On the occasions when you’re not slowly transforming into a jittery caffeine hermit, film festivals can deliver the delicious experience of watching films ‘blind’ and devoid of marketing discourses. At Bram Stoker International Film Festival 2014, a specific film managed to snatch my preconceived prejudices and cast them into the darkness of the auditorium. The film was Judas Ghost, an impressive collaboration between director Simon Pearce and producer Wolfram Parge. As an expansion of the Ghosthunter’s mythos of New York Times Best Selling Author Simon.R. Green, Judas Ghost transcends its literary pedigree, as a paranormal investigation flick treading the path of Cube (1997) and Saw (2004) by staging effective sustained drama in a single location.
The narrative follows an elite group of ghost hunters called on a routine supernatural job at a village hall, with a team assembled from character types including snarky techie, psychic and megalomaniac micro – manager. Yet on this occasion the team has to work with a wildcard with a shady past, a former ‘Carnaki Institute’ ghost hunter emerging to complete ‘one last job’. While the initial set up of ‘found footage’ hijinks beckons carbon copy paranormal stories, Judas Ghost quickly develops into a film with incredible storytelling, superb acting and creative special effects. When director Simon Pearce accelerates surreal horrors into a sinisterly powerful supernatural force, the film flaunts impressive sustained siege set pieces (trapdoors of blood, swathes of liquid darkness) and in the spirit of Simon R. Green’s source material, masterfully balances horror with delicious black humour. With a recent win of ‘Best Horror’ at London Independent Film Festival and a litany of festival wreathes, the future undoubtedly looks bright for the pair.
Sitting down post – screening with Simon and Wolf at Bram Stoker International Film Festival, Flickfeast chatted to the promising filmmakers about the logistic horrors of found footage, appeasing Simon.R.Green and exorcising originality in commercial cinema.
Flickfeast: Bram Stoker International Film Festival is not the first film festival Judas Ghost has played at. Could you tell us a little bit about the journey of the film so far?
Simon Pearce: We have been to two festivals in the UK so far in London, the first was the London independent film festival where we won ‘Best Horror’ actually and the British Horror Film Festival last weekend which was in Leicester square for a big central screening. It was good to have it play on our home turf.
How did the project originate and how did you both end up collaborating on Judas Ghost?
SP: This was our first collaboration and we both came on board at different stages. Initially a mutual friend of mine is one of Simon Green’s oldest friends and went to school with him and he basically came to me and said I am looking to make a film are you interested?. Horror wasn’t necessarily a genre that I followed or was into before but I really liked the idea of doing one. So he gave Green a copy of one of the shorts that I had done and then we met with him and he was happy for me to do it. Wolf came on board a bit later because it was a bigger project than I am normally used to and I couldn’t produce it myself. Wolf’s name was recommended to me.
Wolfram Parge: Si’s father who was our cinematographer on Judas Ghost has worked with a friend of mine and he introduced us and we had some discussions about the project. Initially it started off with another script called the ‘Crooked Man’ by Simon Greene that he wrote first and wanted to make. We loved the story as it’s a big horror fantasy which is set in the jungle but it would have been too expensive so we went back to the table and asked him to consider another idea which he did very readily. He came back in a flash in 4 – 6 weeks later with the first draft of Judas Ghost which was the film screened today at Bram Stoker International Film Festival. There were a few polishes made to the draft afterwards but essentially the whole infrastructure of the story and universe of Simon Greene’s Ghostfinders was in place from the novels.
SP: We talked to Green about doing a calling card piece for both Greenm and ourselves and we were thinking along the lines of Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) which were simple ideas done on a small budget in a single location with minimal cast. We wanted to do something along those lines to work our way up to ‘The Crooked Man’ which is our bigger project.
FF: Judas Ghost had elements of found footage documentary, but it was refreshing to see it break away into a more traditional dramatic set – up. Was this intentional?
