The first time Johannes Roberts name first came to my attention was several years ago, when the trailer for his film Forest Of The Damned, was sent to me by a friend under the email heading “Tom Savini vs. naked vampire chicks!”, which, obviously, garnered interest.
Not long afterwards he happened to come to my place of work to talk to the students about low budget filmmaking, which is topical, as his latest film, F, is set in an educational establishment and inspired by his experiences of it.
The interview took place a few months ago, before F had been picked up for cinematic distribution, but which now marks his first big screen break. The fil, has since garnered a lot of attention with its premiere at this year’s Frightfest and has been getting great reviews.
We spoke with him about F, making films as a ‘working’ British director, dealing with harsh reviews and Sean Pertwee.
You can’t eat crisps, it’s going to make transcribing a nightmare! You’ve been working as a British film director now for how many years?
Ten. Ten years! This is my decade.
And how have you found it as an experience and as a working British director?
Hard. Financially hard, but yeah, it is very, very tough to break into something that makes money.
When you see other directors, your peers…
(Jokingly) They’re c*nts.
People like Neil Marshall and Christopher Smith and…
C*nts. All of them. (laughs)
They seem to have had one big movie which has then set them up. What is it, do you think, that the film industry wants?
I don’t know… Neil Marshall is an interesting one, because he’s very good, I think, and the film Dog Soldiers just really had that mix of comedy and horror, which was really very good and The Descent was very good. I don’t really understand Chris Smith’s stuff, but…
You’ve worked with [Sean] Pertwee as well, talking of Dog Soldiers. How was that as an experience?
Pertwee was great! He just went mental. He sort of arrived, hadn’t read the script, we had to just feed him lines and we kept him there for 14 hours and he had a cold. I think he was hungover as well.
He sort of made up for the fact that he didn’t know the lines, by shouting them – very, very, very loudly. He was great. He was an incredible actor, an incredible actor! He was very good.So, your new film F is due to be picked up for distribution?
Yeah, we’re all done now, so hopefully it’s due to come out later this year in the cinema. Big, big cinematic release! [slightly sarcastic, fingers crossed]
What can you tell me about the film? What’s it about?
It is about a group of teachers trapped in a school by a group of murderous kids after hours. So, it’s like The Breakfast Club meets Assault On Precinct 13. It’s very violent, very scary and very ambiguous as well.
It doesn’t go where you think it would go. It all revolves around a broken down teacher, who has just been fucked by the system. Because I work in that [area], and obviously do a lot of teaching myself, lecturing at different places, you see this kind of thing all the time and what it’s like, and I have put that into the script.
So, the first half hour is really about what lecturing is like and about this broken guy.
Was that where the inspiration came from originally?
Yeah, just how the paperwork… and how some of it is just bullshit, man.iI can be fucking ridiculous!
Some of the things they have are just ridiculous. Like they have this thing called ‘ELM’ which means ‘Every Learner Matters’, like that Nick Berry song Every Loser Wins. If you assault a teacher, it’s like “Oh, no. What did the teacher do to you?!’ And that’s where it’s all come from.
So, it’s a resentment against teaching?
Yeah, the ridiculousness of the situation where, if a kid was to get violent, then it would be the teacher’s fault and it sort of goes from there.
At the heart of it there is this broken down teacher trying to save his daughter and it is incredibly violent at times, so I think that will work quite well.
If you’re using, essentially, ‘youths’ as a threat, is that a reflection on society as it is at the moment?
A little bit. The film tone-wise, when you watch it, is a classic siege movie and I really keep everything hidden. So, it’s all about the characters within the scenario and you see a lot of after effects and, at times, it’s really quite full on.
There are particular sequences that are quite wince worthy, but I’ve sort of moved away from showing everything. The hoods are played by these Parkour guys and they’re jumping around everywhere and it’s very different in that kind of style. So, you’ve not got chavs with baseball bats.
So, they’re more supernatural, would you say?
