Drew Cullingham, director of The Devil’s Bargain, talks to Live for Films about finding a good field to get naked in, directing Pinhead and the Preacher adaptation.
At the end of last year, which makes it sounds ages ago, even though it was only two weeks ago, I got offered up the chance to shoot some questions off to Drew Cullingham – the director of modern-day vampire Western ‘Umbrage: The First Vampire‘ and who’s latest film ‘The Devil’s Bargain‘ is available on VOD on the 17th of January.
The film is about a young couple in 1974, who, upon learning that the world is about to end thanks to an asteroid, decide to strip off and try and make the most of their final few hours. All is going as well as I guess it can when the earth is about to be destroyed, but the arrival of a mysterious stranger threatens to ruin the couple’s armageddon no pants party. Shot in a unique style resulting in a psychedelic look, and promising “no clothes, no fear”, The Devil’s Bargain will be available to watch from Monday January 17, via www.distrify.com and https://www.facebook.com/TheDevilsBargain for just £3.99.
It was great to have the opportunity to pick Mr. Cullingham’s brain a little, so big thanks to the ever lovely Greg Day at Clout Communications. Let’s chat to Drew.
Hiya, Drew. I’m Alan from Live for Films. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I really appreciate it.
So. What started you on this path? Why are you a filmmaker? Is there anything in the family, or were you particularly inspired by a certain film or director?
It really all comes down to a love of storytelling. My background is writing and music, as well as fine art that headed swiftly into photography. Combine all those elements with that magical allure of the cinema that I first felt when I was very young and it was inevitable that I’d end up doing what I’m doing. Of course I have my favourite films and directors that have inspired me over the years, but I can’t really say that they directly inspired me to make films.
How did you get up to making full features? Did you make a lot of shorts first? Did you study film at Uni? Or did you just learn as you went along?
I made a few shorts, few of which have ever seen the light of day. They were primarily an apprenticeship for me, a safe place to make a few mistakes along the way. Doing half of a year-long course some time ago taught me a single valuable lesson – that the only person stopping me doing what I wanted to do was me! I then spent a while in food TV of all things, subsidising my short film apprenticeship (and borrowing equipment) while finding like-minded people.
You write as well as direct. Is there a side of the coin you prefer, or do you like having that overarching creative control?
To me they kind of go hand in hand. I also edit, and it’s a dangerous game – having too much creative control. It can be very hard to maintain enough distance from projects when you oversee the entire process. But to me if film is an art form there needs to be some kind of unifying vision that can take a story from its very conception, through the shooting process, and on through the complicated post-production phase. I do love being on set and I love directing, but it’s like writing a song and then bringing it to a band of musicians who then all put their own stamp on an idea. I love the fact that film is a collaborative creation governed by a singular vision.
Would you consider directing someone else’s work, or relinquishing the directors chair for something you had written?
I would sooner direct someone else’s script than have someone direct one of mine, that’s for sure. I would find it very difficult to let go a script that I felt particularly close to, and have someone else mould it into their own story. It really depends on what the script is and how personal it is. But fundamentally, yes – I would certainly consider doing either.
The first film I saw of yours was Umbrage, at a FrightFest All Nighter. What was it like watching your first horror film with an audience of horror fans?
That was a special experience though, and somewhat nerve-wracking. You know that a full cinema will contain every conceivable reaction to a film, but I’d far rather play to a full house of people whose opinions will certainly be diverse and divided than a smattering of sycophants. Horror is a peculiar genre though. If you watch a horror film on your own you often allow yourself to get driven by the film’s emotions – you want to be afraid or shocked or feel the tension. En masse, however, horror fans want to have a good time. They want to laugh and cheer and so on. Tough crowd, but a lot of fun!
It actually wasn’t at all. I’d gone through the usual channels to book Doug – liaised with his agent, exchanged a few emails etc. Then I met him on my own for a pint and a chat about the script. The initial meeting was slightly intimidating, and I tried to play it cool. I think about half an hour into a very earnest chat about the film I mentioned that I was a huge fan of Hellraiser, Clive Barker and of course Doug himself, and he just smiled and said, “well now that we’ve got that out of the way, shall we get on with it?”