SP: That was because it was originally supposed to be a found footage film and that’s why that element was in the script. We talked about it and obviously the whole idea with found footage is that events that were filmed could have happened but because this is such a heightened reality in Judas Ghost you are never going to believe that it is real. Also we thought because it is such a fictionalised world we wanted to stylise it in a such a way that the found footage would almost limit. Also not only would we be in the same room with the same 4 walls, you then have the same camera angle and set pieces where they are in a protective circle and the cameraman can’t even move. As a type of narrative storytelling it became more limiting to what we wanted to achieve.
FF: How do you both feel about ‘found footage’ as a sub- genre, especially its stylistic frequency in horror cinema?
SP: I think it’s funny because in some ways I dismiss found footage because there seems to be so many. It’s great in that it has given independent low budget filmmakers a channel to make films without Hollywood production values but you know I have been guilty of dismissing found footage as being ‘overdone’. Yet every now and again I will see a found footage film and think there is some mileage in this. The whole teenagers in woods, or haunted hospitals have been done to death and I haven’t actually seen Rec 3 (2012) but the first one and second one I loved. I loved the mixing up of the swat team cameras and the kids stuck in the middle of the situation. I think it is important to justify why events are being filmed and with the police in Rec 2 (2009) that was understandable but as a filmmaker getting the kids in the building and having them keep filming was at times a stretch. I always struggle when I become too aware of why events are being filmed.
FF: Another effective element of Judas Ghost was the dramatic staging taking place in one location. With the surreal elements of the paranormal transforming the room both in terms of practical and digital effects, how did you tackle these continuities with the set you were using?
SP: We tried to film chronologically to make it easier for the actors and ourselves as the film plays out in real time. The reason we had to break chronology was because it took about 3 or 4 hours to re – rig a door every time one moved in the narrative. This didn’t fit in with our shooting schedules so we tried to do it so that always happened overnight. So for that reason we tried to shoot everything where the doors were in a certain configuration block so that is at the point where we had to start breaking the chronology of our shooting. All the doors and the walls were actually moveable which was one of the main reasons we didn’t end up filming on an existing location. The trap – door was trickier because it would be too expensive to build it on a raised floor they ended up building a six foot deep trapdoor
WP: The trapdoor was quite ingeniously constructed. It was a set within a set. The actual village hall could have been a real village hall in terms of its dimensions and windows, doors and entrances. It was a very faithful reproduction. The trapdoor was a raised set within the village hall which would have been chest height for the average person and that’s how everything was shot, with green screen around it and then it was blended into the film by a post – production house Peerless who are fantastic.
SP: That was another one where it was an overnight rig so you were limited in how you could shoot it, so we had to block everything out when we had the trapdoor for the day with the tank of blood underneath.
FF: In terms of the source material, Judas Ghost was based on Simon Green’s Ghosthunters mythos. As a film focusing upon a paranormal investigation unit with its own rules, rubrics and procedures how much leeway did you have to expand upon the source material?
SG: Green based a lot of what is in the books on old TV serials and movies that he had seen and the Carnaki which is a homage to an old book series and he has a spent a lot of time researching that world. Obviously things like the protective circle are common techniques that you read about which is fascinating researching online what the rules are for that. There are very specific things you need to do. We had to kind of invent our own rules in the end because usually there is a pentagram and you can’t cross any lines. Subsequently the circle the actors could stand in would have been in would have been much smaller if we were true to the reality of it. It would have been quite restrictive. Otherwise it was pulled from different sources from films you have seen but mostly through the mind of Simon Green and the rules of the Carnaki institute.
FF: How much input did Green have in the shooting and did he give you full creative control over the visual elements of the script?
SP: He was very good actually. We obviously liased with him whenever we had any changes to the script but he always accepted through the rehearsal process and the audition process we might discover things with the actors or elements that might work better on set. There is often things where you might have a line on a page which you can portray with a look to cut down on dialogue. He always accepted this would be a part of it and we always kept him informed about anything that would change with the script. He was very accepting and completely hands off in the editing process. We showed him a picture cut before any music or visual effects were added and he was really happy. I was terrified when he was watching it though. I was sitting behind him in a dark screening room in the post-production house watching his head and looking for any signs of dislike. He got up at the end and said ‘that’s the film I wanted to see’ which was an extremely huge relief and he was extremely trusting and great throughout the process. He came to the set twice for a couple of hours but apart from that he just left us to it.
