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Neil Oseman directing Soul Searcher

Soul Man

Interview with Phill Huxley
Imagine if the Grim Reaper visited Hereford... Well that's the premise of a new independent feature film called Soul Searcher. We spoke to writer and director Neil Oseman.

Soul Searcher is part love story and part action-adventure. Adapted from a 15 minute short, the plot is based around Hereford street-sweeper Joe Fallow, who hangs around in a local cafe with his mate Gary, hopelessly in love with waitress Heather.

Soul Searcher
Joe with his scythe

One night he is visited by the Grim Reaper, who offers to train him as his successor - and Joe becomes a scythe-wielding Soul Searcher. The forces of evil are growing and Joe teams up with Luca, a mysterious bounty hunter to defeat them.

Writer and director Neil Oseman previously made a film called The Beacon, about a chemical attack on Malvern. He has recently been in Cannes, pitching the film and he is currently in the process of shooting his next movie.

We had a chat with Neil about Soul Searcher:

The feature length Soul Searcher is a reworking of a 15 minute short film - How did you go about converting it to a full feature length film?

Soul Searcher film poster
Soul Searcher film poster

Neil: The breakthrough in writing the feature script was the unrequited love story. It was implied in the short, but in the feature I fleshed it out and saw a way to weave it in closely with Joe's character development and his journey of becoming the Grim Reaper.  

A key thing in rounding out the characters for the feature was that we wanted to make all the supporting characters echoes of Joe. Dante, Luca and Ezekiel are all in love with people they can't be with, just like Joe. They all have different ways of dealing with it - stopping at nothing to change things, revenge and patience respectively - and Joe tries a little of each of these things during the course of the film. 

Luca was a completely new addition to the feature script, courtesy of my co-writer James Clarke. I think he was inspired by the disguised Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi.

What was your total budget for the film?

"It was three years of sheer hell ... and sometimes fun, and it's not over yet, but yes, it was worth it."
Neil Oseman

£26,000. I always say that you can make a film for any figure you like, it's just the less money you have, the more compromises you have to make. When I decided to make Soul Searcher on a microbudget I intended it to cost £20,000, so I went over budget, and what people don't realise is that the expense isn't over. I still have to produce all the delivery materials - various different formats of master tape, legal contracts and so on - which won't be cheap. Whatever your budget is, filmmaking is an expensive business.

Talk us through some of the special effects. How did you achieve them and how long did they take?

Soul Searcher
Soul Searcher

We started working on the FX in December 2003 and the last one was finished in March 2005.  A lot of the compositing (putting elements together) I did myself. So for example, when Dante connects the chains and a column of spectral light shoots up into the night sky and summons a bank of ominous red clouds, that's actually my bathroom tap and some milk being poured into a fishtank. There are quite a number of FX in the movie that are silly things like that layered together. I wanted to recall the old days of optical FX when everything was done like that.

The most prominent FX were farmed out to others though. David Markwick did all the spectral umbilical cords as CGI; Ezekiel's wings were achieved as stop motion animation by Andy Biddle; the Moat of Souls was more stop motion courtesy of James Parkes. 

Directing Soul Searcher
Directing Soul Searcher

A model-maker called Jonathan Hayes built the Banshee puppet and the train for us.  The train was made at 1:18 scale, so it was about three metres long in total. 

Was that scene with the model train a direct reaction against all the CGI that takes place in films today?

If I'd opted to make the train CGI it would have been a million times easier and I would have saved about a grand, but it would have looked awful.  Personally I think 95% of CGI in even big budget Hollywood movies is atrocious and the executives who let it go into their films should be shot. You can't beat a real physical object with real lights shining on it being photographed by a real camera.

I believe that that particular scene gave you a lot of grief...

Neil Oseman filming a scene
Neil Oseman filming a scene

We had horrendous problems getting it finished and filmed. It makes me ill just thinking about it.  There were a couple of failed attempts at shooting it in a cold, wet, muddy Gloucestershire field at night and the damned thing just wouldn't stay on the tracks. Engineering the wheels really got the better of Jon (model maker) unfortunately, so in the end my father, grandfather and uncle wound up making all new wheels for it.

Tell us about the nuts and bolts of putting a scene like that together...

Well aside from the train itself you need miniature landscape for the train to travel through. Doing some rough maths, I decided I needed 25 metres of track. Clearly we couldn't have built a 25m set with scale buildings, trees and so on all the way along.

Soul Searcher concept art
Soul Searcher concept art

I wanted the train to run along an embankment. That way, with the camera set just below the level of the embankment, you wouldn't see any ground on the other side. All we would need would be a selection of buildings and trees to dot about in the background against the real night sky, and a few bits of scale grass, hedgerows and gravel for the foreground. 

So my crew and I spent a day building this earth embankment and that night the train was meant to turn up so we could do the bulk of the shots. At the last minute I got a call from Jon saying his moulds for the wheels had failed.

Plan B was to move all those shots back to a night the following week, when we were already scheduled to shoot the explosion of the train, for which we had hired an expensive S-16 film camera to get a proper slow motion look to it. 

Soul Searcher concept art
Soul Searcher concept art - A Shifter

By the time it got to 1am and the train still wouldn't stay on the track we were ready to give up, but I had the teensy-tiny problem that at 5am the camera guys were coming to shoot this explosion, and we only had the camera for one night, and this was the last possible day we could be at this location. 

In the end one of the crew built a mock-up of the train out of cardboard and we blew that up.  Then we had to dig up this 25m embankment in the pouring rain and put all the earth back where we found it, without ever having used it.  That was incredibly depressing.

