Burning Men / Blood Moon / Bollywood Queen
BURNING MEN print/online
by Benjamin Poole
Directed by: Jeremy Wooding
Starring: Shaun Dooley, Anna Skellern, Raffaello Degruttoia, Corey Johnson
"Fans of Westerns are going to be delighted with the generic detail in Blood Moon, and horror fans are well served too. If there is a resurgence in the Were-Western genre, then Blood Moon is a pioneer among the posse."
Watching Jeremy Wooding‘s horror hybrid Blood Moon, you begin to ponder why there aren’t more Werewolf Westerns. After all, the thematic concerns of masculinity - the question of what it means to be a man, the rumination upon savagery and civilisation - is intrinsic to both genres. Add in the vast wilderness of the old West, the representative close association of Native America with nature and animals (Dances with Wolves doesn’t count...) and both genre’s obsession with miscegenation (notably Ethan’s racist drive in The Searchers), and you’d think that ‘High Moon’ films would be more of a thing, especially so when they’re as well executed as Blood Moon.
The film wastes no time in setting its dusky tone, opening with a brutal tableau which presents not only
man’s bond with beast, but the pitiless environs of the American West circa 1887; as lone gunslinger
Calhoun executes his poor steed, who is of no use to him with her broken leg. This is a tough world for
tough guys, a west where only the wildest survive. Calhoun is played by Shaun Dooley, a face
recognisable from second tier roles in Eden Lake and Woman in Black, but Blood Moon gives his pent up,
off kilter charisma the spotlight as he joins a stagecoach full of archetypes - a young couple, a salty
landlady, a preacher and a green reporter - who are hijacked upon the highway by a couple of black hats
(Raffaello Degruttoia and Corey Johnson). Those howls they hear from the horizon don’t seem to be the
actions of a wild dog though, nor do the decimated body parts scattered in the street, and, as the cherry
moon rises, the whole gang have to hole up in a abandoned saloon, lest the ‘skinwalker’ who prowls the
tumbleweed streets of the deserted mining town tears their hides to so much jerky.
Fans of Westerns are going to be delighted with the generic detail in Blood Moon - an early scene has a honkytonk piano whispering across the dusty darkness of a main street’s wooden facades, before we cut to an old timer, grizzled as worn leather, chewing on beans (!), muttering ‘blasted coyotes’ in response to a howl cutting through the tinkling melody. Horror fans are well served too - upon further investigation the poor geezer has his throat ripped out, allowing thick treacly blood to pump across the dry dirt. The film is a British production, although you could never tell by judging the level of faithfulness to the genre Blood Moon offers, along with the seeming accuracy of the locations (with Kent doing a pretty good impression of Colorado).
Writer Alan Wightman’s dialogue has the authentic zing of a six shooter’s bullet too, with darkly comic lines like ‘It ain’t much more than a one horse town... and they shot that horse years ago’, and, “‘You got any silver bullets?’, ‘On my salary? Hell, no’“ (also, upon casually offing someone, the shooters all do that Robocop thing of twirling their gun about on their finger - just as they should).
As the film moves into Rio Bravo territory - the rag tag mob holed up in the pressure cooker of a single location - the pace does slacken somewhat, and the film relies on the (considerable) charms of Anna Skellern, playing the tough as boots widowed landlady (and stealing the show in the meantime with a nuanced and energetic performance). All werewolf movies are subjected to scrutiny where the realisation of their monster is concerned, and the wolves in Blood Moon are not bad; with transformations involving peeling nails and sprouting hairs, and the final conversion striking enough, considering the film’s lower budget. Such shortcomings are counteracted though by the film’s suspense, strong characterisation and infectious appreciation of its pedigree. If there is a resurgence in the Were-Western genre, then Blood Moon is a pioneer among the posse.
Interview with Jeremy Wooding
Hey You Guys
Why a career in film? Was there that one inspirational moment?
I have wanted to be a filmmaker ever since, as an eleven year old, I discovered the joy of shooting and editing Super 8 film. I was fascinated by the way you could make the real world look magical. That and enjoying an escape from suburbia with trips to the cinema.
Can you remember the moment when you first discovered horror and/or genre cinema?
