The Making Of Stormhouse

In some parts of the UK, one piece of received film-making wisdom has been allowed to run amok.  

It's nigh on impossible to make a film, say the cynics, unless you're willing to jump through various flaming hoops for some draconian film-funding agency. “Credit crunch, blah-blah-blah, no-one wants to put money into films any more, blah-blah, quack-quack”.

What a giddily teetering pile of bobbins this really is.

If you decide that 'the system' is out to hobble you, and prevent you from getting your movie made, then you're instantly in a prison of your own devising.   On the other hand, if you decide that you're going to knuckle down and not stop until your film is made, then a whole wealth of possibility opens up.

Oh, don't get me wrong: it ain't going to be easy, but it's far from impossible.  In an era in which film-making technology has become all the more accessible, it's arguably more possible than ever before.  If you can get your film made by teaming up with this country's so-called gatekeepers, then that's great.  All well and good.  But that isn't the only route to head along.  If you end up thwarted and wrapped in red tape from head to toe, then have faith: there is always another way.  Particularly in the low-budget arena.

When I remind you that Stormhouse director previously Dan co-created and co-directed the uncompromising indie web drama series Girl Number 9 with Severance/Doctor Who writer James Moran, as well as co-writing and directing his own Prague-set thriller The Experiment, you'll start to get the picture of how Dan is very much a doer, not a talker.  And that's key.  Talking about making films, funnily enough, doesn't get them made.  It might be impressive when you tell people you're going to make a film, but the enthusiasm in their eyes will soon ebb away a year or two down the line, when you're still yapping on about it.

In May 2010, Dan and I had a fateful drink in a London pub.  We'd previously collaborated on a couple of shorts (Look At Me and Big Mistake, which you can find online) and a sketch show series pilot called Splendid, as well as getting two feature projects into development.  We'd always clicked well and fostered a strong working relationship, which is also vital: I'd urge any writers and directors to find a kindred spirit or two and team up with them.

Dan had recently become somewhat obsessed with researching the numerous events surrounding military bases in Suffolk's Rendlesham area.  Various theories about UFO landings and unexplained happenings had led to the region being dubbed "Britain's Roswell" by the likes of The Telegraph.  And so, in that pub, Dan floated the idea of making a film based on his findings.

"In 2002, the military captured a ghost".  Those seven words were all we could talk about for the rest of the night, and the weeks and months which followed.  They were the cornerstones of what would become the film Stormhouse.

Three months later in August, we were filming in Suffolk, at one of the very military bases at the centre of all those mysterious occurrences.  That's an incredibly fast turnaround in the film world, but sometimes a combination of bullish determination, hard work and intense creativity are all you need.

Well, actually, one of the main things you need is a great producer.  Enter Dean Fisher, who had previously produced the 2009 Danny Dyer film City Rats and 2007 vampire flick Night Junkies, and was already working with Dan on another film called The Man Inside (which also now exists, having shot in Newcastle in July 2011, starring the likes of Peter Mullan, Michelle Ryan, David Harewood and Ashley 'Bashy' Thomas).  It was Dean's hard work, along with the amazing cast and crew which he and Dan assembled (including our leading lady Katherine Flynn, an LA resident who luckily happened to be on holiday in Britain when we put out the casting calls), plus finance from private investors, which helped bring Stormhouse screaming into life.  I wrote the script and acted as executive producer (which, for a writer, just means more creative control - let's make no mistake here, Dean produced this film).

It was about as memorable a film shoot as you could possibly imagine.  Shooting a horror film in a military base in the middle of nowhere?  C’mon!  That’s fun.

The base itself was bigger than some towns.  From the security checkpoint at the front, it was a good 10-minute drive into the base’s depths and maps were often needed.  During the drive, you’d pass abandoned silos and couldn’t help but wonder what lurked within.  It was rumoured that the base also contained hidden underground areas to which no-one - certainly not a bunch of horror film-makers - would be allowed access.

We lived on that base for the duration of the shoot.  Cast, crew, everyone.  Only the local catering guys went home at night.  We stayed in barracks, or in some cases slept on air beds in the very rooms in which terrifying events would happen in the movie.  We used one set of showers, employing the sensible routine of a piece of paper stuck to the door outside, specifying whether guys or girls were using the facilities.

