Stewart Sparke is an Independent Filmmaker from East Yorkshire, UK. Stewart studied an BA in Film and Television Production at York St. John University before studying a MA in Directing Film and Television at Bournemouth University. In 2012 he co-founded the film and animation production company, Glass Cannon, based in York, North Yorkshire. Through Glass Cannon, Stewart has directed a number of short films and continues to work with local talent to produce ambitious film and television projects on a small budget. His feature film The Creature Below released in February is a wonderful creature feature tribute where a young scientist discovers a malevolent entity which sets her on a bloody descent into the jaws of insanity.
It must be an odd time for you, with the lead up to the full release of "The Creature Below." How are you feeling after having a great critical response to the film at film festivals, that the film is now about to see a wider audience?
It’s been absolutely fantastic to see the buzz about The Creature Below online and the reaction from our world premiere at Frightfest last year. When we (myself and writer Paul Butler) first set out to make our first film we just wanted to get it made and now that it’s getting traction in the horror community we are just overwhelmed and very excited that it’s now getting a DVD & VOD release. We always wanted to make a film that we really wanted to see and thankfully it seems other people want to see it too!
How does releasing your film through the festival circuit help a relatively new director?
The festival’s we attended were an absolutely fantastic experience and I would recommend any first time directors go to them, even if your film is not shortlisted. Frightfest was fantastic for meeting other people who are doing exactly the same thing we are and everyone was very down to earth and approachable. I met some amazing people there and made contacts that I hope to work with in the future. The festivals were also an essential part of spreading word about the film. The fact that we got into Frightfest, which is a very big genre festival here in the UK, was a huge badge of honor for the film and the Creature Below got to play next to some spectacular, big name horror films.
I have a vague recollection of the film being called "The Dark Below" when the teaser trailer was first released, is this correct and if so what brought about the name change?
When we first began production the film did have that title as we thought it was very mysterious and invoked images of the unknown deep beneath the oceans. Unfortunately, since we were living in our very own British filmmaker bubble we didn’t realize that a film based in the USA already had that title and was hitting festivals later that year. We started working on alternative titles as soon as we found out and didn’t stray too far in the end, settling on The Creature Below. Speaking to a lot of my indie filmmaker friends, title changes seem to be quite common when their film’s finally get distribution and I’m very happy with the title we have ended up with.
How did you and the writer, Paul Butler come to work on this?
Paul started working with me back in 2012 and whilst we made a number of short films together we always wanted to make a feature. Finally in 2015 we believed we had enough experience (and saved up enough money) to make something. Paul had a script about a love triangle in a domestic setting that had elements of horror but I suggested that it needed something else to make it more unique. I had also been reading a lot of H.P. Lovecraft at the time and that inspired us to draw inspiration from his work. Thus, the love triangle between three people became two people and an unnamable creature from the depths! We thought that was a fun and exciting idea and not something we had seen very much.
The film itself is a triumph budget versus payoff, did you really make this film on a budget of £12,000?
With this being our first film and only having a handful of short films under our belt we knew that getting funding would be quite hard. At the same time we both worked full time day jobs so we began saving money from each paycheck to finance the film ourselves. When we finally had enough saved up we both took two weeks vacation from work and shot almost everything in just 14 days, picking up anything we missed on weekends and evenings after work. I’m proud to say that we kept to our £12,000 limit and it was a very valuable learning experience trying to keep it under control!
That's incredible, what were the biggest challenges that faced you regarding keeping the budget under control?
There are so many little things that added to the cost that are easy to forget about when you are in the planning stages. Transport and accommodation was one of the biggest to consider as our cast came from all over the UK so it was important to make sure we could afford to bring them to us and give them somewhere to stay. Making sure that all their scenes were shot consecutively was essential as was ensuring we had all the footage we needed since bringing them back would have cost much more money. Also, buying little things like paper towels to mop up fake blood were always chipping into the budget and planning for these things early on are essential on these types of films! Overall though I think we did a good job of budgeting the film considering this was our first and if I could give any advice to someone planning to self finance their first feature they must account for essential paperwork like insurance and any licenses they will need to pay for, even into postproduction.
With the film being made on a shoestring budget, and in those fleeting moments of spare time, did you ever hit the "creative wall" and feel like enough was enough?
There were certainly times when myself and Paul were very stressed and felt like the whole world was caving in around us but the great cast and crew were always there to support us and could always lift our spirits when things went wrong. I found that having a close collaborator like Paul to share my concerns with and come up with solutions together was essential.
One of the themes of the film is the lengths that people will go to hide and develop their own obsessions, were there any parallels in the film and your own obsession to get the film made?
You could certainly say our obsession to get the film made is paralleled in Olive’s character. Most of our spare time for a year was spent on the film to the extent where I didn’t really have a personal life during that time! Also, having a full time day job at the same time meant that as soon as I got home from work I would start work again and my Playstation gathered a lot of dust over the year. After the brief 14 day shoot I became like Olive hiding away in the dark editing the film and became obsessed getting it to a standard I was happy with. It was a tremendous learning experience where I feel like I emerged as a completely different person and now that it is soon to be released it’s like a big weight has been lifted! Having said that, I can’t wait to get started on the next one and for the obsession to begin all over again.
The film follows an exciting and much-needed trend in films with having a strong and independent female lead. Was this something you intended to go for from the start? It must have been easy to have Olive fall into the trap of being another victim on the screen?
