Jon Harris interview: The Descent Part 2, Stardust and Kick-Ass

He’s directed The Descent Part 2. He’s editing Kick-Ass. And he’s talking to us…

Having worked on the original The Descent, Jon Harris was the man chosen to pick up the potentially poisoned chalice of directing its sequel. Here, he talks to us about the film, how it came about and how he found it, and tells us a little bit about Kick-Ass, too…

Sorry to ask the boring, obvious question to start with. But the first Descent movie is considered to be one of the very best British horror movies in a long time and I can think of few more intimidating acts to take for your directorial debut. So how did it come about? Why that project in particular?

Well, from the point of view of the producers and Pathe and the people involved, when a film’s a success there’s, obviously, always a palpable desire to try and follow it up with a sequel.

Now, that desire was there, but they also nobody wanted to do a cheap cash-in. Nobody wanted to ruin people’s memories of the original. So, it was kept very, very in-house. What we wanted, if we’re going to do this, we want as many of the original people involved as possible to do it. So that it’s done right and it’s done as well as the first one.

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Now, Neil had already made his decision. He was moving on to do other things but he was trying to bring on the idea of a sequel, and was involved with coming up with the premise. So, they were looking around and because I had a good relationship with Neil – I edited the first film – they said the ideal way was to keep it all in the family and keep it amongst the people who knew how the first film was made.

So, from my point of view, it was a very, very interesting offer. As you say, to follow up on something so popular, yes, that was a big consideration. But I decided to do what I do in life generally, which is go with the positives rather than the negatives, because I decided quite early on that there are pros and cons to doing a follow-up. That one, yes, you’re right; there’s a lot of pressure. But the second one is there’s a huge advantage. I mean, I couldn’t really have been more prepared for a first directing gig having seen, and knowing how the first film was put together.

So, once it was decided to really go ahead with it, it was a question of deciding, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

It’s very rare to have so many of the people back involved, especially on a horror sequel, I think. I spoke to James Watkins last year as he was promoting Eden Lake and he also iterated that Neil Marshall was very hands-on with it. He was basically saying that it’s almost less of a sequel, more of an extension, this one? You very clearly decided to pick the story up immediately afterwards, going very much with a ‘part two’, rather than a ‘2′. How symbolic is that?

Well, I don’t think it’s symbolic. I had the choice early on. We had a talk about it, it was presented as a blank canvas. All we had was the idea of The Descent 2; what would we do? Now, I was just personally very keen on making it a continuation of the story. We could have taken a whole new bunch of people and sent them down a different cave, but that felt to me like the same film again. Why bother?

The other choice was to take the point of view of the cave rescue people. But then I felt that I didn’t want it to be a team of, you know, cave rescuers who were all far too good at caving and probably all got along. So, I definitely wanted it to be Sarah’s story, which posed problems of its own, but I think I’m glad that that was the choice that we made because it’s a continuation of the same scenes and the same emotions that the first film had.

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You talked about editing the first one. You’ve got an extensive editing CV. It’s becoming more and more commonplace for people involved with editing to do the jump to directing and I’m curious how much time you actually got on set when you are editing a movie to prepare for it?

On previous films?

Yeah.

Almost as much or as little as you want, really. On some films, I made a point of not going on the set because it’s actually quite handy. Because if you only see the rushes you just get a certain sense of things. Like I’ve worked on scenes on films where something to me was just not obvious from looking at the rushes. To everyone who was there it was obvious, because they were there. So there’s definitely an advantage to not going to the set.

But, on a lot of things I’ve done, on the first Descent, and on Eden Lake and Stardust, I directed little bits of second unit on those. So did spend quite a lot of time on the set. And even if you’re not necessarily, literally, on the set, you’re never very far away. So there’s a lot of communication that goes between the sets.

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I get asked the question about the difference in editing and directing. And the fact is, it’s creatively not that much of a leap because there’s usually a gang of three or four of us which might be a writer, the director, the editor and the producer, and we’re all in a creative huddle from before the shoot until the very end of the edit. And as the editor, now I’m involved in the early stages. I can be brought on earlier, during script development and moving scenes around and maturing, before the shoot.

So, creatively, the move to directing is not really a leap. Because you’re just telling a story with pictures. But, it’s fair to say that time on the set previously, yeah, that’s stood me in good stead.

Looking back at the work you’ve done before, there’s such a diverse collection of genre you’ve taken on. Is horror your thing? Is that the one you’ve got a passion for?

Horror? Well, I do have a passion for horror, but not exclusively. I’m not going to pretend I’m a sort of hardcore, dedicated as, say, Neil Marshall is. I consider myself a filmmaker, a storyteller, whatever. And I can apply myself, and I enjoy applying myself, to all different kinds of stories and genres.