I remember staying up late as a young teenager watching Hammer Horror films and being scared witless. And also sneaking into the local cinema to watch Kung Fu films. Then, with my friend Graham Wright, I would shoot Super 8 films in the back garden and imitate Bruce Lee and the Hammer Horror movies (quite badly!).
Blood Moon takes an alternative approach in its interpretation of the Western by choosing a Victoriana look in place of the traditional cowboy look, and sources its inspiration from the literary tradition of the ‘Weird Western’ comic books and graphic novels, as opposed to the more familiar Western films. What was the motivation behind these choices, and ultimately how did they help you to create the “distinct genre mash-up” you set out to make?
I really like that period in history towards the end of the nineteenth century when the world was beginning to become more mechanised and more ‘modern’. The Wild West had been ‘tamed’ and new cities had sprung up. Yet still the myths of outlaws and tales of beasts in the wilderness cast a spell on genteel readers. Photography was more prevalent and the photographic representations of that period are surprising as they show an America which was different to the cowboy films of John Wayne. I wanted that unusual authenticity in Blood Moon and I wanted to bring a modern, stylish aesthetic to it as well. It resulted in what I would call ‘gothic noir’.
Outside of Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter do you perceive there to be a ghostly quality to the Western or even discreet glimpses of horror if you were to adjust the perspective on the archetypes and tropes of the genre?
I think the ‘Wild West’ has always been full of ghosts, spirits, and horrors in legends and campfire tales. The unknown frontier for settlers must have been a scary place; Isolation, the unknown, lurking danger, sudden violence, death. A classic western has always been about primitivism versus civilisation, dreams and nightmares. I think given those elements you can pretty much re-imagine any horror or fantasy scenario in a western setting. Or, as in Aliens, you can re-imagine the West, the old frontier, as the new frontier, space.
How conscious were you of the intention to use the space as a character, and having completed the film how vital do you view space as a creative influence on a story?
The original script was set in the desert, but we didn’t have the budget to shoot abroad. I found a Wild West town built by a living history society in Kent. I visited the town with Alan Wightman, the scriptwriter, and he went away and rewrote the story for the new location. I knew that the forest nearby, the mud and the more grungy colour palette of the English countryside in winter would give us a more gothic atmosphere. So, we worked with that and turned it to our advantage. The town itself also became very symbolic. We turned it into a deserted silver mining town; a decaying, bankrupt symbol of the whiteman’s rush to colonise and exploit the new frontier.
The Western is no stranger to comedy or horror/the supernatural. Was there the need to compromise the needs of the three genres or did they mesh together with relative ease? I’d imagine the challenge of Blood Moon would be the pacing, and allowing the comedy, suspense and horror opportunity to breathe in order to craft a well-paced and structured film.
Finding a balance of those three elements, horror/western/comedy, was the biggest challenge. I didn’t want any one element to over-stamp the film. I knew the tone I was aiming for but in the end it was a leap in the dark. I work instinctively, following what I would like to see on the screen as the audience. And, of course, you make a film three times – in the scripting stage, the shooting and the editing stages. So, you get three goes at getting it right. At each stage you are wrestling with the material, but I believe any given film has its own organic life, an audio-visual pattern the film wants to settle into, and I try to find that pattern.
Genre cinema inherently blurs the genre boundaries, and in Blood Moon you merge horror with the Western. What are your thoughts on the way genre has evolved to date, and will continue to evolve over the coming decades?
I think as audiences become more cine-literate, they demand more from their genre cinema. They now have instant access to a whole history/background to any given genre via the internet; you don’t need to have done a film studies course. And as audiences become more savvy they want different takes on the world through different genre filters, be that stylistically or story-wise. As filmmakers we have to keep experimenting with new technology (and visual FX are getting cheaper to create) and keep revisiting classic human stories to tease out themes and resonances that say something to present day audiences.
You wanted to make a film without any studio or broadcaster interference. What were the benefits and challenges in taking this approach? How different would Blood Moon have been if you’d taken the alternative route?
