Director’s Jake West discusses Doghouse, a new comedy horror starring British acting favourites Noel Clarke and Danny Dyer which hits cinemas today (12th June).
Jake has worked extensively as a director, writer and editor in the film and television industry. His first feature film, Razor Blade Smile, was released internationally winning many awards; other successes followed, with his critically acclaimed film Evil Aliens making the Screen International Top Selling Movie list and winning a British Independent Film Award.
He then went on to direct Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes for the Motion Picture Corporation of America, the third installment of the legendary Pumpkinhead franchise starring Lance Henrikson and Doug Bradley.
When did you first meet writer Dan Schaffer?
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Graphic Novel & Comic Book creator Dan Schaffer through a mutual friend as he was a fan of my earlier film “Evil Aliens”. I was a huge admirer of Dan’s fantastic ‘Dogwitch’ comic book series. So as far as I was concerned it was a creative marriage made in a heavenly-hell, and I felt we had the pedigree to create a genuinely entertaining comedy horror project.
How did you go from that first meeting to working together on Doghouse?
We became friends and discussed the possibility of doing a film project together and thus “Doghouse” was born barking and screaming. We spent a good time developing the script ideas and really enjoyed the process. Dan is a terrific writer and produced one of the most entertaining and enjoyable screenplays I’ve read. He has an authentic and intelligent understanding of a genre that is actually very tricky to write in and few get right – hence everyone always comparing these types of films to the same old benchmarks.
How did the project go from script to production?
Having the script right made the rest of the process much easier as the next trick was to attract the finance. A chance meeting with Executive Producer Terry Stone – who loved the script and our take on the genre led to him taking the project into Carnaby International. Mike Loveday at Carnaby also loved it and fast tracked the project.
Carnaby raised a budget of £2 million, which is the biggest budget I’ve had to work with to date. Still a low budget film in Hollywood terms, but far bigger than my previous projects. This allowed me access to a better pool of talent both in front and behind the camera, notably, Director of Photography Ali Asad; Special Make Up FX genius Karl Derrick; and Production Designer Matt Button. That combined with my understanding of how to spread my resources to the max via the trial of fire learnt on my previous much lower budget films has resulted in my most polished film to date.
You’ve assembled a brilliant cast of British actors to play the group of ‘lads’. What was it like to direct them?
It was fantastic to work with an eclectic group of highly accomplished actors who are some of the most exciting British actors working today.
Danny Dyer brings so much energy to his performance as Neil. He has great comic timing, riffing on his media stereotyped Jack-the-lad style persona. I think the audience will really get behind us playing around with these traits and have immense fun as the girls continually terrorize ‘the Ultimate Lad’. Danny is a ballsy actor who is attracted to difficult scenes and really knows how to lead a company and make everyone feel involved.
Stephen Graham who plays Vince is a powerhouse performer who’s worked with some of the best directors out there from Martin Scorcese and Michael Mann to Shane Meadows, so to have an actor of his ability trying his hand at this genre for the first time was really special. His passion and instincts are spot on and he’s an actor that challenges you to look at a scene and character beats in a much closer way than I’ve ever had the opportunity before.
Noel Clarke is currently one of Britain’s most exciting talents. I respect him not just an actor, but as a successful writer and director who proved his popularity by winning a BAFTA – this year’s Orange Rising Star award. Noel was a joy to work with. Because of his additional experience of directing he has real insight and sympathy for a directors day-to-day problems on set and is a very patient and focused performer. Horror films are very technical and require the cast to really get into the world you are creating. Noel had great fun with this and I think his performance as Mikey shows a fun side to his on screen persona – different to what we’ve seen before.
The other actors that make up the group Lee Ingleby, Keith Lee Castle and Emil Marwa also deserve equal praise and their stars are rising.
What was important is we believed in this group of actors as being a gang of real friends. They worked well as an ensemble and now are all firm friends! – This theme of ‘friendship’ is the heart of the why I think the film works and is what Doghouse really celebrates – so I hope this touches a nerve with the audience. I think they’ll enjoy hanging out with these guys.
These actors all play very different characters in the film – how does this group of friends fit together?
The character of Neil is a loveable rogue. An unashamed ‘new lad’ and a flash git. He comes from a working class background so feels he has a lot to prove and is overwhelmed by his own success. He’s a sucker for status symbols – fast cars, expensive suits, etc. and he treats women like accessories – an attitude which will lead to him being terrorized more than the other lads once the fireworks begin. Neil is the devil on Vince’s left shoulder. He represents everything that Vince once was and has spent years trying to transcend.
