Sean Hogan is a rising star on the British horror scene. His most recent film, THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS, garnered a bucketload of positive reviews at last year’s Film4 FrightFest. It’s easy to see why: a micro-budgeted Pinter-esque chiller about a hitman, his wet-behind-the-ears assistant and their sinister target who may or may not be involved with the occult, THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS boasts a terrific sense of forboding, a script that allows its characters to become genuinely involving, and strong performances from its cast. At its heart the film is one of those peculiarly English otherworldly horrors, drawing inspiration from (among others) the ‘folk horror’ sub-genre that gave us the likes of THE WICKER MAN and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, and clearly marks out Hogan as one to watch.
We sat down with him to find out how THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS came about and what challenges he encountered in getting it made.
Gavin Midgley: THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS is the second feature-length film you’ve directed – third if you count your segment in LITTLE DEATHS. What inspired you to write this story and make it your next film?
Sean Hogan: It was written whilst we were waiting for financing to come together for LITTLE DEATHS, basically. That took a while to happen, and so one evening the film’s producer Jen Handorf and myself were discussing the idea of doing something really low budget, something achievable that we could get off the ground without too much money or trouble. And after a few beers, I came up with the core idea there and then. So I went away and wrote the script quite quickly, but then LITTLE DEATHS finally happened, so it got put to one side.
But for a variety of reasons (most of them relating to the ineptitude and dishonesty of the executive producers), that project quickly turned into a nightmare experience. And Jen had similar troubles on another film she produced at around the same time. So we sat down together feeling somewhat chastened, and decided what we needed was a palate-cleanser. And so what we basically did was agree that we would set a start date, and make THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS for whatever money we could raise by that point.
The main inspiration wasn’t a film but a play – Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter”.
GM: The dialogue and relationship between the two hitmen, old hand Pinner (Billy Clarke) and new recruit Cully (Jack Gordon), brings an edginess as well as a touch of black humour to the story. How difficult was that to write?
SH: I feel as though I should lie and say it was difficult, but in this case it was a joy to write. Sometimes characters really do write themselves, and it honestly felt like they just took over the reins fairly early on in the process. Which was great, because that certainly doesn’t always happen! I normally know pretty much where a script is going to go when I sit down to write, but there was a lot I wasn’t sure of when I started on this one – luckily the characters just took over, though.
GM: Were there any films that inspired you on this script?
SH: The main inspiration wasn’t a film but a play – Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter”. For some reason it suddenly occurred to me that you could put a great genre spin on that idea – the notion of two hitmen waiting for a target to turn up and discovering they are at the mercy of malign higher powers. So that was definitely where it started. Beyond that, UK crime movies like PERFORMANCE and THE HIT, and just sort of film noir in general – the whole idea of having these flawed, shady protagonists whose pasts eventually catch up with them and cause their doom. In terms of horror, there’s definitely a lot of Val Lewton in there – his approach of embracing your budgetary limitations and building atmosphere by implication rather than showing everything was very inspiring to me. I always said we were making a B-movie in the best sense of the word, much as Lewton used to do – short subtle movies that still have a terrific style and overall mood. Otherwise, Polanski is always someone I go back to for inspiration, and I think you can see a bit of DON’T LOOK NOW in there, which is another favourite.
I’m not particularly interested in realism per se – too much UK cinema is bogged down in kitchen sink drama …
GM: What appeals to you about the horror genre in particular?
SH: Beyond having loved horror as a kid, I just find it to be a very adaptable genre in which to work in. I’m not particularly interested in realism per se – too much UK cinema is bogged down in kitchen sink drama – and so the kind of metaphorical impact horror imagery can have really interests me. I find I can pretty much tell whatever stories I want to within a genre framework, and perhaps in a more interesting way. And in terms of raising finance for independent films, working within a genre that’s considered to be commercial definitely helps. You can make horror on lower budgets and aren’t dependent on name casting, which can be quite liberating. I suppose I look back on films from the 70s – not just horror movies – and get inspired by the way in which they often used genre frameworks to experiment with new ideas or approaches to storytelling. I’d like to try and use horror the same way.
