Phillip Escott & Craig Newman | CRUEL SUMMER

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Cruel Summer is a harrowing, troubling real-world story of lies, jealousy, revenge and dreadful, sickening violence. Filmed in and around Cardiff in August 2015 the film is the tale of a young autistic boy named Danny (Richard Pawulski) whose overnight camping adventure, part of his Duke of Edinburgh awards scheme, turns into a terrifying nightmare when he becomes the target of a campaign of hate led by the furious, enraged Nicholas (Emmerdale star Danny Miller). Nicholas and his sidekicks Calvin (Reece Douglas) and Julia (Natalie Martins) scour the city for Richard and when they finally find him, the horror begins…  As Cruel Summer arrives on DVD and VOD, STARBURST sits down for a chat with Phillip Escott and Craig Newman, the film’s Cardiff-born director/writers…

STARBURST: Can you give us a broad idea of the core concept behind the film?

Phillip Escott: I guess it’s a day in the life of a bunch of British teenagers that takes a drastic turn depending on which side of the film you’re on. There are the disenfranchised youths and then there’s Danny who is the embodiment of everything that is good and proper about youth and British life. They have a rather climactic and tragic encounter towards the end of the film.

Cruel Summer is a hard film to classify. Is it a thriller, a horror film, some hybrid of the two or something else entirely?

Craig Newman: I guess it’s more a thriller but based on the sort of tension that’s built up throughout the film and the ending itself and the events that take place at the end it sorts of tips into the horror genre based on the brutal, realistic, horrific nature of the events themselves. You could describe it as a horror thriller.

PE: We came up with the phrase ‘real-life horror’ where the horror comes from the reality of the situation because it’s inspired by real events so it’s a very dramatic piece for sure but it does tip into horror…

You say it’s inspired by real events but is it based on one specific incident or an amalgam of various incidents?

PE: It’s really from a collection of incidents. Back in 2012-13, there was a whole lot of knife crime as you’re probably aware yourself. There were a number of stories, one from Sheffield in 2004, which haunted Craig considerably in which a mentally-challenged boy went camping with some friends and they tortured him for two days and there was another one which really got to me where in Liverpool a bunch of pre-teens were bullied by an older boy and I think they were bullied into setting fire to a homeless man. That really caught me because that could happen to any of us, we can all get caught up in someone’s manipulation and that’s what was terrifying.


How did you go about shaping your real-life inspiration into the idea for a film script?

We were at the point where we decided we wanted to write a feature film script and wanted to make a feature film. It was just our enthusiasm. I remember one day saying ‘we need to make a feature film’ as we’d made a bunch of shorts and worked on various projects so it was pure adrenaline and enthusiasm. Phil wrote the first draft very quickly, we threw around a few ideas and before we knew it we had a workable draft in a couple of months. I think it was our enthusiasm and determination and the idea we had that we thought was so strong that allowed us to just crack on.

PE: I literally just sat down and banged out a draft and sent it to Craig and then it was to and fro with this works, this doesn’t work, rewrite, this works, this doesn’t work, rewrite. It was very organic really, and quite quick, I think it took us about three months all in all.

And you financed the ten-day shoot entirely on your own?

CN: We’d read interviews and articles about how some really very good low-budget British feature films had been made for very low money, Down Terrace (2009) by Ben Wheatley being one example, and we just thought if they can do it on that amount of money then so can we. It was pure naïvety on our part. We thought ‘Well if it cost Ben Wheatley that much to make a film, we’ve got that much money, let’s do it’ and that was it. We basically learned as we went along.

Stepping back to your early days, what influenced you both into becoming involved in film-making?

PE: Like Craig I’ve always been a big film fan, a big buff, but I’m from Ely in Cardiff which isn’t exactly a place known for its rich glamourous people and there’s certainly no film industry. It was always a case of wanting to do something but not having any inroads into the industry. My high school didn’t have a media course so I was like ‘How do I get into films?’ and that shut me down at a young age but that passion for film carried on into my twenties. I went to university and started doing a scriptwriting course and that’s where I got the bug; Russell Gascoigne, a great writer who did A Touch of Frost amongst other stuff was my lecturer, and he saw what I was doing on the page and got behind it and that gave me the impetus to carry on with it. Craig and I were friends outside of film, we had the same interests in music and film and we watched a tonne of horror films and other films and it just grew from there really. That was and around 2004/5. Years and years of watching a lot of films before thinking ‘Let’s actually do it!’