I knew we wouldn’t have a huge budget to play with, or to be able to afford big names (as studios require these days). But a low budget, indie approach gave us the freedom to cast the actors we thought were right for the roles and enabled me to shape the story and follow through with a unique take on the ‘man/beast’ tale. I would have loved to have had more money to film big country vistas, create more visual effects, people the western town with more extras and wagons. But we simply didn’t have the cash, so we set out to make the indie budget work for the film. Creative decisions were coloured by budgetary constraints. The film probably ended up being, sparser and more claustrophobic because of it. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
The film was the first Western to be shot in the UK since Carry on Cowboy all the way back in 1966. How much of a privilege was it to be the first to shoot a Western on UK shores?
It felt very audacious to be shooting a western in the UK. And very exciting. I was heartened and inspired by all the European westerns from the Italian directors, films like The Great Silence which was filmed in the snow in the Pyrenees. I actually felt very privileged to be shooting at the Kent western town. I feel a great debt of gratitude to them for opening their doors and supporting our crazy adventure.
What does it mean to be playing at FILM 4 FrightFest, and what does FrightFest mean to you personally?
I have loved going to FrightFest in the past as an audience member. It has the atmosphere of a rock festival, and it’s a great place to discover the weird and wonderful of the horror/fantasy genres. As a filmmaker it’s a little scary as I have no idea what the horror purists will make of Blood Moon.
How important is the festival circuit for filmmakers and distributors alike? If the festival circuit ceased to exist, what would be the impact on the landscape of modern cinema?
The festival circuit enables filmmakers to be amongst an audience that is hopefully sympathetic to what the filmmakers are trying to achieve. Distributors get an early test of how a film might work and, most of all, festivals celebrate films and filmmaking. Festivals are essential to introduce new audiences to film and to cultivate a sense of openness that allows different kinds of film to exist that aren’t necessarily ‘commercial’. Without the festival circuit film culture would stagnate.
Are you optimistic with the direction the industry is moving in or do you lean more to concern, and do you think independent cinema has slowly been marginalised to the point we should be concerned?
It’s as tough as ever to get a film made, whether micro budget or bigger budget. The hardest part is convincing investors that they will see any return on their investment. But new technology and more experience in front and behind the camera means that there is such a will to make films in the UK that we seem to be able to come up with some surprises. The most worrying aspect of filmmaking today is distribution. I think we have reached a tipping point now where filmmakers have to embrace the DIY aspect of getting their films to the public the same way we have embraced the means of producing those films.
So many films play at festivals never to secure distribution that gives them an opportunity to find an audience. A film can take up two years of your life. In the face of such uncertainty why would you put yourself through the arduous task of making a film?
It’s said that filmmaking is for adventurers and gamblers (a bit like the Wild West), and there are never any givens that a film will be successful. I think filmmaking is addictive and once you have got the bug I think you have no choice but to follow through for better or worse.
Looking ahead to the future what’s next for you, and has Blood Moon deepened your affection and understanding of film and storytelling?
I’ll definitely do another horror film of some description. There are several other, different genre, projects in development and one of those may bubble to the surface first, With every film I feel like I am starting out afresh, and doing research on Blood Moon as a period film was fascinating. I have a taste for costume drama now as well as a taste for blood…
Blood Moon: An Interview With Jeremy Wooding (Flickfeast.co.uk)
Westerns and horror are two genres that have shared the screen many times across the years with surprisingly effective results. From ‘vampire westerns’ such as Dusk Til Dawn (dir.Robert Rodriguez), Near Dark (dir. Kathryn Bigelow) and Vampires (dir. John Carpenter) to modern western creature features such as Tremors (dir. Ron Underwood) and the Burrowers (dir. J.T Petty) the list is endless. Hell, even games developer Rockstar re – released their open world Western title Red Dead Redemption with a horror twist in ‘Undead Nightmare‘.
In this context of cross – genre hybridization, filmmaker Jeremy Wooding takes the horror of lycanthropy to the ‘wild west’ assembling a stellar cast and crew for the creature feature Blood Moon. Pitched as ‘Stagecoach meets The Thing’, Blood Moon is an absolute treat for genre fans following the adventures of Calhoun (Sean Dooley) as he stumbles into a world of bandits, booze and towering Skinwalkers. Having worked on some of Britain’s most popular TV shows (Peep Show, Derren Brown) Wooding’s flair for comedy and maximizing tight budgets is evident in the feature, from his use of the exquisite Kent based re-enactment town Laredo, to the casting of creature actor Ian Whyte as a hulking 9 foot practical effects werewolf.
