This month sees the release on DVD and Blu-ray of quirky British horror/thriller, Elfie Hopkins. It is a tale of amateur detection and grisly slayings in deep, dark, rural Wales. The film is the first full-length feature by London Film School graduate Ryan Andrews, who recently spoke to Starburst about his work and the experience of making his cinema debut with an ambitious and daringly-different British genre film.
Elfie Hopkins stars Jaime Winstone as a twenty two year old slacker-cum-would-be detective, frustrated by her life in a drowsy village somewhere in Wales. Along with her geeky best friend Dylan (Aneurin Barnard), Elfie keeps her spirits up by making a nuisance of herself around the village, making spurious, if imaginative, allegations about the activities of the bemused locals. The arrival of a mysterious new family, the Gammons, arouses Elfie’s suspicions and when the locals start disappearing she realises that there’s much more to the newcomers than meets the eye.
There's much more to Elfie too. She has her origins back in director Ryan Andrews’ formative years as a would-be film-maker. “I wrote a really funny, weird little story about a couple adopting a kid who turned into a cannibal,” Ryan tells Starburst. “That was Elfie and that was as much as it was. I actually wrote a script about ‘the Gammons’, but it was just too big for my first film and everyone advised me to break it down and to do something simpler with fewer characters. So I took the one character with the cannibal aspect from the short film, Little Munchkin, and wrote a different script.”
Ryan wrote the script for Elfie Hopkins with his long-time collaborator Riyad Barmania. “Initially we batted ideas back and forth,” says Ryan. “But I was really heavily into producing the movie as well so I had to back off after a bit. In the first few days of writing the script I was really deeply involved in everything. We talked about different characters, every scene, what was going to happen in the scenes and as it went closer and closer into production I had to sort of step back because we were shooting down in Wales and I was busy getting the cast and crew together.”
Even seasoned directors can find getting projects off the ground difficult in today’s climate. It must be especially difficult for someone new and untested to get a film moving. “Yeah, it’s really hard. You just have to grind your way through,” he says. “Obviously no-one has any confidence in you at that point, so you have to be constantly knocking on people’s doors and showing them stuff and you’re working for free for almost twenty four hours a day for three or four years! A lot of that is trying to convince people to give you the money. It’s a real rollercoaster and I’ve heard other film-makers say that even when they’re on their third or fourth film it’s the same process but with a bigger budget.”
Jaime Winstone is joined in Elfie Hopkins by her legendary dad Ray, who gives good cameo value as a creepy butcher. Also present are respected TV and theatre actor Steven Mackintosh, Fresh Meat’s Kimberley Nixon, Kate (Mrs John Simm) Magowan and Welsh actor Richard Harrington, who also starred in the Little Munchkin short. That’s an impressive call sheet for any director, let alone one embarking on his first feature. “Jaime and I met several years ago on set when I was a camera trainee on her film Daddy’s Girl. We became friends and then a couple of years later when I was developing Elfie I said to her ‘Look, I’ve got a script which would be really good for you. Would you be interested in doing it?’ She said ‘yes’ and then I met Michael Wiggs, who became one of the producers of the film and who’s also Jaime’s agent. We got on really well and he said ‘This is something I’d like to do with you so I’ll help you in finding some good cast.’ The rest was just going in and meeting the cast and convincing them we were doing something different, or at least attempting to do something different, from what’s normally done in the UK and that it would be an exciting, adventurous project - experimental in some ways.”
Elfie Hopkins leaps across a number of genres, including the detective story, thriller, film noir and finally into all-out horror. Ryan explains that the film changed organically in the making. “I think it changes a lot,” he agrees. “It became more of a horror film as we were developing it because it originally started off as more of a noir film, but then for distribution and budgetary reasons, and the fact that we wanted to make our money back, I ramped up some of the horror elements which I was quite excited about anyway because I love horror films. I suppose that originally it was more of a fantasy film, almost like a fairy-tale, but obviously with our budgetary restraints we toned some of that down. At the moment I’d say it’s definitely a horror film.”
As ever, compromises had to be made to bring the film to the screen and Ryan, like most writer/directors, found the process difficult to come to terms with. “It’s frustrating,” he says. “I didn’t realise how much it would affect the film because I’d never done it before. You’ve got all these ideas in your head that you really want to nail down and that becomes really difficult because you have to change so much. You come in very prepared and then you have to adapt on the job because it’s physically not possible on the sort of budget and the number of filming days we had. I found it really hard. I mean, the set was fun because we had great people around us and we moved as fast as we could, but I was committed to a style for the film which was also burning time, so sometimes it was actually a bit crazy. But saying that, sometimes you manage to get things that really work out of those circumstances.”
It’s fair to say that Elfie Hopkins wasn’t exactly rapturously received by the critics, but even some of the more savage and personal reviews didn’t particularly phase Ryan. “I actually don’t mind at all. At the end of the day I’m out there trying to please an audience, so I think you just have to take those kinds of things on the chin. The audience have no idea about the problems in making an independent film, especially when you’re trying to do something different and probably beyond your budget. If the reviews are really personally offensive then you just have to laugh. Some of them were harsher than I expected because I honestly though that what we made, for a British film on our kind of budget, was really quite impressive. I could have just done some kitchen sink drama, but I always try to push myself and being more of a ‘fantasy’ director I just had to make that sort of film. Perhaps that was my mistake. Perhaps I should have thought ‘right, I won’t push myself’ and I could have made more of a traditional drama, but that’s just not the way I work.”
So it's onwards and upwards for Ryan Andrews, who cites Ridley Scott and Tim Burton amongst his contemporary influences. “I’ve got two projects in the treatment and script stages,” he reveals. “One’s called Black Unicorn which is a genre film and I’m also on the look out for other people’s scripts because I love the idea of finding another script and doing that as well. It’s all a great learning experience. I’ve learned so much from Elfie Hopkins from the perspective of working out what you need to shoot and where you need to be and building tension in a scene. It’s invaluable getting the experience of doing all that and building up the process from the start and then seeing the end product in the cinema. Until you actually do the job of directing a feature film you’re not actually a director. It’s like being a plasterer because if you’re not doing it all the time then you’re not going to get any better at it and every time you do it you get a bit better. I’ll continue to direct and I’ll continue to push myself, but next time I’ll have more knowledge about where to push myself and where to hold back.”
Elfie Hopkins is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from August 13th.