The character of Vince is the former leader of the pack. He used to be like Neil, a flash, wide boy, only interested in extreme sports and having a laugh, but he was always one step smarter than the rest. Now he’s conflicted. He’s discovered that playing by the rules has made him boring. The cheeky rogue his wife married has disappeared behind a sensible, sensitive, and caring husband. He’s lost his edge. So she ditched him. Now Vince is forced to reassess the situation. He doesn’t want to go back to being like Neil, especially when he can see how Graham has made the modern man thing work.
He’s at a crossroads. Getting his mojo back would mean undergoing a regression. Something he’s not prepared to do until extreme circumstances eventually cause him to flip out. The actor needed to be likeable with enough charisma to be able to pull off the switch to the dark side without losing the audience and Stephen Graham pulls this off with aplomb. When Vince sacrifices his goal to be a better man and embraces his former-self, we have to be on his side, understanding that this sacrifice will actually save him.
The character of Mikey is an easygoing bloke who’s ignoring his marriage and responsibility in general, in favor of his friends. He’s a typical bloke who likes football and beer. He looks up to Vince because Vince has always been there for him, to either get him out of trouble or lend a guiding hand. Mikey is now on the straight and narrow and no longer stealing cars as a direct result of Vince’s influence. He cares a lot about Vince and is willing to put his own marriage on the line to help him out, but he needs to learn more about himself if he’s going to grow as a man.
Emil Marwa plays the character of Graham. He’s mildly sarcastic and openly gay but not camp. He’s a regular guy and represents the angel on Vince’s right shoulder. He’s politically correct, socially and culturally aware, and well presented. He is a successful modern man who is constantly appalled at Neil’s misogynist tendencies. By the end of the film, he’s completely disheveled and gunning for a fight.
Lee Ingleby plays Matt, he’s a geeky comic shop owner, in his thirties, but refuses to grow up. His view of the world is dazzled by science fiction and fantasy movies. He represents the innocent joys of childhood. He’s surrounded by toys at work, and then again in Moodley when he becomes trapped with Vince in a toyshop. Matt first wakes up Vince’s inner child when he gives him a water pistol for protection. This is the beginning of Vince’s road to recovery.
Keith-Lee Castle plays Patrick. Patrick used to have a good job. He was a corporate shark. But a mid-life meltdown has caused him to chuck it all in and go exploring new age ideas. He’s a grown man, readjusting to a new, more relaxed view of the world and trying to find his place in it. But years of work stress don’t fade away so easily.
The guys have to face a horde of horrific ‘Zombirds’. Tell us about the actresses who transformed themselves for the roles.
We worked with some formidable female performers, notably TV Presenter and cult film star Emily Booth and the current Lara Croft Alison Carroll (also professional gymnast). The others range from Full Time Dominatrix to a UK stage Burlesque Star. These girls have real girl-power and in real life kept the boys on their toes. They all are physically tough performers and movement artists, Stunt trained, Gymnasts, Dancers and Physical Theatre folk. Not only did they have to undergo grueling 4 hour make-up applications every day they had a huge amount of physical work to do to transform themselves unique horror characters. I was impressed by their total dedication to this task and what’s been created on screen is really different to what I’ve seen in other films.
What’s important to realize is the Zombirds in Doghouse are not merely psychotic cannibals looking for blood, they are more than physical antagonists to a group of blokes, they are the embodiment of various basic fears that men have regarding women. The Snipper, for example, represents the fear of castration. The Bride is the fear of commitment. The Butcher is male fear of women’s physical superiority, and the Witch is the fear of womens’ mysterious, intuitive powers. Each Zombird is a living, breathing metaphor for something that frightens the shit out of guys, from castration to shopping.
How difficult was it to make the Zombirds come to life on the screen?
Creating the Zombirds represented a big creative challenge as we wanted to make them unique and iconic, so whichever character is on screen you get a real sense of who they are. At concept stage we generated huge amounts of Artwork with both Dan Schaffer and top graphic artist James Ryman. Then to actually realize these creations in the real world I turned to the exceptionally talented Karl Derrick who was the make-up Supervisor on such films as the hit Stephen King adaptation “1408”, Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm”, a number of the “Harry Potter” films. We discussed and researched intensively on how to make the Zombirds look amazing and employed both Old School and tate of the art make-up techniques.
What other challenges did you face during production?
