I like the idea behind new BBC Three show The Fear. A bunch of short horror films made by amateurs are shown to an audience, who then rate them based on how scary they are. The scariest three are then shown to a qualified judge who will choose a winner. I like horror films and I like the idea of amateur horror filmmakers getting their short movies shown on television. Right in time for Halloween, too.
Based on the preview, the show is a bit like Gogglebox for horror nerds. We meet the audience and see how they react and listen to them waffling on in the way that people do when there’s a camera pointed at them (not during the films, of course). The good stuff, though, is the shorts themselves, which are shown with audience reactions intercut.
The show is held together by host Matthew Giffen. Giffen’s look, a twisty old-timey moustache and formal dress, coupled with his presenting persona makes his a surprisingly brilliant would-be crypt-keeper. We met with him in the Rio Cinema to discuss the show.
When I arrived at the cinema, I found it closed. The team was filming material for the show, although the audience wasn’t in attendance. This day, for the most part, was about Eduardo Sanchez, co-director of The Blair Witch Project, who is the judge. He has seen the films and was recording his parts of the show, and when he wasn’t doing that he was chatting to journalists. He’s a big, friendly giant who swears a lot.
I was briefly shown around the cinema (lots of a seats and a big screen, funnily enough), and then settled in the balcony seating area. Giffen had to quickly dip out. With just me and Sanchez sat there, I took the opportunity to let him know how much I had enjoyed The Blair Witch Project, which felt like the proper thing to do. Rather than a time-filler while I sorted my Dictaphone out, it turned out to be a conversation starter. I popped my recorder on as soon as I realised that was the case, just as Giffen rejoined us. That’s why the interview appears to start mid-conversation. It does.
Matthew Giffen: It was exactly what the market needed.
Eduardo Sanchez: You know, our movie came out and then a month later, at least in the States, Sixth Sense came out and that one-two combination, because before that there were not many good horror movies.
MG: It was pretty stagnant.
ES: This was ‘91, but when we came up with the idea for Blair Witch, the whole idea, why we came up with it is we had just seen the Freddy movie, Nightmare On Elm Street, the one with Rosanne and Tom Arnold.
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.
ES: I don’t even know what the hell that was. And we came back and were like ‘Man, I wonder if there’s a way to scare people again?’
What’s insane about that is they had a pitch from Peter Jackson for Elm Street 6 which they declined to go with.
MG: And how far along in his career?
It was early.
ES: Well, he was already making films.
MG: But he wasn’t Lord Of The Rings, King Kong.
ES: Nah. I mean, when they hired him for Lord of the Rings that was a pretty risky move. Because he had done movies but had not really broken out at all.
MG: It’s interesting. I think it’s good to take the risks on people like that. What have I just heard? One of the Flight Of The Conchords’ directors. Is he doing Black Panther?
He’s doing Thor 3.
MG: Ragnorak. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Yeah, although I don’t know how much freedom they get at Marvel.
MG: I think that’s why Edgar Wright walked on Ant-Man.
ES: It’s the same thing with the Star Wars movies. Like, I love the idea of one day maybe even just working on a Star Wars TV show. That’s a pretty controlled, they are definitely looking at that very carefully.
Oh, we should do an interview about The Fear, shouldn’t we?
It’s an awesome pitch for a TV show, I think. What was it you saw in the pitch that made you want to do it?
MG: Well, for me, it was work!
ES: Yeah. Somebody’s asking me to do this? Sure!
MG: No, I think it’s brilliant. Genuinely, I don’t think there’s anything like this that has existed before on this kind of scale, in terms of national television. I really was excited about working on something that inspired the next wave of filmmakers in horror.
ES: I feel the same way Matthew does. I‘ve never seen this before, and if there’s something that, if I was a younger filmmaker, cause I’m still… ah, I guess I’m old, but if I was a younger filmmaker I would, definitely. This is a great opportunity, man. You have a national audience. And also, I feel that the horror fans will really love this show. Unless he (motions to Matthew) does a really incompetent job.
MG: If it all falls down, it’s definitely on the judging.
(humourous squabbling ensues)
ES: Horror fans, I think they love this kind of stuff. They love following starting filmmakers. You literally get to see something from the starting block. And who knows who’ll come out of this.
MG: You can just see the passion that a lot of the people have made these shorts with, how much they care, how much they really want to do it. And that kind of passion will always grow, it will always move and it will always evolve into something great.
ES: So, it was really unique and something that had never been done before. I just think the fans are gonna love it.
Did you have any expectations of the quality of the films?
ES: I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve seen my share of really bad movies that I thought were gonna be great, and then I’ve seen a lot of movies that are like “Holy shit, what the fuck is this?” where it blows you away.
Obviously, I haven’t seen all the movies, but I think it’s gonna run the gambit of completely incompetent, not knowing anything about film to pretty unique, very vision oriented filmmaking. I was just ready for anything. It’s a completely untested group of people that are passionate about their movies and I was really curious to see that the hell that atmosphere creates.