With Blood Moon currently causing a stir on the festival circuit, Flickfeast sat down with the director / producer to chat transformation scenes, cross – genre appeal and duping the film buyers at Cannes Film Festival.
Flickfeast: How did you come up with the idea for Blood Moon and its interesting hybrid of genres?
Jeremy Wooding: My background is in genre filmmaking and my first film was a movie called Bollywood Queen (2002) which was a British Asian musical / romance. My second movie was a football comedy and this one the ‘werewolf – western – comedy’ came about when a script writer called Alan Wightman gave me the script and pitched it to me as ‘Stagecoach meets The Thing’. Alan makes his living writing gags and jokes for comedians who present Saturday night variety shows. I read the concept and my only concern with it was that it was going to be expensive to make because it was all set in the desert. It was would have been too expensive to go and shoot in Arizona or New Mexico which is what the scriptwriter had in mind. I researched the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western sets near Almeria in Spain and they looked pretty good. We could shoot there pretty cheaply, but just getting the cast and crew there and putting them up was too much for our budget. So, I remember hearing about a Western town in the UK which was built by enthusiasts and went online and found this town which was in Kent, twenty minutes outside of London on the train. This was an easy, cheap way of being able to get people out of London and back again without having to put them all up and avoiding huge transport costs.
FF: Do many other filmmakers shoot films in the re-enactment town of ‘Laredo’ and did you have to gain the societies trust to shoot there?
JW: The re-enactment society in Laredo in Kent meet every 2 weeks and live and eat the way you would in the middle of the 19th century on the Wild West frontier. There are only two thirteen amp power sockets in the whole town and they cook and light in the way you would in the 19th century. Consequently we had to bring our own generator, but before we even got going shooting the film we had to convince them that it was a good idea to shoot there and that they would benefit from it. We spent 6 weeks going down to the town and talking to them about what we wanted to do and I think the key to it was that we enabled them to come and watch the filming when they wanted. We consulted them on a lot of the Western aspects such as guns and what people ate and how they lived in these houses so they ended up being the prime source of experience for us.
FF: Perhaps the best story attached to Blood Moon is how you duped buyers at Cannes Film Festival into thinking the film was an American cast and shot feature despite its predominantly British roots. Did you go into the process of Blood Moon expecting to create such a faithful enactment of Western genre and setting?
JW: I suppose as a filmmaker I do genre but cross genre stuff is what interests me and excites me. Doing things that can come out a little bit different to your straight comedy, western or horror. It was a challenge to get this right. I suppose it’s not my first time with horror / comedy as I did a short film called Soul Patrol (2001) which was a vampire film mixing comedy and horror. I got a real taste from that for doing horror that would be scary and horrific and have a sense of humour to it as well.
FF: Do you think cross – genre features are easier to sell than straight genre features?
JW: Cross genres are a tough sell and the perceived wisdom is that you look for your audience and then you kind of give them what they want. With the horror crowd you are selling a zombie movie to zombie fans, a werewolf movie to werewolf fans etc. In a way everything has been done before within those very niche areas of horror, so you have to look into doing something that will help you stand apart from the crowd and in our case it was the Western genre but also if you watch this again and again you will laugh more and more because some of the lines are very funny. It brings a new edge to the movie and that is where cross – genre comes in I think.
FF: From the casting of Predators / Prometheus creature actor Ian Whyte, to casting other actors with established cult fan-bases, did you intend to create different entry points and trivia to surprise and engage viewers of the film?
JW: I think you layer your own interests into the movie and elements other people will find interesting. You give people who are coming at the movie different angles they can run with, like or take issue with but you have to give them bases to touch that they understand. For example, the werewolf classics from American Werewolf In London (1981) to Ginger Snaps (2000) to comedy with a dry sense of humour such as American Werewolf in London again. Interestingly enough when you hear John Landis talk about his movie he tried pitching it as a horror / comedy and nobody wanted to know, then he tried pitching it as a comedy / horror and nobody wanted to know. In the end he gave up trying to pitch it and said it was going to be a movie that has comedy and horror in it and it’s up to you the audience to decide whether you like any one element or both. That was a real inspiration as I thought I would give up trying to please everybody and create something unique that people would be able to come to from different directions.
