Ginger Nuts of Horror
Horror's finest married couple talks to ginger nuts of horror about working together on their excellent horror films before dawn and bait
I was honoured to interview Dominic brunt and his wife Joanne Mitchell at the tail end of last year. After watching their powerful and disturbing film Bait I just had to speak to them about the film and the pressures of working together on such a brutal film. Read on for an enlightening interview with two genuine rising stars of the horror genre......
Dominic where did your love of horror spring from? And Joanne you weren’t a fan of the genre until you met Dominic is that correct.? What films did he show you to convince you that it was a great genre?
Dominic: My love of horror came from a fear of the old Hammer Films when I was growing up. I always looked at copies of Fangoria Magazine at the newsagents and pretended I’d seen most of them but I was repelled and attracted at the same time.
I always knew it was make-up and special effects, and that is what really got me interested in watching lots of films once I reached my teens. That and the fact my best mate’s dad owned Accrington Video so we watched back to back nasties (very calm by today’s standards) most evenings. It was our obsession. Italian shockers were a particular treat and the shop stocked tons of them from Demons to very obscure Giallo which (as much as we enjoyed the gore and titillation) always went over our heads. However, Now we can all buy bluray versions of these gems, they’re still unfathomable most of the time.
Joanne: He didn't really show me any movies as such..it all started when we came up with the idea for Before Dawn. Dom always loved Zombie movies, I didn't really get it, and wasn't a big fan of the genre. We got into a discussion about horror and how sometimes I felt there was a lack of really good layered characters and story to relate to. We then wrote the story for Before Dawn which incorporated Dominic's love of the Zombie and my love of European character driven cinema. It was from then on that I started to watch more and more horror and now, yes, I can safely say I am a fan of it. There's some brilliant horror films out there!
Frightfest, what were your favourite films of the this years festival?
Dominic: I love FrightFest as a fan of the festival but we’ve also been very lucky indeed to have been supported by them. I’d still be in the audience every year if they hated our films. I think they grab the pick of the best genre films of the moment and the love they show towards cinema is palpable and infectious. This year I really enjoyed Slumlord, Banjo, Night Fare, Howl and of course Turbo Kid.
Joanne: We both are massive fans of Frightfest and just love going. This year I didn't see all the films unfortunately, but out of the few I saw, I loved Turbo Kid, Slumlord The Hallow and Body. I know there were others that I've heard were brilliant..of which I'm looking forward to watching when I get the time.
In an interview Craig Charles made a comment about how his commitments to Coronation Street made him feel that he didn't have enough time for side projects. Has this ever been a problem for you?
Dominic: I’ve tried really hard to keep the two completely separate and not let one encroach on the other.
I owe an awful lot to Emmerdale and they have been incredibly supportive of my directing work. In reality, we’re only making a film every three years with shorts in between, which means I’m personally not juggling anything or doing one thing by halves.
You have to keep quality control upfront and make it the most important thing in anything you do. It could all (and probably will) go away one day and I don’t want that to be my fault.
I love Emmerdale. It still keeps me enthralled and scared and I am extremely loyal towards it.
It has been three years since your debut film was released. What was the genesis of Before Dawn?
Dominic: An argument or series or arguments where Jo kept putting down and criticising the zombie films I was watching. Jo watches lots of “Arthouse” and European cinema and she thought I was wasting my time watching dumb horror films. To be fair, I probably was but I can’t help it. It’s a weakness. I basically said something throwaway like - "Well what would you do then?" It went from there and got out of hand.
She adores horror films now, so I won!
One of the things that really made the film stand out, was the personal nature of the film, was this something that you always set out to do, or did this come about because of budgetary restraints.
Dominic: There were budget restraints with Before Dawn and I would definitely do things differently now but I think it stills stands up. The main point was getting the relationship across then watching that crumble in an allegorical way without laying it on too thick with the metaphors.
There were several ways of doing this but we chose the way we did. Meaning we could use our own house to film in and if we acted, directed, edited, cooked ourselves it would mean the budget could go even further.
Left Films run by Helen Grace helped with the budget and pre-agreed to distribute but we were lucky enough to be taken up by Metrodome with Helen as producer / sales agent and it went all over the world.
Joanne: Well, we did have budgetary restraints yes, but we wanted to also make it a simple intimate tale of a couple who were struggling in their marriage. We wanted to make it real, something that people could relate to. We also wanted to give it that claustrophobic feel and intensity, set in a small farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, and unbeknownst to them that they were in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. So there were two storyline threads..the journey of the breakdown of a marriage set against a zombie outbreak, of which they knew nothing about.
The film is also more than just a survive the apocalypse, to me the film is more about second chances, with the zombies representing the outside forces that can cause a relationship to breakdown.
Another way in which the film succeeded was in the fight scenes with Dominic, for once the fight scenes felt natural, without the usual cliche of the hero being able to take down hordes of zombies without drawing breath. Was this something you wanted to tackle?
