Robert Pratten wrote, directed and produced one of the best British horror films of recent years, London Voodoo. I spoke with him by phone on 16th April 2004; part of this interview appeared in Fangoria but most of it has not been seen before. (Two years later, I interviewed Robert again as he prepared his second feature, Mind Flesh.)
Where did the original idea for London Voodoo come from?
"I think the original idea came from the murders in the Thames. They dragged up a young boy’s body who was the victim of a ritualistic killing. That got me interested in investigating bit more. As I looked into voodoo, which people were saying it was first off, I found not the religion that’s often shown in films as being nasty and evil, but a religion that provides comfort to a lot of people. And I thought, maybe I can take a look at this and do something different with it."
Were you looking for a subject for a horror film at the time?
"Yes, I wanted to make a horror film."
Something that you could do without a lot of effects and make-up?
"Yes, exactly. I was thinking in terms of the development of the genre, and some of the earliest films I like are by Roman Polanski like Rosemary’s Baby. If you look at it, the genre went through the slasher period of the 1980s and then we were getting these comedy parodies and so on. So I thought: where do I go? I don’t want to keep making stuff more and more violent, so why don’t I go back and try and do something that looks back, with a bit of suspense and intrigue, rather than have all the gore and violence right in your face."
Is there a bit of a Val Lewton influence there?
"I don’t know. We went travelling. We went to Miami, to New Orleans obviously and to Cuba. What we found in Cuba and Miami particularly was Santaria, which is a kind of offshoot of voodoo. People have integrated it as part of their lives. I thought, well, this is the voodoo that I want to show; not the voodoo of The Serpent and the Rainbow. I didn’t want to do that kind of thing because it was set in London and I couldn’t have people rushing around cutting the heads off chickens. I needed to find a new way in. I tried to find the spiritual side of voodoo, rather than the shock tactic of voodoo."
How long did you spend researching voodoo before you wrote the script?
"It went on in conjunction to be honest. It started off with just the few bits I knew, with a little bit of web research. Then I continued to write it as we went travelling and investigated, and in the first draft of the script, which was probably after about three or four months, one of the people who reviewed the script said, ‘It reads like a voodoo handbook’! So I had to cut back a bit on the voodoo and stick more with the plot and the main characters. So in total it took about nine months to finish the script and sixteen drafts."
The people with knowledge of voodoo that you spoke to, what did they think about their beliefs being the basis for a horror movie? Were they a bit cautious?
"Oh yes! Absolutely, because as a group they feel much maligned. Every voodoo film that comes out shows them as these evil types. When we got talking, we actually interviewed a white voodoo priest called Ross Hagen. He’s quite well-known in voodoo circles! In fact he’s the only properly initiated voodoo priest in Britain and he’s been very supportive of the project. In fact on the DVD there’s a twenty-minute interview with him. We went to interview him, the documentary unit, and then we’ve intercut his interview with bits from the film. In the film we don’t really explain the voodoo as such, we just get on with the story. then if you look at this interview, the significance of some of the things they do is revealed in that. He’s been quite supportive, particularly because we are showing it to be religion that gives people comfort in their lives."
Where did you get your funding?
"It’s financed privately. We mortgaged our house to provide the bulk of it. My wife is a chartered accountant and she’s quite well connected with different people. We put together the script and a selection of the short films I’ve made as a package, then we went and got that. Once we had Steven Severin on board things moved a lot faster because he was somebody outside our circle of friends that had faith in the project. To be honest, it really gathered momentum from that moment on."
How did you get Steve Severin on board?
"I used to be a punk before I went into corporate life, so I’ve always been a Siouxsie fan. I was listening to the Join Hands album; there’s a track on there called ‘Icons’ with pounding drums and I was listening to that as I was writing the script. I thought, what about Steven Severin - this is right up his street, if you look at the different themes which are explored in Siouxsie and the Banshees’ music. So I e-mailed him via his website, just a four-line thing saying, ‘I’m doing this film about love and sacrifice and it involves voodoo in London.’ It was a long while because they were touring at the time, but he got back to me - I was amazed he even responded. I’d forgotten about it and got on with the script. He said, ‘Oh yes, I might be interested. Send me the script.’ So I sent him the script and he got back to me and said, ‘It’s refreshingly clear of all the usual clichés. I’m interested - let’s meet up.’ Then when we met up we found we both liked the films of Nicolas Roeg and David Lynch so we had stuff to talk about. Then what we did: in the film there’s a couple of montage sequences and Steven wrote the music before we did any filming on those. Then I was able to listen to that and think of different images before we went into filming, so it’s been quite a collaborative thing in that regard."