The other main challenge of the film (and almost a character in its own right) was creating the fictional village of Moodley. After an extensive location search we decided the best way to achieve this was to build our own village on the grounds of the King Edward VII hospital (now closed down) in Midhurst West Sussex – so then we’d have complete control of the environment and be able to do all the things the script required.
Effectively we turned the place into a film studio – complete with a bar and actors green rooms in the surgery wing with working surgical lamps! Initially people found it a bit creepy but after a while there it became it’s own world…kind of like filming at the real Overlook Hotel and perfect for what we were doing!
The hospital was an amazing location and also has some real British film heritage as both Boris Karloff and Alec Guinness are amongst the famous to have died there. I know a few of the cast did a séance in the old hospital morgue and throughout the shoot we sensed their ghosts watching on proudly.
Q&A with writer Dan Schaffer
Dan Schaffer is a British writer and artist working primarily in comics and film. He was at one time a political cartoonist, but is best known as the writer and illustrator of the cult comic book series Dogwitch, critically acclaimed for its detailed black and white line art and off-the-wall storytelling.
He’s is also the writer/artist of the original graphic novel The Scribbler as well as being the co-creator/artist of Indigo Vertigo, a graphic novella on which he collaborated with British indie-rock icon Katiejane Garside.
Indigo Vertigo runs two stories in parallel, one told with words and the other told with art, both weaving in and out of each other as the story progresses with the art style favouring fully painted digital art rather than realistic line art, translating Garside’s writing into a series of hallucinatory sequential images.
Who came up with the idea for making the film?
I was doing comic books for a US publisher before this, but I’d known Jake West (director) for a while and we’d been itching to work together on something. So when I came up with this one, I decided to have a go at doing it as a film script instead of a comic script. I gave it to Jake to look at and he jumped on it like a rabid puppy.
Where did the idea for the film come from?
It was a natural progression from what I’d been writing before, which was a combination of horror, romantic comedy, and gender politics. I’d been doing it successfully in comics for many years, so it seemed wise to not mess with the ingredients too much when I moved over to film.
Did any programmes, books or films inspire you when writing Doghouse?
You can probably spot the inspiration from early eighties horror films, Sam Raimi, George Romero etc., but the juxtaposed horror and comedy elements have probably leaked over from more modern filmmakers like Joss Whedon. The battle of the sexes angle is not really anything new for me, I’ve always mixed up the genre stuff with those kind of human issues so a lot of my influences in that respect come from outside of the genre.
How long did Doghouse take to write?
The first draft was maybe three months, but screenwriting is all about the rewrite, so I worked on it a lot over the next year while it was in development, adapting it to suit the actors, the locations, the budget, whatever. At one point, I was rewriting a scene a few hours before it was filmed to get around the weather problems we were having. Last summer was wet! If you want to write seriously in film, you always have to go the extra mile because the writer is the guardian of the story and you can’t let stuff like bad weather come along and mess it up at the last minute. So, you spend a lot of time rising to challenges you didn’t see coming. So, uhm, the answer to your question is, it took me forever to write!
How long did the film take to make?
Not including the development stage, it was a six week shoot and, I think, a couple of months in pre-production – apart from the creature effects guys who started work on their stuff a few months before everyone else.
The ‘creature lab’ must have had their work cut out- did their work live up to expectation?
Absolutely. Most of these kinds of films have maybe one creature.
Our team had to design and build an army of them, and each one had to have its own unique design characteristics because I gave them all personalities! Karl Derrick, who headed up the creature department, insisted on reminding me every day that I’d given him the equivalent of a dozen Freddy Krugers to make in one film.
As you were writing Doghouse and developing the characters did you have any particular actors in mind to play the characters?
It’s tempting to do that but the best thing to do is just write interesting, compelling characters. Hopefully, those characters will be good enough to attract good actors. On this one, we managed to entice some quality British talent, so I got to see my characters brought to life with flair and style, which was very rewarding.
What do you hope peoples reactions will be to Doghouse?
I hope they like it, obviously. There’s a lot to like there. The actors have breathed more life into their characters than I could have hoped for, Jake’s done a bang up job on the directing, and Karl’s team sweated so much blood on the effects they probably didn’t need to buy any of the fake stuff. And the film’s got a heart. It’s not just a slasher movie for the hell of it, it’s got a story and a point. DOGHOUSE is about people, about modern relationships between men and women, so it’s a horror film with a voice and bit of depth. It just happens to have monsters as well.