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Film Directing: An interview with Sean Hogan

SEAN, FOR THOSE THAT HAVEN’T SEEN IT PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR FEATURE “LIE STILL”.

Lie Still is a psychological ghost story, with the emphasis placed on mood and atmosphere rather than gore and jump scares. It really comes out of my admiration for older films such as The Innocents, The Haunting, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Polanski’s early work, and more recently, J-horror films such as Kairo and Ringu.

HOW LONG WAS THE SCRIPT IN DEVELOPMENT BEFORE IT WAS READY TO SHOOT?

Whilst the first draft was written relatively quickly, it took a while to make the film happen and the script was being worked on the whole time, so I’d say about three years.

YOU COLLABORATED WITH PRODUCER NAVIN CHOWDHRY ON YOUR SHORT FILM “THIS BASTARD BUSINESS” AND THEN “LIE STILL”. HOW DID THE TWO OF YOU MEET AND START WORKING TOGETHER?

Just a coincidence, really. I met him though a friend of mine who he was seeing at the time. He’d written a short script, his first (This Bastard Business), and she suggested to him that he give it to me for advice. Not knowing him that well at the time, I was fairly merciless with it and I’m surprised he stuck with me! However, we ended up working on successive drafts together for a year or so. Eventually he decided that he wanted to produce it and asked me if I wanted to be involved.

The film turned out well, played festivals and won some awards. From there, we ended up doing some corporate-type video work together. However, we also used to sit in the pub and hatch schemes about doing a low-budget feature film. Eventually, we stopped talking about it and went and did it…

CAN YOU TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE FINANCE FOR THE FILM, HOW THE MONEY WAS RAISED AND ANY DIFFICULTIES THIS INVOLVED?

Raising money is always difficult. I think one of the main problems we had is that people didn’t believe we could do it for the budget we were proposing. Also, there are always issues of control, and we were determined to maintain that for ourselves. We raised a portion of the budget from doing the aforementioned corporate work, and then Navin managed to put the rest of it together, probably by selling various internal organs on the black market.

HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT CASTING THE FILM? WHERE DID YOU FIND YOUR ACTORS?

We had a casting agent advising us, and then of course Navin is himself an actor, so he knew people’s work and had various contacts. He suggested Stuart Laing to me for the main role of John, and after looking at some of his work, I completely agreed. He also knew Nina Sosanya personally, and being a great admirer of hers, I thought she’d be perfect.

Of course, none of this means that people will necessarily be interested, but luckily, most of the actors we approached genuinely liked the script. I think it’s true to say that most actors are always looking for good material, regardless of how much money is involved. If you’ve got an interesting project, I don’t think you need have any problem finding quality actors.

IN GENERAL, DURING THE AUDITIONING PROCESS, HOW DO YOU WORK WITH YOUR ACTORS, WHAT DO YOU HAVE THEM DO? WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?

A lot of our so-called auditioning process simply involved me looking at examples of people’s previous work and making judgements based on that. We simply didn’t have time to get into a lengthy casting process.

In general however, I’d say it’s important to get a sense of how the actor works and how that would mesh with your own process. I’d be mainly interested to see what their understanding of the character and material was, and what they were going to bring to the table. It is a collaborative process, and I want people who are going to run with what’s on the page. Stuart, for example, ended up completely owning that character, and added shadings to it that were only vaguely there in the script.

I’m therefore usually not so interested in script readings in and of themselves (although they have a place). Some people read well, others badly. It doesn’t necessarily reflect on their ability as an actor.

I’d also say it’s important to make people feel comfortable during the audition process. I’ve heard horror stories about castings you wouldn’t believe, and quite how that benefits anybody’s work I’m not certain.

HOW IMPORTANT IS A PROPER AMOUNT OF REHEARSAL TIME FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR ACTORS AND DID YOU GET ENOUGH BEFORE THE SHOOT?

I generally like to have a decent amount of rehearsal time, especially when you’re working with a tight budget/schedule. However, I do think it’s important not to over rehearse and deaden the material. I’m more concerned with making sure that everyone at least understands the intent of what’s on the page than getting perfect line readings.

