Mark Hartley interview: Patrick, Cannon Films, Statham

Interview Brendon Connelly 21 Aug 2014 - 06:51

Director Mark Hartley talks to us about his Australian horror remake Patrick, his Cannon Films documentary, and more...

Not Quite Hollywood director Mark Hartley didn’t want to be a documentarian, he wanted to jump right into making fiction films like his new one, Patrick. When we spoke on the phone recently, he told me the story of how things actually worked out this way, and why he never, ever wants to make another documentary again.

We also discussed the design and look of Patrick, the extraordinary score by Pino Donaggio and Hartley’s intent to make a more old-fashioned kind of horror picture with some retro-styling. It may behoove you to read this excerpt from Wikipedia first:

“In the 70s, directors made frequent use of the split-focus diopter. With this invention it was possible to have one plane in focus in one part of the picture and a different plane in focus in the other half of the picture. This was and still is very useful for the anamorphic widescreen format, which has more depth of field.

A split diopter is half convex glass that attaches in front of the camera's main lens to make half the lens nearsighted. The lens can focus on a plane in the background and the diopter on a foreground. A split diopter does not create real deep focus, only the illusion of this. What distinguishes it from traditional deep focus is that there is not continuous depth of field from foreground to background; the space between the two sharp objects is out of focus. Because split focus diopters only cover half the lens, shots in which they are used are characterized by a blurred line between the two planes in focus.”

There. That’s your homework done. Now, on with the interview.

Your appreciation of the original Patrick is well known, but to what extent was remaking it an act of homage for you?

I just wanted to make a feature narrative and Patrick was the film that came along. We all certainly wanted to be very reverent to the original. The writer, the DOP, the producer and myself all love the original. And this seemed like a great opportunity to make the kind of film I love, and the kind of film that isn’t made too often anymore, the old-fashioned gothic chiller. This was a wonderful opportunity.

I guess the opportunity came along through a relationship with Antony [Ginnane, producer of both versions] that you fostered through the documentary?

Justin King, the screenwriter, had been a researcher on Not Quite Hollywood and one day we were just sitting around - and this was a time when pretty much any film to ever go through a projector was getting remade in America - and we thought about which films in the Not Quite Hollywood canon could do with a remake. This wasn’t a plan to remake one, it was just a conversation, and the only ones, we thought, were Razorback or Patrick. We mentioned this to Tony and he said “Interesting you say that...”

He’d been trying to get a remake of Patrick going for the five years prior to this and had received lots of pitches and treatments from American writers. We read them and they all seemed to want to turn Patrick into Freddy Krueger. We said to Tony, “That’s not what’s great about Patrick. What’s great is that he’s a guy with unlimited powers but incredibly limited ambitions. That’s what you need to concentrate on.” We took that, added our gothic flavour to it and presented that to Tony, then he went away to find the money to make it.

Did you work quite closely with Justin as he was developing the script, then?

Justin and I actually wrote the treatment together. He’d go away and write scenes and I’d basically script edit those scenes and that’s how we got it done.

Was your plan always to direct fiction?

It was. It’s been a very strange detour, these few documentaries I’ve made. Prior to those I made about 150 music videos in Australia, that’s my background, and the documentaries just happened by accident. I always thought the music videos would be my stepping stone to feature work but that didn’t prove to be the case. 

Here’s a question I always ask of fiction directors. So... what tells you that you’ve put your camera in the right place? What tells you that you’ve got it right?

That’s a good question. I direct as an editor. My background is also in editing, so I’m always thinking about what shot cuts with another to get us through the scene with a limited number of set-ups. The performance is a lot more important than where you put the camera a lot of the time. It can be about seeing through the camera the performance. To tell you the truth, Gary the cinematographer and I had about eight months where this film was in limbo, waiting for cast, and so we shot listed this film within an inch of its life. We turned up on set and knew every shot that had to be done. It was important to do this to get it all done in the very limited time - we shot it in 25 days and we only had Charles [Dance] and Rachel [Griffiths] for 10 days each. I had to explain to Rachel that, really, the motivation in this film is what the camera is doing and she went along with that.

Why do you ask? Did you think there were lots of shots where the camera shouldn’t be where it is?

No, but there are a lot of shots where the camera is very specific. Some people seem to shoot blanket coverage, but you...

Oh, we had no time for that. We never did more than two takes, we were doing 30 set ups a day, and literally, the only way to do that was to always know where the camera had to go. The way I did it was that I drew floor plans of each set and didn’t do storyboards but aerial views of where the camera was, where the actors would be and how we would cover it. I guess that’s a little bit different to most people but I found it the easiest way to do this.

And some of it, where you’ve got the split diopter, they’re incredibly specific.

We knew we wanted to do lots of old-school split diopter shots and we kept on thinking of ways we could fit them in. I think they work a treat. Had we known how easy they are we would have done twelve times as many.

And why did you want them?

Because I love Brian De Palma’s films. I love split diopter shots in all of his films. That’s good enough a reason as any. 

Well, I thought as much. And I’m sure you’re not alone in making that decision.

It took us a long time to find the split diopters because nobody uses them any more.

Right from the very start, with the first shot of Charles right on the edge of frame, I thought “Okay, I see. That’s why Pino Donaggio has done the music.”

I don’t know if you’ve seen the original Patrick...

I have, a few times.

Well, that original is very obviously inspired by Hitchcock. Richard Franklin was a Hitchchock protege, and I’m a Richard Franklin protege so my film is inspired by Hitchcock’s proteges. As well as De Palma, there’s Argento and Richard Franklin in there.