I wouldn’t go as far as saying they’re supernatural, but there is just a sort of weirdness about them. They look almost like Ringwraiths with these blacked out hoods. But yeah, it did come from the idea of just seeing some of these kids,what they do and it’s just fucking mental, genuinely mental.
So, yeah the concept came from that, how far these kids will go at times.
It seems like kids in society at the moment have very much an attitude of violence for violence’s sake.
It has less, in a sense, to do with the kids and their violence and more to do with how the adults deal with it.
You know this guy’s a teacher and it’s his life. He gets assaulted at the beginning of the movie and they turn around and basically say, “It’s your fault. You provoked the guy into assaulting you.”That kind of sets the whole movie up. It completely destroys him.
You see at these places just how ridiculous it is. You have to be so politically correct all the time and that’s where it’s going. With the kids, though, it is just violence for violence’s sake.
The lead is David Schofield, who really is just an incredible actor. He was the dart player in American Werewolf In London and has since done the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies and Valkyrie, and I think he’s briefly in Wolfman, but he’s in everything. You turn on your TV and he’s always there. His (on screen) daughter is Eliza Bennett, who has just done Inkheart, and I think she’s going to be quite big. Bigger than she is already.
Then I have Roxanne McKee, who is Louise Summers in Hollyoaks and Emma Cleasby, from Dog Soldiers. She was awesome. She was really fun.
Ruth Gemmel, who was the lead in Fever Pitch, she’s done a lot of TV and she is an incredible actress, and it’s funny because she doesn’t get offered roles in horror. She tends to play ‘Detective Inspector’, so she really threw herself into it! I mean a lot of them had done a lot of British TV, but she really loved all the running and screaming. She had a lot of fun with that!
So, yeah the cast was incredible.
How is it they came to be involved?
What moved the film on was we passed the script to Gail Stephens, who was the casting director of Slumdog Millionaire and all the Neil Marshall movies. She read the script and loved it and you know we didn’t have a lot of money, but because of the script she said, “Yeah, ok,”and got all these people on board, who all came in. And that’s what makes it, really. The cast is phenomenal and the performances are very, very good, which really makes it believable when it all kicks off.
There was something I was going to ask you relating to that, which was…
I am single. Wait you’re going to ask a Pertwee question again, aren’t you!
Wait, it was…
[Burps] Excuse me, I bet Linda Hamilton didn’t do that!
[Laughs] What I was going to ask was, having worked as a director now for ten years, how difficult is it now to actually get projects started? Does it always depend on the script?
No, it really doesn’t. It’s weird because it’s tough.
This film came after When Evil Calls, which did ok, but just got fucking pummelled. The reviews were just awful and basically said ‘this is a load of fucking wank!’ So, to get a project after that was just impossible. For three years I just didn’t work at all. So, I had to start again and I had to completely reinvent myself, and I think When Evil Calls was the end of the B-movies.
I’d done Forest Of The Damned and that had done very well and made some money, but then When Evil Calls was as B-movie as B-movie can get. It was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it, but I thought if I’m actually ever going to move on from doing real B-movies, I need to reinvent myself. So, I started off by doing music videos, which I’d not done before, and then started writing the project and getting that going.
From starting to write the project, it took two years, then halfway through the two years you have to try and make a trailer, to raise finance, and that didn’t work. It was basically showing someone photos of the location I wanted to film in. They saw the photos and said, “Yeah, I think this will work,” and so they came on board to help raise the money and it all came together. But yeah, it was bloody hard.It must be difficult. The first time I saw you do a talk, you came in self deprecating, saying how unglamorous it really was to be a British horror director, and I can imagine some people will have expectations of that career. How difficult is it when you have had to deal with so much negative criticism?
Yeah, it is tough. I mean it was tough with When Evil Calls. I mean, the line from the Dread Central review “Fuck this movie!” will stay in my mind forever. Some of the reviews from that were just… by and large, most of the films get some pretty horrific reviews, but that was particularly… I was pretty much thinking, “Yeah, I probably don’t want to go down this route again.”
