To coincide with the release of Soldiers of the Damned the writer / producer of this World War 2 horror film has kindly agreed to an interview.
It's the Eastern Front during World War 2. The Russians are pushing the German Army back through Romania. Major Kurt Fleischer, war-weary commander of an elite troop of German soldiers, is ordered to escort a female scientist into a mysterious forest behind enemy lines to retrieve an ancient relic.As his men begin to disappear in strange circumstances, Fleischer realises that the scientist is part of Himmler's occult department and there is something in the forest that is far more deadly than the Russians.
Hello, how are things with you?
Hello, excellent thank you and enjoying the sunshine.
It’s gearing up for the release of your film Soldiers of The Damned, how nervous are you feeling right now?
I’m not feeling nervous as such. In fact I’m looking forwards to it. A lot of work has been done to get to this position and obviously when you set off on the journey of making a film the desire of every director is to get that film released.
Many people would think that all the hard work has been done now that the film is in the can. In reality how much work do you still have to do once the film has been completed?
The reality is that when principal shooting finishes, you are about 25% there.
Making a film is in 3 stages, pre-production, production and post-production, but all those sections aren’t equal. Post production along with marketing is by far the biggest section and takes up loads of time and effort. I am talking from the POV of an Indie production company where job boundaries become blurred.
What is your least favorite part of this process?
Prior to working on Soldiers of the Damned what was your biggest project? And what was the most important lesson that you learned from that?
I’ve been in the TV and drama industry all my working life and started out as a Production Graphics Designer in the early 1990’s. I was responsible for designing, producing and directing many title sequences for TV programmes, one of the biggest probably being the Coronation street titles of 2000. I then moved onto being a sponsorship and commercials director for ITV, shooting many campaigns which head the pre-titles of heavyweight programmes and dramas. After leaving ITV I shot several pop videos for people like Richard Hawley and Lisa Stansfield. I shot a series of 3 episodes of ‘Prank Patrol’ for BBC.
The most important lesson I’ve learned in my directing career is to be adaptable. Pretty much every situation you are shooting under changes in some way and you have to be able to adjust very quickly to it. Also, listen to experience. The people you work with have been hired because they know their stuff. Ignore them at your peril. Above all, be nice to people, a film set operates much better if the people calling the shots are chilled under pressure.
Where did the initial idea for the film come from, and how did you go about assembling the team behind the film?
4 years ago, Stephen Rigg, Nigel Horne and myself decided we were going to make a film. We sat down and brain busted some ideas. We decided the content had to be interesting both to us and from a commercial aspect had to be attractive to a wide audience because ultimately, we wanted to carry on making more films.
We knew it had to be ‘different’ and attractive to sell it to a Sales Agent.
We were also aware that for a first film collaboration the horror genre always attracts an audience.
The nugget of our initial idea was about a haunted forest in Romania called the Hoia-Baciu forest. It is still professed to one of the most haunted places on earth. Throw in the fact that Hitler and Himmler were into the occult and we had the ingredients of a story.
Nigel then went away bulging with ideas and wrote the 1st draft of the script. Several re-writes and drafts later, we had ‘the script’ and a film in the making.
Search for talent both infront of and behind the camera then started, along with a search for a suitable haunted forest location. I travelled up to Berwick upon Tweed to look at one forest, then across to Kielder forest and viewed another in Lancashire but they weren’t right. We eventually found a location in the Lake District called Greystoke forest, which was superb. It ticked all the boxes, not only did it look good, it had a road infrastructure as it is owned by M-Sport (Ford Motorsport division) and used for testing their rally cars. There was also nearby hotels and shops etc for the cast and crew, the only downside was the infamous Lake District weather.
Meanwhile, the search for talent carried on. I had come across a DOP I saw interviewed in ‘British Cinematographer’ magazine who's name was James Martin.
I called him and we instantly got on, he was also up for a challenge and eagerly came on board. James also owned his own kit which was fantastic.
