First time writer-director Christopher Butler takes some time out to talk to SCREAM about his film The Scopia Effect which follows a woman who remembers her past lives during a hypnosis session. The past starts to infect the present in a terrifying way, leaving her struggling to differentiate between reality and imagination. In this interview SCREAM’S Jessy Williams spoke with Butler about the difficulties facing independent film-makers, the over-arching themes his film explores and his next project Storm.
When did you know you wanted to work in film?
8 or 10 years ago when I started watching more independent films. I used to have a career in advertising, so I used to do TV commercials, posters and any kind of advertising that there was and I was responsible for the idea. As the industry started to change; it became less about TV commercials and more about tweets. So I started putting myself on film courses and my job paid. The main thing I learnt from that, was that the most important thing about being a director is knowing what you want. To have a clear vision and know how to articulate it and get people to understand it. When it got harder to do television commercials, because everything went digital in the advertising world, my creative partner and I put together some money and creative resources and created our own short TV commercials. Just so we could add to our show reel. Then we started to do some short films, but then I decided I never wanted to do them again. When it came to film storytelling, I couldn’t stay in a short space. I spoke to a producer and he liked the way I spoke and my ideas, and so we started to make a feature film and that was The Scopia Effect.
Would you have stuck with advertising if you didn’t work in film?
No, I wouldn’t have stayed in advertising. I think I would have done painting or gymnastics. Film is one of those things where when you’re young and you think, “I’d really like to make a film one day. Or be a fireman. Or a gymnast!” So my shortlist is always going to be something I’d find super cool, like a crime fighter!
Moving on to The Scopia Effect, can you tell us what it’s about?
It’s about a young Polish girl living in London and she suffers from depression. She starts seeing a psychologist who wants to try out hypnotic regression as a way to get to her deep, buried issues from childhood. The therapy becomes uncontrollable and goes wrong. Not only does she unearth childhood trauma, but she goes further and further back and starts to regress on her past lives. Her previous lives then start to crossover in to the present day. She becomes haunted by apparitions of people from her past lives and starts to experience traumas and death from her previous incarnations. It then becomes a battle for her survival.
It steers very far away from being predictable because you don’t know how many flashes to the past there’s going to be or what the story is going to tell.
That’s the way that I wanted it to be fairly early on. I wanted the audience to think this wasn’t a normal film and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I like that tension in an audience when they suddenly realise when they’re heading off in to the unknown or the unfamiliar. I’m so grateful for that when I see films like Primer or Memento. You’ll be 10 minutes in and you’ll realise that this film does not care that I’m watching it, it’s just doing its thing and I have to pay attention. Audiences don’t need to interact anymore, most films do the acrobatics in front of your eyes and you can sort of zone out.
You go through a lot of emotions in The Scopia Effect. Mainly thanks to Joanna Ignaczewska, who plays the main character Basia. How did you cast her?
It’s not a very interesting story. We held auditions in Covent Garden and managed to get it down to 8 people. I set up these fake tasks and performances and videoed them. I looked through the tapes afterwards and studied what they did in between the performances. I was looking for natural and organic characteristics that people have. Joanna displayed all these characteristics. I wanted the opposite of a horror chick; someone who looked a bit porcelain and like she could crack at any moment. I wanted someone who people would like and feel sorry for and she seemed to tick all these boxes. I would never hire an actor if they couldn’t act, but visually, she is part of the visual design of Scopia. I’m trying to make a cult film, so I need iconic imagery. Scopia has a very distinct look and feel, it’s got its own personality and she’s a really strong part of the iconic look that I designed for it. I purposely shot it from very intentional angles to create a certain effect. There’s a lot of filming from above diagonal, it’s a very comic book style and she’s got the big eyes and right shaped face for it. I wanted to make unique film, so I needed a unique-looking actress.
The film is stunning – your use of light and colour is quite mesmerising – you don’t see that very often in horror films. Is there a scene or a shot that you looked back at and thought, “Wow, I nailed that shot it’s gorgeous!”?
*Laughs* Do you know what? I’m going to start off by saying all of them! I wouldn’t allow anything in the film if it didn’t fit the standard that I wanted. I had to be so excited and proud of the shot, because we were on a budget; what we lacked in money we had to make up for in passion and determination. There is one shot that – I don’t think that anyone else would notice it – but, it’s a close-up of Basia in bed. She’s upside down and we’ve got this beautiful lens, the right type of lens flares and there’s pinks, blues and cyans. She opens those big eyes and that’s it. I think the director’s favourite shot is not one that everybody else notices.
Your film is ambitious in all sense of the word. From the story itself and the way you tell it, to the way it looks and how you shot it. Did you face many challenges along the way?
