From the Narcissus myth to the frights of Oculus (2013), mirrors and ‘reflections’ have often been used in stories to reflect psychological states, serving as occult portals to alternative realities. Another filmmaker to take advantage of these properties is the award winning Ed Boase, with his directorial feature debut The Mirror dramatising the real plight of two London flatmates tormented by a mirror they discovered in a skip. After listing the item on Ebay as a ‘haunted mirror’ the flatmates torturous experience was snapped up by UK national papers stoking a surprising flicker of public interest in the combination of technology and the supernatural. Fittingly, Boase’s horror flick takes advantage of this delicious divide between fictional horror and existing testimony to craft a low budget flick oozing tension, sustained by improvisational performances and slotting comfortably into the over saturated ‘found footage’ horror sub –genre.
With the The Mirror set for a 8th December DVD / VOD release, Flickfeast caught up with Ed Boase at his Frightfest premiere screening to chat controversy, haunted mirrors and the trials and tribulations of low – fi indie filmmaking.
Flickfeast:In comparison to your previous shorts, what was your entry point into ‘The Mirror’ as a filmmaker and storyteller?
Ed Boase: I was on the look-out for a simple, ideally scary story which could be filmed in a single location – and one which would suit the found-footage format. I’d been hugely impressed by VHS (2012) and thought I’d copy that, basically. I didn’t have much money (Blooded was made for about £150,000, whereas for The Mirror I had £10,000) so keeping costs low was a priority. Found-footage in a single location seemed the way to go. I read a story in Feb 2013 about a couple in Muswell Hill who’d rescued an antique mirror from a skip and put it in their flat, only for several unexplained and bizarre occurrences to take place: they woke up covered in scratches, as though from an animal; a strange ghostly mist appeared in the flat, which only one of the flatmates could see (it was only visible to the other through a camera lens); finally, furniture started moving of its own accord. Their course of action was to list the object on eBay as a ‘haunted mirror’, which attracted 20,000+ views in a matter of days. International news outlets picked up on the story, which is how I came to hear about it.
I contacted the flatmates through eBay and arranged to meet them in a pub in Muswell Hill. It was slightly awkward at first – after all, I was a complete stranger (and vice versa) – but we soon gained each other’s trust and they agreed to let me have the rights to their story for a small sum. They even let me see the mirror, which was still in the flat, and take photos. Soon afterwards, the real mirror was shipped to an occult enthusiast in Germany. I elected not to tell the flatmates’ exact story because it had already been documented by the press; instead, I created a fictional extension of the story whereby three flatmates buy the mirror from eBay with the idea of filming spooky goings-on and claiming the (real-life) One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge offered by the James Randi Foundation in the US.
FF: In your previous film Blooded you used viral marketing tactics and fictional websites to stoke controversy within existing debates on animal rights, ‘The Mirror’ performs a similar feat in using testimony of an existing ‘haunted’ object to inform the drama. Did you always plan to create The Mirror with that thin divide between fiction and testimony reconstruction?
EB:I was after a good story, pure and simple. I knew that the real-life aspect of the story would come in useful further down the line, but that wasn’t the main appeal. What I found fascinating was the everyday-ness of the menace; everyone looks in the mirror at least once a day, and who – at some point in their lives – hasn’t thought ‘what if I saw someone, or something in the reflection’? So it was relatable, mundane and had a Stephen King quality to it which I loved. With Blooded the idea was to stoke up controversy, which got slightly out of hand, resulting in threats against us and the distributor (mostly by people who hadn’t seen the film). Animal rights and hunting arouse fierce passions, and the online cat-fights which took place between pro- and anti-hunt campaigners risked overshadowing the film. People made up their minds whether they loved or hated Blooded before it was actually released. When it was released, it briefly become the most-pirated film on the internet. So, it got lots of coverage in the press/online, but I probably won’t be going down the same controversial route again anytime soon. At least with ghosts – or haunted furniture – people are divided in a relatively peaceful way; they either believe it or they don’t. Where the real-life aspect of The Mirror has come in useful is that press as diverse as The Evening Standard and Grazia magazine have picked up on it. I think the combination of the modern, tech world (the mirror was listed on eBay) and the supernatural is an intriguing combination and has captured people’s imaginations. Plus, the mirror actually exists, and is out there somewhere. Waiting for a sequel.
FF:For a low budget film that is reliant on the performances, what was your process for casting the lead actors? How did working on such a micro – budget effect the whole production?