We knew a female lead was a must once we started writing the script as the maternal themes we wanted to play with were essential to the story and Olive’s growth as a character. Paul and I watch horror films together regularly and so often in horror we see female characters reduced to eye candy, running a screaming while the men save the day. There have been fantastic examples of how it should be done with films like the Soska Sister’s American Mary which was a big inspiration to us. We actually wrote the male characters as more of a stereotypical ‘female in a horror film’ role whereas Olive and Ellie were two strong women who know what they want and how to get it.
One of the things I loved about the film was the subtle references to many of the genres great films. In particular, the way in which the creature has at least three three distinct stages of its lifecycle. Was this a deliberate nod to the Alien franchise?
Alien is one of my favorite films so it’s probably not a coincidence! I’m a big fanboy when it comes to creature features as is Paul so we wanted to do our own take on the sub-genre. Giving the creature a lifecycle was not only a great opportunity to have more monsters in the film but also as the creature grows larger so do the stakes in the film and the creature’s influence over Olive’s mind.
And like Alien, you tease the audience with a deft hand with a slow reveal of the creature in all it's glory. While some of this must have been down to budgetary constraints, I can't help but feel that there was also a feeling of as soon as you have the big creature reveal, where do you go next. I strongly believe that the more you see, the less impact a creature has. Is this something you felt as well?
One of the reasons I liked Cloverfield so much is that we go such little glimpses of the creature that it let our imagination fill in the gaps. We heard its roar and saw the destruction in its wake but only got little teases of claws and teeth and it gave the creature a brilliant mystery and made you want to know more. Obviously the budget of the film was on our minds while writing the film and the practicalities of filming with a huge puppet add to the challenge. However, I still feel that by the end the audience deserved to stare it right in the face and I think we showed just enough to keep it mysterious. The teases of the larger creature throughout the film do work much better in building tension and anticipation of it’s reveal and it was a real balancing act all the way through to editing of how much do we show.
The creature design is excellent, in particular, I loved how in the early stages of the film the creature comes across as sympathetic being, not quite as cute and adorable as a lost kitten. Much of this sense came from the sounds the creature made. What did you use to create those noises?
Dave Walker our composer made the sounds of the creature vocally and combined them with real animal sounds, one of which I believe is a baby Crocodile. He did an absolutely fantastic job making it feel alive through the sound design. We wanted the baby creature to be almost cute and seem pretty harmless so that, like Olive, the audience would sympathize with it and share her level of emotional connection.
As the relationship between Olive and the creature develops she goes to greater and greater lengths to provide for her "baby" and yet despite the things she does, she still comes across as a sympathetic character, in particular, the scene with the old lady. How important was it to you that we felt for Olive and her struggles with sanity and the moral choices that she made?
It was vital that the audience empathized with Olive during the film and Anna Dawson did a superb job in the role. She was able to show a woman slowly stripped of her humanity and like in the scene with the old lady, she was fantastic and displaying flickers of humanity as the madness overwhelms her. Olive goes from protecting her ‘child’ to truly believing she is bringing about something of a glorious new world and getting the audience to understand her motivations was key and Anna did an amazing job.
A key strength of the film is the way in the "otherworldliness" is grounded in the real world. The scenes in the basement were akin to the way in which the Cenobites existed in the first Hellraiser film? Did you draw any parallels to that film while creating those scenes?
Hellraiser was not a direct inspiration on the way we showed the basement in the film but there are certainly parallels there. I wanted to contrast the rest of Olive’s home with the basement and using creative lighting and smoke gives Olive’s lair an otherworldly quality. Over the course of the film it gets darker and the colors shift to the other end of the spectrum to fit with Olive’s decent into madness. By the end of the film the basement is a warped reality and is representative of what the outside world could look like if the creature were to have its way!
The biggest influence on the film has to be Lovecraft; the film shares the same sense of dread brought about by our almost pointless existence in a universe populated by creatures such as this? How did you go about capturing this feeling of dread and despair in the film?
Lovecraft was hugely inspirational in shaping the tone of the film and we tried very hard to portray the overwhelming dread that his characters feel as they learn about forces older and more powerful than they could ever imagine. Much of this was down to the performance of Anna Dawson (Olive) who was great at showing a woman slowly loosing her mind as she comes to comprehend the truth of what she saw on her deep sea dive and what the creature in her basement truly is. Focusing on her home life with Matt and her sister Ellie gave us the chance to see what knowledge of the unfathomable does to a domestic relationship and this gives the film a grounded reality that everyone can associate with. Add to that the incredible sound design and score by Dave S. Walker and we ended up with a suitably grim and gritty tone which I hope feels refreshing for a film of this type.
Would you ever consider doing an adaptation of a Lovecraft story, and if so which one?
If I were to dare adapting one of Lovecraft’s stories Shadow over Innsmouth would be my choice as I absolutely love that story. It’s got a great journey for the protagonist who has to survive a terrifying night in a town of madness before discovering something even more horrifying about himself along the way. An absolute page turner and one I would love to see as a period film if done right.
What are you working on next?
We are currently developing a slate of genre films which we hope will entertain and scare the hell out of you! I can't go into too much detail yet but we're certainly not done with monsters and we have what we think are some really fun, original films we hope to bring to the screen very soon!
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I loved the film, do you have any final words for the readers of the site?
Thanks for having me! I really hope everyone enjoys the film and gets a chance to check it out. We had such a great time making it and I really hope that any other filmmakers thinking of making their first feature get out there and do it!