Interview: Lesbian Vampire Killers director Phil Claydon

The director of the easiest marketing sell of 2009 talks about the sexy package that Momentum pictures couldn't resist. Oo-er...

Phil Claydon’s last foray into horror was the Poe-inspired Alone in 2002, but he’s re-entering the genre on a far less serious note with Hammer-glamour homage/comedy Lesbian Vampire Killers

Are you a Hammer fan yourself, by the way, or did you have to study up on the 1970s lesbian vampire movies?

They were part of my film education. I grew up watching movies – that’s all I did! Renting VHS – the VHS days were great. Staying up late to watch a Hammer film was great. For one thing they weren’t very scary, but on the other hand they took you into this world. I loved the theatricality of it, and the theatricality of the extreme red blood! I remember sitting down and watching The Horror Of Dracula and the first Terence Fisher movies. It was real fast-paced storytelling. You had eighty minutes – you’re in, you’re out. It was great fun, and they didn’t drag on at all because they would have been out of time or budget to finish it [laughs].

Obviously Lesbian Vampire Killers pays a homage to the Karnstein trilogy, with The Vampire Lovers and Twins Of Evil. If you shot [Lesbian Vampire Killers] from the point of view of Paul McGann’s vicar, you’d probably have a pretty straight Hammer horror movie.

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Has Lesbian Vampire Killers possibly been the easiest film ever to market?

I think it’s been the most enjoyable film ever to market. When you’ve got a title like that, all the marketing people just get hold of it. Sam Raimi was speaking to Rob Lewis at MTV in an interview, and he was talking about Lesbian Vampire Killers. He said that if you can’t sell that film, you’ve got no business in the film business, and I think that’s pretty much the right attitude to have [laughs].

Is it true that it was a Hammer project early on?

Hammer came in, but they didn’t offer to make the film. They were offering some really lousy development deal. But AP put me in touch with Momentum, so we went there and pitched the film for an hour and showed them all the storyboards and told them what kind of movie they’d get for the amount of money they’d give. They loved it and said ‘We’re in’. Hammer suddenly agreed that they’d missed out, but they were offering us to sit round and rewrite the script for ages with no promise that the film would ever go into production, whereas Momentum read the script and loved it and were ready to commit to producing the film. So you tell me, Hammer [laughs]. Which option would you take as a film-maker?

How did you get involved in the project?

This was five years ago. My friend Rob Lewis was at MTV and I was talking to him about making micro-budget comedy horrors and he said ‘Ah, my friend’s writing a script called Lesbian Vampire Killers‘. Great title! Grabs you instantly. And then you expect the script to come in and be sort of trashy, low-down B-movie rip-off; but no, it was smart, witty, sassy, funny and was offering more than the title was actually selling.

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Then it was basically a long haul. Half of that was about making it as a micro-budget movie, and then AV pictures sales people came along and said that now the script was getting a lot of interest as a proper-budget movie. The second half of getting the movie made was trying to get the finance together to make it properly. We did have one false start, with the wrong producers and the wrong financiers.

But in that process we had casting, and I managed to get James Corden in, because I liked him in The History Boys. James came along and said that he loved the script and wanted to be in it, and that he just wanted to see this film! So the film fell through because there was no money in the bank and the financiers weren’t worth a light, but we managed to ditch all those off and got in touch with James who then sent me Gavin & Stacey DVDs before that was even big. This was early 2007.

There were notes on the back and it just said ‘If you build it, he will come’. And that was obviously Mat Horne [laughs]. Mat read the script after I asked him if he’d be interested – this was all before the hype, so that me and him could have a chat. So I went ahead and kept him posted.  Many people were interested in doing the film; Pathe at one stage. Sony were interested, but they weren’t committing in any way, shape or form.

Finally Momentum pictures got in the room and said ‘Go for it’. Having James and Mat attached, it wasn’t the total green light, but it was the sexy package. At that point there was Gavin and Stacey – the show was winning BAFTAs, they were in the public eye and everybody was into them, from BBC3 to BBC1, Christmas specials – that all helped with pushing it towards a green light in the early part of 2008. The money was there and we could do it properly.