FF: Speaking of American Werewolf in London were you ever tempted to create an elaborate transformation scene budget permitting?
JW: The creature designers were keen to do a quite big transformation scene with ‘Black Deer’ the Navaho Indian and to be honest neither the budget nor the schedule allowed us to do that. As I got more into dealing with the creation of the creature and the prosthetics it began to weigh down the schedule and the budget and I just thought I have to make this fairly simply and keep the characterization and the story going. I decided to keep the Skinwalker attacks, but also stop worrying about trying to imitate Rick Baker. I think a lot of wannabe horror filmmakers get so bogged down with effects that the effects can just end up being the movie, but in the grand scheme they are just a blip. The Americans are very good at special effects in horror and I thought why we are playing for a horror movie on their territory when they can do this type of work cheaper and better than us. We have to make an effort to do something different
FF: As a filmmaker do you have a preference for practical effects over CGI?
JW: I definitely chose practical effects on this rather than CGI because CGI can look a little bit painted on and with this it is a throwback to B – Movies, with the old style creature features of a guy in a suit. Obviously there is a little bit of enhancement afterwards with computer effects but mostly it was very physical and on set. I think the actors liked that as well as they don’t have to work with a green screen and a bloke with ping-pong balls on his head. They get to actually feel the creature. It was interesting with the actor Ian Whyte too. When he wasn’t in ‘attack mode’ he would sit down at the side of set and be resting, as it was really heavy wearing that outfit. When he was sitting down the gaffer or head of the lighting department dubbed him ‘The Honey Monster’ as he had these huge shoulders and without the werewolf head on he looked like a furry American football player.
FF: To be honest since I have been a child I have always found the Honey Monster terrifying.
JW: (laughs) Well that’s understandable it does what it says on the box, it’s a ‘monster’
FF: From Cannes to Bram Stoker International Film Festival, how have you found the reception of Blood Moon thus far?
JW: This is the third festival we have been too. We had a premiere at Frightfest in London and then the Horrorthon in Dublin at the Irish Film Institute. The response has been overwhelmingly good and I’m pleased audiences have understood what we were trying to achieve, have taken the film on its own value and not tried to impose on the film what they expected. We haven’t quite tested it out yet on the die-hard Western fans and that is going to be interesting. At our Laredo Wild West town in Kent we are planning to do a screening in the saloon where we shot and they are all going to come along in their outfits and it will be exclusive to them. Hopefully we’ ll pass muster with the Western aficionados.
FF: In regards to your next projects, do you have a Blood Moon sequel planned. Do you plan to continue working within the horror genre?
JW: The two things that have come out of the movie is that people want to see a sequel and what Calhoun is going to do next. Blood Moon 2 is a definite possibility and there is interest in creating a TV series on the adventures of the core characters. That is something that we are pitching to international TV companies at the moment. So I think Calhoun and the werewolf western still hopefully has legs. In terms of my other projects I have a horror which is a supernatural slasher which I have been working on for just over a year now and that is nearly ready to go. Hopefully I will be shooting that in Feburary next year. Again it’s not a huge budget but it is something I can keep a certain amount of creative control on. I only manage to do that by being a producer / director on my movies and the next one will be up to me again.
FF: You have proved yourself repeatedly as a very resourceful filmmaker with limited budgets. If you were given a big budget what would your ultimate passion project be?
JW: I would love to have a big budget and make a big Hollywood movie. The thing is when you get more money you get more time and more ability to do bigger set pieces regardless of genre. You get more pre- production time too, so someone like Chris Nolan gets so much time to storyboard, talk to designers and get the movie down on paper and pre-visualised before he even shoots it. In this country we don’t really do that and we don’t have enough development and seed money to enable us, particularly working in the fantasy / horror genres, to be able to do enough groundwork. More money provides this groundwork. The other thing that I would like is more money for something like a period piece where you can use physical props and sets, but enhance that with computer graphics afterwards to create cities and towns from certain periods. That’s where I really like CGI stuff – for example, set extensions combined with real settings.
FF: Finally what do you hope audiences who haven’t seen Blood Moon yet will take from it?
