TheHorrorShow.TV Interview: CONJURING THE DEAD Director Andrew Jones

ConjuringTheDeadSquareHe’s been called “the Welsh Roger Corman”, “the Welsh Charles Band” – and a lot worse. Over the past decade, Andrew Jones has written, produced and/or directed a dozen films, including Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection, The Amityville Asylum and Poltergeist Activity, and two more are due out before the end of August: Conjuring the Dead (formerly known as Valley of the Witch) and ‘killer doll’ movie Robert. A further two (The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund and Kill Kane) are already in the can, and he starts shooting A Study in Red: The Secret Journal of Jack the Ripper starts shooting in September. How the hell does he do it?

You’re 31. You have a dozen feature films on your resumé. How did that happen?

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since the age of five when my parents were open minded enough to show me Friday the 13th andA Nightmare on Elm Street on VHS. My father sat with me during the films and explained how the murders were all accomplished using Special Effects and that everything on screen was created by a group of people off camera. It started my fascination with filmmaking. But it didn’t seem possible to actually become a filmmaker until the advent of the digital age when camera equipment became accessible to everyone. That’s when I felt like anything was possible.

I sense that you wanted it really badly. Is that true?

I did. I think if there is anything you want to do in life you must be willing to work hard and sacrifice to get it. Nothing worth having ever comes easy so you often have to fight for years to put yourself in a position to get regular work in the industry. People like to believe that the concept of an “overnight success” actually exists. But behind most overnight successes are years of hard work, financial struggle and rejection. I think any filmmaker who has managed to succeed without that struggle is a walking miracle. I would say the experience of the average filmmaker before they get a chance to regularly make films is eating baked beans out of the can while sitting in a flat with no heating or electricity!

Where did Teenage Wasteland spring from?

I was barely out of teens when I made that. I managed to get hold of a Hi-8 camera so decided to make a film with a bunch of friends. It was a crappy looking Welsh version of Larry Clark’s Kids without the gratuitous nudity. The finished film wasn’t up to much but it was a good learning experience.

How did you go about physically putting it together?

I worked as a painter and decorator at the time and used money from that job to shoot it at weekends. I think it cost about £1,000 or something like that. The youngsters were essentially cast from people I knew and the actor co-producing it brought in local theatre actors too. It was my first attempt to make a film so it was incredibly rough and badly lit, but it encouraged me to keep going and learn more.

 They say the second film is even harder than the first. Did you find that to be the case?

I was very lucky on my second film The Feral Generation to be given a £100,000 budget to write and direct it. Quite a jump from £1,000 to £100,000. We secured that budget because we had two well connected actors in the lead roles, they were playing popular characters on the TV show ‘Eastenders’ at the time. The first time I set foot on a professional set I was the director. It was quite daunting but I felt at home in the role. I credit the project with shaping my future as a producer because the film never got commercial distribution. After that happened I didn’t want to be in that position again. I decided to learn the ropes of producing, form my own production company and make commercial content which had the best possible chance of finding a place in the market. Even though The Feral Generation ended on a sour note it inspired me to become a producer rather than just a writer/director so I’m very grateful to have had that experience.

What would you say was your first breakthrough, however small in the grand scheme of things?

Meeting executive producer Rob Graham and his wife and business partner Beccy was the most pivotal moment of my career. They were the first people who took a chance on me as a producer. I had no producing track record when I asked them to help me secure investment for the first film I produced Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection. They could have done what many others did and told me to hit the bricks. But they gave me the opportunity to become a producer and we now have a terrific long term partnership in place. You can work very hard but you still need people to believe in you and Rob and Beccy are the ones who believed in me.

What does it take to become an independent film producer? It can’t be easy – I know it isn’t – but you make it look achievable, which is incredibly inspiring. Tell me some of the things you’ve learned as an independent producer you wish you’d known starting out.

The best thing an indie producer can do is become a student of investment and distribution. It’s great they teach people how to operate equipment in film school but they should also be teaching filmmakers how to collaborate with distributors to create commercial content that will secure investment, appeal to retailers and ultimately reach an audience. Too many people spend years trying to make films that aren’t going to go anywhere. If I could go back I wouldn’t have bothered making those two kitchen sink dramas. I should have been looking at Genre content from day one – horror, action, gangster, etc. Films in a proven commercial genre have a good shot at doing good business and giving a filmmaker a chance to make films regularly. I’d tell any new filmmaker that it’s great to be an artist but if you make a film that doesn’t sell well, or doesn’t even get released, then it will be very difficult to get another film off the ground. So it’s important to put the business hat on and make some key decisions with your head, not your heart. There are so many films which end up not getting released because filmmakers can’t distinguish between a good idea and a marketable idea. Very often, they’re not the same thing.