Lots of directors have been a bit intimidated away from making horror-comedies by the huge success of Shaun Of The Dead. Was that actually a favourable factor for Lesbian Vampire Killers?

Not really. As a film-maker, I saw The Empire Strikes Back when I was four. I was into movies from a very young age. Then I grew up through the video-nasties era, but also I grew up in the eighties, so I was sort of the bastard son of Joe Dante and Howling, Piranha, Gremlins…early Spielberg: Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Duel.

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I just wanted to make something that was real popcorn, real entertaining and had all those elements that you really liked. It was a straight comedy to begin with, which I really liked – it was a lot of fun. It had that Ghostbusters element to it, and also the horror mythology with the vampires. Shaun Of The Dead didn’t put me off in any way. It was its own movie. Lesbian Vampire Killers is completely different in its tone – it’s more a straight comedy. Rather than trying to be a George Romero movie, this was trying to re-invent the old school Hammer films.

Did you look up any other horror comedies from the past in approaching LVK?

I think it began with Abbott & Costello. I just loved Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Then it goes all the way through to the 80s, where you had Lost Boys and Fright Night coming out. The idea of mixing in horror and mixing in fun…it broadens horror’s appeal. Horror’s a bit of a niche market, but you can encompass the horror fans and also encompass a slightly wider audience, where you may jump out of your seat, but it’s not going to offend you because you’ll get a laugh in there as well.

Was it refreshing to be able to delegate as a director with a proper budget after having done pretty much everything for Alone in 2002?

Alone, as a script, wasn’t all that brilliant, so you hoped you’d come in and somehow make it an experience. With [LVK] we started off with a great script and a very funny script and had a very clear vision. So it was like getting a real core team together…with the vampires, for instance, I was heavily influenced by heavy metal, and there was that kind of a vibe going on from a design point of view. I really wanted to take this old-school thing of building a set, building a forest, building a fantasy environment so we could drop our two characters, Fletch and Jimmy, into this fantasy world.

Originally, in the script, the ending took place in a mansion and I said ‘Well, mansions in the UK..’. There we could have got a Ruth Rendell mystery. They don’t look very cinematic and they’re real hard to shoot in. So we sat down with Keith [Maxwell], my production designer and said that a forest was more organic for these people, because they live in a run-down graveyard, where it can all happen. With that forest idea coming on board, it just opened it up visually, and it was a lot more exciting.

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Was there a lot of night shooting?

No, it was all shot in the studio. It was the best thing for this film that it didn’t happen, because if it had we would have shot in Wales, shot on location, and we wouldn’t have had much money because the budget was tight. This time we had more money and it was a pre-requisite to build [the forest] in a studio, by hook or by crook. Night shoots kill everybody. It’s a comedy and people need to be in good spirits throughout. Shooting in a safe environment allows us to move quick, because we have a lot of practical special effects. I wanted total control over the movie’s lighting, without the interference of outside elements.

So eventually we got stage 7 down at Three Mills and managed to build this entire cottage and forest. It was a small stage, but we managed to shoot every inch out of it by moving trees around and using every trick in the book to open it up as much as possible.

Is it harder to work with established comic talent than straight actors, who maybe take orders better? I’m wondering if there were a lot of rewrites…

We didn’t go into rewriting the script. James and Mat loved it, they thought it was very funny. James being a writer himself, he knows what material’s good and what isn’t, so they were very much 100% into the material. When we got shooting and we’d done a couple of takes, I’d have the freedom to say ‘Come up with an idea and go for it’. If it’s funny and it works, it’s in. If not, doesn’t matter. James and Mat did a lot of riffs, coming up with different ideas. Some made it into the cut, some didn’t . The great thing about them is that they’re comfortable with each other, which just makes it really easy. You’re not trying to create a chemistry – it’s already there. They love working together and they bounce off each other very well. In a 32-day shoot, when you haven’t got much time, they could turn up and just turn it on, which they did – every day.

I’m guessing that gore gets discussed a lot if you’re making a horror comedy, because it could really take you out of the comedy feeling if you get the tone wrong. Was that a consideration for you?