And you know what – ask anyone on that cast and crew, and they’ll say the same thing; Doug was so refreshingly down to earth and put everyone at ease. He joked about, he talked football with all and sundry, he mucked in like everyone else, and he was quietly very supportive of me too, which was a huge help.
I noticed the lighter from Preacher in Umbrage. Are you a big comic book fan?
Funnily enough, that lighter was an utterly spontaneous addition. It belonged to one of the camera crew who was a fan of the Preacher series and thought there were a few echoes in Umbrage of that. I desperately wanted to keep it! I actually wasn’t at all a comic book fan until after I’d written Umbrage and my SFX guy suggested I might like that series. I tried them, then voraciously consumed all of them. I haven’t ventured much further afield since though.
And what are your feelings about the Preacher adaptation? How would you tackle it, and who would you cast as Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy?
I’m excited about it. If any network can do it justice it’s AMC, and whatever you think of Seth Rogen, the guy is a huge fan, and that’s what it needs driving it. Who to cast? Wow… that’s a tough one. Guy Pearce maybe for Jesse… erm – maybe Fassbender or Sam Rockwell for Cassidy – or Colin Farrell, though that’s maybe a bit too obvious! Elizabeth Banks for Tulip. Why not? None of that will happen though.
Where did the idea for The Devil’s Bargain come from?
The ‘genesis’ for the story came from lengthy conversations between myself and the co-producer, Ian Manson. He had ideas floating about his head based on a story he’d read about two women facing the end of the world, and what they would do in such a situation.
Throw into that the notion of the big bang reversing and the universe being like a massive diaphragm and then translate that into creation mythology and the cycle of death and rebirth and you end up with Adam and Eve effectively returning to Eden and life being gradually snuffed out.
It looks fantastic. Tell me about the equipment and techniques you used to achieve that.
The vast majority of the film is shot through a ‘pinhole’ adaptor, which is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a typical glass lens on the front of the camera, we used a sealed cap with a pin-size hole in the middle. This means that you’re only getting a tiny amount of light to the camera sensor, which creates a very particular look. Effectively you have infinite (albeit not the sharpest) focus, which (in these days of DSLR shooting and ultra shallow depths of field) is a somewhat unfamiliar way of seeing the world. The pinhole fixes the camera at a perpetual wide-angle, which is as visually arresting as it is awkward to be restricted to! It also renders colours in a somewhat unusual manner, all of which conspires to produce an almost Super-8 quality of image. The opening scene is overtly Super-8 in a square ratio, and the remainder of the film, as it opens up into widescreen, plays off that.
To be honest, though, the real work was (as it usually is) in post-production. I degraded the picture even further, adding sensitive light leaks at opportune moments, and letting the ridiculously talented JD Evans loose on a detailed sound design in tandem with a score that relied mostly on samples from wind harps! The film was shot in little more than twenty four hours, over four days, but spent months and months in post.
I don’t think it’s just this year, though the whole Mayan 2012 thing obviously sparked off a trend. Mankind has been predicting and obsessing with the end of days since the beginning of history. It’s a symptom of an intelligent species constantly struggling to come to terms with what happens after death, and the bigger questions of whether we are alone in the universe or not, whether there’s a higher power etc. We all love disasters too – it’s the ultimate rubbernecking. Part of the point of setting the film in 1974 (apart from the fact that the 70s was jammed full of classic disaster films!) was that it really is nothing new, and if creation myths are so wonderfully metaphorical why shouldn’t a destruction myth be the same.
