The Devil's Rock

Interview with Paul Campion

Paul CampionHow exactly did the script come about?

I'd spent several years trying to get various feature films off the ground and was slowly coming to the realisation that you really need to prove you can make a feature film before anyone is going to invest in you.   Co-writer Paul Finch and I had been talking together about making a horror film based on one of Paul's short stories had which was just two people in a single location, which I was planning to finance myself by re-mortgaging my house.  Then in November 2009 I was invited to Guernsey in the Channel Islands to show my short film Eel Girl and was interviewed by the local newspaper. One of the questions they asked me was did I know anything about Guernsey's history of witchcraft, which led me to find out about the Bad Books, which were part of Channel Islands folklore - supposedly indestructible books of black magic.  Then during that same trip I happened to see one of the big German fortifications in Guernsey and thought it would make a great setting for a horror film.  I already had an idea I was playing with about a man summoning up a demon, so  I started doing a bit more research about the German occupation of Guernsey in WW2, the commando raids on the Channel Islands, the Bad Books and the Nazi's interest in the occult and  really just brought all those elements together into a story outline.  Then I brought Paul Finch onboard, he wrote the first draft of the script and then we worked as a tag team, re-writing the script over the course of a few months.  Later on, when Paul and I had taken it as far as we could, Brett Ihaka was brought in to bring a fresh pair of eyes to it and give it a good polish.

Can you tell us a little about the shoot? With a small cast, and presumably a small crew, did that make things easier or more difficult than a large production?

We shot the whole film in 15 days which was incredibly tough.  That was the only way we could make it with the budget we had, and why the script was written essentially as just 4 characters in a single location - it was written to the budget, rather than vice versa.  If it had been a larger production, that would have bought us more time on the entire project - more time in prep, and especially more time during the shoot.  15 days shooting a 90 page script means you're shooting 8 pages of script a day, which really tough on everyone, from the actors who have to memorise up to 8 minutes of dialogue a day, to the crew who have to work incredibly fast just to make each day and shoot enough coverage so the editor actually has enough footage to make the movie.   We worked 10 hour days on the shoot and only did I think 6 hours overtime on the whole film, and that's entirely down to the hard work and professionalism of the cast and crew.  Having said that I don't ever want to shoot a feature film in 15 days again. Even 21 days would be a luxury next time!

Where did you find the excellent locations?

They were all around Wellington in New Zealand.   Luckily Wellington has a very rocky coastline, similar to the Channel Islands, so it was a fairly good match.  We had to be careful when we were shooting exteriors that we found backgrounds with similar vegetation to the Channel Islands, as New Zealand has a lot of semi-tropical plants that you don't get in Europe, and we also had to extend some backgrounds with matte paintings.

Wrights Hill Fortress where we shot the gun pits and tunnels was just a lucky find.  It's a genuine WW2 bunker with 600 meters of underground tunnels and these huge artillery gun pits which are very similar to the ones in the Channel Islands, and the script was written to make use of the tunnels and gun pits.

Let Me Direct! The film had great SFX and make-up, how much of the budget did they take up?

We spent a lot of money on the makeup effects, particularly the demon makeup which was done by Weta Workshop.  I'm a huge fan of practical makeup effects and prosthetics, especially in horror films.  Low budget horror films are supposed to visceral and you can't get that with CG blood and CG monsters -  you need good old fashioned stage blood and latex and rubber shot on camera, and I think audiences respond a lot better to that.  There was actually supposed to be a lot more blood in the film, but we didn't have enough money - I think the cost of just the blood for dressing the sets was 10% of the production design budget alone - it's really expensive stuff and doesn't go as far as you'd think, especially when you're splashing it around the set.   For the visual effects, I think Frank Rueter and Jake Lee the visual effects supervisors would say we didn't have nearly enough budget!  When I pitched the film  I told everyone there would only be about 21 visual effects shots, mainly matte paintings and muzzle flashes. By the end of the film we ended up with 72 visual effects shots, but every shot was there for a purpose, either to help tell the story, extend the environments or for stuff like gun muzzle flashes which we couldn't afford to shoot on-set.

Will you do the writer/director thing again?

Absolutely.  I really enjoy the writing process and particularly co-writing with another writer.  It's probably the one part in the film-making process  certainly in independent film-making where there is the least amount of pressure on you and you can really just concentrate on story and character without much interference from anyone else.   I also really enjoy the research part when writing a script.  Writing the Devil's Rock involved researching the witchcraft, black magic rituals, the  German occupation of the Channel Islands, the history and formation of the SBS and SAS, New Zealand's involvement in WW2, Hitler's Commando order, the Nazi interest in the occult - its a great opportunity to constantly be learning about all kinds of often quite odd subjects as part of my job. 