Where did you find your cast and crew?
"The crew is mainly friends of mine from film school and other people we’ve worked with on short films together. the cast, some of the supporting roles like Roy Hollett who plays one of the builders, Steve Halloran who plays the boss, they were the best actors from the short films that I’ve made. But the leads - Doug, Sara, Vonda - we auditioned them. We went through the Spotlight casting directory, looking for people with film experience and then had them in for an audition."
What sort of short films had you done?
"A mix really, because I was at the London Film School for two years so I’ve made seven in total. Three at the film school as part of the curriculum and then another four afterwards on DV or super-16. They’re a mix, they’re not really out and out horror films but there’s a couple there that look at spirituality, life and death and suchlike. But nothing that you could stick on the DVD! I treated those really as training exercises because when I gave up work, I gave it up to make a feature film. I knew that was what I was getting into so I just tried to make as many films as possible and explore different things each time I made one."
Did you shoot the feature on DV or film?
"We shot on super-16 then all our rushes were telecine-ed and put in the computer at home here. What we did was we edited in Avid Xpress DV and we output the cut film onto DVD and VHS in order to do the test screenings. Then we output the EDL, the edit decision list, the negative was cut and that was scanned at high def into a computer in Switzerland, professionally graded and then printed back to 35mm. So now what you see doesn’t resemble DV, now it looks like we definitely shot on film, thank goodness."
There’s a lot of night-time stuff where the cinematography is crucial.
"Exactly. It looks really nice now and we’ve got a Dolby digital surround track - so when the bass comes in, you really feel it! It’s a different experience in the theatre!"
There’s a British horror film revival. Do you feel part of that?
"Yes, I do. I think it’s good to be part of that. I’ve already started writing my next one and that’s going to be a British horror. I think it’s good and I hope that the revival continues."
Did you want this to be a distinctly British film?
"Yes, I did. I’m from London obviously and I think one of the ways that film-makers make their films original is by drawing on things from their past experience. Sometimes I think people try to be original but their stuff is so quirky, so original that no-one can relate to it. So I think just drawing on your own personal experience, that makes it original enough - to have stuff in there that audiences can relate to and yet still use the genre framework. Bodies in the basement, possession - they’re things that followers of horror films look forward to seeing and they want to see how you’ve done it different this time. So that’s what I tried to mix in."
What reaction have you had from screenings?
"It’s been really good. The best thing we did was a test screening back in September. There was 160 people, mainly horror fans with a mixture of goths and Swedes thrown in as well. They anonymously filled out questionnaires and we asked them about the pacing, which scenes they liked, and so on. We cut about another five to seven minutes from the film, mainly from the start of the film, before we committed to the final edit. And that helped no end! The last screening we did was in Phoenix at the World Horror Convention last weekend and people were coming up and shaking my hand going, ‘Outstanding!’ We’ve mainly showed it in the States and they really like it."
Is that because it’s so British?
"I think it’s partly that. We thought that the reaction would be good because 28 Days Later had done so well. But the reaction we’re getting is not so much because it’s British but because it’s - to quote one reviewer - ‘going back to the glory days.’ People in Phoenix, what they said they liked is that it credits the viewer with some intelligence. That’s what they really like about it; somebody taking their genre seriously and not tongue-in-cheek with a little wink at the camera: ‘Of course this is all nonsense.’ That’s really the type of film I wanted to make. I wanted to make a serious film, although there’s light-hearted moments in it, but I wanted to try to be as realistic as possible - like the Polanski ones."
You’ve got this deal with Heretic. What other deals have you got?
"No-one else as yet. We started the screenings in America then we’re spiralling out. We’ve had a good reaction in the UK but we’ve not signed with anyone yet. We’re still talking with different people. And the same is true with international sales. Bearing in mind that we only printed the 35mm at the end of January so it’s literally hot off the press."
What’s your next film?
"I don’t want to say too much about the plot yet because I know from before that when you’re developing the idea it changes quite a lot. But it’s definitely a horror movie with a little bit of science fiction, and it’s set in England again; not London but the green belt somewhere. At the moment I’ve done about 90% of the script - but it’s the other 10% which takes 90% of the work. What happens is you find a lot of half-baked ideas; some get thrown out and some get baked through fully!
Official website: www.londonvoodoo.com