Clophill is a tiny, almost quintessentially English village hiding in the Bedfordshire countryside north of London just off the M1. In the 1960s the village - and the nearby ruins of the 14th Century St Mary’s Church - achieved a brief notoriety following reports of a sinister black mass ritual which saw tombs desecrated, remains removed and animals sacrificed. Clophill and its long-deconsecrated church have become infamous for continued reports of alleged supernatural activity ever since. In 2010 a group of filmmakers - actors and real-life documentary-makers - spent a weekend at Clophill to put together a very different kind of ‘found footage’ horror movie. The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill blurs the line between fact and fiction as a routine documentary slowly becomes something altogether more chilling - and the audience is never sure what’s fact and what’s fiction. Starburst recently spoke to the film’s co-director Kevin Gates (The Zombie Diaries) to find out the truth about the legends of Clophill…
Starburst: Have you always been a fan of horror films and has it always been your ambition to make genre movies?
Kevin Gates: I grew up watching horror films; there’s a story I often tell of when I sneaked downstairs at four years old to watch a film called The Devil’s Rain which my parents had rented. I’ve had the filmmaking bug ever since. It’s my parents’ fault really! The art college I went to ran a filmmaking course; I’ve always been a bit of a film buff so I enrolled on the course which was very practical and allowed me to use my compositional skills from my art studies to become a fairly decent cameraman and editor and I went from there. I studied experimental film at University and started working on short films after that. I worked in Soho for a bit in post-production places but spending a few years trying to climb the ladder in the hope of being noticed wasn’t really what interested me. I wanted to make horror films and the only way I could do that was to fund them myself which is what I did with The Zombie Diaries and it all started there.
Your first features, The Zombie Diaries and its sequel, were low-budget self-funded ‘found footage’ movies. Clophill is similar in style although more of a faux documentary. Is ‘found footage’ something you’re a particular advocate of or is it more a case of ‘needs must’ at the moment?
It’s an area I’ve always liked. I remember seeing The Legend of Boggy Creek and I liked Blair Witch when it came out, it’s probably in my ‘top ten’. I wanted to make a zombie film and (co-director) Mike Bartlett and I are both fans of Blair Witch and we thought of the idea of doing a sort of mash-up of the zombie film with a video diary approach. It was one of those things which was a passion project but at the same time we couldn’t have perceived that George Romero was going to do Diary of the Dead just as we were finishing and screening The Zombie Diaries! But that coincidence actually led to a number of things happening which benefited the film. Clophill was shot before we did Zombie Diaries 2; we were waiting around for funding for the sequel - the first one did really well, there was lots of interest but there were also lots of people wasting our time and we thought ‘well, we’ve got all this equipment, let’s go out and shoot something.’
So how did the idea of the Clophill project come about?
I knew about the local legend of Clophill because it’s quite close to where I live. I went up there in about 1990 as a teenager - it was one of those legends I’d heard about and it had always been in the back of my mind as a great location for a film - and nobody had really done anything about Clophill. There was a lot of coverage dating back from the ’60s but it was mostly news stories so it was something I wanted to do and the opportunity to do it came up in 2010 and we spent a weekend there shooting it. The key was I wanted to do something a bit different that wasn’t just another ‘found footage’ film but which was, for the most part, a straight up documentary. Mike and I funded it ourselves which was very different from Zombie Diaries 2 which was made subsequently which was funded by the US and UK distributors. We had lots of issues with the delivery date being accelerated and we were being rushed so with Clophill we had as much time as we wanted to put the film together.
How much of the film was actually scripted in advance?
When we set out for the weekend to film at Clophill there was no script at all. What I wrote was an itinerary of what we were going to do for that weekend which involved arranging interviews with certain people at certain locations and going off and doing them. The Luton Paranormal Society came down on one of the nights and in the itinerary we had things like the ouija board experiment or the séance which we were going to do at some point just to see what happened. The ‘ten minutes alone’ sequence which became a key point of the film just came up over the weekend because of all these people telling us there was this activity in a certain corner of the graveyard so we thought ‘let’s spend some time over there and see what happens’. So we had all this footage from the weekend which I really liked but what I wanted to do was take it a bit further and have fictitious parts which were scripted that would fit in and around the ‘story’ but nothing that was too far removed from the reality of the stuff that had really taken place there. All the other stuff that we shot was done elsewhere which you probably can’t tell from the film but some of the ruins and the woods we shot at different locations. We were conscious that we got all the footage we needed that weekend, a lot of other stuff was shot elsewhere and worked in because we shot so many cutaways that weekend that we had a wealth of material to work with.
How much of the fiction were your cast aware of prior to filming?
None at all really! The only people who were in on ‘the secret’ were myself and Mike. Craig Stovin, one of our ‘actors', had an idea we were up to something but he didn’t know the details but none of the others knew a thing. Rob, the sound recordist is a very cynical guy so it was great to play a trick on him because right up to the end he believed it was a straight documentary. We managed to trick our friends which was great but then obviously we worked in the other elements and they were happy to come back and just play themselves so it was a lot of fun.
When you did let them in on the secret did you explain what was in store or just tell them to look out for something unusual and react appropriately?
