We here at STARBURST are proud supporters of independent filmmaking - especially when it comes from right here in the United Kingdom. So when we were offered the chance to sit down and talk with talented filmmaking couple Poppy Roe (Actor/Producer) and Staten Cousins Roe (Writer/Director), we were absolutely thrilled to do so. Staten's feature-length debut A SERIAL KILLER'S GUIDE TO LIFE, which tells the story of Lou (Katie Brayben) and Val's (Poppy Roe) road trip of self-discovery (and violence) through the medium of self-help, releases on VOD in the UK on January 13th 2020 and we got to ask them all about the idea for the film, the tough shooting schedule they endured and much more including a special story about the premiere!
STARBURST: Congratulations on the film. It's a wonderful mix of dark comedy and the drama of internal struggle.
Poppy & Staten: Thank you so much - it's fantastic to hear that people have enjoyed the film and totally get the core meaning.
Poppy, what was your initial reaction when reading the script for the first time?
Well, honestly, as Staten and I are a couple and I served as a Producer on the film as well, I've known about the ideas and narrative of the film since pretty much day one. It's an idea that stemmed from all the way back when we did our short film called This Way Out - so it's always been in my mind, but Staten served as the main writer for the script so seeing the progression through the drafts was really interesting to see where these characters were heading in the story.
Staten, can you tell us more about the core idea of the story?
It was definitely born through our short film as Poppy mentioned - fun fact, we actually shot that in our living room which just epitomises independent filmmaking. Poppy and Katie's characters were extensions and developments of their characters in that short (which was about a failing Euthanasia clinic). I wanted to take that idea of satirising this target-driven world and apply it to something that would work as a feature film. I came across the epidemic like situation of people consuming self-help from unprofessional and ludicrous sources that also felt like a cult - so I thought that that was ripe for a satirical take whilst also being respectful and that's where the basis of A Serial Killer's Guide to Life came from. I also wanted to make sure, after having a lot of meetings with various production companies and household names in film, that we made our first feature film ourselves so that we could experiment and let our wings spread, so to speak.
What was the shooting schedule like?
It was really tough but extremely rewarding and a very unique experience. We shot over two weeks and had to travel to 28 or so different locations - and because of that short time frame, a lot of the scenes were literally one or two takes. That's when being an actor and a producer can be seen as the worse thing because as an actor I was saying "I think I can do better, can we do another take?" but as a producer, I was like "No, we have to move on" [laughs].
Shooting it so fast over two weeks, as Poppy said, it was one or two takes maximum - and pretty much what you see in the film was on the editing table. I wanted to give the actors a little to do as possible in the sense of having to constantly get back into a particular frame of mind for the role so shooting it so rapidly helped everyone stay focused and made things easier in that respect. It gave everyone kinetic energy and worked wonders with Poppy and Katie when they set out to play these characters and embark on their road trip of violence. [laughs]
You could say that the intense schedule gave the film even more of a raw charm and natural feel to it.
Absolutely yeah, myself and Katie (who played Lou in the film) really embraced that and even though it took us a while to get into it once it clicked we truly embraced the chaos. We also shot in order as well which in a way is really lucky - so you can see us, as the film progresses, get more tired and chaotic towards the end. The road trip element really embodies the production as well because we were all crammed into these vehicles and then jumping out and shooting the scene. I also assisted Staten in the edit as well, and when we sat down to edit, you could see that in every scene, every actor brought 110% in each take.
Staten, we mentioned Lou and Val's journey of discovery (and violence) - they are both really interesting characters with a fantastic dynamic. How did you approach writing these characters?
Because of the short film, I knew the basis of the characters and worked from there. Poppy and Katie were the two who I wanted to play them from the very beginning so I developed them in mind which made the natural progression of the development a hell of a lot easier. It was a really lovely thing to do because I wrote them and then at certain points in the writing process I would get Katie round to the flat to do a read-through with myself and Poppy. This allowed us to compile ideas together for the characters and the story so they were directly involved as well which was a wonderful thing.
There are plenty of twists and turns in the story, including a terrific ending (which we won't spoil) that is left to just the right level of ambiguous and a lot of the revelations are hinted at throughout the film through observation and performance. Poppy, what was your favourite moment of the story that you think defined Val as a character and her impact on the narrative?
It was definitely important that the reveals in the final act were not the biggest twist - we wanted it to be part of the development of the film and not the core part. For me, I have two different answers to my favourite moment of Val's. During the shoot, I found my feet with Val during the nature therapy segment because it was the first time that they were surrounded by believers and she was the odd one out. I got the sense of her and her evil ways and it was a lot of fun. In the edit, I really liked the ending for Val - that moment was near the end of the shoot and it was very emotional after being through so much shooting the film. Katie and I wanted to get it right and I felt like we nailed it.
It's a really interesting character-driven story that is very refreshing.
Exactly and it's important that the audience connected with them and that seems to be the response so far after our premiere at FrightFest 2019. During the writing process, I said to Staten, "are people not going to like her? If people don't like her are they not going to connect to Val or Lou?" but thankfully it was absolutely fine because people can get behind the both of them.
Also as well, the other characters in the story including Lou's mum have a bigger role in the background of the lead characters, more so than you might think.
A SERIAL KILLER'S GUIDE TO LIFE is firmly rooted in British culture and state of mind. The locations, as well as the cinematography, was stunning. Did you shoot a lot of the film local to where you are based and how did the locations impact the story?
Yes, in fact, the sound therapy segment was shot in Poppy's parent's house! Similarly to our short film being shot in our flat, it's such a bizarre but funny thing to see places you know so well and so personally on the big screen. We sourced almost all of the locations ourselves, in fact I drove for about 1000 miles to find around 60-90 locations in order to give us plenty of options for the 28 or so that we needed. Throughout the writing process, I would spend days travelling up and down the country to see places and the places themselves actually assisted in the creative process because I was able to visualise a lot that would help shape the scene or even directly impact the direction of the story.
Val is definitely a devil on the shoulder of Lou but also a guiding light - Poppy, how did you approach the role and how easy was it to embody the character?
That's absolutely right, Val is the one person that Lou can turn to. Staten's writing and my previous working relationship and friendship with Katie definitely helped make sure that things all fell into place smoothly. I also found that some of Val's characteristics were within me already which helped [laughs].
Did you both attend the premiere at FrightFest?
Fun fact, it was the 24th of August when our film premiered (which was sold out) and the night before I went into labour with our first son - and even though we were about to welcome our son into the world I was also kind of gutted that I wasn't going to be able to make the premiere of the film! [laughs]. I gave birth hours before the premiere and told Staten, who stayed with me in the hospital that he has to go and introduce the film which he was able to do. It was wonderful to hear that people at the festival loved the film and responded in such a positive way.
It was a pretty crazy 24 hours and definitely a story that won't fall out of the memory banks anytime soon. When I shared the story with everyone in attendance at the screening, they all stood up and cheered and it was so lovely to hear and see. It was also fabulous to see that the notion of the FrightFest family was actually real - I'd heard about it before and was graciously welcomed in with open arms and the response to the film itself was fantastic. What also made it truly special was that the screening was at the Prince Charles cinema in London - a true bucket list moment when you take into account all of the other iconic filmmakers that have visited that cinema and had their work screened there.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
We are actually in the process of writing our next feature film which we are co-writing together.
It's a supernatural horror which is really exciting!
A SERIAL KILLER'S GUIDE TO LIFE is released on VOD in the UK on January 13th 2020.
You can pre-order the film on iTunes here which will also give you access to a behind-the-scenes featurette and their short film This Way Out that was mentioned in the interview.