The thing about horror, what’s such great fun about horror is it’s just so immediate. The response from the audience. I didn’t really discover that until The Descents. So, I’ve worked on a lot of films and you have screenings and test screenings, trying to get a sense of what the audience is thinking. With a horror film, it’s just so immediate. The audience are there. They’re reacting, they’re jumping and they’re shouting and they’re laughing. You only have to talk to directors about why they like doing horror and they’ll tell you because you just get such a broad spectrum of emotions to play around with. I loved horror as a kid, sure.

And how did you find – as a director for the first time – actually sitting down and watching Descent 2 with an audience. You screened it at Frightfest, didn’t you?

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It’s certainly more nerve-racking. It’s ultimately as much fun.

To answer that question is to tell you the broad difference between editing and directing – as much as it’s creatively all part of the same organic process, the fact that I learnt, when you’re the director, is accountability. It all pretty much stops with you at the end of the day. Even though there’s a lot of people involved, you tend to be the one that takes the rap. And rightly so.

As the editor – you can only ever really win as an editor. If there are problems, if things weren’t worked out on the set, if things didn’t work out, you can solve those problems and it’s very, very satisfying. But, it’s not so satisfying solving problems you cause yourself, unfortunately!

As a director in screenings it’s literally more nerve-racking. If somethings’ not working as you’d hoped it would, you sort of tend to – well, I personally tend to take onboard the entire blame: well, that didn’t work; we’ll make it better. We’ll think of a way out of it.

So that was actually the more nerve-racking and stressful part of the change.  

Before I run out of time, if I could just slip in two questions about two other projects you’ve worked on or are working on?

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OK.

Stardust is a particular favourite of ours – an immaculately put together film. How challenging was it to work on something as epic as that? On such a tight budget as that?

Well, I’ll tell you, to be honest with you, at the time it didn’t seem like such a tight budget. Because I think it was the biggest budget that I’ve had. So, it felt quite luxurious at the time. It was quite well funded for a British film.

My nerves about that film were the fact that I hadn’t done a film with so many visual effects before. I was worried about that because I think there were 32 visual effects shots on the set. And they were just a really big pain. But they told me on Stardust there was going to be like 600 special effects shots. In the end there was about 750 – these things always escalate. But it’s really not that bad when you know it’s gonna happen, it’s sort of catered for and there’s an entire VFX department. There’s a whole VFX editor. And any complicated sequences are sort of pre-visualised for you. So, you actually have rushes to work with, and computer information.

But I work with them and get the timing right before the shots are eventually done. So, if everything is resourced properly and planned properly, it’s not that big a deal. Again, as the editor, there might be a huge budget of the film but it’s like the shots that come in, they don’t sort of weigh any more, if you know what I mean.

I really enjoyed Stardust. I was nervous about it going in but I actually had a great time. It was quite a joyful film.

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Then there’s the film that you’re working on that’s coming out next year which we cannot contain our excitement for at all. Kick-Ass just looks absolutely majestic. So, apart from asking can we come round to your house and watch it now, is there anything you can tell us about Kick-Ass and how it is working on that because it just looks insane?

[Laughs] It is absolutely insane. My involvement in Kick-Ass has been slightly reduced from other films because I was actually finishing The Descent Part 2 when they started shooting that. So, I joined them a little bit later on. But, yes, it’s very modern. It’s very … it’s got a real twist on things. People seem to be excited about it. But, once again, it’s great fun being in screenings because we screened it in LA, in Chatsworth, which is a sort of suburb of LA. And this is about two or three months ago and it was not as finished as it is now and I tell you, the roof nearly came off the place.

It’s a real sort of crowd-pleasing film.

And how much longer have you got to work on it? Is it finished now?

Just working on the music at the minute. The composers are working away. So, my involvement is less and less, which is lucky because I’ve been doing the horror festival circuit.

And would you like to direct the Kick-Ass sequel? That would be a job and a half, surely?

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[Laughs] That would be a job and a half. I’d have to see about that.

It’s coming up now, obviously. Descent 2’s out in December and Kick-Ass nearly finished. Where are you looking to go next? Are you going to direct again? Are you looking to get take on more?

I would love to direct again. I’ll have to think and chose very carefully about what to do. Because having, as an editor, worked on many different kinds of films, I’d love do the same as a director. Luckily, because I have an editing career, I can, hopefully, take the time and I don’t have to take the first thing that’s offered. I don’t want to want to let the opportunity go away. I wouldn’t want to look back in five years time and think I had an opportunity to direct again and I let it go. So, I definitely want to but I’m going to think very carefully about what to do.

Jon Harris, thank you very much!

The Descent Part 2 is in cinemas now.

With thanks to Duncan Bowles.