Our pre-production time was extremely limited because of scheduling factors beyond our control, so we ultimately only had a weekend of rehearsal time with the actors. However, this was enough to at least run through the major dialogue scenes and make sure that we were all in tandem on issues of character and motivation.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO CHANGE THINGS WHEN YOU’RE NOT GETTING WHAT YOU WANT FROM AN ACTOR IN TERMS OF PERFORMANCE?

It depends. Sometimes it might be because I’ve not been clear enough in what I want, or a lack of understanding on their part. In which case it’s my job as a director to clarify, and I always maintain that the best adage is K.I.S.S – Keep It Simple, Stupid. As a director, I’m very text-orientated, and don’t go in for windy metaphorical speeches as to what an actor should be doing. It often comes down to what the character wants, which should be there in the subtext of the script.

Of course, it may be that the script itself is lacking (In my case, I can say this without causing offence to anyone, because I generally write my own stuff!). In which case, I don’t hesitate to throw things out if they’re not working. It might be that I have to come up with something else, or else the actor might suggest ideas. Whatever works for the best of the film. You can’t be overly precious about the words on the page.

It’s always a learning process. Actors are all different, and I’m there to help them give the best performance possible. Establishing trust is a big part of that, but sometimes you just have to know what the right thing to say is. I hope that I’ve managed to say it at least some of the time so far.

HAVE YOU EVER WANTED TO PUNCH AN ACTOR IN THE FACE OR OTHER BODY PART?

Not whilst working with them, no. I’m sure there are difficult actors, but sometimes people will be difficult because they’re in the hands of a bad director. I’m trying not to be one of those. A lot of it is in casting. You look for people that you can work with. Some people think fighting on a set is somehow a creative process – I’m not one of them. There will always be disagreements, but I think it’s helpful to like and respect the people you’re working with. Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way, and there are a few people I’ve crossed off my Christmas card list (and vice versa), but no actors as yet. It’s often considered normal for directors to complain about them, but I do like and respect actors and their work.

YOU CHOSE TO SHOOT ON FILM RATHER THAN ON A DIGITAL FORMAT. WHAT WAS THE THINKING BEHIND THIS DECISION AND HOW INVOLVED WAS YOUR D.O.P. PETER SINCLAIR IN THIS?

I think we convinced ourselves fairly early on that we’d shoot on film. (Of course, my original intent was to shoot black and white, but I was quickly shot down about that!) The quality of HD just wasn’t there when we first started planning, and we wanted to make the best-looking film possible. It cost us, both in terms of time and money, but I believe it was worth it. It’s very possible that the next thing I do will be HD, but I think there are greater possibilities there now.

Pete came onboard very late in the game, so he wasn’t involved in those discussions, but I don’t think he would have been happy shooting it in High Def. He knew precisely what the film required and did a fantastic job of achieving that in the Super-16mm format we ultimately went with.

DID YOU HAVE A CLEAR IDEA OF HOW YOU WANTED THE FILM TO “LOOK” VISUALLY AND DO YOU FEEL YOU ACHIEVED IT?

I did have a clear idea, and certainly had a number of elements I wanted to achieve, but I don’t think it’s good to be too restrictive about these things. I told Pete early on that I wanted a moving camera, muted colours and deep, dark shadows. From what I’m told, this seemed to mesh pretty well with his overall style anyway, so he seemed perfectly happy with that!

On set, I’d prepared a comprehensive shot list, but you have to be flexible. Sometimes what you’ve planned just isn’t possible because of time restrictions, and sometimes the D.P simply has a better idea. Pete Sinclair is a very experienced and talented guy, and I’d be an idiot not to listen to him. So some sequences in the film are precisely as I’d envisaged them, others I went with Pete’s ideas. It’s a definite collaboration.

So yes, I’m very happy with the visual look of the film. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of, especially given the budgetary limitations we were under.

WHAT OBSTACLES/CHALLENGES DID YOU ENCOUNTER WHILE SHOOTING “LIE STILL” AND HOW WERE THEY RESOLVED?

Not to sound like a broken record, but the main obstacles were time and money. A rushed pre-production schedule didn’t help (we only had a limited window of time to shoot in the main location and had to accelerate things because of that). We had a couple of crew members drop out at the last minute and had to scramble to replace them, which led to a lack of planning in some departments.