In day two, for example, where they find the bird’s head covered in worms, I set it all up myself down in the path where we filmed in the wood and I said ‘okay, something’s down there that you’re going to have to react to’ but they didn’t really know what I’d planned. All the stuff we did towards the end of the film with the coven of witches in the woods, again I kept Craig back from that as we set it up and said ‘okay, just react to what you see here.’ There was a bit more direction there because obviously I said ‘you’re going to have to run off’ but I was trying to keep it a secret as much as possible up until the point where we shot it and I think it worked all the better because of that. There’s a scene where they’re exploring the ruins and they come across an animal horn and some teeth; the horn was placed there the day before, that was fake. But the teeth were not anything that we put there and there were some other bones around too. What stuff like that was doing there I don’t know!
That ‘ten minutes alone’ sequence - where each of your ‘investigators’ stands isolated in the most remote and notorious part of the graveyard with just a torch and a camera for company - is probably the highlight of the movie because it’s subtle and effective and doesn’t go ‘over the top’. Were you ever tempted to ramp the scares up a notch?
I was tempted but I was trying not to because it would have been very easy to have lots of jump moments, lots of scares and try and do a sort of Paranormal Activity thing but I was conscious that I’d done so much research on Clophill that I wanted to respect the ‘legend’ and not take it too far. Also the point is ‘what is real and what isn’t?’ so it’s important not to go too far. We actually added a few bits to the ‘ten minutes alone’ segment; if you look closely you’ll notice that when I did my ‘ten minutes alone’ the shots change slightly because we filmed it the next day and we rejigged a few things. And obviously the figure that appears behind Craig was put in afterwards but actually the way he moves to reveal that figure was pure luck, he wasn’t directed to sort of stand within the frame and then step to the side. But all the ‘ten minutes alone’ reactions are all completely genuine up until the point where the face is seen in the bushes.
How did the Clophill locals react to you making a horror film in their village? Were you worried they might think you were exploiting the village’s reputation?
There is a bit of a stigma to the village which all stems from stuff in the ’60s and the ’70s where there was this big incident and it was a seven-day wonder in the press and people flocked to Clophill but most of the people we spoke to were quite happy to talk about it. There are lots of rumours about stuff happening but these days it’s pretty harmless. There were some people who didn’t want to talk about it but it’s the same with any film, people don’t want to talk about something that’s local to them but everyone we spoke to in the film, especially the older people, were happy to talk about it. Some of them even came to the premiere and they really liked the film which was very pleasing because we weren’t sure what they were going to make of it. We told them what the film was going to be about but what they said wasn’t distorted in any way, they were just saying things as they were and as they’d happened.
Clophill will enjoy a limited theatrical release but is aimed squarely at the straight-to-DVD market. Do you think that’s a market which has much longevity in the current climate?
When Zombie Diaries 2 came out it was only released on DVD in the UK and the same with Clophill because there isn’t the money in Blu- ray or the interest in independent films to justify the cost of producing Blu- ray discs. The market for these sorts of films is, unfortunately, from supermarkets where people pick up these things while they’re doing their shopping. It’s worrying in a way and funding is more difficult but the film industry hasn’t really caught up with the way that people are watching films. The model that we’ve released our last couple of films on is kind of a dying model of the physical release with a limited theatrical but I think in this country the whole ‘pay-per-view’ and ‘pay TV’ stuff hasn’t really taken off the way it has in the US. I think it’s going to have to really. It’s a concern but I think if you’ve got a good film and you’ve got something that’s a bit different then you’re going to get interest in it and you’re going to get some sort of release. It’s a challenge and I guess from my point of view the films I’ve made have all been released and they’ve done pretty well commercially - they’ve certainly made the distributors a lot of money!
Are you pleased with the response to the film so far?
It’s been great, we’ve had some fantastic reviews. Obviously Starburst’s review was fantastic and we had good write-ups from Dread Central, Quiet Earth, Rue Morgue. I think with these kinds of films regardless of how they’re different they’re always going to be a sort of ‘Marmite’ movie, there’ll always be people who’ll hate them, that’s often the response now to found footage films. We’ve had a few reviews which have been more on the negative side but quite a lot of positive reviews and it’s always interesting to read different viewpoints but I’m very pleased with the response so far.
And we hear rumours of a sequel entitled Mothman…
It’s on the cards and I’ve found another legend that I’m really interested in. The key though is to avoid repetition of the same forumula; that’s not really what I want to do but it’s really about trying to find a fresh approach with something that’s a bit different to this legend so whether that has elements of found footage or whether it’s something a bit different is something I’m working on at the moment. But the key is not to repeat the same formula again.
And the future? Fancy a romcom or is it horror all the way for you?
Funnily enough one of my favourite directors is Woody Allen but I think I’m a way off doing a romantic comedy at the moment! Horror and sci-fi are the two genres I’ve always been a big fan of so I think I’ll certainly stay within the horror genre for the time being. I’m writing a script for an occult horror film at the moment which is a sort of throwback to Witchfinder General which won’t be a found footage film, it’ll be more straight-forward but Mothman is there and will happen if we get the approach right and feel passionate about it - and of course it depends on how well Clophill goes.
THE PARANORMAL DIARIES: CLOPHILL is available on DVD in the UK on 14th October 2013.