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Mathew F. Riley [Film Festival 07.14.09] news interview horror

[Editor's note: The Disappeared premiers on IFC On Demand on Wednesday, July 15th. We like this one. Review here.]

Back in August of last year, QE managed to get in on the UK premiere of Johnny Kevorkian's urban ghost story, The Disappeared at the Frightfest in London. Review here. The film went down a treat and was a highlght of the festival, IMHO. A few weeks later QE managed to catch a busy, and somewhat relieved Mr. Kevorkian, (no relation), for a coffee and a chat to discuss this very British film.

QE: Where did the seed of the idea for The Disappeared originate?

JK: Myself and Neil Murphy, the Producer had had a really bad experience of a film script that we had optioned. I'm not going to mention the name. We'd tweaked the script and made it much better, but then we lost the funding and it was very, very frustrating. We said to ourselves that we couldn't keep on getting other people's scripts and spending all this time and money on them and then losing them at the eleventh hour. People were getting greedy and other comanies became interested and talking about getting big actors, big stars involved. Most of the time it doesn't work, you want something gritty instead of too polished, something that sends shivers down your spine, the hairs on the back of your neck, that's what we wanted. The cheaper the horror film, the scarier the horror film. That's my thing. We wanted to concentrate on the horror in it, the atmosphere; whereas if you've got a big studio-type horror film they won't allow you to get away with that. Atmosphere is the last thing on their minds. They want you to focus on the stars, and I don't think it works for a horror film, those slick techniques.

So we thought, let's just write our own, let's come up with our own damn idea! We sat down and said let's do a horror film, we can do it really cheaply and get away with it. And in the UK, at the time, there weren't (QE: and still aren't) many horror films being produced. Not this type of film, maybe a few slasher films, which I love as well, don't get me wrong I love all that sort of stuff, but we wanted to make a more atmospheric film, with more about the characters. We wanted to make a classic, old-school chiller, something we hadn't seen for a while. It started out the the EVP (electronic voice phenomena) idea of watching a press conference about a murder and hearing a voice of the victim. We saw a few of these on television a while ago, and we decided to see what we could do with that.

But we had to be careful as there was that Michael Keaton film, (White Noise), coming out and we didn't want to go down that route. I avoided that film at the time, and have only just seen it, and there's no comparison. Once we had the main idea we looked at the environment. Where could we set the film? Suburbia? No. Let's go to somewhere a bit more gritty. Let's make it scary. A council estate. Let's give people something they aren't expecting. Once we'd found the estate we'd have the whole place to set the film. Not just the inside of a suburban house.

QE: And how did you find the collaboration process with Neil Murphy?

JK: We sat down at different desks in the same room and just wrote. We had to be quite disciplined. Neil would come over and we'd lock ourselves in the flat for the whole day until six or seven at night. I really enjoy the process. I had a lot of ideas for scenes that I could already see in my head. Then we'd go off separately and I'd write pages 10-20 and Neil would write pages 21-40 and we'd put our own intepretation on the story. Then we'd sit down and combine the two versions; we got rid of loads of stuff - that's crap, that's crap. When we got the green-light to do the film we had a first draft that took a month to do, and the second draft took another month and a half.

QE: The film has two distinct halves - the contemporary urban ghost story, influenced by Asian scares; and the eerily atmospheric, almost gothic horror of the tunnels beneath the Church, influenced by the British Hammer and Amicus traditions...

JK: The big dilemma was how much to actually put in the film itself. In the older drafts we had more horror running throughout the whole film, and we had to think about how much we could leave in and still tell the same story. Having really interesting locations helped make that choice as they really help the tone and atmosphere, without really having to 'say' it in the script. A lot of the gothicness came in as we shot. The church is one of my favourite locations. I found the location I had in my head. The brief was find a place that gives me a feel of the church in Salem's Lot. I love that seventies scary unpleasant feel. That was in Honor Oak in South East London. It even had the right door!

QE: Are you a Londoner? How did you set about finding the locations...

