HORROR FILMMAKING WITH DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER SMITH

The brilliant Christopher Smith was on the podcast this week, talking to Giles and CJ about his career and his latest film The Banishing.

Starting Off

Christopher has created films in various genres, but he tends to prefer horror. So what inspired him? 

“I was a huge huge fan when I was growing up. I was at that very fortunate age of having the video shops and all of that. You had access to all of these movies that you could only really see in flea pit cinemas. In the early eighties, suddenly they’re all over video. And I just really got into them then.”

He says that he had “no intention or plan of making horror movies.” He had tried to enter the industry with a thriller, which was unsuccessful, and someone asked him if we would consider writing a horror.

“I was like I love horror. I’ve watched every horror movie there is. So I quickly went off and wrote Creep. And then pretty soon after I was offered the script that James Moran had done for Severance.”

After that, he came up with Triangle and then was offered Black Death. “Before I knew it I’d done four with no plan whatsoever. It had just happened.”

He tried other stuff but found himself being drawn back toward horror every time. “The whole genre has become so accessible and no longer niche. It’s very mainstream now.”

Making His First Film

After leaving film school “I had written a script, which is more of a sort of David Mamet type thriller – that was the movie I was pitching around. And very quickly learned that I wasn’t going to be able to get that made.”

“When I look back now, with a bit of perspective, I realised that you have to put yourself in the shoes of the person who works at a film studio or works at the film council (as was then) and go: 

They don’t want to lose their job. They might love your script. They will look at that script and then look for reasons to go: if this is an utter piece of crap, whose fault is it? Is it my fault for financing? Because his shorts were good. He’s got Franka Potente, she’s a big European actress.”

He says that if you’re trying to make a movie, it’s easier to approach a prospective financier with a short film that you’ve made and ideas of what you plan on doing.

“There’s making your first film, and then there’s making the right first film.”

Getting Creep Made

As it was his first film, it was difficult to get funding. As we’ve discussed before on podcasts, people don’t invest money in work they don’t know. You need to make something before you make something. 

But Christopher remembers his first funding experience fondly.

“There’s always obviously a patchwork of where you get money from. Primarily we went to, what was then, the British Film Council. Pathe liked the script and were prepared to distribute it (if we could get an actor off of this list to play the role of Kate).”

Franka had just done Bourne Identity and Run Lola Run. “She was literally the first person to read the script. And she said yes. That meant we had Pathe.”

They then went back to Robert at the Film Council, who were providing most of the funding and “he was looking at it going: they’ve got Pathe, they’ve got Franka, he’s a first time filmmaker – he seems all right, but you know what if it doesn’t work?”

Robert suggested giving Christopher 10K to film a trial version of one scene. “And I remember looking at him and I just went there’s no point doing that. This film’s going to be amazing. That’s a total waste. This movie is going to make a hundred million quid.”

Because of the enthusiasm, the council agreed. 

Playing to Your Strengths

We love Christopher’s response to CJ’s question about strengths and weaknesses. He said: “I’m never going to be Stanley Kubrick but I’m still better than Joe Bloggs, so I’m not going to give up.”

He also said “I think I’m better now at realising where I fit in. It never entered my mind that I had made those two films. There was never any moment where I went, I should talk to an agent and get a manager because I’m doing okay here. I was just like I’ve got to do the next one, got to write the next one, I was never thinking I should have just gone to Hollywood.”

“I realise, only now in hindsight, that because those first two films have made some money, that’s how I got to do Triangle.” He had actually come up with the idea for Triangle in Cannes, while trying to sell Creep, but realised that if “ I’d tried to make Triangle as my second film, they would never have let me do it. My wife never thought that movie would make money.”

Directing

He says that his trick was that he “was always able to stop thinking about the boards and let the film make itself. I was never making it shot by shot and then sticking all together. I knew how the whole thing was shaping as I was doing it. I think what I know now is how to balance the rest of the production.”

“When you hear about Orson Welles doing his first film at 25. He could storyboard them and put the shots together. But you’ve got to be able to play poker with the money man. You’ve got to be able to think about production design, think about costume, it’s how do you play all of those departments so that you know everyone’s job, but everyone is encouraged and invigorated by your job.”

That is what changed his career in the last three years. “I was very obsessed with my role in terms of the shots for Triangle – I’d written it the way it would all work. If I was doing Triangle now, I would be all over every single other aspect of it.

Your skillset increases as you go on.”

Want to hear more of the podcast – Christopher was full of advice – head over here.

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