Storage 24 Director Johannes Roberts
The F director talks horror, practical effects and creature design.
With Storage 24 out tomorrow, we took part in a round table with its director, Johannes Roberts. Coming off the back of hoodie horror F, we were keen to hear Johannes' thoughts on the genre at large, as well as working with practical effects. It was a candid and enjoyable chat with a filmmaker who has a genuine love for the genre, and made for a fascinating interview.
It must be great to know that Storage 24 is getting a wide release, around 300 screens?
I'm very pessimistic in all my outlooks, so I was like, it'll do. My last film was 19 screens, which was great as we made it on no money, so to have a 300 screen release, I'm really excited. I hope it makes some money!
What inspiration did you take from what is a rich genre to begin with?
I'm a huge John Carpenter fan, and Stephen King - I grew up with all that stuff. When you do sci-fi in this country... obviously Prometheus has a $150 million budget, and we didn't have that. You've got to work out how to tackle that head on, and be better, be as good, because people pay the same money to see the film. I took on a retro feel, so Gremlins was a big thing for me on this, and all the Carpenter stuff. Then try and work in a way to make the film stand on its own, and not to be Alien in a storage facility. Hopefully it does that, with the alien having a character.
F was great horror, so your sensibilities and Noel's story is a good marriage. Was it a case of you get to make it with a slightly bigger budget?
It was very similar, yeah. I seem to have become the one location, corridors guy that you go to. It was very much, take what I learned from F. I was brought on to bring the horror - Noel's very big on sci-fi, but he's not a horror guy - and to work out how to scare people. A lot of the crew [from F] had come with me.
Will they let you outside for the next one?
No! Well, the next one, that I'm hoping will go ahead, will be in an even smaller location. It's a really interesting one, but I can't, sadly, tell you about it.
What is it with you and claustrophobia?
The things I used to love were Cowboys & Indians movies, with the cowboys holding a fort and the indians attacking. Then I discovered Zulu, and Lord of the Rings has a lot of siege stuff, and I was big into fantasy. Then with John Carpenter, everything is one location. I just really like that siege mentality in one location. For me, I don't know what it is, but it clicks in my brain and I really, really enjoy it. F was a Cowboys & Indians movie, really, and this has that same feel to it.
Was casting a joint thing between you and Noel?
Obviously Noel was set, and I was allowed to do whatever I liked. There were a few people I suggested that were knocked down. We used Gail Stevens and Colin Jones who did F and Danny Boyle's movies. The first person we had on board was Colin [O'Donoghue], and they had just cast The Rite, and said this guy was good. I didn't know anything about him, and I couldn't audition him because he was too big a star. He was quite unsure, I had to meet him several times, and we had to talk about the character, and it was a funny one, because I was quite unsure about him. I thought, have I made a mistake? Then I met him and he was incredible. We had a good Irish/English banter thing, and I thought his performance... was incredible. Ned [Dennehy], I brought over from Ireland, and he's fantastic. You can just wind him up and go. Antonia [Campbell-Hughes], I really wanted someone weird - not weird, quirky. The standard way to cast would've maybe been to put Laura Haddock as the main girl. I just wanted a quirkier feel to that. I was very lucky.
Noel mentioned he had to rein in your horror tendencies. Did you have to pull back on anything you wanted to do?
Not really. This was the easiest shoot, and I had so much freedom, even on a graduation film. I got given the script, and it was a case of... Noel's a big personality, and he's a control freak, and I think if I had shown one ounce of weakness at any point, he would've stepped in. It's a hideous expression, but it's my wheelhouse, and so the only thing I had as an instruction as that it had to be a 15. I said, look, I'm just going to shoot it the way I want to shoot it, then if we get into any trouble it's on my back, and I'll change it. I shot balls-out with all the gore and did whatever I liked. We had to trim a bit for the BBFC, which to be honest, worked in the movie's favour. Noel's a very easy person to work with.
What was trimmed?
Nothing was taken out, but some of the shots they felt I held on a bit too long. They have a real issue with, not glorifying, but gratuitously holding on. Once you trim it, it kinds of makes it a bit sharper. I'm a big kid, and my instinct is to hold on as long as possible and see lots of blood and gore. Sometimes you have to just go, actually, that's a bit tacky and a bit silly. They would let me do whatever I like for the DVD, but the cut is the cut now. I have no issues or things I want to change.
Normally in these films, you don't see the creature, but you see the creature numerous times.
The rule of thumb in the handbook of horror is never show your creature, keep them in the dark. It's been that way since Alien, and I thought, fuck that. I want to have fun with this, and if I keep it in the dark, it's just an Alien rip-off. So I had fun for the first 45 minutes, seeing bits and pieces then it's like, now I want to see the fucking thing. I wanted it to be a character, and that's the big challenge of how we did it with a mixture of prosthetics and CGI. Noel and the characters had to be able to communicate with it, and it had to chat to them in its own way. As I said, Gremlins was a big influence to me – althought you wouldn’t watch this and think “Oh yeah, like Gremlins”. I just really liked that '80s monster movie thing, where the creatures were huge characters. You just can't get that with CGI. It's nerve-wracking; I remember looking at the rushes before it had been colour-graded, and you've got this guy in a suit with wires. I thought, have I fucked myself? Am I dead in the water? That was the big thing that would keep me up at night.