Evil Calls was pure… there was no heart and soul in it, even though I enjoyed it. It is quite tough. I just thought I need to, if I’m getting lacerated for something I’m not particularly in love with, then I might as well really give myself to something again, which I hadn’t done for a while. And I think the reviews will be very good for this, but who knows! I look forward to seeing it. It’s a whole different level and it was really a case of setting the standard right at the beginning.
What motivates you to keep going?
The one thing that I’d never done, up until now, is make something I am really proud of. The relief to have done this, even if the reviews are bad and even if it doesn’t make any money, is to have made something I am really proud of. Not just happy with, but really proud of.
You know, it’s a complete love letter to John Carpenter movies and to John Hughes movies and to Stephen King movies. It’s this siege scenario, so I am really, really pleased. I just think to keep ripping off Stephen King, I think really is what keeps me going, and I’m doing pretty well, I think!
So, Stephen King, John Carpenter and John Hughes. Are they the big influences on you, then?
Yes. Yeah, I’d say so. The Stephen King and John Carpenter influence is always forefront, but the John Hughes thing always seems to work its way in as well.
Is that just a love that started when you were young?
Yeah. I watched those movies and just thought, “Fuck, these are what I want to make!” They just have a connection.
I think F has that. You have the high school thing, the teachers, it’s a weird thing. What I worry about commercially, because I have no idea what will happen when we screen to buyers, is that the lead character is a 60-year-old broken, alcoholic teacher. How’s that going to work with an audience that is 18-20? I don’t know, but we’ll see…
Well it worked for Taken, certainly. It was a success, but very much based on an older guy…
That’s very true, yeah. I hadn’t thought of that. But then, I also think of something like Red, which is a phenomenal movie, but what three people went to see that?
It worries me. The script was very much formulated, but the direction came after we watched JCVD and Red and we did those in quick succession. ‘We’ didn’t obviously! We’ve never met before! But I really thought that’s what I wanted to do after JCVD and Red, which really doesn’t up my credibility, I’m sure!
I really like the emotional impact of ‘the broken man’. Both of them had exactly the same lead in a strange way. A completely broken man dealing with the situation, and I thought, “That’s phenomenal,” but nobody went to see either. But I really liked that idea.
So, this guy in F, right at the beginning, he’s just completely fucked and he has to try and find some kind of…
Yeah, yeah, exactly. He has to try, in a sense, it’s a bit like Jaws in that he’s terrified of these kids, instead of the water… and he has to try and save his daughter with the worst kind of fear, a bit like the water… Yeah, the Jaws thing doesn’t quite make sense! In my mind it does. In my mind it does! I always thought of it a bit like Jaws in a school. That really doesn’t make any sense at all.
When you teach and give talks to young filmmakers, is it something that’s difficult to encourage, because a lot of people think it will be rewarding? Especially when there’s an illusion that they’ll make a big movie, which will be followed by fame and money?
I tend to read them my reviews, so at least they can see that it’s not like that. There is sort of a myth, I think, that you have to be someone completely special and I don’t think it’s down to that. I think it’s drive and…
Yeah. I think if you speak to someone and they don’t have the passion or the drive, then I don’t understand how they think they are going to get anywhere. But if you’ve got the drive and passion, the first few times you get knocked down, you’ll keep pushing and pushing and work your way round it.
I hope F will do very well, but there’s lots of other films where you look at the reviews and you think ‘people hated that’, or ‘that didn’t make any money’, but to tell them you can give it a shot.
I think more and more now, with the technology, you can really get out there and give it a shot. It’s just trying to encourage them to get out there and do it.
Of course, they’ll never be as talented as me, but that goes without saying, really… Or as good looking!
Johannes Roberts, thank you very much!
F is released in UK cinemas September 17th. Here’s our review.