Chris Stone interview: Blood And Bone China, and making period horror on a budget

How do you make a horror movie as good as Blood And Bone China for just £3000? Sarah caught up with director Chris Stone to find out…

Something nasty is lurking in the background of Stoke on Trent’s pottery industry in the 1900s, according to Blood And Bone China. Something with fangs. This British vampire movie started life as a YouTube series, and has since been turned into a full-length film. We caught up with writer/director Chris Stone to find out more about it…

What inspired you to make Blood And Bone China?

I’ve grown up in Stoke on Trent my entire life, seeing the pot banks every day, and I thought ‘hmm, what happened in there? Bit of Sweeney Todd, using human bones to make bone china?’ Stoke has this great history of producing bone china, and I’d been talking to Rachel Shenton, who’s in Hollyoaks, for years about doing a web series, so it all fell into place.

What with vampires being hugely popular with True Blood and Twilight and all the other vampire things, I thought, why not have a go at doing a vampire one, but instead of doing teen romance, why not go back and do something more Hammer Horror style? It seemed like nobody had done it for a good few decades, so I thought, I’ll have a go at that, do a Hammer style series…

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And then I actually found out there was a real vampire case just around the corner from me, a real vampire police case! I incorporated part of that story into the series, having a real vampire story literally on your doorstep was quite exciting.

It started off as a 12-part web series and then I re-edited it into a feature film which had its premiere at Stoke Your Fires festival in February just gone, and it’s just had its US premiere in Pittsburgh at the Horror Realm film festival.

So, it was originally made as a series, so how did that work, did you film them all at once…?

Noooooo! We were doing them as we were going along, we did the first four and they got premiered at Stoke Your Fires in 2011, but it kind of helped producing them and having them online at the same time, because it got a bit of a following and people would get in touch with me and say, ‘I’ve got this location if you need it’ and we started building up a fanbase, which was great. It was hard to keep to a deadline; initially we wanted to do one every two weeks, but some of them missed the deadline because I wanted them to be as good as possible – to put out quality rather than putting them out for the sake of it. 

Were they all written to begin with though?

Yeah, it was all written first, but with doing a low budget indie web series, things changed all the time – either a change of location, or actors’ availability, but it was great, because we’d come up with new and better ideas. I actually came across some of the original scripts the other day and thought, ‘Oh my God, how different are some of these scenes?’ It actually helped, chopping and changing and letting the actors improvise and stuff. It was a really fun process.

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It’s interesting, because I saw it as a film, and it seems totally cohesive, so it’s hard to imagine how that could have been put together from a series…

Oh, the whole thing was structured as a film first, and then I went and re-worked every single part so it’s a little mini story in itself, so the scripting part took ages, and some of the scenes and characters changed and developed as it went along.

It looks great – presumably you’re working on a fairly low budget…

It was £3,000.

…So why did you decide to make it a period piece? Doesn’t that make it more difficult?

Yeah, it makes it a thousand times more difficult! But I’ve done period pieces before, I’ve done World War I music videos, 17th century stuff, so I just like doing period stuff. And Stoke on Trent still has a lot of Victorian architecture and museums and stuff, so literally, all this stuff was to hand. Some of the scenes were literally shot – well, I’m looking out of the window now and we literally shot in an alleyway across the road. There was only one location that was more than a 10 minute drive away.

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Everything was on our doorstep ready to go, it just needed a bit of set dressing and thinking about costumes. Most of that came from charity shops. We’d pick up waistcoats and long tailed coats and we kept recycling them, changing things around. The trick is to try and make it look as expensive as possible, as inexpensively as possible. 

I think you pulled it off, it looks great. All the performances are great, too; Anthony Miles is brilliant…

He’s super. I swear to God, he’s gonna be the next Doctor one day. Anthony is absolutely superb. And I’ve known Rachel for years and years, she’s in Hollyoaks. And David [Lemberg], who plays the villain, has just been in The Seasoning House, which just opened the Film4 FrightFest, and Lewis [Brindley] has just been in a CBBC series, so it’s like everybody is just emerging, everyone’s careers are just taking off, so we were lucky. And they’ve become my best friends, I speak to David on the phone all the time, we all stay in touch.