MG: I think also, horror is quite forgiving. When we were leading up and they sent me the films over, I actually watched loads and loads and loads of them. I was really excited to seeing all the different ways, people from all corners of the UK, how they interpreted the brief. How do you go about making your little horror? There was animation, there are ones which were one shot, there were ones that were beautiful tracking shots.
There was so much variety in the films that were made, but ultimately it just boils down to having a good idea, and well executed. That’s what horror is. You can throw loads of money at it, but ultimately it’s just got to scare you. That’s the only thing it has to do. And how they get there, that’s interesting to see.
That’s one of the things that makes horror unique, is that there’s not a great tradition of big budget films working, but there is a great culture for DIY filmmaking.
ES: Yeah, absolutely.
MG: I just think it’s so accessible. Exactly what you said then, the DIY nature of it. Where people are like “Right, we need some blood, how do we make some blood?” I love that aspect. “Right, I can’t get a smoke machine, let’s stick your car over there and use your exhaust.” That real ‘fix it’ kind of attitude.
ES: You have to. You have to be innovative. You can’t throw money at it so you have to throw ideas at it. You see a lot of, and this happens all the time, where you have a lot of indie filmmakers come out and do their big studio movie and you’re like ‘what happened to the vision?’ and it’s just a different beast.
Indie cinema, at least if you’re doing it correctly, it’s from the heart. Even if you’re doing horror movies and you’re thinking ‘these people are sick’ or whatever, you’re in love with your film. You have to be in love with your material. You’re gonna have to sacrifice time and money and energy and part of your life for this thing.
It’s about the passion, is what I love about watching complete untested filmmaking. What’s the idea? And the end result, sometimes it’s really bad, there’s no other way to say it.
MG: Sometimes bad is good, though.
ES: Yeah, sometimes bad is good, and sometimes great is great and sometimes you’re like “Wow, that is way too slick.” That’s a problem with big budget horror films. Sometimes it’s not about throwing money at it, it’s about the way doing something and showing something and scaring people and surprising people. You don’t need money for that.
MG: Actually, I think it counts against horror. Too slick doesn’t necessarily work in horror. I think, a little bit rough around the edges, leave it to the imagination.
ES: I think The Shining is, but Kubrick was a master. There’s just so many brilliant things in that movie. But then you have something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or even Blair Witch which is the untechnically savvy fucking movie ever. Texas Chainsaw, the original, there was something so raw about that movie, it was like “God damn, should I be watching this movie?”
MG: The way it’s shot just keeps you on edge.
ES: Yeah, so I think that the innovation of having no money and digging up resources as you can is really what makes the film special.
One of the things that made Blair Witch so great is that it was innovative, but it was an innovation on an existing idea, the found footage film, which in horror links back to Cannibal Holocaust. As a genre, horror has always been quite reverential and referential of it’s past. I’m interested to know what films you’re seeing bear influence over these shorts.
ES: I only saw the top three.
MG: They’re pretty unique, right?
ES: Yeah. Obviously there’s always little bits where you say ‘this is similar to something else that I’ve seen’, but they were all either had something odd or a fresh point of view.
MG: Because you’ve got under four minutes, I think the nature of that dictates, there were a lot of the jump scares. It’s such an easy one; you build tension, you build tension. The way they went about it, or the false moments, like the Final Destination kind of thing, where you think it’s gonna happen, but then in that scene it won’t. And then suddenly, there’s a stake through your eye. There were a couple that used the fake crescendo really well. There were really gory ones. There was a little shadow of Alien in one them; things growing in people. There was animated one that was a bit like Saw meets Benny Hill.
MG: There was another one that was Gremlins meets Benny Hill.
That’s a lot more Benny Hill than I had anticipated hearing about.
ES: I’ve never heard of Benny Hill used in any horror context.
MG: You’ll see. But they’re good. They’re terrifying and hilarious. They sort of go hand in hand, terror and hilarity.
ES: They do. I think it comes from the same place, that it’s a surprise. Drama, even though there is surprise, you can kind of foresee drama. That’s part of it. Like, ‘she’s gonna die, she’s gonna die, she has cancer, oh my god she died!’ But with horror and comedy it’s about the fucking surprise. Like, ‘oh my god, that’s fucking funny’ or ‘holy shit!’, it’s kind of the same initial reaction.
MG: I think it’s because that’s the currency that they trade on. That vocal reaction, or that immediate reaction, either a laugh or a scare. Unless you get the laugh, or unless you get the scare, it hasn’t worked.
Which is part of the premise of this show. Those are about the only visible responses you can have to films. I mean, you could have someone quietly weeping at a drama, perhaps, but that’s no television show.
MG: Exactly. And this is the only thing that’s been voted for here. Did it scare you? How much did it scare you? Which is a wonderful premise for a show. You’re not looking for artistic merit, you’re not looking for concept or characterisation. Did it scare you? And loads of them really did.
ES: They’re scary films. For sure, man.
Based on what you’ve seen, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of making their own short horror film?
MG (to ES): I think I’ve really got to hand that over to you, for advice.
