Thursday, 17 May 2018

Interview w/ Grant McPhee on psychological thriller, Far From The Apple Tree

As part of a series of interviews and articles on processes of Creative Collaboration, we spoke to Scottish director, Grant McPhee, on how he went about developing a workable script with screen-writer, Ben Soper, during the early stages of his forthcoming feature, the atmospheric, psychological thriller, Far From The Apple Tree. 

In March 2017 we were contacted by Grant McPhee, the Lothians-based feature director widely known for Big Gold Dream, an in-depth and painstakingly compiled 2015 documentary on the history of the Scottish Post-Punk scene, and the Indie record labels, Fast Product and Postcard Records.

Grant had enjoyed reading an Avant Kinema blog post we'd written on our recent
experiments with expired Super 8 film-stock, Caffenol home-processing and handcrafted film. He asked us if we would be interested in joining the shoot for his forthcoming feature for a couple of days to help build an archive of analogue footage he could use in the production. We were bowled over to be invited to take part in a project of this scale and immediately agreed.

Our own short films are generally exuberant, zero budget endeavours, created by a crew of two: us. We write, shoot, direct, usually perform, edit and score everything ourselves. This is our Big Collaboration and it's the way we've always worked. We've never really had the resources to expand our team beyond the binary and we're not sure we'd want to relinquish that control anyway. So, naturally, we were excited to venture into that other, alternative realm and find out first-hand how a full-blown feature, with reasonable budget and professional crew attached actually functions.

It was a fascinating experience, which we plan to write about in-depth in a later article, but essentially our part in the overall mechanism of the production was to join the Second Unit for the first two days - along with performer, Ashley Sutherland, and photographer, Lucas Kao - to work on capturing specific material, whilst Grant directed the activities of the First Unit, shooting scenes with the lead actors, Sorcha Groundsell and Victoria Liddelle. Our own particular remit was to help generate an authentic archive of analogue footage using vintage Super 8 and 16mm cameras and various film-stocks, which we home-processed on-set using Caffenol (coffee, vitamin c, washing soda) and a C41 kit, alongside gaffer / operator, Mihail Ursu. We later handcrafted some of this material by directly scratching and painting the film. 

You can see some hints of this raw analogue footage in the following clip:

Our own particular specialism was only a small part of a much larger whole involving an array of formats, including 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, Betamax, Pixelvision, and Red, which Grant McPhee skilfully captured, over a nine day shoot, in collaboration with his crew.
Unless you're talking about a solo act (the works of some power hungry Auteur Maximus, creating expanded selfies in seclusion) then you could say that all films are, in essence, collaborative ventures. Yes, there are hierarchies in place - the producers and the director are, of course, in charge of keeping everyone focussed on delivering the Grand Vision as successfully as possible - but it really is a team effort.

For Far From The Apple Tree, as with most film projects, the first stage of this collaboration began with the concept and the script.

Before joining the production, one of the producers, Olivia Gifford, sent us the latest draft of Ben Soper's script, which he had written in consultation with Grant. We read this quickly and were both impressed with the vibrancy and the increasingly intense atmosphere captured in the text. Even just as typed words in a pdf file we got a strong sense of this story as a visually striking chiller, very much set in the contemporary world but with the look and the feel of an arthouse 1970s / Wicker Man era horror.
We wanted to find out more about how this intriguing script and the concepts behind it had initially been created and invited Grant McPhee to answer a few of our questions on this aspect. 


AK - Where did Far From The Apple Tree begin? When we got involved in the project, everything seemed to be pretty much in place, as far as the producers, crew and actors. Ben Soper's script seemed to have already gone through several rewrites. At the very start of the project, did Ben bring an embryonic version of the script to you or did you work on the concept together? 

GMcP - I approached Ben, as I've known him for many years, and knew that he and I like similar films, which is always a good start.

AK - Which films and TV in particular do you both share a love for?

GMcP - This is probably more myself, and definitely some Ben will not like, so don't want to do him a disservice with this often uncool list, from the top of my head. All probably have a good chunk in Far From The Apple Tree: Danger Diabolik, Modesty Blaise, Smashing Time, Performance, Fascination, The Living Dead Girl, The Wicker Man, Flashdance, Top Gun, Far From the Madding Crowd, Don't Look Now, Five Dolls For an August Moon, Vampiros Lesbos, Carnage, Pied Piper (Donovan), Nosferatu (Herzog, most of his 70s), Cathy Come Home, Lucifer Rising, The Asphyx, Up The Junction, The Avengers, The Final Programme, Zardoz, Psychomania, Clockwork Orange, Harold and Maude, Dr Phibes, Betty Blue, Diva, Phenomena, Stage Fright, Demons, Man Who Fell To Earth, Midnight Cowboy, Demon Seed, Witchfinder General, The Iron Rose, Opera, The Big Blue, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Nikita, Deep End, Tommy, Willy Wonka, Deep Red, Suspiria, Tombs of the Blind Dead, Frantic and ‘80s Photo Fashion Movies.

AK – So, other than this exhaustive list of shared film and TV loves, how did this project get kickstarted?

GMcP - A few years previously I'd read a feature script which Ben had written that I was going to work on as the cinematographer. That film was unfortunately cancelled but I thought the Apple Tree project would be a good opportunity to work with him as I really loved the other script he'd written. I'd made two slightly non-linear features – both experiments in trying to combine my love of music videos and minimalist composers with 60s/70s Euro Horror/Pop Films mixed with Ken Loach. Neither were fully successful as the scripts were never fully realised to the extent they needed to be. I wanted something loose which could be improvised but not, err made up like the previous efforts were. Basically I needed a well written and solid story to base my ideas around, and have them toned down to be a bit more accessible. I thought Ben was the right person for this! A lot of this was all based on whim and feel, which is how a lot of the film was approached. Every film should be more than just a 90 minute DVD, and I like to think of my films as entire projects where the full process is the main desire. A film which people can later watch is a nice bonus, so this is how the Apple Tree project, began and it's still developing.

