I recently had the privilege to sit down and speak with Simeon Halligan, the director of White Settlers and Splintered and creator of Manchester-based horror festival, Grimm Up North, about his new film, his career and his future, among other things. Here is that interview – Chris Cummings
First of all, I recently sat down and watched “White Settlers” to review and I had a blast with it, I thought it was a fresh and interesting take on the “home invasion” genre, how has the response been so far?
Not bad so far. Some very good reviews on the back of FF and of course one or two that didn’t really like it, you cant win them all!
Your directorial debut, Splintered, was a film that I had fun with, though I found White Settlers to be more accomplished and much slicker looking. Do you feel like you’ve grown or changed as a film-maker since you made Splintered?
Yep! Since I made SPLINTERED I’ve learnt a lot more, particularly about the genre. I also run Grimmfest in Manchester and its been going since 2009. I see an enormous amount of genre films that get submitted to the festival and this is really an education on how to and not to make movies! The biggest thing I learnt from SPLINTERED was make sure the script is solid before you go into production. SPLINTERED suffered from wanting to do too many things. I wanted it to achieve so much as my first feature film but in the end it suffered from falling between a number of different poles. WS came to me as primarily a finished screenplay (Ian Fenton and I ended up doing a fair bit of work on it together, so as to make it work within the budget limitations) but essentially it was a really solid, tense screenplay right from the start and it captivated pretty much anyone who read it, so I knew it would make an involving film. Simplicity is sometimes a strong alley and with WS we chose to make something that was achievable with a limited budget, with a simple premise but with bags of suspense. WS does wear its influences on its sleeve, we always knew that, we liked certain movies and I think that shows in the film . Our only frustatrion in terms of timing is that while we were shooting the film we became aware of YOUR NEXT and as both films shared similar iconography, we realised that it would inevitably be compared to that film upon release, which is a pity beacuse it had no bearing on WS. There are other films that its definitely influenced by but that isn’t one of them..
How did the experience differ from working on Splintered and White Settlers?
WS was made on a smaller budget and on a tighter schedule. But we had some very experienced people on the film which helped enormously. Obvious Pollyanna brought an enormous level of professionalism to the film as did Lee. But we also had an amazingly experienced crew. Just two examples, The camera assist/Focus puller Keith MacNamara is Ridley Scott’s regular and worked on things like Gladiator and Casino Royale and our grader, Trevor Brown had recently worked on films like WWZ and Les Miserables before he came to us. I was incredibly lucky and I think most of these talented individuals were drawn to Ian’s hugely suspenseful screenplay, it certainly wasn’t the pay!!!
How was the experience making White Settlers, and what was it like working with Pollyanna McIntosh, an actress I really enjoy seeing from her work in The Woman, Exam, and your latest film?
Pollyanna is a dream to work with. She’s a performer who really gives it her all. Enormous energy and drive and never afraid to get her hands dirty or the rest of her for that matter. I just hope I get to work with her again. She made my job a whole lot easier because I knew I could rely on her. To be honest the same can be said of Lee Williams who played Ed, he really connected with Pollyanna which, I think, made their relationship and their ultimate fear of the situation really believable, something that’s so important in this genre but something that is so often lacking in other horror/suspense stuff I see.
You also run a production company, Not a Number Productions, do you have any other films in the works, and can you elaborate on any of them?
Yes. Two film projects that Im really excited about. The first DEARLY BEHEADED is a black comedy, with a healthy dose of horror. Its about a stag doo that goes horrendously wrong and ultimately turns into a blood bath. its a laugh out loud funny screenplay by a new writer called David Scullion and we hope to shoot this early 2015 if all goes to plan. And then theres THE BESIEGED which is a new take on the creature feature sub genre. A great monster action movie written by talented screenwriter Paul Gerstenberger, again this is going to be an exciting challenge on a bigger budget with lots of exciting FX work.
Are there any actors you’d like to work with in your career, any that you would love to see in one of your films?
I’m a big fan of Sean Penn. Who knows, one day, just maybe I’ll get to work with him, wouldn’t that be amazing! I just think he’s a captivating screen presence and an actor who appears to have no fear about what roles he takes on.
Are there any films that you are interested in that will be playing alongside yours at Frightfest this year?
Well, yes there are a number of really great films at FF this year but as we are about to imminently announce our grimmfest line up and I know some of the films will have played there also, I probably shouldn’t say but i think its been a really strong year for independent horror and genre titles and I’m really excited by what were going to screen at Grimmfest, I’m convinced its our best line up yet.
What are your views on the current horror film scene, do you think today’s crop of horror films stand up to those from previous decades, or do you think that we’re living in a time where it’s much harder to scare people, and so creativity is a bigger deal?
The thing is, there is just so much more films being made now than there ever was before because the technology allows many more people to try their hand. Films can be made much more cheaply. So the variety from studio pictures like THE PURGE to Indie contenders like CHEAP THRILLS means its actually really hard to make comparisons with the past. There really wasn’t such a big indie film making scene 20 years ago. That does also mean that there is a hell of a lot of ‘not very good’ horrors out there but for every 100 lousy genre films there’s always one or two real gems. Horror will always be popular and I guess it has a purpose to change and reflect the times that its being made in. 60s Hammer horror seems so dated now, so far away, I’m nostalgic for those movies but its also great to be part of an ever changing contemporary genre scene that is pushing boundaries trying out new things while still connecting to something at the core of all horror films down through history. I love it.
I also reside in Manchester, and so I know that you started Grimm Up North, the horror festival that comes to our neck of the woods each year, how did Grimmfest begin, and how did you come up with the concept?
It came off the back of SPLINTERED. We thought we’d showcase the film back in 2009 in our home town and then we thought, wouldn’t it be great to screen another couple of new horror films and make a bit of a Halloween event out of it. We never set out to create an annual festival but by the time we’d finished we screened around 20 feature films that first year and i suppose the scene was set for doing it again in 2010 and beyond.
I know that this year will be the sixth year that Grimmfest will return to Manchester, what can we expect to see in 2014 from the North’s premiere horror festival?
The best line up of films yet, in my opinion. I think we’ve viewed more films than ever before this year, searching for the very best stuff. We’ve got some amazing guests including Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones, Dog Soldiers) and are friend Pollyanna MacIntosh (White Settlers, The Woman) Who are both in our gala opening night movie premiere LET US PREY, as you know we also have Goblin playing live to SUSPIRIA and that’s just for starters. The full line up will be revealed on the 3rd Sept and, having viewed pretty much all of the movies in the line up i can vouch for the quality of them all.
You are obviously a fan of horror films, what was it that really got you into the genre, and what is your earliest memory of experiencing horror cinema?
I used to watch horror movies on Saturday night on BBC2, when I was a kid they played double bills on the summer evenings and that’s were i saw a whole bunch of great stuff from classic Universal, to Hammer and Romero and round about then I also remember getting hold of a copy of THE EVIL DEAD on VHS video of which we definitely weren’t supposed to be watching! I always loved Horror and Sci-fi movies.
I’m excited to see the response to White Settlers when it airs at Frightfest, and I am also looking forward to being able to buy a copy and watch it again, I found it to be a memorably, interesting and tense film, thank you for your time, and good luck with everything, sir.
Chris Cummings – Editor-in-chief, The Cinephiliacs
Review of White Settlers HERE.
Grimmfest Site HERE.