about Stiv H - he seems a bit of a character, and your producers can’t stop talking about him on the DVD!

SL: (laughs) - well, Stiv is the guy that built the set; basically, he was a copper in The Devil's Backyard, and I asked him what name he wanted to use in the credits - Steve Holland is his real name, but he lived in Sweden for a bit, and ‘Stiv H’ was his nickname over there, so he asked us to call him that! I don’t know why the producers keep laughing about him in the commentary - when we recorded it, it was a disaster as we got about ten minutes in and they just kept laughing. One of them happened to mention that Neville was a great actor, just as Stiv appeared on screen, and they said “oh, and there’s Stiv H!” - it was kind of a comical moment. Gaz had said he wouldn’t do the commentary unless he had a drink, so he had a bottle of wine, and he just kept saying “and there’s Stiv” as a running gag, and collapsed laughing! I thought “why not keep it in?” – it’s a good laugh!

DB: Did you enjoy putting the DVD together, and did you want a lot of extras included on the disc?

SL: Well, I really love films with extras, I enjoy watching a film and then finding out how they did it. On ours, I wanted to fit as much as I could on the DVD - the plan was to learn from the experience, the whole process, even down to trying to get a sale. You go into distribution companies and find out how it all works, and I’d rather do that now on a film that only cost £4000, rather than one that is going to cost £20,000-£30,000. I thought I’d do it on this one, learn a little bit… I’m a corporate filmmaker anyway, so I know a lot about how to set up DVDs, and I thought let’s really pack this disc - it’s brimming over the edge. On this one, we tried to do a documentary on ‘how to make a low-budget film’, to give all our secrets away, but we couldn’t fit it all on because of space.

DB: So, what advice would you give to anyone who fancied making a film on a tiny budget?

SL: I’d say to them, just go out and film, don’t worry about the budget, because if it is their first film, it’s probably gonna be a big learning curve, so I’d rather someone went out and made a film with next to no money, and learn as they go. A lot of people I speak to in this position complain that they’ve got no money - but you don’t need it. Obviously, if you want explosions, if you want good actors, you are going to need money, but if you’re making an early start, just go out and shoot your first feature. If you’ve spent no money on it and you think it’s crap, you can just throw it away! Just shoot, and learn from it. And read a lot of books about filmmaking - I do. Commentaries are always good as well, listening to different directors and cinematographers - you’ve got to do your homework.

DB: What about your own filmmaking influences, then?

SL: I love David Fincher - he’s such a great filmmaker. The fact that he controls the whole set, he’s got a vision and he gets it down on film, that’s what I like about him. I like films with a dark feel to them, and he does that, with films like SE7EN, a great film for me. I’m still learning how to bring that type of darkness to a film, that reality. I like Hitchcock as well, but I don’t think I’ll ever… well, I don’t think most people will ever be as good as Hitchcock! He was a master - I can’t really talk about him!

DB: What did you think of Fincher’s Fight Club, which one poll recently voted the fourth best film ever made?

SL: Well, like Hitchcock did, he uses a lot of techniques in his work, technology, going through objects… but he adapts the technology to fit the film, you watch the film, not the effect, he makes it fit the story. Hitchcock used to do that, he’d have all his toys but he would never detach the viewer from the story - he does that in most of his films. I think Fight Club does this well too, zipping down the side of the building to where the bomb was, zipping all over the place, and the title sequence as well, he’s known for his really amazing title sequences.

DB: Yeah, look at how the titles for Se7en are so influential even to this day.

SL: That was an amazing title sequence. When I went to see Se7en at the cinema, I didn’t really know what I was in for, but as soon as you see those titles you think “oh my God, what’s going to happen now?”. I remember watching it with a friend who had precisely that reaction to it, and that’s what filmmaking is to me, getting that sort of reaction from an audience - to entertain, but to do something more.

DB: I definitely found that during Scarred at a couple of points, notably the striking shot of the double-hammer-wielding killer, and the scene where Shiv’s character gets unexpectedly kidnapped… I forgot all about it being a shot-on-video, amateur film and just got caught up in the action.

SL: Hopefully that’s something I can carry on doing in my next film.

DB: On that subject, will you be working with the same team again?

SL: Yeah, pretty much the same crew, same fx guy, etc. We’re currently in talks with Doug Bradley’s agent, he’s asked to see the script, we’re sending that off to him.

DB: Good news! Doug’s definitely one of those actors who really likes to encourage young filmmakers and get involved in the lower end of the market.

SL: We wanted to approach someone famous for the next film, from a sales standpoint more than anything. Every time I phone a distribution company about something I’ve done, they want to know “who’s in it?”, meaning they want to hear that a star name is attached. That’s the kind of thing you encounter when you contact these people. If you haven’t got a star, they don’t really want to know, so I thought, let’s go and get a star. Funny thing is, I told people at work that I was thinking of approaching Doug, and they said “who?” - but as soon as you mention Hellraiser, they know straight away who the guy is! He’s really interested, he just wants to see the script - we’ve sent him some of the early artwork for the new film. The premise of the film is that someone has an affair, the husband finds out about it and sends a hit-man to beat up the main character, and everything starts going really wrong. I’m trying to do this as a more action-based thriller than a film that relies on dialogue - we’re not quite ready to write really good dialogue yet, so I want to concentrate on the action, there’s going to be a lot of where’s-the-killer-hiding-in-a-dark-room type of stuff, more visual than dialogue-driven, but with a good little twist at the end - nothing major, just something that the audience will hopefully think is clever. We’re trying to put a few surprise elements in, of the kind you mentioned from Scarred - sending the audience down one road and then going the other way, so they don’t know what the hell’s going on or what’s coming next!

The next film will be shot on HD, it’s going to basically be bigger and better - if I’d done another DV film I think a lot of the people who worked on the last one might not have come back on board. They will do it again if they can see the bar being raised, you’ve got to do that each time. The working title for the film is The Suffering - but I think there’s a computer game with that title, and they might be bringing a film version out, so we’re going to have to change it, I think. The script is written and has already gone off to Doug Bradley, and we’re hoping to film it over two weeks early in 2006. We don’t have any locations yet, but we’re currently looking for a house in the middle of the woods, that’s always a good place to start.

DB: Any final comments you’d like to make?

SL: Just to say that we’re always looking for people to help out, especially producers, so if there are any producers out there… writers, actors, etc., feel free to contact me at reelvision@ntlworld.com
Author: Darrell Buxton.


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