I was very keen to get four things absolutely right for this film. A great script, a brilliant DOP, a top camera kit and superb actors. I think we achieved all of these.
After we had announced and fixed the shooting dates, the rest of the crew were researched and cherry picked. We did a similar thing choosing the cast from talent agents. All of our cast auditioned by sending in mobile phone footage of them reading for the various parts. It’s a system that worked really well for us and we would use again.
I can imagine that the casting process could have been quite laborious, how do you keep yourself motivated through the process?
A lot of time was spent watching showreels and looking through talent agent’s books. It took hours and hours to shortlist and find someone for each of our characters, sometimes days. The least rewarding part was investing time in finding someone that you ‘felt’ will be just right for a part, then discovering that they were unable to make the dates. The rewarding part though was finding and getting your actor. Suddenly then they became part of the ‘family’, that was a really great feeling. The film started to get real legs when we could pin pictures of a face next to a character name.
The film is based on WW2, and in particular a troop of German soldiers, was there a reason that you wanted to tell the story from the viewpoint of the Germans.
Simple answer to that, not all Germans were bad ones during the war. The Nazis were bad but the ordinary German Heer army were just like any other army. There aren’t many films about Germans fighting Russians from the German POV, so why not? I think people are tired of the usual Americans versus Germans angle.
It’s often said that a hero is only a hero from one viewpoint, were you ever concerned about making the Germans the heroes in the film?
From my POV my angle was to really show the camaraderie of our core troop. They were just ordinary lads who happened to be in the German army. The fact that they were German, British or any other nationality didn’t really matter. There are ‘goodies’ and ‘badies’ in the mix, their nationality is irrelevant. They are just a bunch of guys thrown into a situation, it’s them dealing with a situation as well as war, that is the crux of the story. I think however, the difference between Waffen SS and the Heer German army is emphasised and addressed in the film.
The film also takes the direction that films such as Valkyrie in that the Germans speak in and English accent rather than speaking In zee way that zey are normally portrayed in films. What was the reason behind this?
I always find that ‘Allo Allo’ accent so comedic. we all felt that once the film started and the audience realised that these are Germans and yes they are speaking English, they would accept it quite quickly when they got into the story. It felt more natural to do it that way. The Russians however do speak Russian (They were real Russian actors) and we subtitled them. Again that felt right to do as it drew a distinction between the two enemies.
It is clear that a lot of work has gone into making the film feel authentic in terms of costumes and equipment. Was it important to you to get this as close to reality as possible?
Very. We had a military advisor called Ronnie Papaleo who was brilliant and his knowledge was invaluable in making this film look authentic. He supplied all the hardware and costume and helped build some of the sets. Ronnie once stopped me filming to exchange a tunic on one of the actors, he said that they were the incorrect buttons! The buttons on that particular tunic were wrong because we were supposed to be in April 1944 and those buttons weren’t issued until October 1944!!
We weren't absolutely bang on with everything, but where possible, we made every effort to get it right, even down to applying the correct ink stamp to the wooden crates in the air attack scene. I feel if you are going to do a period piece, there is no excuse for sloppiness, especially when I know that people who enjoy this genre of film will scrutinise it heavily.
What was the biggest cheat / make do that you had to use to get the feel right?
We were restricted budget wise very heavily. There was always going to be a lot of computer graphics used as this was more accessible to us than trying to afford pyrotechnics, so pyrotechnics was one thing. The other was the Russian fighter plane which again was CGI. I simply had to shout out to all the actors where the plane was and film their reaction, then of course the plane was added in post. Same goes for all the tanks, blood and muzzle flashes. The explosions were real though and we added to them in CGI.
Without giving to much away about the plot, was there any basis to the supernatural elements on the film in German folklore?
Yes both German and Romanian Folklore. Some of the Nazis belief systems are explored in the film, where they alleged the Aryan race had originated and how they saw it evolving after the final victory….and of course their fixation with the occult and using it to further their goals. Can’t say too much but the viewpoint of the Nazis in the film are 100% accurate however bizarre it seems to us.
