Jake West (Part 1)
My first epic interview with Jake West was done in the company of Rob Mercer and Eileen Daly, talking about Razor Blade Smile in 1998. Seven years later, in September 2005, Jake gave me the full rundown on Evil Aliens as well as all his other projects from the intervening period.
Jump straight to Part 2 of this long interview.
Whatever happened to Razor Blade Smile 2, which was going to be your next film?
"What happened is that I did write the script for it and spent about a year writing seven drafts which were commissioned by Manga or Palm Pictures as they are. Basically, the upshot of it was that I delivered a script to them which they said they liked but, in terms of actually putting money up for it, they didn’t seem to be very forthcoming with the cash. So my feeling was that the size of the project scared them."
Was it more ambitious than the first one?
"Oh, way more. It would have cost a minimum of a million quid and the budget could have gone higher than that. It started off in 1850 and you saw Lilith as a teenager and how she became a vampire, her interminglings with a few interesting historical figures. Then the story picked up in the Second World War and some events which took place then were impacting on her in the present day. So you had these three time periods. It was kind of a funky script, but to do it justice you would have needed to spend money on it, and I would have recast the lead as well.
“Eileen was fantastic in the first one but I always thought the part was a bit like a James Bond role in the way that it could be essayed by different actors. The part was bigger than the actor playing it - that’s what I thought anyway. As a vampire character, you could interpret it differently with different actors which would have been quite interesting. But unfortunately that didn’t happen so that just exists as a script. Maybe one day when I’m successful they’ll phone me up to say they want to do it."
When did you actually start work on Evil Aliens?
"After the Razor Blade 2 project, when nothing was happening in terms of the financing and nothing was coming together, I was a bit demoralised. Being a director and a writer and an editor, I have to keep myself afloat with other work. Writing a script takes a lot out of you when you’re not a professional writer, in terms of doing it day in and day out. So I basically had to go back to the drawing board and start thinking about other script ideas. It took me a while to come up with something which I was really pleased with. I was thinking of doing a zombie film but then I noticed that there were a lot of zombie movies coming up and I thought well, if I start mine now it will come out at the end of that crop.
“So I thought perhaps it would be better to steer clear of zombies and go for something more unusual which hasn’t been done. Then it was like: ‘Ah yes, aliens. They would make fantastic bad guys.’ Because you’re quite happy to see them slain and not feel emotionally upset about it. Much like zombies. You want evil bad guys that you can kill with complete impunity and the audience cheers when they get theirs. So aliens struck me as a really cool idea. They can just be evil; you don’t have to look much into why they’re evil. They’re defined by their actions and they sort of do what it says on the tin."
The film was shot two years ago in 2003. The digital effects that can be done now are very impressive.
"That’s also one of the reasons why it took so long."
When you wrote it, were you planning a smaller scale movie or did you think: ‘I’ll put these effects in and work out how to do them later.’
"When I did it, it was very important that, if we started it, it could be finished properly. If I was going to do it, I wanted the effects to be of a certain standard. I had worked with the visual effects supervisor on a few other jobs, who’s a guy called Llyr Williams who’s a really amazing 3D artist. We had done a few bits and pieces together like the exploding head in the Shock Movie Massacre title sequence, and we had done a few other bits and pieces. I saw some film work he had done and we did a few tests and we thought: ‘Yes, we can do this now but we’ll need to set up our own effects facility to do it.’ We weren’t sure how long it was going to take us to do it. Initially we were quite optimistic and hoped it would be about six months. As it was, it was double the time so it actually took a year. We basically set up our own miniature effects facility with six computers, all networked together in my flat. It was a pretty intense year of work."
How were you able to find the financing for the film?
"I tried shopping it round the industry, as you do, initially - hoping that I would get some industry finance. One company I worked for, there was a producer there called Will Jeffrey who was quite interested but then he got cold feet about doing a gory splatter film. He liked the idea of the alien abduction and stuff but he wanted to make it a lot more serious. Okay yeah, you could take the film in another direction and do a rewrite but I originally wrote the script because I really wanted to return to the fun, gory splatter stuff that I saw when I was a teenager. Because no-one was doing that sort of stuff now. I felt that the more serious stuff had already been explored in The X-Files and those kinds of things. It had been done and it didn’t lend itself so much to being a low-budget independent movie either, going that more serious route.
“Interestingly enough, one of the Blair Witch guys has just done some abduction thing which sounds a lot more the kind of thing that this producer was interested in. But I wanted to do a splatter movie! So basically we parted company and it was: ‘Oh God, that’s that financing option down the drain.’ There wasn’t any point taking it in to the Film Council. They would just have said, ‘You’re not making a splatter movie with our money.’ Then I was fortunate enough to get a phone call from Quentin Reynolds who managed a band that I had done a few pop promos for a few years ago. It was just after Christmas and he said, ‘Do you want to meet for a drink in the new year.’ I said yes, thinking nothing of it, just thinking it was touching base and saying hi.
