This Halloween sees the nationwide release of Silent Hill: Revelation 3D. A highly anticipated feature derived from subject matter which is beloved by many; the movie also looks like it’s going to set a new high standard in the world of fantasy horror. In the run up to the release, SCREAM’s Colin McCracken caught up with the film’s director and writer Michael J Bassett to discuss his career so far, his thoughts on what’s truly frightening and the motivation behind this trip to the haunted world of Silent Hill.
SCREAM: Before we mention Silent Hill, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since Deathwatch. Not only was it a great debut feature, but was also forerunner of the slew of war horror movies which came out afterwards. How does it feel to have instigated a sub-genre?
MB: That’s incredibly flattering of you to say that you think I instigated a sub-genre, but I think that ‘The Keep’ did. (The Keep was a 1981 novel by F. Paul Wilson, which was adapted into a movie in 1983 by Michael Mann). I read that book when I was a teenager and that influenced Deathwatch, however, there is a little sub-genre of War Horror, and I guess a bit of me feels that Deathwatch was at the front end of it.
SCREAM: It’s a really good combination of genres to do. It always struck me that, because you’re putting humans to the very edge of the experience within war, and that horror is such a great device for metaphor, with all the visceral stuff, the two things belong hand in hand. With Deathwatch it just felt like the right thing to do.
MB: As much as anything it was ‘What’s the simplest kind of horror movie to make?’ Which is nine guys in a hole in the ground. I mean, I can dig a hole, I can make the set, and it just became something a little bit more than that. It was relatively well received and did relatively well, but it seems to have continued to have a life. There’s a few things wrong with it but there’s also a lot of things that are right with it, particularly the performances and the atmosphere win through.
SCREAM: That was one of Jamie Bell’s first grown up performances as it were wasn’t it? He was brilliant in it and, of course, Andy Serkis as well.
MB: It was the first thing that Jamie did after Billy Elliot. It really was his second movie, and of course I’m the first person to put Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis in a movie together, which is kind of fun. People seem to be doing that all the time now. So, ten years on and I’m not ashamed of it, that’s not so bad.
SCREAM: Are there any plans for a re-issue or a special edition?
MB: I have been onto Pathé, who have the European rights and begged them to reissue it as a BLU RAY, just so I could tweak it a little as the DVD conversion is not great. There are a lot of things I’d like to do to it, like re-cut the movie. There’s a slightly different structural narrative that I’d love to do. I’ll pay for it; they just won’t let me.
SCREAM: You’ve gone from being a falconer to a frightener in a career move which has took a massive turn. What prompted the switch from the natural world to that of the supernatural?
MB: There was no switch per se, they were just two things that really interested me. I wanted to be a vet or a zoologist. I’m passionate about science and nature, and still am. I also loved movies as a kid, and still do. It was one of those two things. The only difference is that when I was growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s, there really was no commercial British film industry. There was the socially aware kitchen sink dramas.
SCREAM: People like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh?
MB: Yes, who are amazing filmmakers and great storytellers, but it’s not stuff that I particularly aspired to do. The natural history evolved into me making wildlife documentaries, then being on TV as a presenter and while I was doing that, I bought a video camera and started making short films. Everyone said ‘Oh, you’re making short films about animals?’ and I said ‘No, no I wanna blow shit up!’
It was the other side of my personality. Not having gone to film school, I was learning by doing. These were also the days of big VHS camcorders, and having to edit by linking up 2 VHS machines together, before Non-linear (editing) came along. This led to writing Deathwatch. That’s how it all evolved, and I can see how they might appear to be not at all connected, but in a weird way they are. One of the reasons I like to make movies which exist in a real, visceral, physical world, where it’s raining or snowing or things are on fire is because I like the physical world. To make a fantasy out of that is kind of a challenge.
They’re all me, when I’m not on a set directing, or writing horrific or fantastical things, I’m quietly sitting on a riverbank watching the world go by, or flying my falcons. I still rescue injured animals (Michael used to run a wildlife hospital).
SCREAM: We’re all very excited about the release of Silent Hill: Revelations at the end of October, what have you brought to the franchise and how have you tried to keep in within the atmosphere and aesthetic of the games?
MB: I am a gamer of very long standing; I was playing games on the PC when they were first coming out. Those polygon driven horror games like Alone in the Dark and we thought they were the best graphics ever. When the first Silent Hill came out I played it on a friend’s PlayStation and was just blown away by the evolution of how games can draw you into their world. For me it was one of the first cinematic games. The level of writing, the intensity, the experience of playing it. Obviously, in the Silent Hill franchise, some of the games have been better than others, but they’ve all had a fairly consistent quality in that real depth.
When I worked on Solomon Kane; I worked with Dan Laustsen, who shot Silent Hill (2006). I thought that Christophe Gans did a fabulous job with the first movie and that aesthetic was really important to me. Unfortunately, Dan couldn’t do the new movie, but I found Maxime Alexandre who brought a potent aesthetic to it. The problem with the first movie is that it’s a little bit nomic and arcane if you’re not a Silent Hill fan. If you don’t know the world, you don’t really know what’s going on.
My challenge was almost to bring a slightly more accessible narrative branch into the world, basing it on game 3, making it a sequel to movie 1, an adaptation of a game and a movie in its own right which will entertain as a piece if you have no clue about wither of those previous things.
SCREAM: That is an incredibly challenging criteria.