Yeah! It was like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle during an earthquake. Every little thing was difficult. You never don’t have problems, you just replace problems that keep you moving forward. It was like, we couldn’t afford a studio, so let’s do ancient Japan and campaign for space that will allow us to build Japanese interior and charge us like £25 a day. Let’s find some people who are willing to work 16-hour days for no money, on the promise that it will be good. Even trying to get people to talk to you on the phone was difficult because you weren’t affiliated with anybody. When you’re making a film on nothing, everything is painfully difficult. We did it, but I still don’t think it was possible. I had to sacrifice everything. We ran out of not money, but favours. That was the only currency we had sometimes. I did freelancing advertising and every penny went back in to production. It was like having 5 mouths to feed, but we couldn’t walk away from it. Every couple of weeks there was an opportunity for this film to dissolve, but you have to battle hard to keep it in existence.
Where did the idea for this film come from?
As I worked in advertising for so long, my job was to come up with ideas. When you had ideas that you really liked, you’d keep them to yourself. I was always really in to alien abduction, reincarnation, spectres, ghosts and science. At the time I was doing a short film about a girl that was getting hypnotised and remembers her past lives. Then that idea just started to grow and grow and grow. I was just really into it.
Do you believe in reincarnation?
Kind of. What I find interesting about reincarnation is, from a scientific point of view, I like the idea that the nature of the universe means that nothing can be created or destroyed. Everything has to go somewhere and everything just changes form. That’s kind of true to reincarnation as well; what if everything that is physical gets recycled? What if consciousness or what we call the soul, can change form, carry on and live elsewhere? From a scientific point of view, I don’t like to say that anything is impossible. So I’ll say, that I don’t not believe in it.
Have you ever been hypnotised?
I have, actually. I did it last week for the first time, because I know that somebody was going to ask this. But no one has asked me, until now! I did hypnotic regression and I recalled two previous lives. The first one, I’m pretty sure that I was reciting scenes from Scopia, because I was a 17th Century farmer in France. The second one was just random. I was some kind of messenger in ancient Rome. I was an old man and I got thrown into a dungeon and left to die. Now that isn’t in the film, so maybe that’s one for the sequel.
Are you going to do a sequel?
No. Scopia has a formula that you could write again and again and again, but no. I’d be interested to see what someone else would do with it. If there was a good collective talent behind it, who wanted to do it for the right reasons, I’d be really curious.
There have been a lot of films recently about creating artificial intelligence and playing god. Do you think The Scopia Effect covers similar themes?
I wrote Scopia 4 years ago and over the time I have watched films come out with similar themes. I got really anxious and thought that someone was going to beat me to it or do it the same way. I think there’s something in the air. Even films like Interstellar explore the idea of messing with our existence and transcending on to different planes. There is a lot of it now, you’re right. I think it’s exciting, because it’s the kind of thing I’ve always wanted me and other people to make films about. It’s a lot more imagination.
They all have challenging ideas that make their audiences think, which is lacking a lot in cinema. Do you think film-makers fear making something completely different?
It is lacking a lot. The cinema is meant to be a place that triggers thought. The people who finance and profit are always the ones who want to go with a safe pair of hands and do well-trodden formulas. They’d rather bet small on a guaranteed return, than gamble big on something that no one’s ever heard of. I think creative writers and directors always strive to tell new stories. There is so much fear in trying something new and it’s so difficult. If I did a zombie film that I filmed entirely in a car park, it would have been filmed in 30 days and would have cost a fraction of what we spent. There would have been a very clear path in to distribution with that genre, but I chose to spend 3 years and do it the hard way with no promise that this film would ever see the light of day. So, from personal experience I can see where the fear comes from and not everyone is prepared to lose.
Was there a significance to the dance aspect of the film?
As that’s how we’re introduced to Basia. That’s a really good question. I was trying to think of something that she’d do that would paint the picture of a regular girl, living in London with a day job. She’s an orphan, not from England, so what would she do? I thought that she was the kind of girl that had been through bad things, but she’s not going to lie around feeling sorry for herself. She’d probably go out and try and meet people. Some of my female friends joined a Pineapple dance studio so they’d have a bit of fun on a Tuesday night, so it came from reality. Basia is intentionally not very good at dancing, but we’re showing that she’s ready to give it a go. In a very short space of time, we’re trying to tell the audience what kind of person she is. She’s a normal girl and that’s why you think, “she doesn’t deserve this”.
What films did inspire The Scopia Effect?
Rosemary’s Baby by Polanski, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey and there’s Japanese anime made by Katsuhiro Otomo who directed Akira – one of my favourite films of all time – and a series called Evangelion by Hideki Anno. I think my appreciation for illustration and paintings did too, anything from pre raphaelites to comic books.
The one film I thought about when watching Scopia was Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.
Oh really? That’s interesting, because I didn’t watch that until after I’d finished filming Scopia. It has been mentioned before in reviews, I guess they’re both quite powerful and colourful, rich and emotional. Maybe I just think like him!
I also thought about Mike Flanagan’s Absentia. I think you both deal with the horror elements quite similarly; it’s more about the atmosphere and general creepiness, than full-blown jump scares and loud noises.