JK: I've been in London forever! It was interesting and we had to look around for a while, and although it's a low-budget film, it does have a budget and a whole film-crew to look after and to get from place-to-place. It's not a Blair Witch, put-a-camera-on-a-shoulder-and-run-around, so there was a lot of responsibility. I gave the location guy a brief: it had to be colourless, it really had to feel creepy. I avoided shooting scenes with lots of extras, and tried to keep everything to a bare minumum. I wanted the atmosphere to come through by itself.

When I saw the pictures of Heygate, (the estate near Elephant and Castle, now being redeveloped and its residents rehomed), I knew straight away. When I went there for the first time it was really odd. It's surrounded by the city, but when you get there and walk through the heart of the estate you can't hear anything. It had the atmosphere I was looking for - no one's going to want to walk across this estate, it had a sense of being forgotten about, like the kids who are going missing in the film. It also had a sense of timelessness. I kept technology out of the film as much as I could. There are no mobile phones. I wanted the place isolated, cut off from the rest of the world. The bland colours of the buildings were striking, blending into the background really well.

We liased with the Council and shot there for three and a half weeks; the whole film took just under five weeks. We tried to keep in the background, but as soon as the kids on the estate got wind that Tom Felton (of the Harry Potter films) was there, they ran around asking for autographs, but it helped us befriend the locals who were absolutely lovely. There were a few 'junkie' types who didn't want us there; but the majority were a good bunch, and it was an estate full of families, a family-run estate, with lots of people working there who also lived there. In the playground scenes we had to stop the kids running around: we'll give you an autograph if you sit still for a few minutes, and they were great.

QE: Matthew's flat had a real impact on me. I couldn't imagine living in such a place...

JK: The interior of the flat was real. We actually did it down a bit. It was a great location, but it felt so claustrophobic. After being there in the flat for a whole week, it felt hot and enclosed, althugh the walls were paper-thin. It was the real deal, as were all the locations in the film.

QE: And where did you film the subterranean scenes? In London?

JK: The tunnels are the Chislehurst Caves, on the borders of Kent. There are 20 miles of man-made tunnels. People used to live there in the Second World War. There are churches down there, whole communities lived there beneath the ground. When you first go in, it's quite daunting and the crew were a bit freaked out. We were going to be there over three days, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. It feels cold in there at first, but it's got this bizarre temperature that you get used to - not cold or warm. Nothing grows in there. or lives in there anymore. It's absolutely pitch black. No lights at all. You have to take torches and if you got lost you had a whistle. It's the real thing and we thought we'd just film this thing. If we'd had a budget we'd have probably lit it or built it in a studio. In the sequence where Matthew's running through the tunnels, I wanted the scene to be just running and running until the film runs out of the magazine, and you couldn't get that in a studio. In a studio you'd have to be clever with the lighting and cutting, but there was no cutting, he just kept running. There was a problem with the crew running after him though! But I like the idea of this whole manicness. You can hardly see what's going on, and that's purely deliberate, and not knowing what's going on I wanted to bring that across in this great location. I think the crew became a bit stir crazy, and it was exhausting carrying all the equipment a long way in there. It wasn't just a cave, for example, the altar room had six or seven different areas leading off from it, so to make up that one location there were six or seven places to be used. That's where a studio has an advantage, I had to cut to make things seamless.

QE: How do you make locations scary?

JK: Excellent question! I think it's to do with the way you shoot it, in terms of lighting and colour. And I think it's how you time your shots. Going back to other horror films, there a lot of fast cuts, but I think you lose that sense of what's scary. What I find scary is staring at someone or something for a long time and the atmosphere builds around you and absorbs you. But a lot of the time it is the actual location itself, the look of the thing. We filtered a bit, but what I wanted the most was to use it and show it how it was. The brief to Diego, the cinematographer was let's make it realistic, let's not stylize, right up until the caves let's not follow a strict way of doing things. Once we got into the caves - let's go for stark lighting and bring up the horror elements and I think the contrast really works.

QE: So the darkness, a time-old problem for horror film-makers. Does hi-def make a difference?