You co-wrote Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection. Who was it first said, “How come nobody has remade Night of the Living Dead in Wales!?” and decided to do something about it?

I didn’t direct that film but it was entirely my idea to make it. I was looking for a film to kick start my production company North Bank Entertainment. I’ve loved horror films since I was a child so I knew I wanted to make films in that genre. But at the time the demand in the horror market was for remakes. I didn’t want to end up making a film that failed to secure distribution so I knew I had to cater to that demand. But I couldn’t afford to secure the rights to a famous property. So I looked at films in the public domain and Night of the Living Dead was the best known title. Obviously a British version of that had never been done so that gave us a fresh angle. Despite being made on a micro-budget the film had a cinema run in branches of Cineworld playing alongside big budget blockbusters and was picked up by Lionsgate in America. So the commercial impact it had enabled me to make more films and start building a track record as a producer. It could be seen as quite a calculating move to reverse engineer a project like that but this is a tough business and you have to make calculated moves to get your foot in the door.

The Amityville Asylum went to no.1 on the UK DVD chart. Tell me about your relationship with the UK DVD distributors – you seem to have a good one.

We have a great long term partnership with 4Digital Media. The business model I developed with my executive producer is in the vein of the model Roger Corman and Charles Band have had success with for many years. We collaborate directly with distributors and seek to supply low budget films which fit market trends. 4Digital are wonderful collaborators, they always provide honest assessments of what will work and what won’t. We never move forward with the production of a film unless the team at 4Digital feel it has a good chance of competing in the market place. I think it’s the most sensible way to do business as a producer, I consider it reckless to move forward on a film without a realistic route to market planned out.

How did you come to remake Silent Night, Bloody Night?

Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming was more of a remake rather than a direct sequel. That film was made on the back of Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection and it followed the same model of remaking a public domain property. We were simply trying to continue the model set out with our first film. I turned the writing and directing of that over to another director so I’m not as creatively attached to it as my other projects. But I remember there’s good gore and nice boobs in the film so probably worth a watch for slasher film fans! We had Adrienne King from Friday the 13th as the voice of the killer in the film. That was my best memory of the project, it was a great moment to work with the star of the movie that ignited my love for horror.

How did Theatre of Fear come about? Did you find a great location and take it from there?

I’ve always loved Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and The Devil’s Rejects so wanted to make a British film in a similar vein. I set out to create a dysfunctional family who consider murder and dismemberment as normal as making a cup of tea. It was essentially a black comedy but I really enjoyed working with classic horror staples like a murderous ventriloquist dummy and a disfigured clown. It’s a very unusual film which was creatively satisfying but it didn’t make the commercial splash my other films have. But I am proud of what we managed to achieve on a tight budget and schedule. I’m particularly fond of the gallows humour throughout the film.

Valley of the Witch is a translation of Cwmgwrach, an actual place in South Wales, where you made the movie. How did it get its name? Are the people of the valley happy to live in a place called ‘Valley of the Witch’?

No one seems to know how Cwmgwrach got it’s name which is what inspired me to create a film about it. I had to embellish a lot because the history of the place is vague and there isn’t any detailed information about it. Which I suppose makes it all the more spooky and mysterious! If the villagers don’t like the film I wonder if they’ll turn up at my door with fire and pitchforks? I’ll soon find out!

What was the germ and gestation of that project?

At the time I made the film, the industry was preparing for Witches to be the next big trend because zombies and vampires had run their course. I obviously knew of Cwmgwrach so it felt like the right time to make a film about it. I don’t think the Witch trend quite took off in the way everyone expected but there are a few witch projects out there now. We combined some real life elements with classic fictional witch themes to create the story. It’s a pretty whacky movie, lots of slow motion and some really weird shots and editing. It was filmed back to back with Theatre of Fear so I was in a very experimental mood at that point in time, trying to learn and find my feet as a director.

You’ve suffered the slings and arrows of criticism online, often from people who feel hoodwinked by the disparity between the cover art on your DVDs, and the look of the film – that your films are made or marketed with cynicism. How do you feel about that?