All the same Hitchcock DNA getting remixed through subsequent generations.

Yeah.

The music is incredible. Can you remember any of your conversations with Pino?

I have to be honest and say that one of the single greatest moments in my life was when I got the email saying Pino was watching the film and was happy to do the score. I couldn’t believe it. Here we were making this remake of an Australian film in Australia and suddenly Pino Donaggio, who is my favourite living composer and who I listened to non-stop while writing the script, said he was going to do the score. And his score is exactly what I wanted. It announces from the first note what kind of movie this is.

Justin, the writer, came round to my house and they’d set up a video camera to where the orchestra was recording the score in Prague. But they didn’t have any sound, we could just watch them play. That was infuriating, but when they were mixing it, they sent us a feed. It kept dropping in and out but we were hearing amazing things, and saying “Could this possibly really be our score?” 

Not to run down the humans at all but the clinic is an extraordinary bit of casting. What a building.

The exterior?

Yes. Why did you choose that one?

As soon as I saw it I loved it. It was reminiscent of the original, it was far away from prying eyes, we could pretend it was coastal and it just looked like the perfect building for the various bad deeds that would be happening. We then built the interior to match its feel.

I don’t see it as an Australian location at all. We thought this could be set anywhere. It could be Wales. I love thrillers set in coastal towns - just look at The Fog, Dead And Buried, The Birds - they’re all full of small communities. It’s just the genre convention.

We shot the film at the height of the Australian summer with bright blue skies and to make it look like winter was quite an undertaking. Poor Charles [Dance] was there in these massive woollen suits. It was a hard shoot.

Was the whole film post coloured?

Not really. The skies have been added, but the look of the interiors is as the set was designed and lit.

Talk to me about that palette.

It was the first narrative film for Gary [Richards] the cinematographer too. We wanted to make a film that was very atmospheric, not like the kind of thing done in Australia at all. The only thing vaguely like this in Australia is Next Of Kin.

We sat down and watched lots and lots of reference and our main inspiration, I guess, was The Orphanage. Also Julia’s Eyes. The Spanish style of modern horror films.

If I took a colour swatch from your film and theirs, it would be comparable. I can see that.

Ours might be darker in that there’s a lot more shadow, but I’m really happy with it. 30 set ups a day, so the fact that it ended up looking good... I’m happy about that. 

Yeah, it does. It looks good.

It’s slightly misunderstood in some circles, I have to say. People either get it or they don’t.

What’s the problem?

Some people just aren’t prepared for a horror film like this. We wanted to make a film that was unapologetically full of jump scares and a lot of people don’t want that in their horror films. They just want people to be mean and nasty to each other, but that’s the last kind of film we wanted to make.

There’s space for both, I think.

Yes.

So what’s next, fiction-wise?

I honestly don’t know. I’ve just finished my final documentary ever and-

Hang on! You can’t say that. How can you say that?

I can very easily say that and I’m not just saying it, I’m getting it tattooed on my chest. Three’s enough. I’ll leave documentary filmmaking to the professionals from now on.

Did you see the other film about the Cannon boys? I don’t know if you’d consider it your competition...

I haven’t. I didn’t want to watch it until we’d finished ours. Did you see it? 

No, one of my colleagues did. He saw it at Cannes and rated it highly, I’ll admit. But he, like me, loves your previous documentaries, I believe, so there’s definitely room for one more. And you’ve got a lot of very different contributors in your film.

This is how I understand it, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is how it happened: we approached Menahem [Golan] and Yoram [Globus, producers] and they were initially very keen to be involved then, suddenly, all communication stopped and they announced their own documentary. I’m very keen to see it.

Ours is very much like Not Quite Hollywoood and Machete Maidens, it’s irreverent and honest, and we’ve got something like 80 or 90 talking heads in ours, so it’s certainly definitive as well. I’ll be very keen to see how the two play, the different tones and style that they have.

Now, we’re going to run out of time but not quite soon enough, I’m afraid. There’s a question I’m obliged to ask you because this interview is for a website with an odd problem. They finish all of their interviews with the same question, and I don’t know why, but they ask everybody what their favourite Jason Statham film is. Let’s just play along.

It would have to be Crank.

And why’s that?

It’s an insane film. Actually... okay, Crank 2. And Crank 2 has the best tagline of any film which is something like “He was dead and then he got better.” A great tagline. I have no problem with Jason Statham. I’ll go and see any Jason Statham film.

I think you’ll want to come back to this documentary game in about 20, 25 years and take a look back at Statham.

The only time I’d ever come back to documentaries is if I’m absolutely broke.

So then I hope you don’t.

The documentary game was fantastic, I got to meet a lot of my childhood heroes and that’s the only reason I did it. The first one was made to shine a spotlight on the people I admired growing up as a kid in Australia; the second one was because I grew up loving the films of Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, all the Corman guys; and this third one was because I really loved Michael Winner films. Of course, he died before we got to interview him.

There must be something else you love? There must be another subject?

There is something else I love. It’s called narrative feature work. Please bring it on.

Mark, thank you very much.

It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

Thanks again to Mark for taking the time to talk to me.

Patrick is out now on DVD. It now has the subtitle Evil Awakens, presumably to set it apart from the original. It’s an unabashed throwback and a loving tribute to everything Hartley told us he loves: De Palma, Franklin, Hitchcock, Argento.

We’re still waiting to find out when Electric Boogaloo: The Story of Cannon Films will be released, but there’s already a Facebook page you can follow.

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