JK: When we did the first cut of the movie, which was about two hours, me and the Editor sat down and tried to bring out the horror and the atmosphere. I was very nervous, because the last half of the film is so dark, we filmed with one light source, but people like it, and I think it worked. A lot of the films you see these days, it's dark, but it's not dark. It's not what you'd see. If there's no light you can't see anything and that's why it's scary!

You could shoot it in hi-def, but it goes quite milky and you lose that denseness of the blacks. So we shot on film. If we'd used hi-def we wouldn't have got the gritty atmosphere we did. We had a cast and crew screening and we'd converted to hi-def - it looked good, but not good enough. We projected it on 35mm at the Odeon (at Frightfest) and it looked great. On DVD it'll look great because we'll keep the source elements, the discipline of how we shot it, in the negative. The 35mm and the Hi-def are two completely different versions really.

QE: The Disappeared's a very English film, but perhaps employing Asian-inluenced techiques for the portrayal of the ghosts - e.g. reflections in glass, and so on...

JK: People are doing simple things to scare people because they work. The blander and more mundane the settings the scarier they are too. I use classic chill techniques like echoes because they do work. The handheld cameras in the caves also adds to the atmosphere. It feels real and organic. It does feel as if somebody's there with you. The key is not to make it look handheld, but for it to be handheld. This was all hand-held, but it doesn't come across, especially for the first part of the film.

QE: I really enjoyed the way you set-up a mythology of South east London ghosts...

JK: Again, you just don't see this in films. This city and that area in particular has a massive history of sightings and they're just not used enough.

QE: Were you aware that the characters and story could be seen as a metaphor for those people who live on the estate, some with troubled lives perhaps, and those who've lost children...

JK: Yes. The story and locations play on the biggest fears of society; estate gangs; dysfunctional families; child abduction. All these things, if you put them all into one location and it becomes even scarier. It makes it real, and people respond to that.

QE: A series of photos taken around the estates of the Elephant and Castle by students studying photojournalism can be seen here. Check out image 11 - the Ashenden building on the Heygate Estate.

QE: Harry Treadaway, as Matthew Ryan is awesome. How did you find the casting process?

JK: It was more of a case, especially with the more established actors, that I'd meet them and see if they wanted to work with me, as a first-time Director.

With Matthew's character, Harry Treadaway nailed it. Without him the film would be nothing. It's a drama as much as anything so if he's dropped the ball at anytime it would have been over. Due to his success, Harry's very selective about the roles he chooses these days, but Matthew's a great, great character. So I had to reassure Harry, and talk with him about what I wanted from the character: let's not have this character, who, depsite being scared, runs about screaming. Matthew's messed up in his head; and in the film, is it in his head, or is it real? He liked that angle and especially the fact he is a quiet character. There was one scene, where Matthew and Jake, his father, blow up, and I took it out as it detracted from the atmosphere. Greg Wise who plays Jake is about 20 years older than Harry, so the father and son relationship worked really well. You had to feel so sorry for the kids in the film. Matthew's character is quiet and messed up; whereas Tom's character, Simon, is louder and more confident, but who goes through massive attitudinal changes later in the film, when his sister goes missing.

Casting the evil character was challenging - how does he play it? Not under or over play it? He needed to be menacing and was the last character casted. The evil character, you could take him back to another time, another place, and people make their own interpretations. Some might say he's a vampire. But he's not. All these different things come up, and it's quite nice. I definitely wanted to keep the ending very, very ambiguous.

QE: Frighfest was back in August, so I got an update from Johnny on progress since then...

JK: The Frightfest guys really helped us get a lot of press. Fingers crossed, we're talking with 3 distribution companies for a possible theatrical release in the UK. We have been doing the festival circuit over the last few months and the film recently won best feature and sound at the Eerie Horror Fest in Pennsylvania. It also screened at Screamfest in LA, Lund in Sweden, the Dublin Horrorthon, Dead Channels San Francisco, Ravenna in Italy. Leeds is coming up this weekend and Malaga is next week. We are looking for a release pretty soon and hopefully I can update you with more as soon as I know.

My next projects starts the end of January 2009. It's another horror film, called Sleep Thief. It's a combination of Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, and The Machinist. I can't say a lot about it - it's a script we've optioned. It plays very much on modern fears and is very topical.

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