What a lot of people probably don’t realise is that while making a film is a creative process, selling and marketing a film is not. Your film becomes a product when the DVD is presented to the retailers who are deciding, on the artwork alone, whether or not to stock that DVD in their stores. It doesn’t have anything to do with the creative side of filmmaking, it’s the same process as getting any product into the shops. You’ve got to do everything you can to make the packaging of that product stand out from the millions of other similar products competing for shelf space. In terms of DVDs, if you’ve got a big Hollywood blockbuster with big stars supported by a massive marketing campaign then you’ve got instant consumer awareness and the guarantee to be stocked in all the major chains. But for a low budget indie film with no star names and no advertising campaign the DVD cover is the only shot you have at getting the retailers to stock the film. It’s not an easy process, thousands of titles are presented to retailers and the odds are against a low budget indie DVD getting shelf space. So if the distributors have to create outlandish artwork to get the DVD onto supermarket shelves then it’s understandable they will do that. At the end of the day, I make films that are primarily for the DVD market. So I have to accept that the conditions of the retail market place, and how each supermarket operates, is going to dictate the cover art of my DVDs. We have so far secured supermarket support for 9 DVDs. It’s a real ‘David versus Goliath’ battle to get these films into supermarkets so I’m immensely grateful that we’ve managed to beat the odds so regularly.

When you see the cover art for your films, does it give you pause that the film may not live up to expectations? 

I think outlandish artwork is a horror tradition. When I grew up in the 80s the VHS artwork was always more elaborate than the content of the film. Take a film like The Driller Killer, for instance. The cover art depicts a drill going through a screaming, blood soaked man’s forehead. It gives the impression that the film is wall to wall violence. But when you see the film the scenes of violence aren’t centre stage and there’s a more thoughtful film being presented – a psychological character study of an artist slipping into insanity. When I saw that film I wasn’t annoyed that it wasn’t wall to wall violence, I was pleasantly surprised that the film actually had something to say. But I understand that not everyone looks at it that way. Again, it all comes down to what the retail world demands so for me there’s no point getting frustrated about something I can’t control.

Do you have any cover art that you have put forward, that shows the difference between “What I’d do” and “What they do” – or do you simply feel that “they understand marketing, I just make the movies?”

I think any filmmaker who thinks they could do a better job at marketing a film than people who have years of experience in that field is a pompous ass.  Also, are people aware of the stranglehold supermarkets have on cover design? They probably aren’t aware of that. But I don’t expect the average Joe to care about things like that, they probably have their own worries in life. In an age when online theft of movies is causing so much damage to the industry, I’m very grateful to anyone who puts their hard earned money down to buy an independent film.

How do you feel about the change of title to Conjuring the Dead? Valley of the Witch seems so much cooler and more apposite.

I’m fine with it since I was the one who suggested it! The DVD was put forward to retailers with the title Valley of the Witch twice and didn’t get selected for shelf space. The title was changed to Conjuring the Dead and three major retailers agreed to stock it. It’s a funny old game.

Do title changes bother you much?

Not really. The way I look at it is if a distributor re-naming my film is my biggest problem that day, then I have a blessed existence. I’ve always been consulted if it’s felt a title change is in order in the UK. Although in foreign territories there’s a history of distributors strangely re-branding films so I just leave them to it. The most bizarre title change I’ve ever been involved in was a German distributor changing the title of The Amityville Asylum to The Nesting 2: Amityville Asylum because they had just re-released the 80s flick The Nesting and done well with it. So in that country I’m sure there are people on message boards slamming me for ripping off not just one film buttwo! Thanks, German distributors!

How about titles like Poltergeist Activity, which is quite naked in its name recognition ambitions? Do you think they provoke unjust criticism towards your work?

Perhaps that’s the case, it’s not really something I worry about. I understand that when compared to big budget blockbusters low budget indie films are a bit of a culture shock for some people. Horror has been much maligned throughout history so it’s not a genre you work in if you want critical acclaim anyway. The truth about the title is that the DVD wouldn’t be on the shelf in the first place if it wasn’t calledPoltergeist Activity. The film gets greenlit by investors, picked up by distributors and selected by retailers because it has that title. It’s just the harsh reality of the market place – Something with a recognisable title always does better than an unfamiliar title. But once we have a title and synopsis for a project which is considered marketable then I’ll always make a film which, as well as hitting the key beats of the synopsis, explores characters and themes I’m creatively interested in. I always deal with deeper issues in my films but it’s often done through subtext wrapped up in the tropes of the genre. I don’t lay awake at night worrying that some people don’t get it. The people who are meant to see that stuff will see it.

