Due on DVD later this month is The Harsh Light of Day, the debut feature from British-born director Oliver S Milburn who, against all odds, has managed to craft a contemporary vampire movie with a difference which resuscitates a flagging, often overplayed horror genre. Starburst’s Paul Mount spoke to Oliver Milburn about his career, his first movie and his hopes and dreams…
Starburst: So Mr. Milburn, tell Starburst all about yourself and how come you’re making movies?
Oliver S Milburn: I’ve always written stuff, since I was little. I'm the guy with 15 unfinished novels on his hard drive. I only really decided to go for filmmaking professionally about 5 years ago. I've always watched films obsessively, but it wasn't until I was at university that I realised how accessible filmmaking had become. I felt that filmmaking was a game for the rich and connected, and until recently I think generally it was. That doesn't make the previous generation of filmmakers any less talented by the way, just more fortunate, and luck still plays a huge part in it. Then I went and did the usual process - I got a masters in Directing from Bournemouth University, made a bunch of shorts and won an award or two. During my time there I met Emma Biggins, the producer of Harsh Light of Day and we decided to make a feature together.
Who are your influences?
There's so many! I've got a really eclectic taste - which I think you need if you want to make films - and I like directors of many different styles. In my own work, I like interesting visuals - so long as they complement the story; I like to use the camera as a character rather than just a narrator. Other directors who do this - much better than me - would include Danny Boyle, Darren Aronofsky, Sam Raimi, Edgar Wright, David Cronenberg... the list would be long. I think Harsh Light borrows heavily from Clive Barker's early directing too. I'd love to be able to make a film like In Bruges or In The Loop - performance based comedy is such a difficult thing to pull off.
So how did you come to write Harsh Light of Day? Is the vampire sub-genre one you’re particularly attracted to?
The explosion of vampires is a frustration for us, not because of the competition, but because it’s given everyone who walks into the film certain preconceptions or even turns them off altogether. At the time I wrote HLOD, Twilight was just a vague rumble on the horizon in the UK, and the most recent vampire film to do any business was the incredible Let The Right One In. HLOD is definitely not a film in the Twilight group; it’s not about vampires and it’s certainly not a teen movie. It was simply that having a vampire in it worked so well with both the themes it was exploring and the actual mechanics of the story. I'm all about the story rather than its genre. I'd say I'll never do another vampire film, but if a great story came along and vampires were a part of it, I'd sign up in a flash. Similarly I love horror, but I'd probably want to break out into another genre next. Again, it all depends on what scripts come along. We were under certain extenuating circumstances while making HLOD. That sounds dodgier than it is - but basically we had to write and shoot within about four months. So I was tweaking the script right up until shooting and I'm sure with more time I could have redrafted endlessly. As it was I think it was three main drafts over about six weeks, and then we were shooting it!
So what is HLOD? Is it a horror film? A romance? Home invasion? Revenge thriller? How would you categorise it?
I'd be a difficult p***k and say that I wouldn't. Or if I had to it'd be a 'horrific supernatural revenge-thriller'. That's a film I'd like to see! That's why I wrote it like that - as a genre mash-up, in homage to a lot of horror/thriller trends past and present. A B-movie yes, but one that audiences can enjoy. People who watch smaller films like ours tend to be aware of the genre conventions, which is why there's so many post-modern indie movies these days. Categories are something for marketing, something which helps sell a film, helps audiences find it, and of course helps kind press like yourselves publicize it. I've always loved cross genre films - I seem to be the one person who thought it was awesome when Sunshine suddenly turned into a horror film, or loved the fact that The Signal is three totally different films in the same story. Stories are a reflection of life, life can change, therefore it suits some stories to change. I'm not saying all films should be cross-genre, I just think that with the bombardment of superhero movies, forgettable rom-coms, remakes and safe sequels, audiences are getting more restless for originality.
How involved were you in getting the film financed and off the ground?
I put my head in the sand. Well, not really, but I was pretty busy writing. I found a few of our investors, but Emma did the business plan that won them over. We'd give them that and a detailed plot outline to consider - so I guess the story was my biggest contribution there. Our investment was from normal people outside the industry, and if you're going to get money from butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, you can't pitch a David Lynch film - it has to be something which they can see working on paper and on a basic story level.
