How did you come to write and direct XMoor?
I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomenon of the big cats living out on the moors of Devon, and I wanted to tell a story about a group of people who go looking for these big cats and then end up stumbling upon something much worse. In this case, it was a serial killer’s dumping ground – or rather, an as-yet-undiscovered serial killer’s dumping ground. I always thought that movie serial killers are very over the top so I wanted to have a go at creating one myself that was a little bit more original, and one who definitely stayed connected to the truth. I did that by looking at real serial killers and taking elements of them to create my character.
Since I had the idea, I got writing immediately, and I told the idea to a few close people who I trust and they reacted in a much more excited way than my terrible ideas generate. I knew I was on to something interesting.
I started writing drafts and eventually through my agent hooked up with a producer called Wayne Marc Godfrey who was wanting to do a package of three films back to back in Northern Ireland. Although it didn’t actually end up with that coming true, we did end up shooting the movie in Northern Ireland, because the other movies weren’t ready.
A lot of people have asked me what the secret is. I think if you can find the right idea that genuinely excites people, then it goes a long way to being able to make the right kind of introductions to get the film made.
The last fifteen years, I’ve written probably fifty feature scripts that haven’t been made, so this one being made is quite the anomaly and I think it’s a lesson to keep plugging on. Sometimes you haven’t got the right idea, and some of the films I wrote leading up to this one didn’t have as much going for them as this one. And that’s why this one is being premiered at FrightFest.
FrightFest is designed to appeal to fans who have seen everything under the sun – what’s going to get them excited about XMoor?
I think this film is one that first plays with a bit of misdirection – it sets up this group of people going out after one thing then swerves them with the reveal of something completely different. We play with quite a lot of primal fears: being lost, being isolated, out on the moors, in very uncertain terrain; also the fear of being hunted, and the fear of the giant predator – whether it’s an old-school predator like a giant cat or a new-school predator like a man with a big knife!
When I sat down to write this, I really wanted to do something where every five or six minutes the situation our characters are in gets even worse. They’re in absolute dire straits and then all of a sudden things go even more wrong, and they’re in even more trouble. I felt that sort of feeling of going continually over worse and worse cliffs would be really exciting for horror fans.
We definitely start off with a slow build, but when they stumble over the bodies, they start to make decisions, which make perfect sense to them at the time, but they couldn’t predict the kind of catastrophic results that they are about to lead themselves into.
There were comments about the difficulty of creating a British Blair Witch Project because it’s very hard to find somewhere in Britain where you could get that lost, but you do seem to have found it with the moors…
I agree – if you or I were dropped in the middle of Exmoor, odds are we’d be able to find our way out quite easily. But what I’ve done is make two of the protagonists American so there’s a level of being unaware of the lay of the land that comes from being in a country that you’ve never been to before. I’ve tried to really capitalise on that with these characters and the idea that they don’t know their way around, and they’re lost.
And when they get deep into the areas where they find terrible things, they’re a long way from civilisation and where they’ve parked the van. When they try to get out at night, they find there are some terrible things on the moors called bogs…. Did you know more people die from falling into bogs on the moor than almost anything else? The moors can be very treacherous!
I wanted to shoot in Devon, because that was the inspiration and that’s where it was set, but there are some really wonderful things going on in Northern Ireland for film makers right now, in terms of funding and also crews that are really world-class. There were people out there who finished Game of Thrones on a Friday and came to work on our movie on the Monday. Absolutely top-notch, top of their game technicians. Out in Northern Ireland just now it’s a crazy renaissance time that we’ll look back on as an amazing time for UK cinema. I think it was a lot easier to produce this movie in Northern Ireland than it would have been in Devon.
If you had to pick three “desert island” horror films which have been an influence on your writing generally, what would they be?
What would they be that won’t completely embarrass me? I’ll go old school: the 1970s feel was something that I wanted to capture in the movie XMoor, and there was a kind of feel that was generated in the UK in horror movies in the 1970s that just gets me so much worse than some of the more recent ones.
First is Witchfinder General, which is just so wrong! Wrong in every respect! It has that incredible performance from Vincent Price (right with Ian Ogilvy) at the centre of it that is just so wonderful. I saw it in the cinema last year again and it is one of those films that stays with you. I’m so surprised there hasn’t been a remake of that with Michael Fassbender…
Then I’m going to be really controversial and go for Lair of the White Worm [featuring Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi, pictured]. That is a genuinely terrible film, in my opinion, but I have to take you back to 1987 when I accidentally stayed up late and caught it on TV. I had never seen anything so horrifying in all my life. What was left with me were these frightening images of terribly horrifying things…
Then fast forward to five or six years ago when I suggested watching it with a group of friends; we watched it and I was subjected to so much ridicule because it was so much pants. But the effect that it had on me as a small child and the way it defined what I think is scary can’t be ignored.
The third one is relevant to this week: in 2010, I went to FrightFest and I saw a brilliant film called The Dead. It’s a movie about a zombie outbreak in Africa, and I thought it was really well made and I could see that the people who made it had had such an incredible adventure while making it, and had been so incredibly resourceful and I found that for some reason the idea of a zombie outbreak in Africa was much more scary than one in an American shopping mall. When I saw that movie, and the response from everyone at FrightFest I had one of those crystalized moments: I need to make a film and I need to bring it here. That put me on the path towards XMoor.
Are you looking forward to the screening?
Yes, very much. It’ll be the first time that we’ve shown it to anyone who isn’t a journalist or member of the crew… I’m very excited to show it to people and see what they think!
XMoor is showing as part of this year’s Frightfest Festival – see http://www.frigthfest.co.uk for more information
Thanks to Saffeya Shebli for help in setting up this interview