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Written By:

Martin Unsworth
john armageddon

Low budget folk horror film Armageddon Gospels is about to hit Apple TV, so we caught up with the director, John Harrigan, to find out more about it…

STARBURST: What was the inspiration behind Armageddon Gospels?

John Harrigan: The story grew out of the landscape of Sussex Downs and surrounding villages, it’s a beautiful and evocative place. When you’re there, you feel the presence of a spirit of the place. You only have to walk the hills and see the Long Man of Wilmington, where we shot the finale of Armageddon Gospels, to see how others have had their imaginations stirred by what resides there.

This combined with immense life changing events: early in 2016, I lost my mother to Alzheimer’s having been her main carer for six years. Grief can be a powerful inspiration, it helped me evaluate my relationship to the British landscape. The loss of David Bowie, my mother and then the aftermath of the EU referendum combined together to inspire me to create a story of lost gods engaged in a ritual to save Albion from a dark entity called the Bone King. The film explores the moment in history we find ourselves in.

Were there any films you had as a point of reference when you were in the planning stages?

Penda’s Fenn was probably the most important touchstone and reference, but also Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Each time I make a film, I find myself paying my respects to masters such as Tarkovsky.

Do you have a natural interest in folk legends and the like?

Yes, folk legends have always been an important aspect of my work as a storyteller. It’s a pleasure to reinterpret and reimagine an old folktale or legend, subverting them to use them in a modern context. This time, it was one of the earliest legends – that of the Holy Grail.

I think this is how stories are remembered and mutate over the years, through each generation of storyteller, revitalising a legend for their particular time and place. I love cult films, and I love seeing a story I know well through the eyes of a new filmmaker.

You really make the most the locations – some familiar to viewers – how did you go about securing those?

The gods and spirits in the film are exploring a dream version of England, so we had to make sure the modern world didn’t encroach or appear too many times. Often, we’d plan and arrange to shoot at a location, but on arrival we’d learn that it wasn’t possible due to the number of people present, so we’d pack our gear up and walk until we found somewhere that felt correct. In many ways, we were guided by the landscape of the South Downs, and what was occurring in real time, intuition played an immense part in securing locations. The landscape of the South Downs National park is perhaps the most important character in Armageddon Gospels.

Were there any problems you had during production?

The biggest problem we encountered during filming was that the camera of our DOP, Mark Caldwell, broke a week into the shoot. It was so windy that day that a part of a leaf got pulled into the fan and it stopped the camera. This was a terrifying moment, as we had no means or time to hire in a camera, on such a tight budget and schedule. Luckily Mark managed to fix it, however, it did mean we could no longer use the gimble rig for the rest of the shoot. We had used this piece of equipment for the majority of shooting in the first week, so had to adapt our shooting style, which brought alive other scenes in an unexpected way. Crisis is often a form of disguised opportunity.

Exhaustion was also a major factor, I’d written the script in a month shortly after I had lost my mum and we shot the film in just over three weeks in August 2016. The entire cast and crew lived and worked together, cooking for each other throughout the shoot in Kate Alderton’s former family home, the Haven. Kate played Aradia, and is an extremely talented actress and performer.

Kate, her partner, and two children patiently accommodated us all, their home was in the middle of all the incredible sites we were planning to shoot at. They were amazing hosts and I’m eternally grateful to them.

It often appeared that our journey to make Armageddon Gospels mirrored the quest the gods had to successfully complete for the ritual in the film, with cast and crew hiking everywhere, carrying all the camera equipment and gear to get the stunning shots, notably to the top of the Long Man of Wilmington. On this particular day, once we got to the top, we realised an essential item of equipment had been left half way up when we had stopped for a break, so Milo – one of the crew – had to run down and up to get it!

And lastly, the most important prop in the film is the Holy Grail. I wanted to use a piece of Molodovite, which is a green stone, taken from a meteorite that crashed in the region that is now the Czech Republic fifteen millions years ago. It’s said that this was the original inspiration for some of the Grail legends and it seemed like it would be impossible to obtain. However, it transpired that Kate Alderton’s mother, actor Pauline Collins, purchased this stone whilst shooting a film in the Czech Republic, and she agreed to lend it to us.

With Midsommar going down so well this year, do you think people are ready for a return of folk horror?

Yes I think so, pastoral and folk horror offer a perfect way to examine the horror of the immediate. The question of survival in the presence of otherworldly forms that don’t recognise human agency as absolute. Folk Horror, and especially Midsommar, appear as portents and omens of a very specific aspect of the time we’re living in now.

Storytelling as a repeated ritual is an important problem solving tool of immense adaptability. When you think about The Wicker Man as the definitive work of folk horror, it is very much about a community telling the story of the landscape’s survival, and casting Police Sergeant Howie as the fool, in a theatrical performance that the every resident of Summerisle engages in.

Tell us a little bit about Foolishpeople, your creative company.

FoolishPeople takes its name from the Fool tarot card, a character that teaches us we have to be willing to let go of outmoded ways of thinking. We celebrate our thirtieth anniversary this year!

The projects we have created always utilise ritual as a tool of storytelling in theatre and film. We helped pioneer immersive theatre in the late nineties and early 2000s. We used an old, disused abattoir in Clerkenwell to set two of our most successful stories, Abattoir Pages and A Red Threatening Sky. Location, and working with a site-specific process is always key to each of our projects. That often comes out of my imagining what story could exist in a specific locale, then interpreting that into the form of a script.

We’ve performed at Arcola Theatre and the ICA, Birmingham Rep, and also told stories across historic sites such as the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham.

Our first feature film, Strange Factories, was shot on location in Prague and took cult film as its core inspiration. We placed our audience into the experience of watching a lost film that was said to be haunted. We toured Strange Factories in the oldest and most unique independent cinemas in Britain with a live cinema event that had the characters from the film manifesting inside the cinema.

FoolishPeople is comprised of a small group of creatives that grows and expands during the time a project is live. I am the fool at the heart of FoolishPeople

Do you know what your next project will be?

I’m currently working on my third feature Lightships, a collaboration between GHRL Ltd and FoolishPeople. We shot in January and it is now in the final stages of post-production, having just reached picture lock. The screenplay is inspired and adapted from the book Remembrance by Maryann Rada:

Eve’s family is missing: her journal holds the key to locating them. As her world and reality begin to unravel, she must unlock the mystery of the visions and transmissions she is experiencing.

Is she a prisoner, a patient… or dead?

The film explores alien contact from the perspective of those who claim alien intelligences are being communicated via direct transmissions into their minds and imagination. In the same manner that Philip K. Dick stated that he was contacted by a pink beam of light; this later became an important aspect in his book Valis.

It’s interesting to be completing work on Lightships just as Armageddon Gospels is about to be released.

Armageddon Gospels is available on Apple TV from October 31st and reviewed here.

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