So how difficult was it to make a film as ambitious as this to a tight budget and schedule?
Very difficult! I think we're all now very used to hearing low budget filmmakers talk about how hard it is... but dammit it’s hard! We shot in four weeks; and I think that’s more than some indies have, but the way I shot the film was quite demanding in terms of set-ups, especially with our equipment. It wasn't that handheld, free-flowing style you see in a lot of indies, which really speeds the process up. We were dealing with some equipment which I don't think people would even consider using now - the tech is moving so fast. The biggest factor was that we didn't get our location till right before we shot, which had the knock on effect of making all my storyboards/planning irrelevant - we'd based them on a very different kind of house. So I had to work out a lot of it as we shot, which is not how I like to do things, but I think we got by. So yeah, I could moan all day about it but basically it was about as tough as it gets!
Starburst hears that a well-known UK TV face expressed an interest in working on the movie - a huge boost to your confidence - but had to drop out due to scheduling difficulties. Working without a casting director, how did you go about casting HLOD?
Yeah it was great to have the script validated in that way - it meant we were definitely on the right track. I'm very pleased with the final cast though. I think budget aside one of the biggest challenges for me was earning the trust of a cast as a 23 year old unknown director. It’s a factor which I didn't really think about till we were on set, but they were great about it, and we collaborated really well. Getting a casting director is definitely something I would advise though, even if it takes from another department. We had to wade through so many CVs, sit through so many auditions. Occasionally we'd cast someone, then discover they couldn't commit to it... it was a nightmare. It literally makes me shiver thinking about it.
Most of our cast came from casting websites. In the case of our lead - once we knew our 'secret star' wouldn't work out - I just scoured headshots and invited people to audition who looked like they might make a good 'Dan'. I didn't look at resumes or statements for that role. I think with Infurnari Emma approached Giles Alderson directly and he agreed to chat with me about it. If you're persistent and a little cunning you'll find your people, but it takes a lot of work.
Anything you had to compromise on in making the movie?
Haha, LOADS. I mean there was probably something in every scene that had to be dropped or changed. One that really irritates me still is the death of the first bad guy. Definite 'Spoiler Alert', but he was supposed to be dropped through a skylight onto a poker table - hence the script's emphasis on 'top floor'. We couldn't do it so we did the thing with the elevator - a Die Hard 'reference' I suppose, but not as much fun! There are loads more like that. An interesting one is that the gang were supposed to be much younger, kind of Kidulthood type figures, but the cast you see were the only people we auditioned who we thought could pull it off, so we were glad to have them age aside! All this stuff is part and parcel of making this kind of film though, and it’s important to be grateful you got anything shot.
There’s some pretty graphic violence and brutality in the movie; Starburst winced as Daniel is flung down the stairs during the attack on the house! What’s your view on the issue of censorship and violence in movies?
A really interesting question. On censorship I have no problem with having a system of certification. That's sensible. On the other hand I think you'd have to be pretty messed up already to let a film tip you over into becoming a monster. There's a lot to be said for the Gaspar Noe approach - i.e. that the only honest way to depict violence is to leave it utterly unstylised, to make the audience revolted by what is a revolting act. It depends on the story you are telling though I suppose, and in something like a vampire film it'd be a push not to stylise it in some way. I'd love to see Noe do a vampire movie! It comes down to context I think. Harsh Light has some stylised violence, but I think its brutality is honest rather than perverse. There is purposefully a big difference in the depiction of the human violence and the violence meted out by vampires, which chimes with the little philosophical debate Dan and the vampire have at the end. The human violence is onscreen, except where our FX budget wouldn't allow, while the vampire violence is generally quite fleeting.