ES: You’re not a professional yet, and there are certain pressures and different kinds of motivation when you’re a professional. You’re trying to make a living, you have a mortgage, you have kids. The longer you’re in the business it seems like the less freedom you have.
You just have to go out there and, not even reinvent the wheel, but do something that hasn’t been seen. And I’m not talking about special effects. I’m talking about, we’ve seen this from this angle so many times, let’s show the flipside of it. Let’s show the point of view of the killer. Or the point of view of a cockroach, or what happened right before this scene, or what happened right after. Think in creative ways. Don’t compete with Hollywood. Whatever genre you’re doing, the only advantage you have as an indie filmmaker is that you’re not a studio filmmaker. It’s a liability but it’s also your biggest strength, in that you don’t have anybody to answer to. So the idea is let yourself go and try something.
When I was young, my first film…well, my first film, I don’t know what the fuck it was, it was like a comedy but it was a mess. The second film I did, I loved Spike Lee. Do The Right Thing came out and it really inspired me. I tried to do this Spike Lee-ish film and it didn’t work. That’s the biggest thing I learned on that movie. Don’t go out and say ‘I’m gonna do another Spielberg’ or ‘I’m gonna do another Blair Witch’. You can be inspired by films, but try and go away and make something that’s your own vision and make it be about something you know about.
Because even if it’s a short film, I think there’s a genuine quality to some things. I think there are times when filmmakers will do something that’s completely foreign to them and you can tell.
So, do something that you know about and also, in low budget filmmaking, look around you at the resources you have. If your uncle owns a print shop, or if somebody owns a warehouse, then shoot in the damn warehouse. If your friend has a really cool car, “Hey, can I use it?”
So look around you and look at the resources and sometimes that can lead you. Sometimes you’ll have an idea and you don’t know how to make it unique and somebody will say “Hey, I have a massage parlour” and, oh shit, that idea in a massage parlour is fucking brilliant. Get inspired by stuff around.
Just don’t be afraid to do something different. That’s the big thing.
MG: I think you’d be surprised what you can get for free. People want to help.
ES: Especially for film.
MG: And especially for independent. They know you’re not making any money out of this, you’re doing it in your free time and you’re not professionals. People want to help, it’s exciting, it’s fun. Just go and speak to the guy that runs the football stadium. Just see what you can blag. You’ve got nothing to lose and you’ve got everything to gain.
ES: And try to be cool. Don’t fucking burn bridges, even though some people can’t help themselves. You might need to use that resource again, or you might need to go back and do reshoots. Just don’t give indie filmmakers a bad name because I know people where you ask to use it, and it’s “Oh, I can’t, the last fucker left…” Just be respectful of the resources that people give you.
At Den of Geek, we ask everyone we interview what their favourite Jason Statham film is, because it’s appropriate at all times. So if I might put that question to you, and then maybe afterwards if you’re struck by an idea, what would a Jason Statham horror film be like?
MG: A Jason Statham horror movie? That’d be hilarious.
All I’ve been able to come up with is the title Ghost Puncher.
MG: I think my favourite one, and I’m not a Jason Statham afficianado…
MG: Are you all skinheads at Den of Geek?
We do have a few really bald guys that all love Jason Statham.
MG: Well, I’ll choose my words very carefully. What was the one where he’s gonna die if his heartbeat drops?
ES: Crank and Crank 2.
MG: What a fucking hilarious film. You know when you’re at home, a bit battered, flicking through the channels? And that film was literally just starting.
ES: It’s just crazy. It’s like ‘What the fuck!?!’ but you can’t stop watching it, man.
MG: You can’t stop watching it, it’s hilarious. I think he’s got good comic sensibilities.
ES: Yeah, and I don’t know him at all personally, but he seems like he’s a guy who doesn’t take himself completely seriously and knows what his sweet spot is. That’s why my favourite movie of his, I always forget the name of it. I think it’s In The Name Of The King.
The Uwe Boll one?
ES: Yeah. Not only that but it has Matthew Lillard, it has Burt Reynolds as a king.
MG: I’ve never seen that.
ES: It’s a bad Game Of Thrones, Lord Of The Rings. It’s swords and sorcery. And it’s him in it, and he’s such a modern guy. But he was just like “Fuck it, I’ll do this shit” and gets a fucking sword.
MG: (Statham voice) Do I get to smash someone’s face in?
ES: I think it’s that. How many faces do I get to smash, and can I kill people with a sword? That one, to me, it’s one of those repeat viewing films, where you can turn it on at any time. ‘Cause it’s just like, you don’t think of Burt Reynolds as a king.
And then the horror movie? Demon Kicker, or… it has to be something action. The Exorcisor!
Ohhhh. Now we’re moving.
ES: Because is it exercise or exorcism? He’s a demon hunter. With holy water, just hosing people off.
MG: It would be like Jason Statham sent into hell to cock-punch the devil.
ES: Cock-Punching The Devil, that’d be a good one, too.
Matthew Giffen and Eduardo Sanchez, thank you very much!
The Fear is a 6-part series that starts tonight, Monday the 19th October on BBC Three.
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