TV Editor Matt Dawson and Film Critic Phoebe Christofi preview the indie flick Black Site and chat to the director Tom Paton about the production process
In a preview panel held at the recent Birmingham MCM Comic Con, Tom Paton, director of the upcoming sci-fi horror movie Black Site, took to the stage along with the film’s starring cast. Described by Paton as ‘The Raid meets Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror, with a John Carpenter vibe to it’, the team explained some of the behind-the-scenes processes in filming the Indie flick. When talking about the birth of the concept of the film, Paton elaborated that ‘it came from an idea that I had a few years ago, which at the time was called Supernatural Max, and it would be set in a prison housing Lovecraftian monsters. It sort of evolved from there, becoming this government black site where they deport these creatures back to the dimension they come from, and the whole story built out from that point.’
Given that Black Site was made on a low budget, it tries to be the antithesis of cliché tent pole Hollywood blockbusters. Paton mentioned that ‘we went out of our way to find actors who were on the verge of being much more.’ One of the stars, Mike Beckingham (brother to Simon Pegg), collaborated with Paton on the director’s previous film, Redwood. Describing his character Sam as the ‘very human element of the story’, and mentioned that it was a ‘huge compliment for Tom to write the part with [him] in mind’. Another feature of the movie that the team prides itself on is its diversity. The actresses play just as an important role, if not more so, than the leading actors. This is reflected through the cast list; both the protagonist, Ren Reid, and the antagonist, Ker, are portrayed by Samantha Schnitzler and Phoebe Robinson-Galvin respectively. ‘Whenever you get female driven action films, the villain tends to be male,’ Paton explained. The cast mentioned going against the rulebook, saying ‘we made a film about people, and some of them happened to be women.’
The director further went on to say, ‘to a degree, it is a feminist action film. It was very important to have female characters who could do their own stunts and perform in a way that felt tangible and real.’ That in part led to the casting of Robinson-Galvin, a previous stuntwoman for Wonder Woman and Justice League who added ‘it was one of the first roles I had coming from stunt work […] To have that license and support from the director, and also being able to do all my own stunts, and collaborate with the stunt team, that was such a unique experience.’ She further went on to mention her experiences of familiarising herself with her character, Ker, ‘this opportunity grabbed me because not only was the character just really dark, gritty and layered, it was so fun to play something so evil.’ Few details have been revealed about the characters, but it seems a pretty safe bet that Robinson-Galvin will be a member of the Cult of Erebus, a sect hell-bent on releasing a demonic Old God.
Furthermore, the team had to deal with the constraints of filming with limited resources. ‘The [lower budget films] that feel greater than just the sum of their parts are pragmatic.’ This led to some inventive location scouting: ‘We found a location based in the Midlands, a decommissioned nuclear site that once operated as a Rover factory in World War Two, which was hidden underground so it wasn’t bombed by the Germans. Unlike the other locations, it was purpose built for tanks to drive through – the tunnels themselves are huge!’ However, one downside to this was that the cast and crew did complain of it being old and dark, which was both a blessing and a curse, mentioning that it was ‘an absolute nightmare to film in but a blessing for the movie’. Of course, without the presence of a massive studio backing them up, there were bound to be some hiccups in filming. Paton humorously recounted the experience of some sheep outside the set escaping: ‘I had to chase around Kidderminster these sheep with this old lady, and I was being phoned by the producers asking where I was. I was about an hour late to set, it was literally ridiculous, but we did save all the sheep.’
The panel was bookended by the trailer, confirming that it would have a festival run in 2018, before a wider release in the same year.
On concluding the panel, director Tom Paton went on to have a casual interview in a much more intimate setting, where he told fans of the industry how to actually make a film:
‘I made silly videos, but the funny thing about being a human being in 2017, is that if you’ve got a phone in your pocket, you are a film maker if you want to be. So, it doesn’t have to be silly videos anymore, you can go out there and you can make actual productions.’
