Another low budget horror film set in the woods. Great. Great? Well, actually, it is great. Really great. The reason it is great is because it is low budget and therefore it shows the Hollywood hacks how to do it. Dead Wood concerns four friends on a camping trip in the woods, they meet a mysterious stranger, and then things start to go really wrong. A clichéd set-up for sure, but Dead Wood packs in enough punches in its short running time that any similarity to other examples can be ignored. With competent acting, stunning cinematography of beautiful locations and some stand-out scares, Dead Wood is an example of an English horror that ends up being far more effective than much of the big budget bollocks coming from Hollywood.
Firstly, I have to say that I loved the film, it was a real edge-of-your-seat chiller and for a low-budget affair, it was particularly impressive. So, with such a small budget, what made you want to make (star in) a low-budget horror movie?
Richard Stiles: Really good to hear that you enjoyed the film. It’s taken us a long time to get this far so it’s great that Dead Wood is finally out there for people to see. We had been making shorts for a few years and decided it was the right time to do a feature. We had collaborated together on a horror short, also called Dead Wood, which had been well received on the festival circuit, so this seemed like a natural progression. Horror is great genre to tackle on a micro budget as scares work equally well on any budget and the audience is usually a bit more forgiving if the film is a little rough around the edges.
John Worsey: It was really clear from the beginning that Dave, Seb and Rich had real ambition for the project. They were aiming to make something that wouldn’t just play like a low budget movie. Obviously that’s not an easy task, but as many have said, in terms of the final effects work and the look of the film, I really think they succeeded. At the same time, it was just such a fun idea – let’s go hang out in a forest for 9 days and make a horror movie… How could you say no?
Emily Juniper: It was exciting to be part of the project. I think that you end up having the most creative ideas when limitations are imposed on you. And the guys definitely thought outside of the box, there was a lot of rough and ready moments. The guys were really intent on making the undergrowth seem thick so we’d tumble over roots and through branches to get the shots they wanted. And I’ve also always been a sucker for a good horror, so as it was my first feature film so it felt like the perfect place to start.
I noticed a lot of spectacular outdoor photography, what made you choose the location?
RS: As with nearly every other decision we made on the film, the choice of the woods location really came down to budget. We knew that we could shoot in the woods for very little money, without the need for expensive shooting permits, production design or lighting. We were able to just turn up and get some great shots very quickly. Unfortunately we also had the weather to deal with but that’s England.
And were the mountains really there, or were they sneakily put in post-production?
RS: I must confess that we did enhance the East Sussex countryside a little bit.
JW: Post production all the way! I couldn’t believe it when I first saw those shots. I had no idea that was coming.
Along with the scenery shots, there were some pretty impressive scenes of wildlife. Were these intended or did you come by these animals by chance?
RS: Some of the wildlife shots just happened by chance, like the weasel which just appeared while we were setting up a shot. Others were more planned such as the deer which we filmed at Richmond.
JW: Some of it was definitely serendipity – like that focus-pull on the spider web. I remember that happening. One of the guys spotted it by chance, and everyone rushed to set up the shot. It looks lovely – and I hate spiders!
EJ: We came across a lot of spiders by chance while we were filming… And I got up close and personal with some maggots. I didn’t really see much in the way of fluffy lovely wild life except once while I was sitting under a tree, waiting for a shot to be set up, and a little squirrel came up to me to say hello.
What made you choose for a chiller, with subtle scares rather than an all out gore-fest?
RS: At the time we wrote the script, we were really in to the J-horror movies which were emerging and we loved the creepy, uneasy feeling they had which was genuinely frightening, as opposed to the high body count splatter fests that we had seen so many times before. We intentionally set up a familiar slasher scenario (4 friends in a camper van in the woods) and then subverted that by doing a creepy supernatural story.
JW: Well, obviously I wasn’t involved in the creative decisions. But as an actor, and a movie fan, chillers appeal much more. I think there is – generally – more subtlety and artistry involved in scaring an audience than just making them feel sick.
The special effects were amazing, especially for a low-budget film. Were they always intended to be in the film? And did they take up a lot of your budget?
RS: The effects were in the script right from the start. We didn’t necessarily know how we were going to achieve them but they were in the script! In terms of budget, they cost very little, everything was either done in-house or as favours. The most elaborate effect to achieve was probably the fire scene, where we nearly got arrested while setting fire to full scale models of the actresses.
There’s a few pretty hilarious lines dotted around in a film which isn’t a comedy, what made you put them in?