JW: I hope Blood Moon is an entertaining ride for the audience and is something that will satisfy them both as a character-based drama, but which will also satisfy the need to be scared and involve themselves in the jeopardy and tension of the story. Mainly I hope they come out thinking ‘that wasn’t too long’ (laughs).
Interview: Jeremy Wooding Director (Blood Moon)
What made you want to become a director?
When I was eleven I was fascinated by my grandad’s super 8 family films. I started using his camera and editing the films. I soon got the filmmaking bug and was shooting Kung Fu films in my backyard with neighborhood kids.
Where did the concept for “Blood Moon” come from?
It came from Alan Wightman, the screenwriter. It was the product of his love of old school westerns and horror films. However, the concept of the ‘weird western’ has been around in comic book form since the 1930s.
How did it feel to combine the western genre and the horror genre?
It was such fun. The key to it for me was making a ‘gothic western’. I am a big fan of English gothic in literature, film, fashion, architecture etc. So, my English ‘gothic sensibility’ informed my approach to the material. And I did a lot of research into the comic book and graphic novel precursors to this genre mix. Those comic strips showed me that the mix could work, and that fed into my vision of the movie – a comic book tale come to life.
Who are some of your favorite directors?
Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Nic Roeg, Walter Hill, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Francois Truffault, Alfred Hitchcock…amongst many others.
What can you tell us about your next project?
It’s a haunted house movie. Can’t let that Gothic thang go…And hopefully a Blood Moon 2.
What challenges did you face making the film?
It was tough making a period piece on a budget. But as I have worked with many of the Heads of Department before, I knew they were great at keeping production values high in spite of having limited resources. The other tough calls were finding the right balance between action and drama, creature and suspense, gory violence and unseen violence.
What was it like for you working with the cast?
I set out to make it an ensemble piece where the actors would feel that they were part of a kind of acting troupe. We rehearsed quite a bit on set and the actors were fully involved with ‘getting it right’. This meant I was open to suggestions for script tweaks and dialogue changes if necessary. But you have to be strong with actors otherwise they will rewrite your film for you…
Did you have a favorite scene out of the film?
I love all the scenes which play with just atmosphere and silence. That’s pure cinema. But I also love the scenes with the killer funny lines from Hank (Corey Johnson) and Marie (Anna Skellern) – very quotable.
What advice would you offer to fellow directors?
Persist. And If you want to do a period movie then find a place where you have inbuilt production values before you spend a cent. And don’t be afraid of deep character in stories – it’s not all about the action.
FILMFOUR ONLINE REVIEW
Bollywood comes to the East End in this British take on the Hindi musical tradition
About Cast & Connections
With its timely arrival on the crest of the Bollywood wave, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bollywood Queen was nothing more than an exploitative attempt to tap into Asian cool. Particularly when you realise that its writer and director aren't young British Asians, but white English filmmakers. However, nothing could be further than the truth.
After spending years in development and over a decade on the drawing board, Jeremy Wooding's delightful film - a feature-length realisation of his award-winning short 'Sari And Trainers' - is anything but a soulless cash-in. It is a buoyant, bright and enthusiastic homage to the Bollywood tradition that skilfully blends East and West.
The set-up is a classic Bollywood take on love conquers all, yet with a modern British twist. Geena (Kalidas) is a young East End college girl whose life is thrown into turmoil after she falls for Jay (McAvoy), a West Country lad who has come up to London to see if the streets are really paved with gold. Yet, the course of true love never runs smooth. Geena's family are appalled at her secret meetings with her new boyfriend, her intended husband has taken umbrage and Jay's brother (McMenamin) is mixed up in a rag-trade war with Geena's family.
Introducing Jay to Asian culture in general and Bollywood in particular, Geena sets the stage for a series of brilliantly conceived song-and-dance routines in which the streets of the East End give birth to musical interludes full of the heady fantasy of the Eastern tradition. Mixing the Hindi style with Western influences, the numbers owe as much to Grease or West Side Story as anything from India. Bollywood Queen's culture clash reaps real dividends and is bolstered by two fantastic performances from Kalidas and McAvoy that ensure that our emotional investment in this tale is far greater than might otherwise have been the case.
In a nutshell ****
Bursting with energy and enthusiasm this low-budget British movie delivers a winning tale of star-crossed lovers, blending Bollywood tradition with modern London life to create a lightweight, fun romp.