Shortly after I started Blogferatu, I put up a Twitter page for it and started following lots of film stuff, especially for indie films. One of them was Commune. In return I got a link from Thomas Perrett to the trailer and was instantly intrigued. I asked where I could see it, and he gave me access to the online screener if I wanted to write up a review. I was completely blown away by this microbudget effort, and Commune remains one of my all-time favorite shorts. So I was thrilled and grateful when Mr. Perrett took the time to answer some questions for me.
Commune has been having a great festival run. Can you give an overview of how it’s been doing?
Commune had a great start on the festival circuit, winning Best Short Horror at its UK premiere at the London Independent Film Festival and then Best Music at Festival du film Merveilleux Et Imaginaire in Paris! We’ve screened at 15 or so festivals already, with more to come going into 2017.
Commune has made it as far afield as Saigon at the Underground Film Festival and Mexico at the Morbibo Fest, and next year we’ve at the The Idyllwild International Festival Of Cinema in California! I’m also excited to see it screened at some great home-grown fests, such as Horror-on-Sea in Southend and the London Short Film Festival. The reception Commune has received has been fantastic. I was very ready for my first film festival experience to be a difficult, cutthroat arena, and although competitive, everyone we’ve been involved with has been very positive and complimentary towards us.
Where did you get the idea for Commune?
Commune came about after I attended a Halloween party held at an delipidated 1930’s house in North London, that would eventually serve as the creepy setting for the film. The party was hosted by a friend who was living at the property as a guardian for developers. The building, two semidetached houses knocked into one, was a strange place, full of belongings and personal effects from a Jewish family that had long vacated. The general decor was of faded opulence, flock wallpaper and gold radiators. The more we sifted through the rooms, the stranger it felt to have our hands in someone else’s life and a creepy feeling of intruding was very strong, as if the owners could return at any point.
Days after the party, my wife and I were discussing how such a fantastic location opportunity couldn’t be wasted. So we set the ball rolling. I spoke to friends and family about kit and actors. We knew we had to make some kind of film, but what? Horror seemed like the logical choice. Time was against us, as the developers were due to gut the building. We had 6 to 8 weeks to get a cast, crew and more importantly a script! I used the guardianship role of my friend as the basis and went from there. Initially I wanted to use the Jewish faith as the backdrop, playing on Jewish folklore, but with little time, I felt I couldn’t research this topic enough to do it justice, so I invented a fictional cult. This direction allowed me the freedom to take the story where I liked, and I borrowed ideas from horror films that I loved: Evil Dead, Poltergeist, The Shining, etc.
Here is the listing for the building now it’s been completed:
I’ve read that the film had a very small budget. How did you manage to achieve such fine results with minimal funds?
Commune cost less than a thousand pounds to produce. The main savings were due to having free access to a ready dressed set. I borrowed a Sony C300 camera and some lights from friends. The cast and crew, also friends, worked for expenses, so the budget went on insurance, data cards for the camera (digital stock), travel expenses/petrol and food.
The look of the film lies with the director of photography, Tim Gee. We had minimal lights and set up time, but Tim is very skilled at bringing something brilliant out of very little, by boosting and adding to the natural light sources on location. With such a small cast and crew we could move fast. I would discuss and block out a scene, Tim would line up and light, then we’d shoot. If it worked, we’d move on, or if the scene had a problem, we’d work on it until it was right. The other process that I think is vital in producing a fine and cohesive finish, is digital colour grading. So I called on Andrew Daniel, a senior colourist at Molinare in Soho. We have been friends and writing partners for over ten years, and we’ve worked on various projects together in the past. With Andrew’s love of film and grading experience, he was able to take what we’d shot and tie it altogether, giving everything a look that really brings out the strangeness of the location.
The film has lots of background sounds that do a great job keeping us on edge. Can you talk a bit about sound design? What was your thought process on that?
Robin Green, another old post production friend and the sound designer on Commune is a master of his craft. We had a foley session together, recording sounds specific to our scenes, mainly footsteps and clothing sounds. I then gave a few ideas on some scenes, discussed some references, and Robin went to town. The soundscape Robin produced really elevates the creepy nature of the house and the feeling that “all’s not well.”
With narrative filmmaking, sound is half the picture, and I think with horror it’s more than half. I learnt this at an early age watching William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Covering my eyes was never enough to shut out the horror, and to this day, as scary as the images are, the sound is worse. Plus sound design is cheap.You can convey a huge amount of feeling through sound and music, without spending a penny on set.
There’s a scene that really stands out for me when the main character, Tom, is looking at what looks like some kind of flyer or ad. It reminded me of ads I saw as a kid in the tabloids my grandmother read. Was that an actual document, or was it created specifically for that shot?
The cult flyer was created especially for Commune. Once I had an outline for a script, I started
researching the flyer. The text draws on the world of the occult and unexplained. It was a key
piece to sell the creepy situation to the audience. The flyer includes text about how, “In this godless commune of Sodom we will transcend our mortal bodies,” and how its members will be able to “Move between realms!”
