Welcome to the third and final part of our interview with Paul Finch. This time we’re concentrating on The Devil’s Rock and Paul’s future plans.
Read part one of the Paul Finch Interview. Read part two of the Paul Finch Interview.
PF: The Devil’s Rock concerns an Allied commando mission to take out a German gun emplacement in the English Channel on the eve of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Everything is going well until the commandos realise that something truly awful is happening inside the German bunker. Thinking at first that they are hearing the sounds of prisoners being tortured, they venture in – only to find themselves in a den of occult depravity. I’ll say no more in case some readers haven’t yet seen the movie, but in a nutshell, we blend wartime action with extreme supernatural and demonic horror to create a movie which I think it’s fair to say has taken a lot of people by surprise with how different it is from the norm.
You wrote the screenplay with the director Paul Campion – who came up with the premise?
PF: The premise was entirely Paul’s. Several years ago now, he optioned a short story of mine, ‘Law of the Jungle’, for movie development, tentatively re-titled Voodoo Dawn. We’d written several drafts of the script and produced an excellent storyboard, but we were having trouble raising the finance. In addition, a couple of others movies were in the pipeline which had a vaguely similar concept. So we opted to knock Voodoo Dawn on the head for the time-being, and set about kicking a few new ideas around. Initially we looked into ancient history – Roman and Medieval, and then I suggested World War 2, presenting Paul with a novella of mine called The Retreat, which had just been published. This was a supernatural horror set on the Russian Front. Paul read it and though he liked it, I don’t think he felt it would work as a movie. However, he was definitely up for a World War 2 story – and said he would go away and think about it. The next thing I knew, he’d visited the Channel Islands to see friends, and had been blown away by the stories of witchcraft and superstition with which Guernsey in particular is wreathed. He even got permission to go and look at the ‘grimoires’ – old books of demonic lore, which are kept under lock and key on the island. He came back with a pretty firm outline in his mind, which very rapidly evolved into The Devil’s Rock.
How did you approach writing together?
PF: Well, usually I write the first draft. Paul then takes it away and comes back with comments and suggestions. I write the next draft and the same thing again. At some point Paul will write a draft or two as well, and I’ll have my say on those. But from the beginning we’re both on the same page, and no draft is radically different from the one before – it tends to be a process of edging a little bit closer each time. We have a good working relationship, so we’re always on the phone to each other and always sending emails, even when we’re on opposite sides of the world. Nothing is done really without both of us consenting to it. To date, we haven’t had any creative differences. But if one of us does have an idea which the other really doesn’t like, then we chat about it, and are usually persuaded one way or the other.
The film has a very claustrophobic feel – was this always the intention or was it more a way to get around the budgetary constraints?
PF: Budgetary constraints are the world you live in with independent film. It’s something you are conscious of from the word ‘go’. So while it may seem as if a movie is small-scale because you can’t afford it to be large-scale, I would never put it in such negative terms. For example, no-one sits around thinking “God, I wish we had more money to spend”. We all know we’re making a small budget film, so we all cut our cloth accordingly. In the case of The Devil’s Rock, we knew there was a limit to how many characters we could use, how much gunfire there could be, etc. It was never part of our remit to make a massive action picture. In that respect, from the outset we were working within the confines of what we had – one beach location, one external bunker location, and one internal bunker studio-set; that was our world, and the our task was to do as good a job as possible within those bounds.
So, yes, it’s ultimately to do with budgetary constraints, but I think everyone would agree that the claustrophobia you refer to, and the sense of isolation you get in those bleak, functional underground environments, was a big part of what we were trying to achieve. That said, if you go into some of the real bunkers on Guernsey, which I did with Paul and Matt Sunderland (who played Meyer) last summer, they are even more claustrophobic. There isn’t room to swing a cat in some of them.
PF: Inevitably you would. There are always things you think you can improve on when you see the final cut. We had to lose some scenes simply because we didn’t have time to shoot them. For all my comments before about being happy to work with what you’ve got, a ‘too tight’ schedule is the sort of annoying problem that you could well do without and which simply doesn’t arise if you have a lot more cash behind you. Having said that, I don’t think I’d change the basic idea. I think there’d probably be more men and more demons, but it would be roughly the same story.
Some critics have likened the film to The Devil Rides Out. How does this make you feel?
PF: There are obvious similarities, the magic circle sequence to name one. But I think it’s also true that The Devil’s Rock takes a step backward into that more innocent ‘Hammer era’ when everyone accepted without question that devils and demons exist, and that witches and Satanists are evil. Okay, Grogan struggles with it a little bit, but the audience is asked to buy into all this straight away, and thus far they have done, very cheerfully, just the way we used to back in the day when horror was fun and camp. So it pleases me for that reason. It also pleases me because Paul and I both enjoy occult-related horror. I think the aura of mystery that surrounds ancient artefacts, eldritch writings, curses and rituals and so forth – the sort of stuff that added so much atmosphere to movies like Night of the Demon, The Omen, The Sentinel, and yes of course, The Devil Rides Out – can make for compelling viewing. I’m more than flattered if we are genuinely being likened to the occult horrors of that era.
