The Borderlands is a low budget UK indie comedy horror set in the West Country. It marks the first foray into film production by the distributor Metrodome and is set to make its mark worldwide. I was lucky enough to do an interweb Q&A with its writer/director Elliot Goldner and producer Jennifer Handorf.
Starting with Elliot I asked him how he got involved in this project.
E.G. Metrodome got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to have a go developing a low budget horror. They were putting out some feelers for people to develop ideas for their first production slate. I don’t want to give the impression that a limo turned up at my house with a suitcase full of money and a contract, it was all work done on spec at this point. But I obviously jumped at the chance to make my first feature.
Who had the original idea for the film?
E.G. Jezz, the Executive Producer had been on holiday in Dartmoor and seen Brentor, which is an amazing spooky looking church on this imposing rock that just juts out of nowhere. He was very beguiled by the feel of the place and the stories that surround it – there are several tales of the Devil visiting that church. So that was the brief when I came on board: a haunted church and some people who come in to investigate it. Oh and make it found footage.
How much creative control were you given by Metrodome?
E.G. Other than those parameters I was given a lot of free reign. But although I doubt I would have elected to make my first [feature] about a haunted church myself, let alone film it found footage style, it’s actually unbelievably useful to have some parameters to work within to start with. Otherwise you can sit there with a blank sheet of paper and think, ‘Right, this film can be about ANYTHING…’ and be totally stumped.
So they let me go off and try and think of a scenario, so I started to develop the idea of a team from the Vatican who assess miracles. I think that was when the idea really started to become interesting to me, because it meant we could have characters who were ghost-hunters, or holy ghost-hunters if you will, who could have gone their entire careers without ever seeing anything supernatural before. That was important to me because I wanted the wider world of the film to feel ostensibly real, or plausible. I didn’t want to have to commit to the existence of the Christian God in the film’s universe – but I didn’t want have to debunk him either.
It was fascinating researching the work of the real life Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The nature of their work is totally paradoxical – in order for something to be a miracle it has to be scientifically impossible, so they attack these cases with a very scientific zeal, trying to exhaust all the rational explanations. There was a canon lawyer who was known as the Devil’s Advocate, if a postulator was making a case for someone to become a saint, the Devil’s Advocate would argue the case against the miracle. Pope John Paul II abolished this office and made a whole load of other sweeping changes during his time in office, and the Vatican was dubbed the ‘Saint Factory’. He decided that having more saints was a way to connect with ordinary folk and so under his tenure there were more saints created then during the papacies of all the other popes back to the first millennium! ‘Strangely’ enough his fast-tracking of the sainthood process smoothed the way for his own rapid canonisation next month. Hallelujah.
But getting back to the question, I had freedom to write whatever I wanted but at the end of the day I knew Metrodome weren’t going to fund a film they didn’t like, or didn’t think they could sell. I delivered a number of detailed drafts before they said go and have a bash at the script. It was a quite a long drawn out process but ultimately very useful I think. I could see the story getting better and better every time. I didn’t waste time writing reams of dialogue too early for stories that were going to totally change. They were very honest in admitting that it was the first time for them as well, exec’ing a project. But it was incredibly useful to have some very thoughtful film professionals give you feedback each step of the way. Compare that to the experience of someone writing a script all on their own. I mean people end up paying for feedback from professional readers.
I guess I might have noticed less creative freedom if we had had more disagreements. But, at this stage at any rate, there was a general accord and things went very smoothly. I think it’s true what Jen (Handorf, the producer) noted when she came on board, which was that it was probably good that it wasn’t an idea that I had been nurturing for years and brought to them for my first film. In that instance I might have been too precious and over-protective – whereas here it felt like we were all on the same side creating a project together.
Is horror a favourite genre of yours?
E.G. I’m a real cinema buff but I don’t really have a favourite genre. So for that reason I guess I would never have called myself a ‘horror fan’ because I don’t only watch horror films. Once you get deep into horror, to satisfy your cravings you end up having to watch lots of films with very low production values and/or dodgy dialogue, and I’m not so into that side of it (erm, I’m setting myself up for a fall here, aren’t I?). Such is the true horror fan’s love for the genre that they can be very forgiving. It’s quite lovely really, if they like a film they will really support it and see past technical or budgetary issues that might turn off the casual viewer. Someone who spends months trying to track down a pristine VHS of Octaman is a real horror fan, I’d be doing them a disservice to say I was one.