Tell me about how you rounded up your actors. It must have been a long and careful process, right? Because you need them to be good – to carry a lot of dialogue, to not be shy(!), and then to all work well as a group…
It wasn’t that difficult really. I’ve worked with Jonnie Hurn a number of times, and know him well as a friend as well as an actor. He’s utterly at home with swathes of dialogue and great at improvising around a script. I totally trust him on set and I think the feeling is possibly mutual! It’s always helpful to have someone you can rely on central to the cast, especially when you are asking your entire cast to walk around naked for most of the film!
I’d worked with Chloe before too, and she is fearless and dedicated as well as being a tremendously instinctual actor. Dan Burman was new to the fold, and came with less experience but a shed load of ‘can do’. He’s an absolute dynamo. After being a link in the Human Centipede 2, I think strutting around naked in this was a walk in the park for him!
The Devil’s Bargain is a very a stripped down film. Literally. Was that a conscious decision – to go back to basics?
Yeah, we didn’t need much budget for costume! And the camera set-up was as basic as can be – just that pinhole on a camera which was pretty much always either on a fig rig or a monopod. Yes, it was a conscious decision. I wanted long takes with the camera floating about. We generally did variations on takes, rather than just repeat angles, so the real hard work was done in the editing! I wanted the film to be as organic as possible in every sense. No clothes, no lens. Even the majority of the soundtrack is natural, made up of samples of wind harps, with very little instrumentation. It was tough, because we had no real tricks to hide behind, and the actors had literally nothing to hide behind in any sense. Hopefully some of that rawness comes across.
How long a shoot was it and how did you find and select your field?
It was a pretty short shoot actually, mostly because we could work so fast. It’s a tiny cast, we had all the location within walking distance, and a bare skeleton of a crew too. The main shoot was a mere four days. They weren’t long days either, because as soon as the light started fading at all we couldn’t shoot through the pinhole! We had some weather stoppages, and I think in total we probably had about 23 hours shooting time.
The ‘field’ was private property, kindly loaned to us for the duration. We were a little limited in where we could look, as we couldn’t afford to have all the nudity draw unwanted attention. Fortunately where we ended up had everything we need.
Had you seen A Field in England before The Devil’s Bargain, or have you seen it after? I just wondered if The Devil’s Bargain was a reaction to that film in some way?
Oh, we’d wrapped on The Devil’s Bargain long before I saw that. I know exactly what you mean though – despite being radically different stories, they definitely share some sensibilities. Funny how that happens.
It’s the end of the year, and traditionally a time for “Best Of” lists. What have been your five favourite films of 2013?
In no particular order… Rush, Stoker, Behind the Candelabra, Coffeetown and Mud. Quite a variety there! Oh, with special mention to Sharknado! That was great fun!
What’s your next film?
Next in production should be a raunchy comedy called ‘Skinny Buddha’, which we hope to start very soon. The cast is already looking spectacular, and I’m looking forward to it immensely. It’ll be something very different for me!
Nearly done. Promise. I just have some patented, quick fire Live for Films questions for you:
What is the first film you remember seeng in the cinema?
Either ET or Return of the Jedi.
Salted or sweet popcorn?
Ideally, a mixture of the two! It works!
Do you like 3D?
If you could remake any film, which would you choose and why?
I generally dislike remakes, though of course I see them all! Maybe ‘The Birds’ – because if the effects (in this day and age) could rival the oppressive mood of that film it would be even more amazing, not that I would ever dare to try and remake Hitchcock! Or… Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes without a Face) – a classic that not enough people know, which could possibly bear to be updated.
If you could be killed by any movie monster or maniac, who would it be and what would your last words be?
It would have to be Jaws… the shark, not the Bond villain! And my last words would be incoherent bubbles in my diving mask, though before that probably something really stupid like, “no, I don’t want the cage. I want to experience this beautiful creature in all its majesty etc…”
All done! Thanks again for your time. And Happy New Year!
So, yeah, Drew seems cool, right? I hope I get a chance to interview him again, but in person. Don’t forget, The Devil’s Bargain is released via www.distrify.com and https://www.facebook.com/TheDevilsBargain on the 17th of January; and, once more with feeling, massive thanks to Drew and Greg.