Dominic: Well I think that was one of Jo’s points. She said, in the films I was watching, everyone seems to be able to fight and no one is surprised when a gun is pulled out. So, no guns and scrappy fighting with terror and exhaustion at its heart were a theme in the conflicts.
How did you both handle the writing duties for the film?
Dominic: Jo wrote the detailed story and scene breakdown which was then passed to Mark Illis who wrote the screenplay.
Joanne: I wrote a detailed story of the film, so we knew exactly the journey, the arc and who the characters were. We then broke it down into scenes. After juggling about with it, we then handed it over to a screenplay writer, Mark Illis, who did a great job of bringing that all to life.
Did you ever have a falling out over the script direction?
Dominic: No not at all. We filmed it all then edited from a 2 hour version to the 85 minutes which was distributed.
As a side note, how do you find living and working together? Do either of you ever need a time out for want of a better word?
Dominic: The fact that we are married helped in the way we could rehearse and read through Mark’s script every night before we started shooting. We knew what we were going to do within the scenes before we pressed record. This also meant we were able to shoot the film in a relatively economical time frame.
Joanne: Ha ha. Well, our first feature, Before Dawn was a lot of fun to make. There were no falling outs as such, maybe a couple of disagreements, but to be honest it was such a small cast and crew that we all had a lot of fun with it. And there were no expectations either which took the stress out of it. We just did it because we believed in it and were lucky enough to all get on. With Bait, there was more expectation, therefore that will inevitably create more stress. There was a much bigger cast and crew and we had the backing of Metrodome. So we felt a lot was riding on it. It was still a lot of fun but we knew we had to come up with the goods so to speak. Hopefully we did. It was a truly amazing experience.
Joanne, I loved your response in an interview when talking about the reactions of some of the fans to the film having fast zombies. Have you had any more incidents like this where you were amazed at the feelings people have for things that aren’t real?
Joanne: Well, I guess what I have learned about the horror genre, is that the fans are all very passionate about the films and their content, which I think can only be a good thing. After all, it's all so subjective. What ticks my boxes may not tick another's, and that's ok. I think there's a kind of mutual respect for peoples differences, and it opens up discussion and debate. I think it's just great that people get passionate and vocal about what they do or don't like. It opens the imagination and therefore lots of creative doors.
What were the biggest lessons that you learned while making this film? And even though you have said you wouldn’t do it what is the one thing that you would change if you could go back and reshoot it?
Dominic: Get the sound right as much as you can while on set. We were lucky enough to have Chris Greaves in post production to get us out of some real sound problems and fix some serious glitches.
Final Cut and Premier can build pictures brilliantly but until Before Dawn I never fully appreciated what a huge undertaking dubbing a film was. I fell in love with sound design from there and always sit in on a dub just to watch it being built.
I’d also keep away from "shaky cam” as a default.
Joanne: For Before Dawn, I guess the one thing that let it down for me was the sound. It wasn't anybody's fault, we had budgetry and time restraints and we all mucked in and did the best we could under the circumstances. I guess I may have liked to see less shakey camera work too..but at the time that seemed to be the thing that people were doing. However I think it now dates the film. Nothing will ever be perfect, and it's all a lesson to learn for the future.
Which brings us to your latest film, the excellent Bait. To some people Bait wouldn’t be classed as a horror film, but I personally think that it is pure distillation of what makes a horror film a horror film, in that it deals with the loss of control. What are your feelings on this?
Dominic: It is a horror. It was made as a horror but the fact is, the monsters are other people.
I think as you get older and experience more of the world, you also realise that what people are capable of inflicting on other human beings and each other can be far far worse than you could ever imagine or place in a horror film.
What makes this film so scary is that some of the events in the film are based around real accounts. The research for the film must have been a harrowing experience?
Dominic: The research was scary as in, you only had to type in “Loan Shark Leeds” or “Loan Shark Liverpool” or pretty much any town in England, and by that extension, the world.
The stories are sitting there and people are living through this ordeal right now.
I have experienced terrible debt when I was younger and it frightened me more than any horror film ever could. Literally weeks and months without proper sleep.
Did you already have a cast in mind before you started filming? The casting of Victoria Smurfit and Jonathan Slinger was inspired. Victoria and Joanne have a real chemistry on set.
Dominic: I think all three did a great job. Totally separate characters from each other. We did have a short cut to the chemistry with Jo and Vicky as they are best friends in real life but still, we were very lucky to grab Vicky from America who agreed to come over with her three children and be a part of what was never going to be a glamorous shoot. Vicky gave everything until she dropped then went and looked after her three kids (On top of jet lag) She was also playing totally against type. I love the fact that Jo was playing this strong but embattled woman who felt (to some degree) that she was in Bex’s (Vicky) shadow but actually they both allowed each other to be themselves. Neither actor picking up or emulating the others energy.