CN: I remember the exact moment we came up with the idea of starting to make films. Basically every Friday and Saturday we’d go to Phil’s apartment in Cardiff Bay and we’d have these film marathons where we’d watch three films in a night. We’d have a theme – horror night, drama night, whatever. I dare anyone to have the film collection Phil has, I’ve never seen anybody with a DVD collection like it. It’s like going into a video shop, it was awesome. We’d watch these films and one day, my brother brought over his iPhone which had this app which had a filter you could put over anything you filmed to make it look like grindhouse, a bit like Planet Terror. I remember seeing it and just thinking – up to that point I’d always thought that making films was expensive and impossible to do – well, there’s no excuse now not to really make one because you can film it on a phone and put this filter on that makes it look like a proper film. So we shot our first proper short on this iPhone with the filter on top. We had no sound, we didn’t know anything about editing software or anything but it was that pure adrenalin until we upgraded to a Canon 50D because a film we liked called Rubber (2010) was shot on one of these 50D DLSRs and it looked great. So we thought if we got one of those cameras we could make a film like that too. We got the cheapest DLSR you can get and we shot the film on the 550 and from that point onwards we were constantly learning about the camera. All we really knew was that the frame rate had to be 24 frames per second, we didn’t know anything about shutter speed or ISO, white balance, lighting… but we kept on with every film until we eventually got to the point where we had that ‘sit down’ conversation and said we needed to make a feature film, we needed to stop making these shorts films and here we are today.


Talk us through the casting process. It’s a bit of a coup to snag a major British soap star (Danny Miller) for your first feature…

PE: That was sheer good fortune really. We hired Reece to play Calvin and he was friends with Danny through their charity football thing. Danny had just stopped doing Emmerdale for a while and he’d just come off [ITV supernatural thriller] Lightfields so for all intents and purposes, he was unemployed. So we said ‘Can you come down to Wales for ten days and shoot this film for very little money?’ and he agreed – more fool him! He got the material, he liked what we were doing. It was one of those blessings that you can’t plan for. He connected with it and he knows, from his background, the kind of people we were trying to write. He said ‘I know exactly what you’re trying to do here, I know these sorts of people, I get it, and I’m on board.’ He brought his ‘A’ game and he was just dynamite realty.

Presumably, the rest of the cast reacted in the same way?

CN: The truth is, even if you’re from a middle-class background, somewhere in your life you’re going to come into contact with people from all different cultures so we’ve all encountered people who are somewhat aggressive or manipulative or aggressive, whether it’s in High School or outside of that environment or in your relationship with your partner; all three of us here have been faced with an aggressive person who’s been aggressive towards us for no reason at all or who has become aggressive for some reason that has been blown out of all proportion. I think everyone can relate to that, whether it’s the audience or the actors so I think that’s why all the cast took to it so well. Natalie, we hired through auditions and she was the first video audition we got and it ended up being the best one we received, we kept on going back to that first audition no matter how many others we received.

The pivotal role of Danny must have been the hardest to cast and Richard Pawulski’s performance is extraordinary. How did you find him?

CN: Danny was the really difficult one. We’d hired the main principle cast – Natalie, Danny and Reece – but we were struggling to find someone to play the part of Danny in the film. It was getting quite close to the bone, we were getting close to shooting and we still hadn’t found somebody who we felt could do it. Richard got in touch and he had researched people with autism and special needs for a little project he had done and he contacted us to say he had experience with this. He sent us a demo reel with him performing and it was just mind-blowing. We were like ‘that’s the guy’; sometimes things just fall into place.

You must have encountered a few practical problems on a tight ten-day shooting schedule…

CN: Well, it rained on the fifth day! Obviously, the film’s called Cruel Summer so the environment we were going for needed to be sunny. But we actually shot it during a heatwave apart from a couple of occasions where we got rained off on day five and the climactic chase scene where Julia and Reece are chasing Danny through the woods where it was too dark and wet so it was unworkable. There were a couple of grey spots but mostly we got really lucky with the weather. When we decided we were going to make a film we said ‘Right, when are we gonna shoot it’ so we went online and found what, statistically, were the driest months in the UK and it said August so we shot mid/end August but also it was important that it was dry and very light because, to save money, we knew we weren’t going to be able to use any form of artificial lighting, we were just going to use natural lighting. Good camera plus natural lighting equals usable imagery!

Was there much opportunities for the cast to have any input into their roles or the arcs of their characters?

PE: Lots! We blocked out two days before shooting in which Craig and the crew and the cast went through the script with a fine-tooth comb as I was out doing location recces because we still didn’t have woods, which was the biggest part of the film and we didn’t have a location for it!

