(Hell)Rising from the British horror scene

Articles and Interviews

As part of my old site (Cosi Perversa) I caught up with the multi-talented British director Steve Lawson (“The Haunting of Annie Dyer; Killersaurus; Hellriser”) about what it is like to operate in the b-movie scene, how he sets about creating and what it is really like to put together these films that many of us scoff at the title of but then end up buying.

CE: Hi Steve, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Working in the film industry is a fantasy for many, at what stage of your life did you start to think that this was a real possibility?

SL: It’s hard to say, because things happen so gradually that you barely notice the progression from dreaming of being a film-maker to actually doing it for a living. Particularly when you are doing it independently on the fringe of the established industry; it’s not like I can point to my Oscar on the shelf and say “That’s it, I’ve arrived!” I would say it’s only been in the last four years that I’ve made the transition to being a part of “the film industry”, but I’ve been making films for around thirty years, literally since childhood. It’s really been the developments in technology in recent years that have massively democratised the film-making process and made it possible to make cinema-quality films on a low budget, and that’s become my speciality.

CE: Your first credit on IMDB is for writing and directing the short film “Dead Lane” ‘ back in 1998, which you then followed up in 2000 with the short film “The Office Fight”’, how invaluable did you find these experiences?

SL: Well, the IMDB is a strange beast – anyone can submit anything so it’s quite hard as the film-maker to ensure that your listing contains what it should. I made an awful lot of films prior to 1998 but I guess because that was the “analogue” era and none of them are online, that means they don’t exist as far as the IMDB is concerned!

“Dead Lane” was actually an attempt at a feature film which I ended up cutting down to make a short. I eventually took this concept and reworked it to make “Survival Instinct” which was the first of my recent batch of features.

“The Office Fight”, as its name suggests, is not really anything much, just a short fight scene in an office. I used to shoot fight scenes for fun; we would always try to come up with something akin to a Jackie Chan fight scene but usually fell short of the mark. It’s all good experience though, [and]we recently shot a martial arts scene for “Essex Heist” which came out pretty good.

CE: Early in your career, action appears to be your genre of choice. Was this a conscious decision by you, in order to follow a passion for that type of cinema or for more practical reasons?

SL: As I mentioned, Jackie Chan was a huge influence. I love classic martial arts films from the late 70’s through to the mid-90’s so a dream project would be to make a martial arts film with a decent budget. The reason I haven’t done so in recent years is that low budgets just don’t allow for the kind of shooting schedule it takes to film this kind of action. You really need at least a week to shoot a good fight scene, but on “Essex Heist” we had about four hours!

The performers did an amazing job considering the constraints we were under, but ideally the fight should have been much longer and more spectacular – but it just isn’t possible. Also, action films ideally have big stunts and explosions and car chases, all the kinds of things you can’t do on a low budget, so it’s best not to tackle a genre if you can’t do it justice – as I found with “Killersaurus”!

CE: Many independent directors seem to write their scripts as well, was this something you always intended to do?

SL: Not particularly – I’d prefer not to, really, but a lot of people send me scripts and I’ve never yet received one for a feature that I would want to produce. The vast majority are just atrociously written in terms of the basic English and grammar, so I don’t even read the whole thing. But usually they’re just very generic, and I can do “generic” myself.

I’m not a great scriptwriter but I am a very smart scriptwriter because I always write from a Producer’s point of view – how many days shooting is this? How many characters? Can I get rid of that location scene and just have somebody make a phone call? I’m not making great art, I’m making entertainment on a budget, so these considerations always come first. For example, I was recently asked to come up with a treatment based around a particular idea that a producer had, and without even realising it I wrote the whole thing as taking place in one apartment and there were only four characters! We could have shot it in a week! So in that case I actually had to go back and open it out and make it bigger, because I had inadvertently written a micro-budget film without actually being asked to. 

CE: How did you set about learning your craft in telling stories, both on paper and visually?

SL: I have picked up one or two tips from screenwriting and film-making books, but mainly I think I just absorbed storytelling from the hundreds of films I watched growing up. I don’t have a problem with converting the written word to the screen because I almost always have the entire film visualised in my head before I actually put pen to paper on the script. Because of this, writing the script can become a bit of a chore because in my head I’m already framing the shots and imagining the edit.

CE: Going back to your career, it wouldn’t be until 2014 that you entered the world of horror, with “The Haunting of Annie Dyer” aka “Nocturnal Activity” [CP editor note – Love this title and its double entendre] where did your inspiration for this come from?

SL: Strictly speaking “Survival Instinct” was shot before “The Haunting of Annie Dyer”, and that was intended to be in the horror genre, though it’s more of a survival-thriller than true horror. The idea for “The Haunting of Annie Dyer” was simply to shoot something specifically aimed at US distribution on a particular B-movie label that I was in touch with. But because there was no upfront money on offer, it had to be done as cheaply as possible, so it ended up being shot in five days with no crew whatsoever. I literally did everything myself, and all the names in the credits besides the actors are made up.