“But during that meeting he said that he was quite interested in investing in film projects: I thought, ‘Oh okay. That’s cool.’ People don’t normally say that. He said, ‘Well, what are you working on?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been trying to get finance together for this script called Evil Aliens.’ I gave him a treatment and a load of artwork that we had generated. One of the things I had found out when we were taking the project round was that people always asked us what the aliens looked like and what did the spaceships look like. So it seemed like a smart move to just go and design them. That was also when I talked with Llyr the 3D guy and mocked up a spaceship so we could show people.
“Anyway he got really excited by these designs and he went away and read the treatment and he loved it - and then basically the next day he wrote me a cheque and said, ‘That’s it. Go!’ That’s what really got the ball rolling. In the industry I believe it’s what’s called an angel investor. We just had one investor who financed the whole film so there was no complexity of different investors arguing about how much they put in. It actually made the process very simple. Also he trusted me because he liked Razor Blade Smile. He knew that I could do a low-budget film and wouldn’t run off with his money. I got the most creative control that I think I’ve ever had which was a fantastic way of working. I was very lucky, despite the fact that we were still working on a fairly lean budget. But that’s the case with film-making."
Where did you find your cast and crew?
"There were a couple of people that I wanted to use definitely: Chris Adamson, who has been in all my films since my graduation movie, who’s my ‘lucky rabbit’s foot’ actor. He’s the guy with the scar. I really wanted to get him in there because he’s got screen presence and he’s a funny guy to work with. He always brings something to the party. I had worked with Emily Booth on the Shock Movie Massacre title sequence and I had known Emily for a couple of years at that point. Because she is an actual TV presenter it made sense to get her involved. Whereas everybody else in the film we did casting for, which took a long time. We sent our details to PCR, Production Casting Report, which goes out to all the agents. We just got thousands and thousands of people CVs through.
“Interestingly enough, that’s actually how we got the Norman Lovett cameo - because his agent sent his CV through! It wasn’t that we approached him or anything, it was just a bit of luck and - wow! We couldn’t believe that someone like him would be among the CVs. We wouldn’t have been able to afford him for longer but for a cameo it was fantastic working with him. The rest, we just did loads of castings. We did a couple of weeks of castings, saw everyone, and we did recalls and watched videos. Eventually we whittled the cast down.
“It’s an ensemble cast and there’s at least seven main actors in the film. Getting that blend right was very important because actors don’t always get on and also actors sometimes aren’t up for stuff. I explained to the actors at the castings that it would be a very difficult shoot: it would be a night shoot; there would be gore; it would be cold... All the things that actors don’t want to hear, so we could weed out anyone who really wasn’t up for it. Also anyone who felt themselves above the material. A lot of actors don’t really want to do horror films - and I can understand that. If that’s not something they’re interested in and they don’t want to get tarred with that brush, then that’s fine. The actors that you do choose do really need to have a respect for the genre, I think.
“I was delighted with the cast. They all got on really well and they all had a really great experience, and I think that some of that energy is transfused into the film. It’s the best feedback I’ve ever had from a cast. They all really enjoyed it and a lot of them said it was one of the most amazing experiences they had ever had. We were on location for five weeks straight and everyone really mucked in and got behind the project."
And your crew?
"The crew were basically a lot of people that I had gathered in stuff that I had been doing over the last few years. Quite a few of the key people worked on Razor Blade: Neil Jenkins did the production design; Jim Solan was the same DP that I had worked with. Then others were people like Jon Bentley, who built the sets, who I had met in Cannes a few years ago. He’s a fantastic guy and I had been wanting to work with him on a project for ages. That’s why we built the sets up in Yorkshire; because he could get stuff cheap. He found a disused meat-packing factory and that’s where we built all the sets: the farmhouse interior and the spaceship interior."
You always get creative use of cardboard with Jon, I find.
"He is the cardboard king! But on this one he moved up from cardboard to wood. He did have a reasonable construction budget. Like that farmhouse front room: it has people coming in through the windows and the whole room gets smashed. It wasn’t going to happen in any real location. We also needed a trapdoor so the whole set had to be built off the ground. So the whole set was a raised set for that farmhouse room, just to get that trapdoor in there and the gag where Emily gets her pegs pulled off, because we needed half her body to be under the set. So yes, Jon did an amazing, fantastic construction job."
Continue to Part 2 of this long interview where Jake discusses the film's influences, his Nucleus Films DVD label, Phantasm DVD extras and combine harvesters.