The mysterious Romanian forest that features prominently in the film does exist in Transylvania. It’s called the Forest of Hoia Baciu and is one of the 10 most haunted places on Earth. Many of the strange occurrences that are purported to happen in the forest have been used in the film. Involuntary vomiting, receiving claw marks on your skin under your clothing and most weirdly someone supposedly disappeared into the forest and emerged three days later wearing the same clothes but appeared decades older. There is also an alien angle to the forest, spaceships have been reported but we didn’t use that slant in the film.
The film doesn’t shy away from the brutal elements of war and conflict, did you ever consider toning it down to reach a wider audience?
No, not really. We felt that the storyline of this film would appeal to an older age demographic so we aimed it squarely at them. Once that decision was made, we pretty well just went for it.
The film looks great and you have achieved a great deal with budget that you had, how did you chose to spend the budget of SFX in terms of practical and digital effects?
We knew that we had to spend money on some practical SFX as you need an element of real to create believability I feel. The explosions were real and then they were added to. The canon strafs from the aeroplane, some were real some were CGI.
Pyrotechnics are great to have but the budget wouldn’t allow us the luxury of having as many as I wanted. I storyboarded all the action sequences, so it was a case of going through the boards and choosing where we spend the money on ‘real’ pyros and where we use CGI ones.
The aftermath of wounds was created by our superb make artist Beccy Hall. She was just fantastic and created many of the effect on set to order. Amazing what she could achieve in 20 minutes!!
If you had an unlimited budget what path would you take 100% practical or 100% CGI?
Neither. I would use whatever route was best to tell the story. I would use a combination of both. Undoubtably practical looks fantastic but isn’t always practical to use in certain situations, so CGI, clever camerawork and editing can often work just as well if not even better sometimes.
What is your favorite sequence in the film?
I like the frontline scene because we shot all that in 1 day. For once the weather was kind to us and I got exactly what I wanted and we rocked through it. The same for the Baum (sniper) action sequence later in the film, that was easy to shoot and looks superb. I also love the interior sequence in Colonel Schwab’s office. That was lovely to do and we had the luxury of being indoors and being able to control the lighting and the sound. That was also the last scene of the film that we shot so everyone was a little emotional.
It has only been in recent years that there has been an upsurgence in films and fiction that deal with horror and WW2, why do you think this is the case?
Someone cleverly made the connection between zombies and the most hated regime in recent history, the Nazis and a whole plethora of horror movies erupted. ‘Outpost’ and ‘Dead Snow’ being among the original culprits. Nothing wrong with that, except maybe that avenue has become a little exhausted now. It really did affected the marketing of our movie, many buyers thought ‘Soldiers of the Damned’ was yet another of this type of movie and of course it isn’t.
Do you have a personal favourite film set in World War 2?
‘Saving Private Ryan’ I still find an outstanding movie. ‘Schindler’s list’ ‘Atonement’ and the opening scene of ‘Inglorious Basterds’
How much pre-release coverage has the film had, and what has the general response to the film been like?
The response has been fantastic. I think horror fans have appreciated the fact that we have given the loosely termed “Nazi Horror” sub genre a different slant. For one it is actually set in WW2 whereas most others are contemporary. Also we have steered clear of zombies, concentrating on the supernatural element.
What does the future hold for you are there any projects that you can tell us about?
Currently working in a Producer capacity on a film called ‘Fizzy Days’ along with Stephen Rigg and Lara Greenway. It’s a semi-autobiographical gentle comedy film written by Mark Millicent who will also be making his directorial debut. Nigel Horne and myself are also pushing various ideas around, one being a tank movie set in WW2, of course utilising all the experience and contacts we gained on SOTD.
The other is more top secret but it is a fabulous and unbelievable true story set at the end of WW1. Can’t say any more on that though just yet.