Sometimes you just have to improvise and go with what’s possible on the day. I’ve made a lot of low/no budget shorts, so I was reasonably comfortable doing that, but it’s not ideal. There were a couple of days where it was definitely seat of your pants time. For me, a lot of the things I wince at in the film are due to lack of prep time and resources.

It does help if you have a plan, because at least you have a foundation to work from when things go wrong. And we were gifted with a very dedicated bunch of people who believed in what we were doing, which certainly got us through the rough spots.

WHEN THINGS DON’T GO TO PLAN, WHAT DO YOU DO TO REMAIN CALM IF YOU FIND YOURSELF BECOMING FRUSTRATED OR STRESSED WHILST SHOOTING?

Throw things at the production assistants.

Not really. There will always be frustrations and stress, and if you can’t deal with that you’ve got no place on a film set. I’m not a shouty kind of director; I just don’t think it helps. I’ll generally skulk off into a corner and stew for a while. (I always start smoking again when I’m filming.) Like I said, always have some kind of a plan. That way, if things go wrong, you still have something to work from. A shot list always helps me. Even if you ultimately have to drop or combine shots, having something down on paper at least gives you a way forward.

A couple of beers at the end of the day work wonders too.

HOW CLOSELY DOES THE FINISHED FILM MATCH YOUR ORIGINAL VISION/EXPECTATION?

In some ways, it’s very close. The performances, visuals and sound are all what I wanted and more. I don’t think any film can ever live up to the ideal in your head but I’m very proud of what we have.

The film changed from the original script to some extent, but that’s just part of the process. Things were dropped and restructured in editing, and we ended up doing a bit of rewriting and reshooting, to augment certain elements and replace others that didn’t work. You’re always learning, and some things that seem to work on the page don’t always in practice. However, the film is basically the same story I conceived of originally, and the initial approach I had in mind never changed. I wanted a dreamlike, subtle horror film with strong characters and performances, and I believe that’s what we managed to get.

IF YOU COULD DO IT ALL AGAIN WOULD YOU DO ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY?

There’s no doubt, but it’s my first feature and I’ll know more about certain things next time. You’re always trying to improve, and I certainly think I’m a better writer/director now than I was then, simply by virtue of age and experience. So yes, there are things in the film I’m uncomfortable with, but they’re my mistakes and I’ll learn from them. (Judging from what I’ve heard from distributors, I should have put more tits and gore in there too, but this is the film we wanted to make and I’ll stand by that.)

And although it was really no-one’s fault, I’d certainly want more prep time if we did it again. And a lot more money.

And a nice trailer, and a personal assistant…

AT WHAT STAGE IS THE FILM AT NOW?

It’s done the festival circuit and is hopefully starting to get sold to various territories. It’s meant to be getting a DVD release in the US and South America sometime soon. No news on the UK alas…it’s a tough market over here.

OK, TIME FOR A SERIOUS QUESTION: IF YOU WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN WHAT WOULD YOU BE?

Wolverine, because that healing factor must come in handy for hangovers.

WHAT POWERS/COLOURED TIGHTS WOULD YOU HAVE?

I wouldn’t look good in tights, trust me.

WHAT’S THE BEST PIECE OF FILM MAKING ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN OR HEARD ABOUT?

Get plenty of sleep. Hire people who are more talented than you. Don’t hire Lindsay Lohan.

FINALLY, WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT AND WHAT’S IN THE FUTURE FOR SEAN HOGAN?

I recently signed to do a project in Ireland that has since been delayed due to legal difficulties. As it stands now, I’m not sure the original script I wrote will ever be made, so there’s not much I can say about it other than the fact that it was a larger scale supernatural noir/horror film that would have been a lot of fun to do. Something may yet happen with the same producers but I’m not sure what as yet…

So in the meantime I’m going to go back and try and raise some money independently and do another small scale film. I’ve just started writing the script, so it’s early days, but it’s called Corpses for Dogs and will hopefully be a nastily twisted little exploitation piece, with some black humour.

And tits…And gore.

THANKS SEAN.

Sean Hogan is a London based Director and Writer.