GM: Was the process of casting the three main characters a tricky one?
SH: Actually no. Given that we didn’t have a casting director, I half expected it to be a bit of a slog, but it turned out to be very simple. Billy Clarke was just someone we found by going through Spotlight – he was actually the first person we read for that part, and was fantastic. Beyond that, Jen had a good prior relationship with Jack Gordon’s agency – so they read the script and recommended him for the role. And Jonathan Hansler (Kist) was someone that had come in and read for me on LITTLE DEATHS – he wasn’t right for that role, but I made a note then and there that he’d be great for this film if and when we made it.
GM: How much creative freedom did you have on this film compared with your last film, LITTLE DEATHS?
SH: Considerably more. LITTLE DEATHS was always intended to be a fairly graphic film, and initially, everyone was behind that – they loved the script, which was very clear about what sort of film it was going to be. But as soon as we showed our first cut, the execs and the sales agent started getting very nervous about some of the sexual imagery, and brought in an editor behind our backs to recut mine and Andrew Parkinson’s episodes. At which point we both walked away. Eventually they realised they needed to deal with us, and so we agreed to come back on the basis that we prepared two edits of the film – the directors’ cut (which would be the festival version) and a softer version as backup for problem territories.
… every release of the film I’ve seen so far is cut, even the US DVD, which is idiotic given that it was released unrated.
So we completed the film on that basis, and it was subsequently accepted into SXSW. The execs and sales agent then completely reneged on the earlier agreement and said that we’d have to play the cut version at the festival, which was ludicrous on all sorts of levels. We tried to talk sense into them, but it was hopeless. So what I did was switch the cuts for the opening night, so the proper version did play once, but you can imagine how well it went down when the switch was discovered! And subsequently, it appears they simply haven’t bothered to try and sell the uncut version – every release of the film I’ve seen so far is cut, even the US DVD, which is idiotic given that it was released unrated. But that’s just very typical of the bad faith that permeated every level of that production.
But like I said, THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS was always intended as a corrective to that sort of experience. So we had limited money but complete control, which was great. It wasn’t intended to be a graphic script so I was never expecting censorship issues, but I still think we would have had problems had we tried to fund it on a larger level, simply because of the way the story is told. But luckily we managed to avoid all of that. So essentially the final cut of the film was arrived at by myself and the editor, with Jen giving notes and input along the way. And I think it’s all the better for it.
GM: Was it difficult to get financial backing?
SH: Not really, if only because we made it for so little money. Had we gone through industry channels I’d probably still be trying to make it now. But we basically raised a small pot of private equity and went and did it for what we had. So it had to be very carefully planned and made on limited means, but I think it was ultimately the right thing to do.
GM: Did you encounter any problems during production that you seriously thought might scupper the film?
SH: Just one, but it was fairly major. We were originally meant to be shooting at a country location we’d rented, but when we went up to do the recce, the landlady suddenly announced that she was cancelling the deal because she’d Googled us and discovered that we were devil worshippers and pornographers! (None of which stopped her from cashing our cheque, mind you.) And this was something like two days before we were meant to start shooting.
… I actually look back on the shoot very fondly. Not that I’m in any hurry to do it again!
So I honestly thought we were dead in the water, but Jen managed to arrange for us to shoot at her in-laws’ house, as they were away on holiday. I’d never been to the place so had no idea whether it was suitable, but essentially I had to trust her or not make the film. And luckily it turned out to be pretty much ideal, better in some ways than what we’d originally had. It meant a last minute scramble to sort out accommodation for the cast and crew, and me frantically rewriting the script to fit the night before the shoot, but we got through it.
GM: How long was the shoot? Was it a tight schedule?
SH: We shot in 9 days, from 4pm to 4am every day. So yeah, it was quite tough. We were basically shooting 8-9 pages a day, so there was no time to sit around, and I had to be very economical and precise about what shots we were getting. But it created a real energy and camaraderie amongst the crew, and I actually look back on the shoot very fondly. Not that I’m in any hurry to do it again!
GM: Did you have any problems securing a distribution deal?