But of course I do love horror films. The thing is I find it a bit confusing as to what a horror actually is. Is Repulsion a horror film? Is Silence of the Lambs a horror film? How about Alien? I found No Country For Old Men positively terrifying when I watched that in the cinema, Anton Chigurh is up there with Michael Myers.
What is your favourite horror film?
E.G. Well see, here we go, a perfect example. I’m going to say Threads (the 1980s BBC drama about a nuclear holocaust and the collapse of civilisation). Which isn’t a classic horror horror, but it’s more horrific than all the Nightmares on Elm Street and Fridays the 13th put together. I did actually see it turn up the Time Out top 100 horror movies recently, which was nice to see but also annoying because I used to think mentioning Threads made me seem like a cool iconoclast. But yeah, that film. Wow. I only saw it about six years ago, in fact I was introduced to it by some twisted bastards who were running the TV station at the first Bangface weekender (an insane festival that feels like it you’re in a 72 hour episode of Brass Eye). They played it as a chill out/come-down movie on the Sunday. Haha my God. I can only imagine what it was like watching Threads in the 1980s when the spectre of the atom bomb hung heavy over everyone’s heads. I wouldn’t be surprised if people topped themselves after watching it.
I love Martin by George A Romero – brilliantly grubby and ambiguous, a perfect little film. And I loved The Kingdom, the Danish series by Lars Von Trier – it shifts effortlessly between comedy and chills. You know what, Mullholland Drive is almost a horror isn’t it? The guy behind the diner. And the cowboy. That’s one of my favourite ever films. Some Lynch stuff is really scary, Bob in the corner of the room in Fire Walk With Me, and the bit where the car horns are going and they’re screaming. Or that bit in Lost Highway where the guy comes up and he’s on the phone in his house at the same time. Or just walking down those dark corridors. There we are again, I guess I just love uncategorisable stuff – and I think that’s what I’ve ended up making, a hybrid kind of film.
I then set to with some specifics about the project to both Elliot and Jen. The 2 leads of the film Robin Hill (playing Gray) and Gordon Kennedy (playing paranormal investigator Deacon) added some unexpected humour to the planned shoot with their improvised banter.
When the film developed in a different direction than originally planned how did you decide on how to wrap it up?
J.H. The film isn’t actually very different from what we had planned – the large strokes are all as intended. It is more that some details were added in reshoots and improv. Gordon and Rob just turned out to be a lot more charismatic and funny than we had anticipated, so we felt, in order for the dark turn at the end of the film to not feel abrupt, we shot a few more scenes to smooth over the lumps.
E.G. Hmm. What are you referring to here I wonder? I mean we had an incredibly different ending in the early drafts of the treatments. There was all stuff involving the Green Man and the Wild Hunt which is totally gone. This massive storm scene which would have been incredibly expensive.
How different is the finished film to the original script/ending?
J.H. Not very different at all. The ending is exactly the same. We added a few scenes – most notably the pub scene. And, as with any film, there were a few scenes we had to drop for pacing and flow. There had been a sub-plot that involved the Proudley’s [a family who have a Christening for their child in the local church] which we shot but had to cut out. Performances were great and it looked good – it just didn’t fit into the structure of the film anymore once we cut it all together.
E.G. The ending has been there since before the first draft of the script. However there were a few other things, in fact some entire scenes that we filmed that we removed for various reasons. A few more things might have been explained. But sometimes less is more. I watched Aliens on telly the other day and it was the director’s cut, where you see the base before Ripley and the marines arrive. I realised it much was better without. Ok you find out a bit more about what happened but you lose that scary sense of mystery of them going to an unknown place. That’s why we haven’t put them on as DVD extras, so as not to dilute things.
What would you do differently next time if anything?
J.H. As far as lessons learned, it’s my 5th feature, so I hope I’ve got my process relatively down by this stage! But there are always things you wished you could have done differently if you had the chance to do it all over again. My biggest regret- I would have ordered more worms. I thought a couple of kilos would be enough, but I think I could have gotten away with ordering 2-3 times as much to really make that moment impactful. Joderovski has a similar story about the rabbits in El Topo. The take-away… whenever you need to see critters en mass, get more than you think you’ll need!