Then once that unit was threatened by Jeremy, they went in for the kill and were an unstoppable force of loyalty, love and deep friendship.
I know I’m biased but I was so proud of what Jo and Vicky did for the story. They were both very subtle and clever in a very big dramatic situation.
Jonathan was an inspiration and did an awful lot of research into sociopathy. It was important to him that he didn’t portray the usual caricature of the gangster which would have killed it. He is and was amazing.
Joanne: Well Vicky and I have known each other since Drama School and have always been very close friends. The character of Bex was written for her, it couldn't be anyone else. And because of that friendship I guess it made it much easier to work with as we knew how the other ticked so to speak. There was no politeness basically, we just got on with it and were very honest with each other, which is very useful when you can bypass the possibility of upsetting an ego, plus the fact there was very little time to rehearse!
Dominic knew Jonathan from years back and always respected him as an actor. He is an exceptional actor, having played leads at the RSC of such complex characters such as Hamlet and Macbeth to name but a few. He was just perfect for Jeremy and Dom felt very strongly that he was the only actor for the job.
The film is brutal, Joanne how did you cope mentally with the filming, the physical and emotional demands of this role must have been huge?
Joanne: Well yes I guess there were emotional and physical demands. But you know, when you love something and feel passionate about it, it doesn't really feel like work. I always felt very lucky that we were there together with an amazing cast and crew too. Sure, I was sleep deprived, but then so was everyone else. We all just got on with it, there wasn't really any time to think to be honest, which was probably a good thing, because if we had had too much time to do so, that's when it can become overwhelming. We just had to get it done and we had three weeks to do so. We were just lucky enough to have a great cast and crew to make it all possible.
Did you ever feel that the film went to far?
Dominic: Yes. When Vicky was being drowned in a freezing river at 1.30am on a Tuesday I thought, is this the sort of thing I want to be filming or being involved with? Is there another way round this?
She was just living it. Screaming in terror and freezing cold.
In the edit, it all made sense (as it had in the script). The context was correct. You really have to hate “the monster” for him to deserve the fate he is dealt at the finale. I was just really rattled by the reality of what was in front of me and instinctively thought no no no.
Some of the most harrowing scenes in the film are the inserts of Jeremy going about his business with his other clients. Why did you include these scenes?
Dominic: Jeremy couldn’t have been a bog standard, god awful, bullshit gangster which you see in every other gangster film and I hate them. They are soft arse actors trying to be hardmen and it’s embarrassing.
Bait is not a gangster film. It is about the banking system and the dehumanisation of a system run by accountants without a grain of empathy for those they “control”. I can only see a sociopath behaving like this, and yet….
Joanne how did you approach your character with regards to being in between two such larger than life on screen creations? Despite being more of timid character you never let Dawn get drowned out so to speak.
Joanne: That's a good question. I had to keep reminding myself to stay rooted in the character and true to her. Bex is definitely the more streetwise and confident of the two but because Dawn has been through so much in her life and being a single mum with a severely autistic son, she is very determined to move their lives forward. She has to. I think this gives her some gravitas. She knows what she wants. She's desperate. For her son's legacy more than anything else. It was also a challenge sometimes not to get swept away by Bex's character - her wit and banter. Particularly as Vicky and I naturally spark off each other in real life. I had to keep reminding myself of who Dawn was and not to fuse with Bex's life state whilst filming. Sometimes I would just take myself off somewhere quiet just to stay focused. Wasn't always easy as Vicky was more or less Bex the moment she walked on set to when she walked off, and was the life and soul, which was fabulous and refreshing, and a wonderful warm funny person to have around. I just had to remove myself a little bit.
The film takes a looks at the state of our society where money rules everything and where people use the excuse of someone being evil to excuse their actions. Is it importantthat your films have a message or tackle some important themes?
Joanne: For me, at the moment, yes. I like to have a point to a film and why it's made. A social message. That interests me. I think there is a place for this type of horror/thriller, but I also am aware that there are many other types within the genre. I'm not a big slasher fan for example but I know plenty of people who are. And that's ok too. I also like some very black comedy horror, supernatural and fairytale horror. I just think it's a great genre full of exciting interesting ideas and open minded people. Plus I do like to be scared..as long as i'm not home alone at night, my imagination is way too fertile!
So what are the pair of working on next?
Joanne: A few things at the mo..I'm filming a horror, Pandora, at the moment and when that’s finished I will start working on another horror movie, Habit ..both of which are really exciting. I’m also hoping to direct my first short film too, ‘Sybil’ sometime this year which is a kind of Kitsch female lead horror. I’ve recently completed working on an animation by the brilliant Lee Hardcastle too, which was loads of fun. Apart from that we are both throwing about ideas for the next script, so watch this space!
Thank you so much Joanne and Dominic, it has been a great honor chatting with you, do you have any final words for the readers?
Yes! Watch Bait on Netflix now.
GNoH: I fully support this thought Bait is an excellent film, you can read my review of it here