We ultimately shot it indoors at Malvern Youth Centre, with considerably less track - we just kept moving the train back to the start and using the same bit over and over again. That day went relatively smoothly, though we overran by a couple of hours.

In your production notes you talk about the Curse of Soul Searcher...

Soul Searcher
Joe and Heather in the cafe

As anyone who has read my Director's Journal will know, the Curse of Soul Searcher is a vast and terrifying subject.  Famous cock-ups include the Mustang that was insured while it was ON location, but not while it was being driven TO location and the demon vs. Reaper swordfight that was mistaken for a real duel and reported to the police.

One morning we were indirectly involved in a road traffic accident just outside of Hereford. We were shooting the film's closing scene on the pavement beside Ledbury Road near Lugwardine and between takes I heard a loud bang and looked up to see that a learner driver had crashed into the back of a minibus. No-one was hurt, though the car was totalled, but the learner driver's father came up to me later on and told me it was my fault because both he and his son had turned to look at me and my camera.

Soul Searcher
Luca played by Lara Greenway

The incident that scared me the most was at the Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral. We had been granted permission to shoot there for two hours, but after our first shot we got into big trouble. Like an idiot, I had insisted on using our smoke machine, not thinking that perhaps a building containing some of the world's oldest and most valuable books might be protected by some kind of fire detection system. 

When I was told the alarm had gone off my first thought was that any second now sprinklers were going to burst open and destroy all the priceless tomes, and I would be landed with the bill. Of course their fire prevention system was actually argon-based, so had it activated it would have sucked all the oxygen out of the room, suffocating us all.  Nice!

How do you find your locations?

Soul Searcher
Dante played by AJ Nicol

We knew from the start that the whole film was going to be set at night, so that immediately made us think about where people would be in the middle of the night, if not in bed. Hence nightclubs, 24 hour factories, all-night cafes, driving street cleaners.  Early drafts of the script had a lot of scenes that just said "road" or "rooftop", so there was quite a long process as we developed the screenplay of fitting interesting locations to the scenes. Lots of strolls around Hereford looking for cool places to shoot.

I know you shot some scenes at the cider factory, but what other local sites did you use?

The full-size train wagons were shot at Rowden Mill, a privately-owned station on the long-defunct Leominster-Bromyard line. Dante's lair was one of the council-owned romney huts in Rotherwas, just outside of Hereford.  Several other scenes with Dante were shot in the grounds of Campions, a boarded-up restaurant next to Greyfriar's Bridge in Hereford. The medieval battle scene was shot in a quarry in Marden. The nightclub sequence was filmed in the Crystal Rooms and Manhattan's. The cafe Doodies really is a cafe called Doodies, again in Hereford. So it really was a very local shoot.

What's your opinion of the current crop of Hollywood action movies? How do they stand against the classics like Terminator?

Soul Searcher
Filming a scene from Soul Searcher

The Terminator has stood the test of time. I can't say whether Spider-Man or War of the Worlds will. However, I'd be very surprised if their effects look as good in 20 years' time as The Terminator's do now. There are good films and bad films today just as there were in the 80s and undoubtedly the kids of the noughties will grow up loving some of today's films just as I love Back to the Future and so on. But I'll always make films that reflect what I consider to be the peak of filmmaking genius, and that peak is: "One point twenty-one jigawatts!"

Was Soul Searcher a local production?

The lead actors were mostly from London, but everyone else on set was pretty much local. The post-production effects were all done remotely, so I had people all over the country e-mailing me progress pictures and ringing me up to discuss shots.

Soul Searcher
The Grim Reaper comes to Hereford

The reason for going to London for the principals was that there weren't really any screen-trained actors in and around Herefordshire, only stage-trained ones. They're very different disciplines. However I was lucky to find AJ Nicol and Chris Hatherall living relatively locally, both of whom were extremely talented despite having little experience back then, and of course the Londoners - Ray Bullock Jnr, Katrina Cooke, Jonny Lewis and Lara Greenway - were just fantastic.

Why did you choose to shoot mainly at night?

Video looks awful in daylight because it can't handle the contrast, but at night you can arrange your lights to make the contrast work in your favour. Dark, moody lighting is what video does best. For my money, daylight only looks good on film, and I couldn't afford to shoot film.

Tell me about the character of Joe - was he based on anyone? Is there a little bit of you in him?

Soul Searcher
Soul Searcher

There's a lot of me in him. Change "becomes the Grim Reaper" to "becomes a lighting-cameraman" and you pretty much have an autobiography of a certain period of my life, at least in the first half of the movie. James of course put a lot of himself into the character too - our experiences with the opposite sex are similarly depressing.

What about the band King Monkey who feature in the film. How did you hook up with them?

I went to school with three quarters of King Monkey. Matt Hodges, the frontman, was in many of my early amateur films, as was drummer Jim McKelvie. Their music has featured on loads of my films, but this was the first time they'd appeared in one as a band. They're now based in Birmingham, where they gig regularly - although they're soon to reform as Eight Days Till Retirement.

It sounds like making the film was a long labourious process that took several years Was it all worth it?

Soul Searcher
Joe played by Ray Bullock Jnr.

It was three years of sheer hell ... and sometimes fun, and it's not over yet, but yes, it was worth it.  There are many things I'd do differently, but overall I think I did the best I could have done for that money.

What are you working on now?

My next film is set on an earth that's stopped rotating, so one side is in constant day and the other in constant night. It's about a cripplingly shy young woman who stows away on an airship voyaging to Shadowland, the dark side of the earth, in the hope of visiting Old Father Time and changing her life for the better. It's going to be a much lighter movie than Soul Searcher, with larger than life characters and Victorian-style dialogue...

last updated: 25/07/05
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