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I loved all the gore in the Sam Raimi Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2. I remember he went and changed all the colours – you had green stuff and black stuff…when my vampires get chopped up, what I didn’t want was that when they get their head chopped off, you see gore and parts of bone coming out and flesh…

So the vampires…when you become a vampire, you’re a very sort of sensual being, soft and mushy, and I didn’t imagine them and I didn’t imagine them to have any bones. More like the inside of Bishop from Aliens! So when they get chopped up there’s white gunk spraying everywhere. Also it was a very colourful movie, so it was great to play up against the reds and the blues…

So you were after a very saturated Hammer-style colour palette…?

Yeah! I love all that. All the desaturation we have these days, it just takes away from the beauty of what colour is in the cinema. Your eye responds to it and you get excited by seeing colour. I love that too in the old movies, Technicolor movies like Gone With The Wind or The Wizard Of Oz. These saturated colours are beautiful, and that’s what I wanted for this. We shot on a digital Red camera, which really picks up colour very well. When you go to the digital intermediate process, you can really pull the colours out, and we saturated a lot of the reds and blues to really give it a vibrancy. And it gives it that comic-book, graphic novel feel.

It’s nice to have a British movie which the US and other markets are so interested in, as they are in Lesbian Vampire Killers, and to see films like Chemical Wedding that celebrate a really British horror heritage. Do you think we need more of that kind of output?

It’s disappointing when you come up with a film like this, which is comedy-horror with two great TV talents, and your only comparison is a film made five years ago, like Shaun Of The Dead. In America they’re doing these films every year, and TV stars are transferring to movies. All kinds of movies. Horror movies, comedies…over here, it takes so long to get them up and running. If you look at the wave of British movies that are coming out in the comedy horror – or just the horror – genre, there’s obviously this great talent that should be exploited more.

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Is gothic horror your preference in making horror movies? I would think Joshua Breed might be a more gritty project for you…?

I think I’d like to mix it up rather than get stuck in one genre and have someone typecast you. With Joshua Breed – or Survive, as it’s going to be called – I’m not going to be making that next. It’s not wrong to say that I’m going to make it. It’s just not going to be the next one. There’s another project I’m interested in, but I’m not really sure if it’s a goer or not yet, so I can’t really say whether I’m going to be doing it or not. But its feet are firmly in genre film-making. It’s not suddenly going to be Revolutionary Road Part 2. Being able to create a world is what excites me. Survive will be this kind of manufactured TV world, which will be more a Dante’s Inferno, medieval kind of set-up, to make it as gritty as hell.

But I love what gothic horror gives us, which really gives it the architecture. It’s a world you can always dive back to and it always looks good. Like the new Sherlock Holmes film coming out – I can’t wait to see that. Victorian London – you can just feel it and smell it as soon as you go into that environment. That’s what cinema should do. You pay your money, and you don’t want to appear in Crouch End – you want to be in Victorian London or an enchanted forest. Surrounded by lesbian vampires, you want something to look and feel different and just take you away; kind of like walking into a fairground, really. You just disappear out of wherever you are.

Do you have a box of escapist projects then that you’d like to get off the ground? Sci-fi, horror…?

I haven’t got one specific project. I’ve got scripts, obviously, that I’ve written in the seven-year hiatus between Alone and Lesbian Vampire Killers. I would have loved to have done a modern-day re-working of Day Of The Triffids, but the BBC are already doing that so that kind of knocked the idea on the head. I’d probably like to go back to Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, and make that. When you read the book, it’s an absolutely awesome romp. It kind of combines devil-worshipping with an Indiana Jones race-against-time.

Like Sax Rohmer with Satanism.

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Exactly! And it would also be great to go back to that Victorian era, because you could sell Satanism a lot easier in that environment.

Wouldn’t you like, one time, to see a really great CGI Victorian London?

Yeah, I’d definitely like to see that. There’s one matte painting at the start of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that I always really liked, which is where it goes ‘London – 1903’, or whatever it is. But then I get disappointed when I watch From Hell. That should have smelt like Victorian London.

It’s a bit ‘Prague’, really.

Yeah [laughs]!

Phil Claydon, thank you very much!

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