Was having a guy in a suit just about about keeping it old-school, or for other reasons?
You can't get away with just a guy in a suit. I've just done this TV thing in Ireland for the SyFy channel, and they love their CG stuff. I just spent the whole time trying to hide it and not show it, as it just looked terrible, full CG. Even if you've got a lot of money, even on Prometheus’ budget, it's just not there. To your eye, no matter how beautifully it's done, it's not a physical presence, and I needed this to be. I wanted that humour and comedy and interaction. It had to be there and real. Then you've got to use technology. Hopefully a lot of people won’t realise just how much CG there is - all the face and stuff has been mapped 360. My big thing was to keep the camera moving. Most CGI guys will say you've got to keep the camera static or it's complicated, but if we're going to do this, we're going to do it my way. It's a nightmare for them.
Noel said about using Carnage as a base model for the alien, but was there anything else you brought into it?
Noel's very Spider-man influenced, and I'm not particularly a comic guy, but I actually quite liked the look of it. What happened was that the guy that did The Descent, Paul Hyett, designed the creature with his team. We went through loads of different designs, and I remember just standing there in his workshop and his clay thing was really interesting, but clean and perfect. After a while, he said 'I can take off a bit here', with his knife. Then we just pounded it in, and the big thing is that it's asymmetrical ,broken and scarred. It's a she - we named her Gertrude - and she's got loads of scars. She's very obviously female, even though we never show it. The guy that moulded it had a horse vagina there, and I was like, oh that's a bit too... and Noel was like, er, okay. It was so much fun, I was like a kid.
Following F, were you looking at your own thing again?
I've got this film which I'm hoping... if Storage 24 does well, we can kick off straight away. Hopefully we'll start filming in October. It very much harks back to Cujo, and that I'm hoping will go. I'm also toying with a found footage film at Universal in America. I imagine if this goes well my phone's ringing, and if it doesn't I'll be like, (mimes picking up a silent telephone) hello? I'd love to move out of horror, but it's just my thing. I'd love to do a teen movie. If someone offered me Mean Girls or Breakfast Club that would be amazing. I think high schools are really interesting, especially American high schools.
What is it about horror? Why do people like being scared?
It's the safest adrenaline rush of being terrified, knowing you can walk out at any point. For me, there's a side of horror I really don't like, which is girl tied to a chair being tortured for an hour and a half. That just doesn't interest me at all. I've never particularly been into slasher movies, but I love ghost stories and I love alien movies. The imagination that can go in there. That can cross over to stuff like Lord of the Rings or fantasy. You can explore stuff that if you put into another genre would be boring. The Exorcist explores Christianity - you could never had that in a drama, you'd be bored shitless. In a horror movie you can explore themes, and it's a very sophisticated genre. We're all fascinated by what's on the other side, or are we the only people in the universe.
Are there any horror films you've seen recently that have impressed you?
I feel the genre's in a bit of a bad place at the moment. I have to say, purely because my expectations were so low, but The Pact was actually acceptable. Seeing Casper Van Dien as a grizzled cop just made me smile all the way through it. I never thought I'd see him on the big screen again! So maybe it took me by surprise more than anything. The last time I was scared... Insidious actually made go 'fuck off!' to the person next to me. I don't ever get scared, so to get scared was a great thing for me. I thought it was a bad piece of storytelling, but it did scare me. There was a time with the Asian influences and the remakes I was really getting scared again. Then it kind of lost it.
Did you see The Cabin in the Woods?
Yeah. Funnily, I did a film called Roadkill for SyFy channel, which is Cabin in the Woods taken seriously. Watch the trailer - when I watched the trailer for Cabin, it had the same campervan, the jock throwing the football, but for the SyFy channel, which have no sense of irony or anything, this was serious. I was a bit disappointed, because it went, 'aren't horror movies unoriginal, now we're going to do that'. Of all the things you could've done, you did zombies. Come on! When it went into that final act, it was great - they literally threw the kitchen sink at it. I had a big smile on my face. I wasn’t very scary, but the ending was fantastic.
First time you were genuinely scared by a movie?
The one movie that's actually made me scream out loud, and that's an experience I'd give anything to experience again, was the TV movie of The Woman in Black. It was incredible. My brother was also watching it down the corridor in his bedroom when we were 15 and 17, and we screamed together. I felt really shaken by that, and I've never felt that again. It doesn't hold up, it's creaky as fuck, but it's a hell of a lot better than the Daniel Radcliffe thing, which is just appalling. I probably shouldn't say that as I probably won't work for Hammer in the future!