Does it bother you that the reviews quoted on the front of your DVDs might be made up?

I sometimes feel a bit like Hymen Roth in The Godfather Part II: “This is the business we’ve chosen! I didn’t ask who gave the order!” I accept the quoting business as another necessary evil forced by the pressures of the retail selection process. Every company that has manufactured a product has used similar tactics to be competitive. Do you think 4 out of 5 dentists really recommend every toothpaste? Does buying a sports car really get you laid more often? What we really need are those sunglasses from John Carpenter’s movie They Live so we can see what all the advertising and marketing really means!

Okay, let’s move on from marketing: You seem to improve as a writer and a director with every film, often with leaps and bounds. Do you feel that you are really developing your craft with every film?

The making of each film is very much a team effort. On these low budget films we are often working with people who have come straight out of film school and university so it’s a learning process. I’ve had a consistent team now for quite a few projects and it feels like we’re growing and developing together. The films we have recently shot have been very ambitious and the opportunity is now there to produce films with bigger budgets and more elaborate set pieces going forward. So it’s an exciting time to be a part of this team.

Where do you go to look for your “Based on a true story” stories, like Haunting at the Rectory? Are there any more real-life hauntings you plan to bring to the screen?

I’ve made a trilogy of films around the ‘haunting’ theme – The Last House on Cemetery Lane, Haunting at the Rectory and Poltergeist Activity – so I feel I’ve exhausted that concept now! I like real life stories because the truth is always stranger than fiction. Sometimes you see a news story or a real crime documentary and it instantly feels like fascinating material for a film. I read a lot of books on serial killers. Horror filmmakers actually have a lot in common with serial killers – we both spend all day thinking of ways to kill people!

You always seem to be just finishing one film and already prepping the next. What stage are you at with new projects right at this moment?

We are currently in post production on two projects, a crime film called Kill Kane starring Vinnie Jones and a horror film called The Exorcism of Anna EcklundThe Exorcism shoot was a terrific experience and it’s definitely our most ambitious and visually stylish film to date. We currently have four projects which we are prepping for shooting this year and next. Three of those are horror titles but one of them is actually a family film. So quite a change of direction for that one! Although I’ll continue to make horror it’s nice to get the opportunity to try other genres from time to time. In terms of our next releases in the UK we have two coming up in August: Conjuring the Dead on the 3rd, and a killer doll film, Robert, on the 24th. A bunch of our films are coming out in North America over the next few months too. This year has definitely been our busiest so far.

Is it true you wrote a script for a remake of The Driller Killer? How did that come about, and what happened to it? Are the rights tied up somewhere? What’s going on?

I developed that project for a while before I formed North Bank Entertainment. It was during a period when I was close with Last House on the Left actor David Hess. We were seeking to collaborate on a few films together and that project was one of them. But there are two rights holders and a deal was struck with one but the other resisted so the deal fell apart. It’s a pity because it would be the perfect film to remake, there are so many themes in the original that could be expanded on. I’d still be interested in making it if the rights holders could reach an agreement. Another project I developed with David was The House on the Edge of the Park Part II but that didn’t work out because there ended up being too many cooks in the kitchen. I could have stuck it out but after David’s death I lost my enthusiasm for it. I was gutted I never got the opportunity to work with David. We met in London and spoke regularly on the phone for a couple of years, he was always so encouraging and supportive. A true legend.

If you could write an official remake of one horror film, one that really justifies being remade, which one would you pick?

The ’80s cult classic Madman. I think Madman Marz needs to brought back for a new generation! I heard that the producer Gary Sales is interested in a remake or a sequel. He should get in touch with me, I’d love to help make it happen!

What projects do you have lined up next?

We’ve got three horror projects scripted and ready for production, but we’re always trying to keep up with changing trends so new projects are likely to pop up and the shooting order of the projects often change. Whatever order it happens in we’ll continue to produce 3 or 4 films per year for the foreseeable future. So I can kiss goodbye to sleep for a few years yet!

In terms of sharing your experiences with other low-budget filmmakers, have you ever given a class, or thought about putting your experiences down in a book or something?

I’d happily attend a class or write a book if anyone was interested. I know what the title of the book would be: I Know What You Filmed Last Summer. Although I bet some calculating bastard like me will steal that title now!

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