‘I thought, “the equipment is there, the ability to edit is there, more importantly the ability to find an audience is there, I just need to figure out who the hell is going to buy my stuff from me”. So, I very quickly found nightclub videos and started filming live events, and I started finding out, okay, who are the DJ’s that are going to be big and I’ll go in and speak to them now. You’ve got to be very forward thinking, you’ve got to be very active about how you approach this kind of thing. You know, I met little guys like Calvin Harris and was like, “hey dude, why don’t I make a video for you for three hundred quid”, and he was like, “yeah, I’ve got no money”, so we’d do that! So, you try to be savvy about who you work with and who you talk to. I’m always learning on the job, I’m constantly saying, “somebodies booked me for a green screen in a music video, I don’t even know what a green screen is, that’s fine, because there’s this thing called YouTube”, and every single lesson you need to learn about film making is on there – you just have to be willing to spend the time to teach yourself.’
‘Sound. It’s the one thing that everyone keeps overlooking. They don’t pay any attention to it, and it’s that one key area that you should approach from the beginning. How are we going to make this sound good? You’ve all seen Paranormal Activity, right? That’s a film shot on essentially CCTV cameras, but the sound is impeccable. Too much emphasis is put on your image, and not enough on the sound. There are things that I’d love to be able to show in a film, but I can’t, because I don’t have the money for that, but you can let them hear it, and sometimes that’s actually more powerful. People will have a better time with that, then they will necessarily with you CGI-ing every twenty minutes.’
‘I have such a pet-peeve with directors who say, “I’m just doing it for the art,” and it’s like, “what, you don’t like the money?” – like, of course! There’s an economics to it, you’ve got to pay your rent. That drives you, it makes you get up in the morning. We live in an era where film making is so democratised, and you can be as passionate about making films and making money, as you would if you decided to buy a bar or a shop. So that for me is a motivator, and I don’t really respect directors who don’t say it isn’t, because they’re lying. But at the same time, there has to be a story you want to tell. From my perspective, I try to look at things that are going on in the world and in my life, that strike a chord with me – I always try to make the character first. I call it theme. So, for instance when you say to somebody, “what’s your favourite film about?”, there’s two ways of talking about that: you talk about the plot of the movie, “so and so went to the underground nuclear base and has lots of fights”, that’s a plot; what is your films theme? For me, Black Site was “don’t believe the labels people put on you,” and every character I write, comes from that thematic process. Theme is the most important thing, not just for your main character, but for every single thing in your script.’
‘If you ever find yourself directing, every morning, you’re going to think “what am I doing?” But, never let the crew see it. You come up to set, you be confident, and you make sure that as far as anybody else is concerned, you know what you’re talking about. You have to be comfortable with the fact that film making is an art form. When somebody starts painting a picture, they’ve got an overall idea of what they want the picture to turn out like. But you might suddenly go off plan with a brush stroke, and you’ve got to adapt to match that mistake you’ve just made – and you will make mistakes. You’ll film things in a way that you won’t realise will have a big effect on that scene. So all sorts of things will come in the way, but what you can’t let it do, is phase you. You’ve got to be so pragmatic. My opinion on the matter is, I’ll come to the set and I’ve got a very different vision for what I want, but here’s what happens in reality: you get to the location, and it’s not what you thought it was going to be – so you’ve got to change that element. Remember the film, remember what you were trying to say, there’s always twenty different ways to say that thing.”
Hopefully, like us, you found Paton’s advice extremely helpful if you’re wanting to become a part of this industry. Sometimes we forget that directors, writers, actors and artists were once just ordinary people. It’s easy to think that you’ll never be a part of that world, but as Paton says, hard-work, being forward thinking and motivated will pay off. Never let a bad review disgruntle you, never let a rejection or dismissal dampen your spirit. Work even harder, and try again. For more information and advice on the elements of film-making, check out Crash Course on YouTube for all of their tips on directing, producing, editing and writing.