E.G. Depends, are you asking me what I’d do if I was remaking this film? Because now I’m getting to distracted as to why I’m having to remake the film. Is it because I’m making it for the US market because they can’t understand the accents and it’s now set in rural Pennsylvania? In that case more beards I think. Or am I making it for the Bollywood market? In that case I’d probably be spending ages arguing with the backer about why I don’t think a song and dance number at the end would be appropriate.
But if you mean what important lessons have I drawn from this process, then the first is try not to lose heart. This applies to the writing side most of all, it’s such a massive gruelling grind, even when it’s going well it takes a very very long time. So keep on going – it’s good to have been through the process already and though it won’t make it easier next time at least I can look back and see that I’ve done it before. Then when you’ve finished it, take a week to reset and then do another draft. And another. And another.
Something I’d definitely do differently next time is to sit down and really go through the schedule holistically – even though a page of the script is supposed to equate to a minute of screen time, some pages will require much longer to shoot then others. And we managed without a continuity person this time which I think was probably a false economy as you end up wasting lots of time checking the footage etc. Oh Christ yeah and a wireless monitor – it’s a nightmare without one on a shoot as mobile as this one was. But these are more like notes to myself, in reality, especially for the money we shot this for, it was a great process and I had more fun shooting The Borderlands than I probably deserved. This is in no small part to the crew, who were fantastically hard working but also really good to be around. I’d try to use a small crew again if I can help it, you can just get so much more done.
What I won’t be doing next time is making a film with no music!
Do you see this model of making a film (distributor producing it – like say Amazon/Netflix) as a way forward for the industry? Do you think it is possible it could end up being like the old studio systems? Would that be good or bad in your view?
J.H. I think there are films for hire and there are films that someone makes because they can’t sleep until their vision is on screen. Whether it’s a studio, a distributor, a production company, a director, or even an actor who commission you to work on their film, it isn’t ever the same if it’s someone else’s. But the trick is to make it yours, which I really feel like I did with The Borderlands. I may have been hired to make it as someone else’s idea, but I really grew to love it and feel a great deal of ownership over it. More distributors commissioning films isn’t inherently a good or bad thing- somebody somewhere has to pay for a movie.
E.G. Well I’m hardly in a position to complain. But yeah it was like making a film for a mini-studio in a way. And while that might have meant less freedom then someone who is just out there making a self-funded feature film, knowing that you have a distributor in place before the first day of the shoot is a fantastically reassuring feeling. It’s also very useful in attaching crew and talent to the project. Because there are an awful lot of films out there and there are plenty that are struggling to even find distribution, which must be so disheartening after you’ve invested all that time, money and effort making the damn thing.
It’s very useful to have the opinions of the people who know they have to sell the film. At the same time working this closely with them may have given me a slightly jaundiced view of the film market, when I hear all the horror stories of how hard it is to actually make any money selling films in this day and age. It’s a very tough market out there so it helps to be realistic about things. But at the same time I need to make sure that attitude doesn’t stifle my creativity. It’s a balancing act.
J.H. Shooting a sci-fi in May about a society of telepaths wherein one man suddenly loses his abilities and experiences what it is like to be alone for the first time. Later in the year, I’m making No Man’s Land with Sean Hogan which is a WW1 horror that could be called Heart of Darkness meets The Descent. At the end of the year, I’ve got a film set entirely in a small sub that has crashed on the bottom of the ocean and is slowly taking on water. After that a feature by Ben Wheatley’s second unit director Nick Gillespie which is a military freak out set almost entirely inside a tank. Then Steven Sheil (Mum and Dad) and I have a very special project in development with Creative England that we hope to film next year. My Mom always asks me, “Jennie, why can’t you ever make a NICE film?” Somewhere in there I’m sure I’ll get some sleep!
E.G. I’m working on a dark comedy about a couple of paparazzi, it’s in the writing stage at the moment – although in very immediate future my wife and I are about to have our first kid so that might be taking priority for the next month or so. It looks like she’ll be giving birth on the same day The Borderlands has its cinema release so I think that might well be the biggest day of my life so far!