[Frequent Rue Morgue contributor Peter Gutiérrez checks in with a Q&A with Paul Campion, director of The Devil's Rock.]
Although it just finished winning accolades at the genre-crazy Yubari Film Festival, The Devil’s Rock is also newly released on R1 DVD. That should give North American audiences a welcome opportunity to see writer-director Paul Campion’s long-awaited first feature, which is both ambitious (it’s a World War II-set period film) and small-scale (you can count the cast members on your fingers). I myself first discovered Campion’s work several years ago, through shorts such as the charmingly DIY Night of the Hell Hamster and the striking, unsettling Weta Workshop project Eel Girl. With The Devil’s Rock, Campion demonstrates that the lessons he’s learned in craft and attention to detail on films both modest and huge (The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia) were not lost on him. I was happy to catch up with him and discuss his uncomfortably intimate demons-and-Nazis tale.
Rue Morgue: The DVD extras show you doing a bit of location scouting, and while the German bunkers on Guernsey look impressive, seeing them in real life would not have prepared me for the striking exteriors in the film—where the setting resembles something out of Mordor. I’m wondering what a horror director with a good eye sees when he looks at a given location. Do you automatically imagine it under different conditions, maybe lit in a certain way?
Paul Campion: It’s all about creating mood and atmosphere—how can I turn this location into something that will have the right atmosphere for a horror film? My background is in illustration and matte-painting, so when I’m looking at a location, I’m already working out in my head how I’m going to compose the image, and how I can use matte-paintings to change it to exactly what I need. We weren’t in a position to light any of the locations, we just had to use whatever light was there, but then in post-production I knew we could go in and fix and replace and add anything we needed to make them ominous and atmospheric. Max Dennison, who was head of matte-painting on The Lord of the Rings, did one of the hero matte-paintings of the tower and gun pit for us. He painted it with this beautiful night sky, and we used that night-look as a basis for all the other shots, plus grading down the live-actions shots, which we shot day-for-night.
For the shots of the fortification, the original building in Guernsey already screamed out “horror film” to me. It’s this Bauhausian concrete monstrosity sitting on the edge of a 300ft cliff. It just looks like the kind of place to set a horror film—well, to me anyway! All the shots of the bunker are 100 percent matte-paintings, based on photos of the real bunker. The only real locations were the beach, undergrowth, and the gun pit, which was a combination of the real thing with a CG gun for some shots, or a 100 percent matte-painting for others, but again based on photos of the real gun pit.
RM: Let’s talk about the opening of The Devil’s Rock and the fact that you have all-suspense with no real violence. Did you consciously view this as bucking the tendency in the genre where the audience is presented with a death in the first few minutes as a would-be grabber?
PC: I’m a big fan of films like Alien and Rosemary’s Baby, where the story is gradually built up for the audience so initially they have no idea where it’s going. In this case it was always the plan to deliberately start the story as a war film that became a horror film. In the earlier drafts of the script, when it was being written to an even smaller budget, there was a slightly different opening where we had to kill off one of the characters in the first five minutes because we couldn’t afford to pay four actors. In that version Grogan and Joe have parachuted onto the island, and Joe has broken his back landing on rocks, so Grogan has to execute him as he’s a liability to the mission. Rather than shooting him and wasting bullets, Joe makes Grogan drown him. It was actually a really powerful scene and it’s a shame it didn’t make it in (the commando kayak raid was more accurate, and eventually we had the budget to keep the Joe character in for a little longer at least). The other issue was that we were going to spend so much time in the two rooms, we were worried the film was just going to feel too small, so we really needed more locations at the start to give the film a much bigger feel, and the way to do that was with the beach landing, and expanding the locations with matte-paintings.
RM: Using demons as your monster seems like something of a double-edged sword creatively: you can have them do anything, so there’s a degree of freedom there, but then again you have to provide, and maybe even make up, “rules” since audiences won’t arrive with a lot of prior knowledge as with other monsters. Do I have that right or was your experience different?