CN: Because we set ourselves the goal in January to make a film that same year we didn’t get any notes from any outside sources. We just thought it was good because we’d done it. By March, we had what we considered to be a final draft and in August we were shooting. Two days before shooting, I got the cast and we did a read-through and they were picking out plot holes or flaws in the characters and they brought to the table some great ideas to improve the script and just two days before shooting and during that rehearsal period, I went back and did some rewrites and threw in some of their suggestions and luckily having that two-day period meant that while we were shooting we were able to make improvements and make sure that some of the character’s arcs were more developed, the ending was more effective. It was all just collaboration at the end of the day with me, Phil, the actors just talking it through. Ideally, that would have been done before but we didn’t really use our development period to do that so unfortunately it came really late and it worked.

What was the atmosphere like when you came to film the really disturbing stuff towards the end of the film?

PE: Everyone was remarkably laid back really. It never felt extreme. I guess we’d all read the script so we knew what was happening. It wasn’t as challenging as I guess you’d expect it to be which is just as well otherwise it’d have been quite horrible to get through. It probably helps when you’re battling wind elements and you’re filming this horrible scene where they’re tormenting Danny and stripping him and suddenly the gazebo everyone’s in gets blown off into the lake and Craig runs in, strips off and tries to save the gazebo! There’s little happy instances like that that serve to break the trauma!

CN: I guess that maybe on a bigger budget film you’ve got time to focus on the intensity of the script but when you’re multi-tasking like me, Phil and everybody else you’re filming this very intense scene but then you’re wondering what the sound is going to be like, are we going to be able to use this sound or maybe something’s not quite right, some prop isn’t working so although you are focusing on the performances there are so many other things that are going on around you that it doesn’t impair your mood, if you like, because you’re doing a job, you’re working. It’s not like you’re shooting this dark, solemn scene so everyone feels dark and moody; you’ve got a job to do so you just do your job.

PE: It goes back to that old horror movie thing where people say ‘How could you make a horror film with all that blood and gore and gruesome violence?’ and you say ‘Well, it’s just a lot of fun to make!’

The film made its debut at FrightFest last August. How did that come about?

PE: As soon as it was done, I sent it to FrightFest because that was pretty much Goal No. 1 for us because if there’s anywhere we were hoping our film would get shown it was FrightFest because we love it and we respect what they do and we thought it’d be the perfect film for them. Luckily for us, they selected us but the downside was we then had to sit on it for eight months. It was accepted by FrightFest in December but that meant we couldn’t do anything for eight months because it was going to be a World Premiere so we couldn’t put it on DVD, we couldn’t do anything except just sit on it and wait, which was a bit of a learning curve in itself really!

CN: We did a Q&A there where we had our first challenging experience from an audience where the first question was from an individual from the crowd who said they didn’t believe it belonged in a festival like FrightFest which celebrates horror and the fun of horror. I guess they were wanting zombies and guts being torn out but because it wasn’t your atypical horror film, I think the point they were trying to make for some reason was that maybe it belonged in a more drama-driven festival.

PE: I think they had a point but we always saw this as a cheap man’s Eden Lake – we didn’t have the sort of money Eden Lake had – and that’s where the FrightFest programmer jumped in and said ‘Well I think it’s the perfect film for FrightFest, we don’t have just one definition of what horror is, it can be many different things and much as Eden Lake is a real-life horrific situation it very much fits in with the manifesto of FrightFest’ and we then got massive applause from the audience!

Looking back then, what would you say you have taken and learned from the experience of making Cruel Summer?

PE: It’s like a world apart now. We know so much more now because we’ve got through every facet of film with this, from pre-production to distribution and we’ve covered everything and we know everything. Going back to when we put pen to paper to what we know now is just incredible. We could write a book. It’s just huge.

CN: To a certain extent, we were sort of self-taught in the art of not just filmmaking itself but the business element. We had some support from people who were helping us out along the way but what was a good thing was that we were left to learn. We’d get a bit of information and then we’d have to go away and teach ourselves how to do that particular element and how to steer our way through all the shit, basically. But I’m grateful for it now. There were times during it when it was so hard that you almost wanted to give up. There were definitely times when I thought ‘Is it really worth all this bullshit?’ but you get through it, you learn and you reach the point now where it’s coming out although you hated it at times, looking back on it, you realise you learned a lot from that horrible experience! But all in all, it’s been one massive learning experience, as if we’ve been to some sort of school, been taught, had to go through the lectures and sit the exams but it was all of our own doing.

Cruel Summer is available now on DVD and VOD.

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