AK – What did that initial part of the process involve? 

GMcP - Ben is a far better writer than I am, and part of making a film is getting people who can do things better than you. I presented him with some themes and he sent over a few different story ideas which he could base a script on, so I picked the one I liked best. This would eventually become the Apple Tree film.

AK – How did you both move those ideas forward towards a working script?

GMcP - Ben would present further ideas via email and skype discussions with myself suggesting what worked for me and what didn't. Followed by further bouncing back.

AK - Was a lot of that work just the pair of you trying to narrow down exactly what film it was you wanted to make?

GMcP - For these micro features you have to be 100% passionate about what you are doing as it takes so much energy out of you, otherwise you'll just give up, so it's important you get what works for you at the start. After a little while Ben had an embryonic script that felt right and I could put all my effort into. He was incredibly understanding about this slightly unusual situation. It was quite different from the final shooting script.

AK - How long did it take to turn these initial ideas into a shooting script?

GMcP - Ben worked hard but the overall script writing period was very short. Not as short as the one week/two weeks of my other dramas, but short. nonetheless. This would have been in January 2017, and we chose a shoot date of March which resulted in pre-production happening during the script writing.

AK - That's a pretty quick turn around. That level of enthusiasm and forward momentum must seep through the whole production.

GMcP - There was a definite changing of production circumstances reflecting and making their way into the script, which I loved. I like to work quickly as it keeps the excitement level up and having everything else go on at the same time only added. It was purposely never 100% finished. The most exciting parts of making a film, I think, are the moments when you fill in the gaps on set, that's when I think you get into an interesting and creative rhythm.

AK - Were you already thinking of making use of multiple formats, both the analogue and the digital, at this stage? Are you able to picture the shoot or the edit during the scripting stage?

GMcP - During the writing an initial problem arose as one of the main ideas I initially sent to Ben was very much wanting to have a character finding archive footage of a relative, and through continuous watching discovering secret messages hidden within. Because this would feature heavily it opened up the options of the non-linear and liminal structure I wanted and allowed us to play with those missing onset gaps. And this was very important for the script, as we knew there would be refinements and new ideas in the edit. The editing process is incredibly important to me, as that's where a lot of magic happens. So I was very aware of the options available here, and the options available in the writing. In some ways they are the same to me, just at different points in time.

AK - That's an interesting way of looking at it.

GMcP - From working as a crew member I know the importance of shooting for the edit, and tight scheduling, but for me there's an important part of the editing process - trying to fit two shots which don't cut together and coming up with a solution that feels inspired, is often better than planning. Sure, many times this doesn't happen, or you end up with some structural issues but some of my favourite moments came from this, and for that I always leave that option open. It's so important to get a script right, but there are also so many other parts of the process that are interconnected. A good writer and editor can do wonders!

AK - Again, highlighting the collaborative nature of filmmaking.

GMcP - Going back to the messages hidden within the archive, the simple option would have been making them as simple as possible but this did not feel right for the project. The main theme in the script is reaching for something just beyond your reach and I wanted that reflected in nearly everything we did: an opaqueness that felt like there was almost something of meaning there, if you stretched yourself far enough. To further complicate our lives we decided that our main actress would also be playing the person they would be reacting to in these archive elements. The archives were always going to be shot on film, and without time for them to be returned to us from a professional lab, before we finished shooting, that issue offered up the potential for key plot devices to be lost and the story not make sense. Being aware of this constraint massively reflected into what was in the film. Really there was a sense of 'what might happen' being written in, probably coming from my documentary background. Rather than just using a video camera with a film effect in order to guarantee we got the shots needed, the simplest non-simple alternative option of shooting film was using home developed film. Because of the unpredictability of this process the results could be equally damaging if key plots were based around them. We knew we would only have around 10 days to shoot.

AK - Does having the knowledge of those time or monetary constraints hinder you during the scripting?

GMcP - The easy option would have been to write a tight and refined single room horror but we wanted to always be working beyond what we thought could be achieved, and never the easy choice. Obviously some things had to be refined to suit our budget and location, which handily Ben knew. This really simplified the process and made his writing much more vivid – certainly helpful for a director. To a large extent this location – a large country house – dictated a lot of the drama. As a lot of story is set here it also helped production schedules. 

AK – Would you mind telling us which different titles this film went through? When we joined the project the script was entitled Aberration.

GMcP - The Girl in the Mirror and Ghost in the Night were considerations. Aberration was a working title but always going to change. 

AK – How did you settle on the title, Far From The Apple Tree?

GMcP - Far From The Apple Tree was chosen as I liked Far from the Madding Crowd, and is an appropriate line in the film. I'd prefer not to have a phrase, unique titles are preferred for many reasons, but I think it fits well. 

AK - How closely does the finished film follow this script?

GMcP - Overall there were very big differences in the shooting script compared to the end product. All of Ben's dialogue is there, there were very few changes to that. The first two acts follow the same story mostly as the script but the final act, as mentioned, was always going to be adapted to circumstances. In hindsight there are many things which could be refined and added to, though this was due to only ending up shooting for 9 days. We could have had something much tighter and more accessible to a wider audience but I'm glad we stuck to our guns, as this approach allowed us to get things we'd never be able to otherwise. We lost a lot in terms of what could be achieved by being safer but I think what we gained made up for it.

AK - Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions, Grant. x

Tartan 14 - Far From the Apple Tree from Year Zero : Tartan Features on Vimeo.


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