In terms of the plot, it was inspired a little bit by “The Entity”, but the idea was to take out the violent aspect and make it more erotic and a bit light hearted. But I have to admit, the tone of it is a bit all over the place; sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sexy, but it’s rarely scary. I’m told the best thing about it is my commentary on the DVD rather than anything in the film itself!

CE: This film would also be the first for your film production company Creativ Studios as well as being one of the first to be distributed by British genre label 88 Films. How did that deal come about?

SL: Well, it’s funny how things turn out – in fact “Survival Instinct” was the first project that 88 Films decided they could release. I shot “The Haunting of Annie Dyer” shortly afterwards, but at the time it wasn’t intended for 88 Films but for the US distributor I mentioned earlier. There was a delay in the release of “Survival Instinct” as there wasn’t a suitable supermarket slot for it, so in the interim I suggested to 88 Films that it would be a good idea to put out a dinosaur film to tie in with the release of “Jurassic World”, so I then shot “Killersaurus” very quickly and if memory serves me correctly that turned out to be the first of my films that 88 Films released.

Fortunately it did alright and subsequently so did “Survival Instinct” – although they had to change the title to “Footsoldier” in order to get supermarket support – and so 88 asked if I had any other titles they could put out which led to them releasing “The Haunting of Annie Dyer”. It was at this point that 88 Films and my company Creativ Studios began to collaborate creatively, coming up with the concepts for “Essex Heist” and “Hellriser” together.

CE: How important is it for an indie film maker such as yourself to make sure that you get that distribution? Did you ever have to prioritise seeking a distributor and the business side over your creative work?

SL: Distribution is everything. It’s as simple as that. Of course, we all have to start somewhere and it’s hard to get distribution when you have no track record, so I shot “Survival Instinct” using my own money and with no distribution lined up, just to prove I could produce a decent feature film. But since then I have never made a film without at least having built up a relationship with a distributor. And I never will. Making a film and then shopping it round to distributors is a horrible and totally inefficient process, and I can’t think of anyone – outside of the famous incidents like “Blair Witch” – who has ever made their money back that way.

CE: Creativ Studios are based in Leicester, a city not widely known for its media industry. Has the decision to not be based in London affected your trade and industry opportunities?

SL: It was not a decision, it was a necessity! It’s always been my dream to own my own studio building, but there was absolutely no way this was ever going to happen in London considering the price of property down there! But fortunately the location of my studio is actually quite convenient for travel to and from London, we are just off the M1 and very easy to get to, and there are numerous hotels and other facilities in the surrounding area. And I think being based outside London makes it easier to keep costs down throughout the production process.

CE: You followed this up with the terrifically named “Killersaurus”, which appeared to be a bit of a departure from your previous movies. Did you decide to write this film to simply build a diverse body of work or had you seen one too many SyFy and Asylum movies and thought I could do better?

SL: It’s true to say I enjoy having a diverse body of work, but really “Killersaurus” was just an attempt to cash in on the release of “Jurassic World”. In my original script it was much more of a horror film and there were some interesting ideas in it – it had a lot more in common with David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” than with “Jurassic Park” – but the schedule and lack of budget meant it ended up being reduced to a rather poor 1950’s style monster movie where most of the running time was taken up with people sitting in a control room talking about a dinosaur. The main difficulty was that although the puppet dinosaur we used looked okay for head shots, there was basically no way of making it walk around or attack people so we were very limited in regards to what sort of action scenes we could pull off. There’s one very good death scene we were able to achieve by having the dinosaur hidden behind a huge door and just showing the actor dragged off to their death, but there’s only so many times you can cheat the audience with tricks like that!

CE: Looking through your films a few faces reappear in front of the camera, how important is it to find reliable (and suitable) actors when dealing with lower budget films?

SL: There are two sides to this – firstly of course you need actors who you know are reliable and who understand the process of making a low budget film as opposed to doing something high end at the BBC or whatever, but secondly very often the actors I work with become friends and so each film shoot becomes another chance to get together and have fun making a movie. It’s very hard work of course, but collaborating on a project with people you enjoy spending time with is a great way to earn a living.

CE: On smaller budget independent films, often the director has to wear more than one technical hat, have your films ever seen you have to do something bizarre or unexpected?

SL: I’ve got a long background in professional video production and so fortunately I can carry out just about any job on set that needs doing. Not that I would ever walk onto somebody else’s set and start telling the DOP or the sound recordist how to do their job, but for my purposes I can do these jobs just fine and many more besides.

The culmination of this was on “The Haunting of Annie Dyer”, where, as I mentioned, there was no crew at all and I did everything behind the camera. So for example, during the big finale love scene where the naked ghost girl seduces Annie Dyer, I was literally running back and forth between the lights, the camera and the smoke machine, making adjustments to all three whilst the girls performed the scene. People imagine it must be quite sexy filming those kinds of scenes but between all the jobs I had to do I barely had a chance to actually watch what was happening!