The expectation of the unwashed masses is that horror films are now just big dumb slasher fests, and not the intelligent, and well thought-out type of film that The Devil’s Rock is? How important was it for you, to make the script intelligent?
PF: Well, this is the big war that everyone employed in horror at the present time – be it movies, novels, short stories, whatever – is fighting: an attempt to win back the recognition of the mainstream. And you do that either by making intelligent horror, or making fun horror – preferably you do both. The perception of horror among the general public today has probably never been lower. The start of this decline really came during the ‘video-nasty’ era when we were all suddenly tarred with the brush of ‘cheapjack, nasty, sick rubbish’. If you recall, horror classics like Straw Dogs (the original) and The Exorcist, were all briefly banned as part of the kneejerk chaos that ensued after some really obscene drivel got out there on uncertificated video. And I don’t think we’ve ever really recovered from that. The slasher era, which followed on from that, didn’t help, in that all of a sudden horror films were solely about nubile, mostly naked teens being offed in various disgusting but imaginative ways. Some of the slasher movies weren’t bad, but most were derivative and formulaic. So the genre stagnated again, and all the suspicions the general public had about us seemed to be fulfilled. When The Sixth Sense came out, and suddenly big name stars got interested in appearing in horror again, most of those movies weren’t sold as ‘horror’ but as ‘supernatural thrillers’ – that’s how much damage had been done to the genre. But guess what, we then go and make things worse by ushering in the age of what I consider to be our most pernicious offshoot to date – torture-porn.
Sorry if I sound like I’m ranting here, but these are the reasons why with The Devil’s Rock, we tried to make an interesting and enjoyable horror film, with a coherent plot, proper dialogue and real characters whom an audience can sympathise with, and not to lace it with the sort of humourless nastiness that would put you off the genre for life. It’s nice that you think we’ve achieved that, but that’s only one battle won in a major war.
Were you ever concerned that it might limit the audience for the film?
PF: Horror movies tend to buck the trend of horror in general, in that there is still a big audience who will lap them up – that’s not just those who are loyal to the brand, but also the younger ‘drive-in’ crowd, for whom horror tends to be the genre of choice. In short, there are an awful lot of people out there who like horror movies, and so long as you market your movie excitingly, and get some half-decent reviews, I feel those people will flock to watch it. The evidence suggests this, at least. I don’t think that the bulk of horror movie audiences are too driven by preconceptions about subject matter and so forth. If so, it hasn’t affected us.
How well has the film been received by the public?
PF: Well we’ve sold to several territories and just about broken even, so that’s a good result. People have certainly been watching. Not all the reviews have been great, though the naysayers tend to have been in those newspapers you’d expect, while many others have been a lot more positive. Most of the horror reviewers online have enjoyed the movie and given it a big thumbs-up.
PF: Yes. If I told you we are currently co-working on at least four new movie projects, then I’d probably be saying too much. For which reason I won’t reveal any more just yet, except to add that two of them are horror movies, but the other two are completely different.
What does the future hold for you?
PF: Well, as always I have lots of plans, but all could be shelved at a moment’s notice if something big comes off. I have a new novel out from Rebellion Books very shortly – Dark North, which is an Arthurian adventure set in Dark Age Britain. I also have an episode due out in a new sci-fi audio series from Big Finish, Counter Measures. It’s a Dr Who spin-off, which tells the tale of a Quatermass-type group of scientists and military men dealing with bizarre occurrences in 1960s Britain. My episode is the opener, and is called ‘Threshold’. That should go on general release sometime early next year.
In terms of current work, I’m now engaged on a sequel to The Devil’s Rock – I think it’s probably safe to mention that, and Paul Camion and I have three other scripts currently under development both in the UK and New Zealand. I have two items of Hollywood interest – one is Zombie Apocalypse, the mosaic novel which I wrote a chunk of last year. That was published by Robinson Books and has been optioned for development by Palomar Pictures. The other is a potential movie adaptation of a short story of mine from many years ago, The Belfries – that one is currently with a very well thought-of director who is part of Creative Artists. Of course, Hollywood development tends to move with glacial slowness so I’m not expecting anything on that front soon. I’m also currently editing a new series of ‘regional’ horror anthologies from Gray Friar Press. The first of these, Terror Tales of the Lake District, was published last year and included some great stories from top writers like Simon Clark, Ramsey Campbell, Adam Nevill and Reggie Oliver. Other books in this series are now in preparation – all dedicated to different corners of the UK and maybe beyond. This is more a fun thing for me, really; I’ll have a story of my own in most volumes, but I’m mainly editing and letting some of the best horror writers in the UK do the hard work. With luck, and if sales continue at their current level, we’ll be bringing out a couple of books in this line each year.
More experimentally, quite a bit of my material is now going out in e-book form – mainly to test the water of this new market. Three collections of my medieval fantasies and horrors – Medi-Evil 1, Medi-Evil 2, Medi-Evil 3, my successful Christmas horror/fantasy, Sparrowhawk and a collection of Victorian police stories, Craddock, are all now available on Kindle. Like all writers, I’ll be watching those sales figures with interest before making a decision as to whether more stuff will be uploaded.
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