MB: Yeah, it’s really tricky and it took me a while to figure out, particularly because when Christophe and Roger Avery wrote the first one, they left it without joining up some pieces form the game. They made a few choices which weren’t derived from the game and so I had to find a way to grapple it back into the game narrative. At the same time, I wanted to make some choices which deviate from the game because I’m not just slavishly shooting the game script. I want to make a movie in my own right which has narrative choices and texture that I like. I wanted it to be very frightening and intense. It’s fantasy horror which is a slightly different genre than we’re used to these days.
We shot it in 3D, which I know is a controversial choice because not everybody likes 3D these days. But if ever there was a horror movie that needs or benefits from 3D, it’s something like Silent Hill, where there are alternate universes and layers of meaning and layers of visuals where the characters move from the conventional world to the fog world and the world of darkness.
SCREAM: It’ll allow for total immersion that way, which is fantastic.
MB: That’s absolutely the plan and on the whole, we use the 3D to draw the audience in. I use it to have fun and play with the depth that 3D can give you. It was a conscious choice to do it that way as it affects how you shoot and it affects how you edit. To my sorrow, in a way, not everyone likes 3D and so not everyone will see it in 3D. The movie is created to be a 3D experience and the 2D version of it, though in a way is the same movie you’re looking at, will not be the same.
SCREAM: In relation to the cast, (Sean Bean, Carrie Ann Moss, Malcolm McDowell) were you actively involved in choosing them? (How did you come across Adelaide Clemens?)
MB: One of the great joys of making a movie is creating the visuals and the cast and being 100% involved in those processes. I wanted continuity from the first story. Sean is the connecting DNA; he’s the father figure and is terrific in this movie because he has an inherent sadness to him. I flipped the stories because in the first movie it’s a parent searching for the daughter and in this movie it’s the daughter searching for the father. So Sean is integral to the piece.
Carrie-Anne is playing Claudia, Malcolm McDowell is Leonard Wolf and, if you know the games, you know what those characters potentially represent. Now, I don’t want to do any spoilers, but I can say that Malcolm was a great choice. There are not many older guys like him who could just step onto a set and enjoy that kind of King Lear role. Carrie-Anne has great power and was enormous fun.
Adelaide was an interesting choice because we wanted a girl with an unknown face so that you don’t quite know how the character is going to be played. She was spotted at Sundance and one of my associates called me up and said ‘I think we might have found our Heather.’ I flew to meet her and she’s a terrific young actress who is just beginning to do some really interesting work. Silent Hill was her first big role and she took to the challenge amazingly. I’m quite a physical filmmaker and so I expect my cast to fall over, run, jump, chase not whine and moan about it and Abby is a tough Aussie girl and she really got stuck in. She’s the heart and soul of the movie. If we don’t go on her journey, we don’t have anything. She’s a pro-active ‘I’m going to do something’ character as opposed to a scream queen. She has a good journey through the piece.
I put Kit Harrington alongside her and when I cast Kit, Game of Thrones hadn’t been broadcast and he’s a real rising star because of that show. My two young leads are great and I’ve been very, very lucky to get two young actors who are definitely going places. It should give the movie a real quality. (Kit Harrington plays Jon Snow in the HBO series)
SCREAM: Horror, as a genre, is as popular as it’s ever been (if not more), and as a result of this, we are almost desensitised to so many things. What do filmmakers need to do to elicit genuine fear from people?
MB: That’s an interesting question because it depends who your audience is. Fear changes as you change in your life. I remember very distinctly as a young man, going through puberty and those body changes, I was obsessed with transformations. Werewolves, zombies, things where your body is morphing and changing because that’s what’s happening to you. It becomes a very introspective kind of horror in a way; the grotesque is what’s fascinating.
Then as you get a little bit older, your values change, you have property, you have family and the horror is people invading that space, people taking things away. The evolution of horror is fascinating in how it affects different audiences in different cultures.
So what scares people?
The truth is what scares people is not knowing what’s round the corner. That’s much more frightening than seeing something face to face. You can create a terrific monster, but true fear is not knowing and that’s why movies like The Shining stand the test of time. Ambiguity is a terrific device for horror. I think we’ve gone quite a long way in one direction. It’s incredibly easy to cut off heads and dismember things and do really very realistic viscera and gore and it’s great fun, but I do think that we’re somewhat lacking the intellect and sophistication of modern horror.
You look at something like Paranormal Activity and when they get it right it’s so perfect, because it’s an environment you’re completely familiar with. It’s your house, nothing much is happening, but the suspense is unbelievable. That’s a branch of horror which is really hard to pull off.
That’s the great thing about the genre; there are so many aspects to it. There’s monster horror which I love, I mean, I love monster movies, but they’re incredibly hard to do, because the digital world has co-opted it. The monsters in Silent Hill are almost all practical, men in suits or performers in makeup, apart from one purely digital creature which was impossible to recreate any other way. There’s something about having the reality of it. It still works better than any other kind of monster delivery device.
SCREAM: The old school SFX on the likes of Pyramid Head in the upcoming Silent Hill film look amazing.
MB: With Pyramid Head we had the same performer from the first movie and what we managed to do was refine it so he had more flexibility in his performance and give that character another twist, another evolution in his chain. Tying him into the world and mythology of Silent Hill and giving him a purpose which I don’t think the audience will anticipate. Certainly the hardcore Silent Hill fans are going to be debating it forever because they already don’t think Pyramid Head belongs in the movie because he comes from game 2. The thing about the Silent Hill monsters is that they’re supposed to reflect the psychology of the characters within that world. Knowing that, I tried to make sure that he reflected something that Heather needs and, if we stimulate a little bit of controversy, there’s no harm in that.
SCREAM: Thanks for talking to SCREAM, Michael.
MB: My pleasure, Colin.
Silent Hill: Revelation 3D opens across the UK and Ireland on October 31st 2012.