Of course, because Stormhouse is set in a military base, this was ideal for getting us all into the right frame of mind.  The cast playing military personnel had an especially tough time of it, getting a little ‘method’ in terms of adhering to a strict military regime.  They spent their days in their soldier/officer garb, plunging themselves into the mindset.  We had some fine actors among our military cast, including the excellent Grant Masters (Major Lester), the outwardly-intimidating-but-actually-very-nice Grahame Fox (Lieutenant Groves) and splendid Australian gentleman Patrick Flynn (Justin Rourke, military technician).

Naturally, we also enjoyed every scrap of built-in production value that the base had to offer.  Observation towers, massive stone blocks, vehicles, whatever worked.  Sometimes things were in the wrong place for our purposes, but by filming certain structures, we knew that we could employ the magic of CGI to position them in the right place later.  The massive stone frontage of Stormhouse, for instance, which New York ‘ghost whisperer’ Hayley Sands approaches at the start of the film, is superimposed.  Behind it, was a mere hill with a door embedded in one side.

When night fell, the actors no longer needed to act being frightened: this was one scary place.  All around wherever we were filming, it was absolutely pitch-black.  The virtually non-existent mobile phone and internet signals all added to a real sense of isolation which hopefully fed directly into Dan’s daily scenes.  We constantly had to do battle with the most persistent flies in the known universe, who were no doubt drawn by the fake blood which covered us all.  One fly even made it into the film with a brief cameo (uncredited, because he refused to sign the release form).  At night, we knocked back a few drinks and banded together in the mess room against the all-pervading darkness outside, watching films or heading over to the production office to watch the rushes so far.

Our creepiest and biggest set, hands down, was The Holding Area.  This is the place where, in the film, the military have imprisoned a supernatural entity within an Enclosure fortified by reverse electro-magnetic energy.  This knowledge alone gave the area a sense of foreboding, but that sense quadrupled when we turned the lights down inside.  The Holding Area, see, had been built inside the ‘Hush House’, where tests used to be carried out on ‘plane engines.  Because of this, it was 100% soundproof.  Once you were inside the Hush House, it was just you and the silence.  The Devil’s work.

On the final night of shooting, we celebrated big time, with tables laden with booze and a rock covers band playing into the early hours.  After all, we had no neighbours to take into consideration.  There’s no doubt that the relatively claustrophobic environment in which Stormhouse was filmed gave rise to not only a more oppressive horror film experience, but the best sense of camaraderie you could possibly want.

In many ways, making a film is the easy part.  Post-production and the business side of things can be even scarier than the film itself.  Some of the process is tremendous fun, though.  In April 2011, we hired a huge cinema at London’s BAFTA and placed a post on the Film 4 FrightFest forums, requesting volunteers to see an early cut of the film for free and give us their thoughts.  We were swamped with replies and chose 40-or-so people to come and enter Stormhouse.  Naturally, being the insatiable genre-hounds that they are, the good men of FrightFest were also represented among the audience.

That test-screening was vital.  Absolutely vital.  We identified unclear story elements which we needed to explain to the audience further, and then carried out more work on it.  After that came a world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the London premiere at the wonderful Film 4 FrightFest and the US premiere at the Los Angeles Screamfest.  Hopefully we made people drop their popcorn at least three times. 

An edited version of this feature was originally published in the Film 4 FrightFest magazine Number 7.  

Stormhouse is out on DVD today in the UK via High Fliers.  Amazon UK link 

Stormhouse on DVD at Amazon US via Lionsgate

Last year's blog about the BAFTA test screening

More behind-the-scenes photographs at my official Facebook page

Stormhouse's own official Facebook page.  Hit 'Like'!

Stormhouse's Twitter feed

Stormhouse: the teaser trailer

Stormhouse: the US Lionsgate trailer

            * * *

My horror novella Beast In The Basement is a dark, twisted tale of obsession, revenge, censorship, blame culture and parental responsibility.  In a big house in the countryside, an increasingly unstable author toils over a new hotly-anticipated novel which will close the best-selling trilogy of Jade Nexus books.  A violent incident tips him into a downward spiral with horrific consequences.  Read it before someone spoilers you!  Beast is available for Kindle (which can be read on most devices) at Amazon UK, Amazon US and more.  It can also be bought direct from me. More details here.

My Amazon-acclaimed non-fiction ebook How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else is out now on Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon Germany, among others.  You can also buy it direct from me, in a Triple Pack of all three major file-types (PDF, ePub, Kindle), via PayPal.  Full details here, you splendid individual.

How to Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne and Everyone Else


Adaddinsane said...

Damn right. No point whining about the system. Bypass it.

Gareth Spark said...

Inspiring stuff, and what a great concept for a Movie! Can't wait to see it. said...