Tormented: Jon Wright interview
Jon Wright talks to Film Network about his school-room shocker, Tormented, touching upon the difficulties of being a first-time director and why horror is currently so popular in contemporary British cinema.
Eight years ago Belfast-born director Jon Wright won the BBC Talent Award for his short film The Librarian's Dream. He cut his teeth on commercials and pop promos and has continued to work in that field whilst striving to get his first big screen venture off the ground. Finally, the 38-year-old has wrapped on Tormented, a comedy horror which also serves as a cautionary tale about bullying and features the star of Stormbreaker (2006), Alex Pettyfer.
Wright talks to us about the real value of talent competitions, the pressure of living up to expectations and why horror films are the new staple of low-budget British cinema.
You were the recipient of a BBC Talent Award back in 2001...
Yeah, I made a short film called The Librarian's Dream, a very low-budget thing, entered it in the BBC Talent competition and it won. That led to meetings with the BBC and interest from the industry. It helped validate the film because I didn't have a film print - it was on video - so I couldn't show it at Cannes or Sundance or any of those festivals and at the time video projectors weren't as good or as common as they are now. I'd been shooting pop videos and things before that, but I've been trying to break into feature films for quite a few years.
Was the BBC competition a turning point in terms of achieving that ambition?
Kind of. There were a lot of promises that came out of it but they never really materialised. But it was very useful and I was very glad to be involved. And before me there had been people who won it and had gone on to direct their first feature; Damien O'Donnell who did East Is East and Jamie Thraves who went on to direct a small film called The Low Down.
How did the script for Tormented come into you hands?
I was developing another horror feature which I still hope to make with a company called Forward Films with producers Kate Myers and Tracy Brimm. That didn't come off but then they optioned this other script, Tormented, and brought it to me because they thought I was interested in horror and I was good at working with writers. They wanted someone to develop the script with the writer [Stephen Prentice] so I did about a year's work on that.
What was your contribution to the script?
I thought it had no chance of being a serious horror film. It was conceived as a straight slasher and that was certainly how Stephen saw it, but I just thought it had an inherently comic character in the middle of it which is Darren Mullet. Visually he's not terribly scary although we did make a great effort to make him a horror character and, I hope, an iconic horror character. I just thought this was a funny script; it was being inadvertently funny again and again, and so to me it felt like this was a horror-comedy trying to break out. It was intentionally funny as well in places and I just took it more in that direction.
Was it always your intention to make a horror film and put a twist on it somehow?
Yeah. What I've realised since we finished the film is that it is a horror lover's geeky teenage fantasy. That's because it takes an unpopular geek outsider at school and imagining that he is Freddy Krueger [from the Nightmare On Elm Street series]or Jason from Friday the 13th, or Michael Myers from Halloween. He's a vengeful geek who comes back with supernatural powers to kill the people who bullied him. In that sense it's a reinvention of those films that I was weaned on in the '80s.
Class warfare: April Pearson and Alex Pettyfer in Tormented.
We're suddenly making a lot more of these horror films in Britain. Why do you think that is?
I think horror is relatively easy to finance because it has a hardcore fan-base who will almost watch anything regardless of quality. I think that's why producers or financiers are more keen to put their money into horror a little bit less reluctantly than with other genres. It could be that, but that certainly wasn't my motive. My motive is just a love of horror films and maybe there are a lot of other people like me who grew up in the video age - had a misspent youth like I did - and are now getting to that point where they're experienced enough to make their own horror films. I do think that Tormented is a little bit different to the other horror films that have been coming along lately. You've got things like Eden Lake and Donkey Punch which have a cold hardness to them, almost a nihilism, but Tormented has a very definite moral perspective. That's not to say it has a moral message - it's first and foremost an entertaining Saturday night movie - but underpinning that there is a message there about bullying and the misery it causes. I think that sets it apart from those other films.
So you're not a big fan of other recent horror films?
I was watching Saw [in fact, Saw III], a scene where these rotten cows are dropped into a giant blender and a bloke, chained by his ankle to the bottom of the blender, is being gradually drowned in the mashed up slop of rotten cows. And I just thought, 'It's really time for a change'. I just can't deal with any more of these kinds of movies. For me the pendulum needs to swing back a bit to films that are a bit more fun and silly and just a bit more entertaining to watch.
Does horror also allow you to be more ambitious with the visuals?
Yeah, I love fantasy in cinema. I think there's a tradition in England, which would be epitomised by someone like Andrea Arnold or Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, for something that's more gritty and realistic, but I'm very much into fantasy, science fiction and horror; imaginative cinema that has nothing to do with real life. So, for me, one of the really fun things about Tormented was being able to play with CG and other visual effects, makeup effects and sound design, and create an 'unrealistic' style that you can't get away with in other genres. Obviously it was a low-budget movie and our budget was stretched to breaking point, but I think a lot of the effects have turned out really well.
In the UK there's more money available for making pop promos rather than films. Did that experience prepare you well, or was it a culture shock?
Yeah, there's a lot more money in pop promos! I think shooting those sorts of things teaches you to work fast. What was more useful for me though was the experience of making short films. That teaches you, not only to work fast, but work to a low budget. You learn how to cut costs to suit your means and think of creative solutions to problems rather than throwing money at it, which just isn't an option. Making a low-budget feature isn't dissimilar, in many ways, to making a short film, because you have very little money per minute of screen time. Often people who work on commercials get a lot more money, especially if they're working on high-end commercials, but then making the transition to features at a low-budget; I think a lot of them find it very tough because they don't have that sort of money to play with.
How hands-on were your producers? Given that Tormented is your first feature, they must have been watching the bottom line even more closely...
To be honest, I think they were quite nervous initially. I think that the people financing the film were quite nervous because so many first-time directors screw up their first feature and it doesn't go well. I had to persuade them that I was the man for the job and I knew what I was doing, but I think they were still hesitant and nervous. That faded as we went through the process and towards the end, I think it's fair to say that they thought I was doing fine and they didn't feel the need to sit on my shoulder quite as much as they were doing at the start. At the same time they were very involved and questioned every decision and pushed me in what I was doing, and I think that was probably for the betterment of the film.
Was there a time during the shoot when you felt that you were being tested and perhaps nervous about your own ability to pull this off?
Well, we were very pushed for time. When we first looked at the schedule we had five weeks to shoot the film, but there was a consensus between me, the first assistant director and the line producer that we needed six. We pushed for that but we weren't able to get it, not on the money we had, so there was a fair few times when we came up against the problem of having too many shots to do and not enough time to do them and I had to think on my feet to get around that. It was hard-going those times because obviously I have a vision, knowing the best possible way that a scene could work, and I was tested in my ability to do that.
Will you continue to make horror films?
Some people make a horror film just to get into the business and then they're keen to get away from horror films as quick as they can. But I like horror films. I've got a couple of other horror scripts that I think will make really good films. And maybe second or third time out I will get more money and get closer to my original intention.
Are you itching to make the move to Hollywood and get a bigger budget?
There's been a lot of talk about it. People have said that Tormented is a good calling card for the Americans because they see it as a very American film in tone and style. I love American movies and I think Hollywood is the centre of the filmmaking world. When American movies are good, they're the best, so it wouldn't be a big stretch for me to make one myself.
Tormented is released in cinemas on Friday 22nd May 2009.Interview by Stella Papamichael | Published 15th May 09