It’s always good when these things are actually fun to make…

I mean, there were days of stress, mainly when we were filming in museums while they were open to the public and we had to be finished by 5pm, so the stress of getting everything done before five and get packed and go, that was stressful, but working with the actors was an absolute joy. You hear directors say that, but really, this was fun, it was great working with everyone.

How long did it take, from start to finish?

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Well, if I class this now as the finish, I’d say two years. I started it about this time 2010, roughly.

How did you fund the project?

The initial funding came from the Stoke Your Fires film festival. I didn’t want to do a corporate video like, ‘Welcome to Stoke, we make pottery’. I wanted to make something where you’d learn about the history of Stoke without it beating you over the head. I wanted to do for Stoke on Trent what Doctor Who did for Cardiff. You know, it’s not all about Cardiff, but people go down to Cardiff because they’ve seen Doctor Who. And I’ve had reports from the museums that people have come in – from America, actually – they’ve come in to visit because they’ve seen Blood And Bone China, so it’s done the trick that I wanted it to do. 

What was the biggest challenge in making Blood And Bone China?

Everything had its own mini challenges. Just getting that look right, getting the story right – because the story is really the key with everything. Getting everything flowing, designing characters where the audience emotionally engages with them; you can have the best props and costumes in the world, or you can have the a really simple story where people actually like the characters and want to see what happens to them, that is the key to everything really. Everything else is just the gloss to make it look shiny and nice, but getting a really good, emotional story, where you’re cheering for the hero and booing the villain, that’s it.

On the production side, working on an incredibly tight tiny budget, but I think that forces you to be creative, like Jim Cameron’s film, The Terminator, was done on an ultra-low budget really, for what it was, and looking at tricks that he used, using tin foil for crushing the terminator heads, it makes you think of creative solutions around problems, rather than just, if I had millions and millions it’d be like, ‘Just CGI that, just CGI that’…

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It does make you focus on your story and characters, because you’ll forgive dodgy effects if the story’s there.

Exactly. As Pixar says, story is king. So I’m constantly learning about story, studying how the mechanics of that work. I think indie filmmakers can sometimes be too focused on the kit and equipment, what cameras they have, but no, the key to everything is the story and characters because that’s what people are watching. You could have a great film shot on an iPhone! It’s nice to have it all glossy and shiny but you can have a fantastic film really simply shot but with a really good story.

The end of Blood And Bone China implies there might be a sequel, are you working on something like that?

I’m working on something at the moment, I don’t know if you’d call it a direct follow up, I’m just working on the script right now. Again, it’s all about story. If the story doesn’t work, then there’s no point making it, so I’m just trying to work out the characters’ pasts and emotional arcs; essentially, if you don’t have a story that emotionally resonates with an audience, there’s no point doing it, is there, really? You can throw in bangs and flashes and cool stuff, but, y’know. 

I think that’s what made me realise the film had worked for me, because I felt like I wanted to watch that sequel.

Oh, brilliant. That’s kind of done its job, then. You’re caught up enough with the characters that you want to watch them go on and develop. That makes me so happy.

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If people want to watch it, how should they do that? Is the series still online?

All 12 episodes are online and we’re doing a limited DVD release too, which has just gone live. It makes a perfect gift for Halloween! But yeah, people can watch the series version online and the feature film version on DVD; the film version has some new bits just to gel it all together. It has a couple of new shots, little bits that I altered in the audio that I wasn’t happy with in the web version, but if anyone watches they probably won’t notice the difference, to be honest!

Actually, the first chapter is completely different – so what you see online and on the DVD wasn’t the first chapter that went out on the web originally. By the time I’d got to chapters 10, 11, 12, I’d learned so much and I wasn’t happy with how it opened so we ended up going back and reshooting the whole opening sequence to make it more mysterious – what’s in the box, who’s she, what’s going on here? – but yeah, you’re constantly learning.

Which version would you recommend people watch, then?

They can watch both versions! The beauty of doing a web series is people can watch it on the way to work and stuff. It’s amazing the number of people that want to buy the DVD that have already seen the film because they just enjoyed watching it and they want to own a copy. But yeah, I put it out there for free so everyone can see my work, and the actors’ work, and be an advert for Stoke on Trent.

Chris Stone, thank you very much.

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