SH: Given the nonsense I’d had to put up with from the sales agent on LITTLE DEATHS, we were always keen to cut out the middle man and try and make a UK deal ourselves. We knew a few UK distributors anyway, and were confident that if we could launch the film at Frightfest, we could probably find it a home. And luckily the film got good reviews and buzz out of the festival, so there was definite interest right off the bat. We ended up speaking to a few different people about it, but ultimately went with Metrodome, who have a track record with indie genre movies and seemed to be a good overall fit for the film. So again, it was a much smoother experience than LITTLE DEATHS, which still hasn’t seen a UK release, largely because of all the behind-the-scenes chicanery that went on.
GM: How close was the finished film to the one you originally envisioned? What compromises did you have to make?
SH: I think the only real compromises were to do with money. Obviously I would have liked more equipment and time, but given what we had to work with I had to keep things pretty simple overall in terms of shots and coverage. Saying that, I don’t think the restrictions hurt it particularly – it might have been a different film had I had more resources, but that isn’t to say it would have been vastly better. And certainly the actors rose to meet the challenge, so I don’t think their performances suffered one bit from the tight schedule.
… hats off to Billy Clarke, basically – it could have been a total dead spot had he not knocked it out of the park.
Beyond that, the script was written to be made with what we had, so the finished film is pretty close to what was envisioned. We cut a couple of things along the way, some during shooting, some in the edit, but nothing that hurt the film. I’ve certainly been in edits where you end up cutting or restructuring entire scenes, but this was a relatively smooth process.
GM: Are there any key moments in the film you are particularly proud of?
SH: The main one would have to be Pinner’s monologue. I wrote it knowing that in theory it was going to be the heart of the film, but with no real idea as to whether it would play well onscreen or not. It was a bit of a gamble, but once we committed to filming it, there it was – you could maybe shorten it somewhat in the edit, but you certainly couldn’t cut it out. So we edited it together and it seemed to play, but you’re so close to the film that you can never really be sure. And it wasn’t until we showed the rough cut to a few people that I started to get any sense of whether it was working – I was kind of cringing waiting for their feedback, but everyone immediately started saying how much they loved Billy’s speech. And it did turn out to be one of the things in the film that everyone talks about. So hats off to Billy Clarke, basically – it could have been a total dead spot had he not knocked it out of the park.
GM: What advice would you give to first-time filmmakers trying to get their feature off the ground?
SH: Don’t wait around for someone to give it to you on a plate; just get out there and make something. There really are no excuses these days with the equipment that’s available. THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS is by far the smallest film I’ve made – it was shot on 5D cameras and edited at home, and yet it will be getting a cinema release this summer. So just do it, because otherwise you might sit around for years just talking about it.
And work with the best people you can find, especially in regards to actors. Too many people just cast their mates because it’s easier. So as a result you see a lot of mediocre performances in microbudget films, and it just isn’t necessary – you may not be able to afford name actors, but you can certainly find good ones. If you have a solid script (and there are no excuses for not having one, quite frankly – it costs nothing extra to get your script right), you’ll be able to find talented actors who will respond to good material, and will work for very little money, as long as you treat them equitably and fairly.
GM: What’s coming up for you next?
SH: There are a few things I’m currently working on. The main one is a script called THE GIRL IN THE MIRROR, which is a Polanski-esque psychological horror movie about a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks she witnesses a murder. But she’s fearful that if she reports it and it turns out not to have happened, then she’ll be taken into care again. So she sets out to solve it herself – but in doing so causes her paranoia to spiral out of control.
There’s also WAKE, a very black horror comedy about a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family and vampires, kind of IN BRUGES meets THE EVIL DEAD. I’m very fond of both those scripts and I’m hoping we can get them financed soon. Beyond that, I might be working with a group of notable UK genre writers on doing a horror anthology theatre production for Halloween, but it’s very early days with that so I can’t say too much yet!
THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS will be released nationwide via Metrodome this summer.
Check http://www.cigaretteburnscinema.com/ for details of a preview screening at the Rio in Dalston, London in July!