RS: The comedy was something which was completely unplanned. When we wrote the script, we were after a very sombre, moody feel, but then the actors got involved. Fergus (March) and John (Samuel Worsey) were old friends and were basically a double act who played well off each other. A lot of the comedy came from them but then we found ourselves introducing more and more funny lines during the ADR. I think the lighter moments really help the first half of the film and heighten the impact of the second half.
JW: I don’t think there’s any significant improvisation – although we might have changed the odd line here and there. But I know that those of us in the cast were quite keen to play up the comedy that was inherent in the script, and David, who scripted, was definitely up for that. We thought it would be fun to introduce a certain downbeat sort of British realism into the performances in a genre movie. Interestingly, whilst a lot of people seem to have appreciated that, there are others out there who I think may have misinterpreted what we’re trying to do as performers – probably because there is an accepted way of acting in this kind of film, which is often dominated by American actors, and it’s a little histrionic at times. So to set the record straight – if you find any element of the performances funny, I assure you it’s intentional! We’re British. We can’t do this stuff entirely seriously.
I noticed shades of Evil Dead and other woods-set horror movies like Dead End. Did you have any influences on your style or content for Dead Wood?
JW: I guess this is a question more for the filmmakers, but I can tell you that the “motorbike-camera” sequence in Evil Dead II was very much in my head as we filmed the scene where Emily and I get chased into the hut. Turned out pretty well, too!
RS: Our main influence was definitely the J horror scene in terms of mood and feel. We tried to avoid too many direct homages but certainly there are moments of Evil Dead which somehow found their way in.
This film did the rounds at a few horror festivals, how important is the festival circuit for a low budget film such as yours?
JW: Without the backing of a studio and the interest-factor of a star name, I’d say it’s very important indeed. The great thing with Dead Wood being a horror is that the broad community of horror fans has such a strong presence online that the film was able to start building a reputation that way as it did the rounds of the festivals.
Was it scary filming at night in the woods so much? And did the dark cause problems?
RS: The generator used to frequently trip out plunging us all into darkness, and when it’s dark in the woods, it’s really dark. You could be looking for white van that is six inches in front of your face and not be able to see it. It wasn’t so bad for us but I think Emily (Juniper) is still traumatised from those long dark nights.
JW: Not so much scary as just plain exhausting at times! We were properly out in the woods – no trailers or indoor space of any kind waiting invitingly behind the camera. Just a picnic rug, some bags full of crisps and chocolate, and maybe the van if we hadn’t had to walk too far to get to a suitable location. I remember Emily got hit on the head with a torch at one point, but again I think that was more down to tiredness than the dark!
EJ: Some of the night shoots were scarier than others. When we were all together it was a lot of fun, the campfire scene especially. And we were always well lit and looked after, but some of the smaller shoots got a bit freaky. Particularly on one occasion when the generator packed up and we were suddenly thrown into darkness. In the dark the forest was a much less inviting environment, and instead of the comfortable sound of the bumbling generator there was all manner of twitching and terrifying night noises.
What’s next for you guys after this? You going to do another horror movie?
JW: Love to. But at the moment I’m on stage in London in the European premiere of a play called The Woodsman, which was made into a movie starring Kevin Bacon in 2004. I’ve got another movie in post-production too. I play Banquo in a feature adaptation of Macbeth, which stars Anthony Head – and Fergus March from Dead Wood! Small world.
RS: We have a number of new projects which we are working on. They all have horror elements but only one is really a straight horror. The one which we are really pushing for now is a cross between Battle Royale and Rambo.
EJ: I’ve started writing. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, My first play Restitution got 5 star reviews at Edinburgh last year followed by a London transfer. And I’m in rehearsals at the moment for the first leg of a tour which starts on the 14th May. And we’ve just secured some funding for an extended tour, which is really exciting. It’s a play that follows the story of a mans quest to restore a painting stolen from his family during the second world war. It was inspired by a documentary by David Baddiel on the subject of Restitution.
Finally, what are your favourite horror movies, and why?
JW: That would be Romero’s original zombie trilogy – because of the (ahem!) biting satire.
EJ: I’m a bit of a Sci-Fi nerd at heart so I’d have to say the Alien Saga is my top choice for horror movies. I like some space and future gadgetry to go with all the fear and gore.
RS: I don’t usually like answering favourite movie questions, but I do know that I have watched most of John Carpenter’s early back catalogue over the past few weeks and concluded that the man is a true genius.