FF: Speaking of the process what was the most challenging aspect of the film?
SP: For me as a director the fact that the film takes place in one room is tough. You have to keep that interesting for an hour and a half and it was tricky working out visually how we were going to work around the limitations of the budget and the one space. It was great that the cinematographer was my dad so we worked closely together to work out how we were going to structure the story so you always see the room from a slightly different angle. It was exciting to have the challenge but it was tough. Also the visual effects set pieces were so much bigger than any visual effects work I have done before and that was tough to get my head around. We had a great effects company Peerless Camera in London who worked with us and we had an on set supervisor with us and we would tell him what we wanted to achieve and he would help break it down.
FF: You mentioned your dad was a cinematographer Simon, does coming from a family of filmmakers effect your own perception and approach to directing?
SP: Both my parents are in the industry so I have always had a natural interest in it. Since I was about 10 or 11 I would make films with friends mucking about the house and I have loved it since then basically. I have always been a film fan
WP: I am the complete opposite to Simon as I didn’t start out in the film industry and worked other jobs becoming a freelance producer after my first short film in 2009. I was very lucky to meet up with Simon and to work on Judas Ghost. My original short was called The System which is on IMDB and I also have another short which was completed earlier called Borderline which is in the process of being uploaded to IMDB. It should be up there with a little teaser trailer before the end of the year. The System is a crime thriller and the Borderline is a short pitch for a feature we are developing which is a supernatural horror meets No Country For Old Men (2007).
SP: It was a good thing working with Wolf as he really knows horror and has watched it from a young age and again like Greene has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre. It was good for myself being new to horror to have a fountain of references and titles I could watch aswell.
FF: With your festival success thus far with Judas Ghost can you see yourselves comfortably working in horror cinema for the foreseeable future?
SP: I am developing a number things at the moment. One is a horror and another is an action / thriller as action is a genre that I am particularly fond of. One or the other may come off. Horror is not something I necessarily envisioned doing this early on in my career but now I have done it I am really into it and more into watching horror than I was before. I definitely want to do another one that is a lot darker because Judas Ghost is quite light with the references to The Frighteners (1996) and is tongue in cheek in places. I would ideally like to do something a bit more sinister. I am not worried about being typecast as you have filmmakers like James Wan who have been doing horror for a long time at a very good standard and now Wan is off directing The Fast and the Furious 7.
WP: We have both joint and separate projects but we would really love to work together again and it doesn’t really matter if it is in the horror genre or a thriller. I think our interests are very much rooted in commercial cinema so it could be any of the genres, it really depends which on makes it to the finish line first in terms of being greenlight and having all the ingredients in place to start production.
FF: Finally what do you hope audiences will take away from Judas Ghost?
SP: I hope it is something a bit different for them in terms of the tone of it. We intentionally made it to be a throwback to the ghost stories of old instead of being like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005). There is a tendency these days to be quite in your face with the gore so it is quite nice to see a film with creepier stories of ghosts which are making a comeback. Also the mixture of horror and humour is so prevalent in Greens books and we have tried to be true to that in this film. So we hope horror fans will appreciate that and at the end of the day I would like to think it’s a good entertaining ride, with some good scares jumps and laughs.
FF: Did you know that the Whitby Pavilion which houses Bram Stoker International Film Festival is apparently haunted?
SP: I hadn’t been told that but that does make sense. Maybe we will do a paranormal investigation and if we capture anything we will sell the footage and turn it into a movie. Cue a Judas Ghost sequel …
Judas Ghost will be released on various VOD platforms in November and released on DVD in 2015
For more information check out the Judas Ghost official website.