EB: The amazing Gillian Hawser, (who cast Blooded) is one of the gatekeepers of up-and-coming British acting talent and found the actors. We saw maybe 40-50 people for the three parts. Jemma (Dallender) was a relatively easy choice. Not only is she talented and beautiful, she also had a profile thanks to the (then-unreleased) I Spit On Your Grave 2. The two guys were more of a challenge, and we spent two days trying out various combinations until we had the right match in Nate Fallows and Joshua Dickinson, who are real talents to watch. The audition process was simple: tell a scary story in five minutes. It was crucial that the cast could be spontaneous, engaging and think on their feet, as I’d made the risky decision to improvise the entire film. I wanted the film to feel authentic, as though the audience is spying on the lives of three friends and experiencing events through their eyes. The cast could never be caught ‘acting’ and on-set (an actual flat) I took great pains to create a ‘sandbox’-style environment where the cast could have free rein. My direction essentially consisted of ‘At the beginning of this scene, x happens, and at the end, y happens’. Everything else was down to them. The downside of working in this way is that you can’t plan ahead too much as the film is effectively being created on the spot. That said, I did have an outline in my head and a strong idea of how the story would end. We shot 20 hours of footage over 9 days for an 83-minute film, which made the edit process fairly lengthy and involved. Mercifully, thanks to the on-the-spot brilliance of the cast I was spoilt for choice, and there are many great scenes/moments I was forced to leave out – maybe they’ll end up on Youtube one day. As for working on a micro-budget, it really is vital to pick the right crew who aren’t going to whinge about Sainsbury’s sandwiches, travelling to work on the Tube and low pay (no-one was paid more than £150/day). Thankfully everyone on The Mirror was heroic, and I’m thrilled that their hard work has paid off with the premiere at Frightfest, and subsequent DVD/VOD release.
FF: Did this approach effect the way the film has been marketed and received?
EB: The low-budget has been beneficial in one sense; people can’t believe we made the film for so little. On the downside, distributors are less inclined to stump up big bucks for a low-cost film (of course, there are notable exceptions). I’d recommend other filmmakers exaggerate their costs to avoid this! As for how the film has been received, there aren’t many reviews at the moment, however Luke Owen from Flickering Myth has said it’s one of the best British found-footage films in recent memory, which is pleasing.
FF: The characters in the film are often blinded by their attempts to win the 1 million prize from the James Randi Foundation competition, named after the famous performer / magician notorious for exposing hoax footage. What objections have you faced thus far towards the legitimacy of the existing haunted mirror and how would you deal with them?
EB: I’ve had several conversations with friends, family and people in the industry about the mirror itself and people tend to respond in the same way; initially – amusement, then genuine intrigue when they learn more about the experiences of the flatmates. There’s photographic evidence of the ghostly mist and video of furniture moving. Yes, it could be faked. But the two flatmates – who I’ve come to know, trust and like very much – aren’t special effects people. They’re normal people who’ve had an extraordinary experience. A visiting psychic said that something terrible had happened in front of the mirror, that someone had perhaps been killed or even murdered. While I don’t personally believe in ghosts, I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that objects can absorb certain energies, good or bad.
FF: What do you hope wider audiences will take away from ‘The Mirror’ and how do you feel about screening the film to such a genre savvy audiences as Frightfest? Where do you hope to take it next?
EB: I hope people aren’t put off by the found-footage format; in my experience, found-footage takes a minute to adjust to and then you’re either swept up by the story or you’re not. Ultimately, found-footage is a storytelling technique, nothing more. It’s the story than counts, and I hope audiences will enjoy the ride. I’m also thrilled with the performances; the ending is chilling, I think; my favourite comment from a viewer has been ‘I didn’t know whether to laugh or be terrified’. I’m really pleased that the natural humour of the cast has resulted in some laugh-out loud moments. This isn’t a wink-at-the-audience kind of film, but it does have fun with a pretty outlandish concept. Next is a DVD/VOD release through Matchbox Films on 8th September. It’s also playing Telluride Horror Show, and other festivals are starting to get in touch. I’d love as many people as possible to see the film and let me know what they thought. Ultimately the goal was to make something people are entertained and occasionally frightened by.
FF: What future projects do you have in the pipeline? Do you plan to continue directing in the horror genre?
EB: Yes, I’m putting the finishing touches to a new script inspired by one of my favourite films, Flatliners, with more of a horror angle. You won’t look at needles in quite the same way again. Josh Dickinson and Nate Fallows (from The Mirror) are hopefully coming back for this, which is set on campus at UCL (University College London) and shares DNA with Shallow Grave (another favourite).
FF: Do you have any information about what has happened to the original mirror? Would you ever hang it over your mantelpiece for ‘research purposes?’
EB: I did briefly consider buying the mirror and storing it somewhere. Equally I could have used it for the film. But I just didn’t want to risk and frankly I was scared of it. That said, I would love to have wheeled it out for the premiere at Frightfest on Saturday. Although I’m bringing the next best thing: the two flatmates, who will taking part in a Q&A after the screening. Also, we’ll be giving away the prop mirror from the film to a lucky audience member.
‘The Mirror’ will be released on DVD/VOD through Matchbox Films on the 8th September