PC: Yes, you got that absolutely spot-on. It was actually a bit of a nightmare trying to make it work in the script, which is probably why it ended up a bit too exposition-heavy—not only explaining what this particular demon can do, [but also] how do you make the audience understand what the demon can’t do: why can’t she just change into a different shape and escape from the chain, or escape from the island? In the end you have to just try and make up a set of rules for this particular world you’ve created and hope the audience buys into it. We did do a lot of research, though, into demons and black magic, e.g. binding demons with iron—“the Devil’s old foe” which goes back to medieval times, and the protection spell is based on a (supposedly) real spell to protect against evil forces. Then it was a budget issue—yes, we can do anything we want with a demon, but how do you show how dangerous it’s supposed to be with limited resources? We had to drop a lot of shots and scenes due to time issues, for example there was a shot where she escaped and ripped a dead body in two and a whole sequence where she assaulted Grogan and Meyer in the magic circle with the sounds of an air-raid and the bunker being bombed.
RM: Finally, I see a big thematic connection between The Devil’s Rock and Eel Girl. Do you see yourself continuing in this vein, or maybe at some point challenging yourself by making your female lead a nice, girl-next-door type? And I’m smiling as I ask this, by the way.
PC: Well, my first short film Night of the Hell Hamsters had a girl-next door heroine, and there wasn’t actually any plan or weird desire to make two films back to back with naked female monsters, it just kind of happened that way! In most horror films, however, the creature is almost always male, and the female characters are either the heroine or clichéd, vacuous, pretty prey. The Devil’s Rock was a bit of a love child of Eel Girl to a certain extent—it was about twisting the conceptions of what the monster/creature normally is, and I think there’s something a little alarming about a female monster that uses its sexuality to prey on and kill males. It makes it much harder for the male characters to have to destroy something that’s offering to satisfy their most basic desires. In both Eel Girl and The Devil’s Rock the two female monsters are in fact the most honest characters, it’s the males that are ultimately the weaker characters who succumb to their base urges.
PC: Firstly there’s Dark Hollow, based on the novel by U.S. author Brian Keene, which is about a satyr, a supernatural half-man, half-goat creature that terrorizes a sleepy Pennsylvania town, hypnotizing and abducting the local women so it can procreate with them and of course killing off the men who try to rescue them. It’s a really fun monster story, with plenty of sex (something I think we’ve been missing in horror films for a while) and a fair amount of gore. I recently finished the script for that and the project is currently going out for financing. Then Paul Finch (Devil’s Rock co-writer) and I are working on the story for Devil’s Rock 2. All I can say about that is “less talking and more demons.” I have a long term project called Scorpion Raiders, which is a true WW2 story, which came about from the research that I did into the commandos and New Zealand’s involvement in WW2 for The Devil’s Rock. It’s about a combined New Zealand/British special forces unit called the Long Range Desert Group, who were primarily a deep reconnaissance unit operating hundreds of miles behind enemy lines in the deserts of North Africa. The film is about the unit’s most famous mission, the Barce Raid, where they drove 2000km across the most inhospitable desert on Earth to attack and destroy an Italian airfield, then were attacked and most of their vehicles destroyed, and they had to escape on foot back across the desert. It’s very much Lawrence of Arabia meets Black Hawk Down, a great “boys’ own”-style action film and a drama about bravery and human endurance.
I’m attached to direct a great script called Roundabout Way, written by Kevin C. Jones, which is a Pulp Fiction/Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-style black comedy crime film about intersecting storylines of criminals, gang-members, corrupt cops and a female assassin all trying to get their hands on a bag full of stolen cash. Despite my background in visual effects, I found when I was directing The Devil’s Rock how much I enjoyed just directing the drama, and although I want to keep making VFX-heavy genre films I’m really keen to alternate with some straight drama/action.
And finally, as there are no guarantees how long any of these projects will take to get green-lit, I’m hoping to make another short film in the next few months called Who Shot Santa? about two criminals who accidentally shoot and kill Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and that’s also based on a short story called “The Siqqusim Who Stole Christmas” by Brian Keene.
RM: Wow, that’s a lot on your plate. Now I’m even more thankful for your time.
PC: My pleasure, thanks for the interest!
A frequent Rue Morgue contributor, Peter is also a critic at TwitchFilm.Com, a columnist at Screen Education and, starting March 19, a blogger for School Library Journal. He tweets on media and horror via @Peter_Gutierrez.