I envisioned how these cult members would achieve this and listed all the occult activities I could find including some real world ideas: Telekinesis & Psychokinesis, Clairvoyance & Precognition, Extrasensory Perception, and a few that are less mainstream, Eagle Vision and Energy Vampire.
There is also a slightly comic disclaimer on the flyer:
By attending our commune we expect you to fully embrace our procedures, methods anddoctrine. We use a mix of black & white magic and have adopted both the left-hand path and right-hand path for our means. We embrace sexuality and incorporate it into magical rituals. You must give yourself over to use wholly, physically and spiritually for our methods to work.
My wife, Laura Perrett, is a motion graphic designer, and she was able to very quickly create the artwork and look for the flyer. We then printed a stack of them, and I aged them with tea. We have since used the flyers artwork at screening events, leaving them on audience seats. The idea of the fictional occult existing outside of Commune’s world is an interesting one. We also started using #JoinUs on social media to create the idea that they wanted you to become cult members.
Tom Weller was so good in this role. Had you worked with him before? How was he cast?
After the chance of finding the location, casting Tom Weller was the fortune I needed to make Commune work. I was always fairly confident that through my contacts the production and post production side of the shoot would be okay. Actors on the other hand I wasn’t so sure of. With no time to audition for the part, I asked everyone I knew for names of actors who might be interested/available to act in Commune. A mutual friend put me in touch with Tom.
Once a child star, Tom was looking to get back into acting after he’d turned his back on the industry in his teens and for us he was the perfect find. A horror fan, hungry for the challenge and no stranger to being on set, his enthusiasm and want to make Commune work was invaluable in bringing this film together. Commune owes most of its believability to Tom, with an underwritten script and no real rehearsal or read through time, Tom had to work hard to sell the world. To have someone, effectively a stranger, believe in a project and give it life like Tom did, is a great feeling. Tom plays Commune’s lead as an almost unlikable character, who gets unwittingly embroiled in the strange world of the occult, and he is very compelling and natural on screen.
What kinds of things did you end up cutting in terms of story, character, or shooting?
With our rushed schedule, we script edited as we went, losing some scenes on set, to save time and to streamline the story. The biggest change was the ending. The two buildings we were shooting in are effectively a mirror of one another, and the left building was in a much more decrepit state than the right. We shot the end scene, where Tom comes down the stairs and tries to escape, in the dilapidated side of the house and flipped the image, so it looked like the same layout of the ground floor as the hall we had seen previously, but just run down and dilapidated.
This worked fine, but I originally wanted to really sell the idea that Tom had been trapped in another realm, by having another guardian candidate shown to the front door, but be unable to see Tom. The idea was to cut between the two hallways/front door areas to highlight the differences in style. One rotten and dark the other normal, to show the audience he had fully transcended realms. A kind of Twilight Zone finish, with Tom able to see the real world where he had come from, but unable to affect it or escape, he would then be “taken” by the dark forces in the other realm. Sadly time restricted us. We also wanted more of the dark figures to populate the house, standing in rooms and filling the space, especially when Tom tries to escape at the end. But sourcing people at short notice was difficult.
How do you feel about horror in comparison to other genres you’ve worked in?
Horror does seem to attract new and low budget filmmakers. Perhaps there is a shorthand or a gourdyness to the genre that makes it compelling or easier to create? The tropes of horror are well trodden, but I wouldn’t say it’s the most straightforward genre. Lighting, sound design, and music play more of a roll than in some other genres. But I do think filmmakers can do more with less. I feel it’s easier to create a horror atmosphere with some lighting and creepy music, than it is to create realism in a gritty kitchen sink drama perhaps.
I have a real love of horror films, but I also have a love of film in general. I certainly don’t want to only make horror in my career. Before Commune, I had written a bunch of different scripts from action-adventure-detective-buddy movies to comedy-frat-ghost-stories, sci-fi-noir-anti-hero to creature-feature-occult-thrillers. In my opinion, unless a filmmaker has set out to pursue a particular genre, it’s the story that grabs you. The classification comes after. Horror is a huge umbrella. As a genre it covers a really wide range of films. There are films that are perhaps not horror through and through, but have some very horrific scenes.
There are so many great pictures out there that break the mould or can be classified by many genres or none at all. One of my favourite genre mix is horror-comedy, but it has to be right. Ghostbusters and Shaun Of The Dead are great examples, very different in their approach, but horror scares and laughter are defiantly bedfellows. The emotional release from both are similar, and they compliment each other brilliantly.
What’s next for Commune?
Commune has a few festivals left to attend, and it’s had some interest from a few video on demand services, so I’m pleased to get it out to a wider audience. There was talk of taking the story further and writing it into a feature, but we’ll see.
What’s next for you as a filmmaker?
More filmmaking! To build on this experience and continue to produce work. I have a myriad of ideas that I’d like to explore. I like the format of short films, and I have a better understanding of the festival circuit now, so I’ll probably go again with a new, more ambitious short. I’ve been researching Korean Fan Death for an idea and also looking into hallucinations, our perception of reality and lucid dreaming for another script. Ultimately I’d like to make a feature film.
Is there anything else you’d like to add or mention to wrap things up?
Think that’s all! Thank you.