If you thought the Northern Line was a horror show, wait till you see Bristol-born filmmaker Chris Smith's directorial debut, Creep. Franka Potente stars as a party girl who gets trapped on the Tube in the dead of night with someone - or something - going seriously off the rails. Here the director discusses getting the green light from London Underground and avoiding John Landis...
The actual idea for Creep came to you when you were sitting on the tube didn't it?
Yeah, I was stuck on the Northern Line for ages and ages, and suddenly the lights went out and it was completely black. Everyone gasped when it happened. When the lights came back on, I looked off through a side window and saw that there was a connecting passage and literally thought, I wonder what's through there? Then a few days later I was reading an article in the Evening Standard about all the conspiracies of the Underground, saying that when they built it, they didn't just build one tunnel; they built six or seven adjacent tunnels for the expansion of London. Then I found these rumours that the Queen has a special escape tunnel that can take her to Oxford in the event of a war. I also found out that, during the Second World War, all the American GIs slept on the Underground before D-Day. There's a sequence in the film where Franka Potente is running through the boxes in a storage facility, and that storage facility is where the bunk beds were for the GIs. As soon as I discovered all of this amazing stuff, I thought I had to think of a story that would take a character on a guided tour of subterranean London.
I also realised that nobody had never really made a big movie - with the exception of An American Werewolf In London - that was set on the London Underground. I had a go writing the script, and within a year it was financed and we were up and running. From when I left film school in 97, it took me seven years until I was doing a feature - which felt like forever but, looking back, it was probably the right time. When you leave film school you think that you're Quentin Tarantino, and then you realise that there's so much more to it than just delivering a script. You have to play a lot of games - well, not games exactly - but you have to understand how the financiers view you.
What kind of reaction did you get when you went to London Underground with the script? Because it's definitely not an advert for getting the last Tube home...
We were very lucky with London Underground. Barry Hanson, a producer on the film, had a long history of people that he knew on the Underground. One of his colleagues from back then was now in a position of authority so Barry approached him and they said, "Yes, we're looking to expand the amount of movies that are done on the Underground." For a long time it wasn't encouraged, but now they've opened a whole new department to it. Obviously they would rather it was a romantic comedy, but when we sent them the script they immediately understood the fantasy element to it - this is not something that... how do I say this? It's not like this is a terrorist movie, which they categorically would not have allowed. They don't want to give you the idea of not getting the Tube; they want you to feel that the Tube is a safe place. It's a horror movie, but they understood that it was not something that's in our minds or plays on our fears. [Laughs] It's probably turned out a little bit more savage than they were thinking, but it's all there on the page! The way I directed it was probably more brutal than what they were expecting.
Did you watch many horror movies to get a frame of reference for this? In particular, the 1973 British horror movie Death Line, which is also set on the London Underground...
SLIGHT SPOILER AHEAD: It's really funny. When I wrote the script, the only reference I had was An American Werewolf In London in terms of films that had been shot on the Underground. I was living in New York when I wrote the script and gave the script to a friend who worked in a video shop. And he was like, "Oh, you gotta see Death Line, this has already been done!" So I watched Death Line, and it's not the same. Both films are set underground, but the only real similarity that people can draw between them is this Neanderthal-like killer who's living down there.
Now I feel that I'm in a very small club of people who've made movies in the Underground. When I was at a festival in Spain, I was at the bar and this American director I'd met came storming over to me and said, "Did you know John Landis is here? John Landis is here!" I looked up at that exact moment and John Landis was right next to us. I was just petrified, because he'd directed An American Werewolf In London, and I just crept off. I didn't want to ask him if he'd seen my movie.
Was Franka Potente cast as the lead because a lot of the film's funding comes from Germany?
No, it wasn't like we needed Franka to finance the film. It was just that our casting agent said, "Have you thought of Franka Potente?" I loved her in Run Lola Run, and loved her, even more so, in The Bourne Identity - I think she really grounded that movie and made it have a Euro road movie feel and took away the big Hollywood element. Every time I said that to Franka, she'd say, "What, you mean I made it small?" And I'd say, "No, you made it real and believable!" Franka read the script and loved it, so I flew to Berlin and she was like, "Yeah, let's make the movie." As a result of that, we then approached the German co-producers and they said, "Well, if you've got Franka Potente, we can probably finance the rest of the movie from Germany." In a flash we were up and running. Also, I didn't just want it to be a London story. If you look at the part, Franka plays a London/Soho chick who's on her way to a party and gets stuck on the Underground. Strictly speaking, I should have cast someone who's on the front pages of OK! magazine, one of our starlets. But if I'd done that... I don't think that's a movie I'd want to go and see.
There are quite a lot of characters whom you're actively hoping will meet a grisly death. Where did that come from?
The idea of the story is, here's someone that you see every day whom you might not like but you might recognise in yourself - in the way that you step over homeless people and don't give them the time of day. I wanted to ask, how do we take a character that's this full of herself and this full of self-importance, and shake her down to a level where she can be mistaken for a homeless person? For me, the first likeable person in the movie is Paul Rattray's character [Jimmy], the homeless guy. And by the time you get to him, you're like, "At last! A character we can actually like!" Is the London above ground that cruel and that horrible? That's the picture I wanted to paint, in a way. I wanted to start off with a character that is mean and isn't your blonde loveable starlet. Franka's playing a tough cookie, and Franka's a tough actress - she plays those parts in a certain way. Next time, though, I'm going to have a nice girl who helps old people across the road [laughs]. It's an easier sell for the audience.