What was your plan for distribution? How did you come to work with Metrodome?

The distribution was always planned as standard independent film distribution, which involves using a sales agent to sell the film to distributors worldwide.  Part of the funding process with the New Zealand Film Commission involves attaching a sales agent during pre-production, so we went with NZ Film who are a sales agent attached NZ Film Commission.  They were also based in Wellington which made it very convenient for us as we can just pop in and chat with them any time.
Metrodome came on board as the UK distributor via the sales agent back at the American Film Market in November 2010.  

What state is the New Zealand film industry in? Did you find it easy to get funding there?

I think it's probably the same as everywhere else in the world, with ups and downs at the moment.  We were lucky to be able to shoot The Devil's Rock there as the industry in Wellington was going through a quiet patch due to the delays in The Hobbit, so we were able to get a lot of extremely experienced crew to work on the film.  We had to squeeze our production in before the Hobbit started ramping up and if we'd tried to make the film a few months later it probably wouldn't have happened.
The funding happened very quickly on this film but I think we were just lucky everything fell into place as fast as it did.  I actually put my own money into the film first - I re-mortgaged my house, and the original plan was just to make the film with my money, which is why the story is essentially just a few characters in a single location.  Then Leanne Saunders the film's producer suggested we try apply for funding from the New Zealand Film Commission and they said yes almost straight away.

Did you find it a big step up to go from directing shorts to features?

Huge.  Features are a completely different beast compared to shorts.  On a short film you've probably got proportionately more time and money to spend on the film, with no pressure to have to sell the film and make a profit afterwards.  If you make a short and it's not very good, you can put it down to experience and try and make a better one next time.  If you make a feature and it's not very good, you might never get to direct another one.  With shorts it's also a lot easier to deal with a narrative that's maybe 15 minutes long maximum.  On a feature you have to be able to engage an audience for at least 90 minutes, and suddenly story, plot, character and dialogue becomes exponentially more difficult to deal with at every stage of the process - script, shooting and editing.   The shoot itself is much tougher on a feature film.  Eel Girl was 5mins 30 seconds long, and we shot for 3 days, which is  just under 2 pages of script per day, and that hardly had any dialogue , whereas  Devil's Rock was 8 pages of script per day with a lot of dialogue, action, locations and more makeup effects and visual effects per day than we did in the whole of Eel Girl.

What’s your advice for someone trying to break into the industry? Is a genre film the best entry route for new writers and directors?

Don't give up.  It takes years of persistence and I think sheer bloody minded determination to break in, but in the end I think you have to prove to the industry that you have what it takes to direct a film.  If you want someone to give you up to millions of pounds to make a movie, then you have to prove you've got what it takes to actually make a movie, and make a movie that people will enjoy and will hopefully make it's money back for it's investors.

I think it was David Puttnam who said the best way to break into the industry as a director is  'go make a couple of horror movies' to learn their trade - low-budget fright-films being pretty much guaranteed not to lose money.'   Horror films are probably the one genre where you can make something original and cheap that will still find an audience.  It would be a lot tougher trying to break in making something like a sci-fi film as they're so much more expensive to make.  Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson - they all started out with low budget horror.

I don't think for writers genre is so important.  All you have to do is write good scripts AND get them made. That's really the toughest part.  People are going to be far more interested in a writer who's written 5 great short films that actually got made, than a writer who's written one great feature film script that's still sitting in their drawer at home.

What are your plans for the future?

More directing!   I've got a variety of projects at various stages of development. A sci-fi action film that I'm just developing;  Scorpion Raiders which is a WW2 action film based on the true story of the Barce raid, a daring raid on an Italian airfield 2000kms behind enemy lines in the Libyan Desert by the Long Range Desert Group, a combined British and New Zealand special forces unit. I'm currently co-writing that with Paul Finch (one of the co-writers of The Devil's Rock).  Then there's Voodoo Dawn, an horror film about a criminal gang who steal a mysterious occult amulet and  fall afoul of a Bokor, a voodoo witchdoctor who creates zombies to kill the gang - it's going back to the voodoo origins of the zombie, as shambling undead puppets; Heart and Mind, a thriller about an ex SAS soldier taking revenge on an organised crime gang who killed his mother in a botched robbery; and finally Dark Hollow, a horror film based on the novel by  US author Brian Keene.

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About The Interviewer

James Burbidge James performs a plethora of tasks for Raindance; writing articles, editing the newsletter, managing Twitter, helping on courses, organising volunteers and running the script services are but a few of the ones he is allowed to tell you about.
When he isn’t daydreaming about daylight he watches films (well, duh!) reads a bit, writes a bit and kicks arse at Ultimate Frisbee.




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