CE: After mixing things up again with “Survival Instinct” and “Essex Heist” you return to horror with the genre crossing ‘Hellriser’. What prompted this almost unofficial sequel and did you always have it in mind to link back to “The Haunting of Annie Dyer”?

SL: Okay, I’m going to tell you a secret now! What actually happened was that I needed to shoot a very short scene with Raven Lee (who played Annie Dyer) for “Essex Heist”, but since it was such a short scene and would only take a few minutes, I decided to improvise some other scenes and ended up shooting a lot random footage with her in a prison cell set that I had built in the studio. I had a vague idea that perhaps it could be used for another Annie Dyer movie, but there was no script or even a story, it was just random stuff that looked cool. So then after “Essex Hesit” was finished I had to come up with a plot that could make use of the footage – and so “Hellriser” was born! It really isn’t a sequel to “The Haunting of Annie Dyer” though; it’s a completely separate story that just happens to have a few of the same characters.

CE: I had the privilege of attending the premiere for “Hellriser” and I was surprised at how well you manage to blend a dark, British humour into something that resembled a (paranormal) mystery thriller. What was your process and inspiration while writing this film?

SL: The primary aim was to fix what I got wrong on “The Haunting of Annie Dyer”. That film was meant to be a sexy horror comedy, but the sex was tame, the horror was weak and I forgot to actually put any jokes in it. So with “Hellriser” I knew from the start it had to be stronger in all those areas. It’s got some proper horror – some really nasty death scenes of the kind you’d see in a Dario Argento movie – and a clear supernatural element. It’s also got a lot more graphic nudity and some proper character comedy scenes with the mismatched detectives, the mad scientist and the clumsy pathologist. Stylistically the intention was to give it the same look as some of the classic horror films from the 70’s and 80’s that I enjoy and that 88 Films specialise in releasing, so there’s a lot of very bold coloured lighting and deliberately artificial-looking sets which give the film a very stylised look which I rather like.

CE: As mentioned there you manage to successfully weave several influences as well as genres into the movie, making it arguably your most expansive movie to date. How did you manager to maintain a balance?

SL: I’m not sure how well the elements blend – I guess we’ll see what the customer reviews say in a few weeks’ time! I just wanted to throw in as many elements as possible that people might find entertaining, just to ensure that anyone who buys the DVD will feel like they got their money’s worth. So if you don’t enjoy the gore scenes, don’t worry, there’ll be a naked shower scene along in a minute. And if you don’t enjoy that, well… sorry, you bought the wrong film.

CE: As with many independent films what is planned in the writing stage is not always feasible when filming. Does the end product of “Hellriser” accurately represent your vision for the film or did you have to make compromises during filming?

SL: The film is pretty-much as I envisaged it. There are always compromises, especially when you have to rush through scenes to get everything in the can, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know what I’m capable of. I think there are one or two scenes that don’t gel as well as I’d hoped but overall the plot hangs together well and visually I think it’s rather impressive for a low budget production. It’s certainly not your standard drab, hand-held indie horror film.

CE: Now I have to ask – why the title “Hellriser”? Is this simply to show next to an already established title in stores and on streaming services or is it something more integral to the film?

SL: I don’t do the titles! To be honest a lot of people are reacting badly to the title, the tag line or the packaging, because they don’t realise that it’s a joke, not a rip-off of “Hellraiser”! I agreed to the title because I thought it was funny and cheeky, but it’s a double-edged sword; hopefully the title will be eye-catching and make people give the film a second look when they see it on the shelf, but horror fans who dismiss it as some kind of cheap knock-off of “Hellraiser” need to realise that’s not what it is at all. I sometimes wonder if we should have put an exclamation mark on the end of it – “HELLRISER!”

CE: With a strong body of work now behind you what does the future hold for Steve Lawson and Creativ Studios? And will we ever see you back in front of the camera?

SL: I’ve done a bit of voice-acting in recent productions – including “Hellriser” – but I’ve no desire to step in front of the camera. I’m much too busy on the production side – I’ve had five features released in the last couple of years and if anything I’ll be stepping up a gear in the next few years, the intention being to have a rolling slate of projects with one in post while the next one is shooting. I’m looking forward to working with a wider range of producers and distributors over the coming year, whilst also maintaining the fantastic relationship that I have with 88 Films, to whom I’m very grateful for the opportunities so far. And also for all the free Shaw Brothers blu-rays!

CE: Thank you for your time Steve and good luck for the release of “Hellriser”.

HELLRISER was released on DVD by 88 Films on 9 October 2017 and is currently available for pre-order from 88 Films and Amazon UK.

Keep up to date with the latest releases from Creativ Studios and give their Facebook page a like here.

You can also read a bit more about the film and the premiere over on the Midlands Movies website and check out the trailer below.

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