I like that, because you can’t even tell sometimes why [The Scopia Effect] is creepy. It just gets in to you and sinks in to your bones and the next day you can feel it. I wanted to create a slow decay of Basia and how she just falls apart, which is a very Lars Von Trier thing to do.
Was there a reason why you did the film from the point of view of a woman? Because you’re a guy, obviously.
*Laughs* That’s a good question, I’ve never really thought about that. I guess females are more in tune with their spiritual side. If the lead was a man, maybe he’d have got angry and wanted to fight back. Whereas with a film, we’re allowed to go through the human side of it more and how it affects her. I think it would have been a fight if it was with a man and felt more like an action movie.
What was it like on set?
Everything was extremely and meticulously planned. What we were trying to do was extremely ambitious. It was like trying to go for an Olympic gold medal but, you don’t have the training facilities that other athletes have. So, we had to plan everything. I remember catching fire during the Indian sacrificial pire and then it rained. We weren’t insured against that! What we were trying to do was ridiculous with the time and resources that we had. We were doing a night time shot and there I am getting caught on fire, stepping on nails and the sun was coming up! We filmed ancient Rome in Peckham, so if we panned right, there was Peckham. On set I tried to create the tone of a theatre, so during the scenes in Nigeria where the two guys lose their mother to cancer, I told stories of my grandmother who I lost to cancer. I wasn’t trying to exploit it, I was being genuine and trying to tap in to real emotions. Everyone on set, especially the actors, were just sad. We did 4 days filming in a row and did all of Joanna’s traumatised scenes back-to-back, this wasn’t healthy but she did 4 days of just screaming basically. I remember people telling me I was cruel, but we wanted to. She wanted it just as much as me.
What’s the response to the film been like so far?
It’s been staggeringly good. The film’s been under wraps for a very long time and not very many people have seen it. We’ve been quite protective of it, because we knew that as soon as we launched it, it was going to be new and exciting. We’re getting awesome reviews and they are picking up on all the things that I wanted them to. It’s taking people by surprise, I think. It’s punching above its weight and doing the one thing that films should do: it’s entertaining and people are being affected by it. I’m really happy right now with the reception it’s been getting.
Are there plans for a theatrical release? We’ve started with an iTunes release, so any money from that will go in to further digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon Instant and Google Play. Then we’ll put together a case study and go over to North America and try to sell the film internationally. So there could be a theatrical release outside of the UK and possibly within the UK, we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Every bit of success we get will go in to funding the next level.
Is there any film that you wish you’d written or directed?
Oh, yes! 2001: A Space Odyssey, Akira and Evangelion. K-Pax is such a perfect film. Gummo. I’ll throw out a bit of a curve ball and say the first Avengers film. Rosemary’s Baby and Jaws, love Jaws. Okay that’s it, I’m done.
You’re attached to a film called Storm, can you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, it’s a film that’s had a lot of interest so I should probably get writing. It’s going to be a classic gothic, demon horror film set in Manhattan. It’s sort of a remake of a film called The Entity and that’s all I’m going to say on it.
Will you always stick to horror or is there another genre you’d like to give a go?
My genre of movies is good movies. I love a good comedy. I love science-fiction and I will always do high concept and that can be a space film, a demon film or something about reincarnation. But, I won’t do a kitchen sink drama..again. *laughs* One of my favourite films was always The Shining and I never knew it was a horror film until someone told me. I just thought it was a really cruel, messed-up film. When I think of horror I think of shock-tactics, gore and trying to gross you out. I’m not in to that kind of horror. But saying that, some of the films I like people think are horrific. One of my favourite films is AntiChrist and people say it’s a very difficult film to watch, but I think it’s absolutely beautiful. Like most of Lars Von Trier’s films.
AntiChrist is horrific, but I’m not sure it’s a horror film.
Not at all. It’s a film about nature. Nature’s innocent, but to humans it’s evil, sinister and dark. The film is kind of innocent, but people think it’s horrible.
I guess some people ignore its themes and just focus on the woman running around with scissors.
Yeah, exactly. I kind of wish that scene wasn’t in it, just because it distracts from some of the themes and its amazing-ness. So much hard work must have gone in to that film. I like horror, but I guess I don’t think of it as horror. Horror has been branded of the years. People see horror and they think of budget, even. They’re thinking it’s cheap and nasty, where you haven’t got a big budget but you can afford to shock people. It’s cheapened the genre.
What advice would you give someone who wants to get in to film writing or directing?
Make a film, by any means possible. I think that’s the best advice. I don’t mean that in an unhelpful way. If someone asks how to make a film, I’m like, no one knows. You have to be able to figure it out and think round corners. Get creative and do whatever it takes to finish it.
Many thanks for taking the time to talk to me this evening.
Thank you, thanks for taking an interest and helping to spread the word.