DUNE DRIFTER is a big departure from your other films. Have you always wanted to make a sci-fi actioner?
I've always loved sci-fi and have the best time working on action sequences. Putting those things together has been a lifelong ambition. For a long time I've felt that it's important to walk through the doors that open for you. The opportunity cropped up to do a sci-fi with a modest budget; I thought we could make something fun and personal. So we dove in!
Who / what are the film's heaviest influences?
I'm probably quite mainstream with my tastes. I definitely borrow a lot from Star Wars. The number 47 pops up as a little nod to Star Trek and we also called the Terran command ship "Valiant" as a little nod to what the Defiant from DS9 was nearly called. But the biggest influences are definitely Roger Corman and Charles Band. I grew up watching their films and at the time I couldn't distinguish the difference in quality between Star Wars or Battle Beyond the Stars. I just saw fun adventure movies with lasers!
When I got old enough to spot a difference, the kit bashed aesthetic and cobbled together charm of Corman and Band's sci-fi sets left a strong impression. That style of film making fit kinda perfectly with our film, because budget-wise it's exactly what we had to do.
It wasn't only films from my childhood. Modern film makers were a huge influence. I pitched the 7 day shoot in Iceland as a venture similar to what Gareth Edwards did for Monsters. Finding great locations and taking advantage of them with an adaptable script that we could tweak and mould to maximise our use of what was available.
Were you concerned about the budget, given the ambition and scale of the movie?
Our route to getting this film made was a bit unorthodox. Michelle Parkyn (Producer of Dune Drifter and Nightshooters) had locked in the budget before I'd written anything. So I was able to write based on what I felt we could realistically achieve. As usual I pushed it a bit further. But with people like David Ross working on the space battle, George Davies on sound design with Ben Baird mixing and a stunning score from Adam Langston. I was confident our post would be in safe hands.
We could only afford a small crew, which made the brief Icelandic shoot a bit tricky to get through comfortably. But they adopted an inspiring attitude of "If we can do this, every other film will feel easy as fuck!" How can that not be inspiring? From costume to sets to practical effects, we stretched the budget as far as we could. The starfighter set was constructed in my living room and stayed there for 6 months.
The action and fight sequences are very tense and entertaining. How important was the editing process?
The action sequences are usually my favourite scenes to shoot and I got a kick out of the variety of action the film allowed for. I'd send our miniature guru (David Ross) previsualised sequences that I'd cobble together in front of a green reflector using an A-Wing for the starfighters and a Cylon Raider for the Drekk Cruisers. Then I'd sit with Dave over a few drinks and work out the shots more specifically on his laptop.
The fights on the planet were choreographed by Marcus Shakesheff who designed the action for Wonder Woman and Krypton. Whilst he was working on Season 2 of Hanna, he invited me to this room filled with boxes and built on the sequences from there.
Did COVID get in the way of the production process?
It did force our hand in a few areas. We had to make the film in a way that would minimise the number of post-production VFX shots. We printed a backdrop of Iceland for any shots we needed to get around my flat, used rear projection for everything in the flying sequences. The monitors and holograms in the film were all shot practically or using a sort of "Pepper's Ghost" technique. It definitely helped. We ended up with only two green screen shots. The knock on effect, particularly with projection is that we need the VFX seen outside the window of a starfighter to be done before we shoot the actors. So those were left till last. And that's when the UK went into lockdown!
We had to rethink a few critical moments, but the post-production team also found themselves with enough time to help things along. Phil Wray and Ollie Pajtra were able to spend more time on their shots, George Davies had time to create even more interesting sound effects for engines or laser blasts.
You first came to everyone's attention (including Martin Scorsese) with your shoe-string budget zombie horror COLIN. Did its success take you by surprise and what was the effect it had on your career?
It was a complete surprise. The press attention was confusing, because from my side of things I hadn't done anything different to other filmmakers. I just looked at what I had available and made the most interesting film with what I had. Career wise, Colin always helps. Michelle is grateful for the Scorsese quote! It's slathered all over our pitch decks and enough people remember Colin to pay a little more attention to our ideas.
We had a budget this time, but Dune Drifter was made in much the same way as Colin. We had to build a starfighter set in my living room. By the time Covid restrictions were in place we were deep in post, which meant everything was done in my bedroom again. It was nostalgic and also a bit frightening to look inward and say "I'm in the same spot as I was 10 years ago!"
You have a very strong historical connection to FrightFest. Does that mean a lot to you?
Absolutely! Frightfest had seen Colin before a lick of press cropped up about the film's budget. Ian (Rattray) said right away that they would be happy to screen it that summer. I couldn't understand why! It was just a small bedroom-movie, so that support was a huge surprise.
Was it at FrightFest that you met Dominic Brunt, who went on to produce your film MAGPIE?
I met Dom at his own Horror Festival in Leeds. He was screening COLIN and invited me to introduce the film and wrap up with a quick Q&A with beers in between. It was an absolute blast. I got along with Dom and Mark Charnock. I got to meet Jo Mitchell and we bonded over a love for film.
I was waiting on finance for another project. Dom and Jo offered to throw something into that pot and I knew any money would get swallowed up without any guarantee we'd have a film at the end of it. So I suggested using it to make MAGPIE and their response was lovely It's a rare generosity that you just don't encounter in film.
I remember now that Dom asked if I'd direct Before Dawn. But I could see how excited he was for the film so I suggested that he think about directing. I'm not sure I had any influence though. I'd love to think I did, but the reality is that you could see that spark in Dom's eye whenever he talked about it. That clarity of vision. There's no alternate dimension where Dom DIDN'T direct it. And he's been far more successful at pulling projects together than I have.
How have you been dealing with life under COVID?
It's mainly been juggling post for Dune Drifter or more recently pulling pitch decks together for new projects. I spent a week writing a script after an exciting opportunity dropped in our laps after Michelle's diligent producing, but it's been guided by work. Only in the last month or so have I found myself sitting at home and twiddling my thumbs.
What's been your favourite horror film of the year so far?
I'm friends with Rob Savage, so I'm potentially biased when I say Host. But enough people love it to know that I was right about that one! Another film I've watched a few times on Netflix was Hole In the Ground which was made by another friend of FrightFest, Lee Cronin. I highly recommend that film! It's fantastic and tense and compelling. Lee's making the new Evil Dead movie and Hole in the Ground is a strong indicator that we're in for something special!
Finally, what's next?
Excitingly, I've put that question to Michelle! We have a few projects financed and ready to go. All I need to do is write them. I'm excited about all of them and whichever one is best to get started will be our movie. We have two action movies and a drama. After the logistical acrobats of making a sci-fi in my flat during a pandemic, they all feel like significantly easier projects!