What does trouble me is seeing a movie clearly made for young teen audiences, say 12A cert, where the body count is huge and the violence very stylised. It’s the wrong message, especially when sex is often so fleeting in the same films - which is the more natural? Basically as long as violence is never shown to be a good thing that's fine. As long as a film never says 'hey, be violent, its really cool'. It never is in HLOD; it causes serious pain and has serious consequences. If anything the film recognises the fact that sometimes it is a natural instinct to want violence. Whether we want it in the sense of revenge, or whether we want it in the sense of going to see a film we know will be violent. The important thing is to temper that with the knowledge that violence is wrong - something 99% of the world realise. Dan certainly does in the film, but his desire for it is overwhelming - that is the struggle which we see him face.
What’s your next project? Any long-term ambitions?
To make more films, basically. I love it, it's what I want to do forever. The next project depends on what gets off the ground - it’s really tough to get anything moving at the moment but hopefully HLOD will help. I've written 3 scripts since Harsh Light. Emma and I will definitely work together again I think, we've optioned the rights to School's Out - a novel by Scott Andrews about kids trying to survive in a boarding school after a virus kills most of the world. I'm on the third draft of that now, it’s fast, fun, and sharp-tongued - not at all what you'd expect from that brief synopsis. There's also a near-future thriller and a comedy in various stages of drafting. I'm also working on a graphic novel with another writer based on an idea of mine, which I hope to make into a film too.
If the right script came along from another writer I'd do it in a flash, I'm not precious about writing myself. I'd love to find something I can do for the industry's idea of low budget, like £500,000. That's the next step I think - HLOD was way less than that, so I know I could do something with it.
Given the chance - and the budget - would you like to work on a big budget FX extravaganza a la Michael Bay or would you prefer something a bit more intimate and personal?
I'm not interested in FX really, unless they help me tell a story. Don't get me wrong I'd love a decent budget, and I love stories of an epic scale, but you need intimacy, you need to care about characters, that's what so many blockbusters now just miss. I think its because they try to make films for everybody, and film doesn't work like that - it makes the characters bland. I work within genres, and I work with understood conventions, but I really like characters and stories to be interesting. Hopefully they are in HLOD. With a few exceptions (the Chris Nolan projects of this world), the bigger the budget the less complex those things seem to become. I'd love to do an action film for example, but I'd want to do it for a story which happens to have action in, rather than for the sake of action itself.
Are you especially drawn towards the SF/fantasy genre?
Yes! SF is actually my goal. To one day make an intelligent SF movie on an epic scale that people really connect with. Those unfinished novels I mentioned are all SF. To make another Star Wars, the originals, obviously, or The Matrix, the original, obviously, or Alien, the original two, obviously... I could go on, about originals, obviously. I already mentioned Sunshine; that's a film I wish I'd made. To make something like that would be the dream.
Not so much fantasy, because often fantasy seems to make up its own rules and I don't understand that. It can work of course, but films need rules in order to build tension and threat. You'll have a character who’s dying, and suddenly the Elf of Chgul will produce the blade of Aggod which is the only blade with can bring the dead to life... its just so random!
Ha ha. So, what advice would give to aspiring young filmmakers keen to make a career in the UK?
It depends on what they want to do. If it’s technical, then go get the training, do the work experience, have a blast and hopefully make the contacts for a job. Sadly it is all about contacts, which is a shame. It's something we're still struggling with. Neither Emma nor I had any industry family or friends really, which makes it very difficult. We didn't have an invite to the party - so HLOD is our way of kicking the door down and screaming to be noticed. If you want to actually make/write/direct films yourself, I guess it’s key to realise there isn't really a golden 'way to get into film'. You have to use what you have at your disposal and make films your way. It’s almost pointless looking for funding if you haven't already done something too, so make a few shorts and see if you can get anywhere with them. Shorts are really good practice and an art form in themselves. Above all the script is everything. If you don't have a good script it's extremely difficult to make a good film, I'd say impossible if Monsters hadn't been improv. Spend 10 years on the script if you need to, just make sure it’s good and the rest will follow to a lesser or greater extent. There are plenty of things about our experience, and those of other low budget films, which can help. So watch loads of 'making of' extras, like ours, on our DVD, which you should buy, go on. Live the dream. Starburst rules!
Stop it, you’re making us blush.
The Harsh Light of Day is released on DVD October 1st and can be pre-ordered below...