FILM4 FrightFest 2015 Interview: Adam Mason on Hangman
By Paul Risker.
Every filmmaker has a story and English filmmaker Adam Mason’s began with a resilience in an hostile landscape. Looking back on the early part of his career during which time he tried to forge a path into filmmaking he explained: “I ended up making music videos as a way to make a living and realised that the state of the British film industry meant it was almost impossible to get a movie off the ground without being on the inside of a film council. The National Lottery sponsored everything back then and it was very much like a little club, which was very hard to break into. So I went back to what I loved and made a very low budget horror movie for five thousand pounds, and that was the thing that broke me out I guess.”
Mason’s early horror films Broken (2006), The Devil’s Chair (2007) and Blood River (2009) earned him a reputation of exuding a dark and unflinching edge within a genre that naturally explores the dark recesses of cinema through character and narrative. But in conversation with Film International ahead of the European Premiere of Hangman (2015) at FILM4 FrightFest, Mason while acknowledging that marriage and kids have changed him as a person also expressed how his eighth feature represents a new approach to the audience and his own creative aspirations and identification. While in hindsight Mason reflected that Hangman “is definitely different from anything else I have ever done”, it seems to show that a story of a filmmaker is unfolding behind the camera, although it is one that is often overshadowed by the onscreen stories they nurture.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I guess I was a pretty lousy student at school and so I gravitated towards art and music, which were the only two things I was any good at. So for me it was always either make films or join a band, and I wasn’t really good enough at the guitar or at least I wasn’t confident enough to do the band thing. As I reached sixteen or seventeen I was making more short films and it was then that I realised that I wanted to be involved in something to do with film, but I wasn’t quite sure what. Originally I was thinking more about the special effects and that side of it because as a teenager I was a big fan of horror movies. But being from the middle of nowhere in England there was no way of getting training for that kind of thing. I didn’t know anyone in the film industry and I had no connections whatsoever.
I started seeing this girl and it turned out her dad was Frank the monster in Hellraiser (1987). It was a total coincidence. I was a huge fan of Hellraiser and so he was the first actor I ever met who was in one of my favorite movies… I was quite starstruck. Anyway he was a wonderful old school actor and you’d almost call him a luvvie I suppose – an old school English gentleman actor. He very much inspired me to think that I could get into making films because up until then I had thought it was an impossibility given where I was from, and that I knew nothing about it. This coincided with me dropping out of university. I was floating around feeling pretty miserable; not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life. Through his guidance I found there were a couple of film schools, but this was England back in 1996. There was the National Film School and The London Film School and that was pretty much it. So I ended up applying to the London International Film School and I got in, and then had the whole fiasco of trying to get a grant. But basically what I am trying to say is that meeting him and realising that I could turn my dreams into a reality was probably the defining moment for me in breaking into this career.
From adolescence to adulthood, as we become less impressionable our relationship with horror inevitably changes. How do you view the way in which this relationship with the genre evolves?
Growing up as an only child – and I grew up very much in the middle of nowhere – until I was about ten or eleven years old there were no other kids around. So I guess that grew into a very vivid imagination and horror movies appealed to the horror books I was reading. I read Dracula (1897) when I was seven or I was trying to, and I became a big Stephen King fan that led onto a love of Jaws (1975), which was probably the first horror movie or was the first film that got me into horror. Then throughout my teenage years I was more and more into the Re-Animators and those kinds of movies, which grew into the Fulci and the Argento stuff as I found out more about what was out there. But that was back in the day when a lot of movies were banned in England, which was kind of wonderful because it meant that you had to – and I’m sure you remember – seek out those movies, which appealed to my naughty side. It was the rebellious teenage years where you were seeking out these films and trying to get hold of them. Then as I got older I became more into the psychological style of horror: Angel Heart (1987), The Wicker Man (1973), Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and The Exorcist (1973). These kinds of movies were streets ahead of some of the other stuff, and those were the films that stayed with me as I moved out of my teenage years. And then I suppose I sort of fell out of love with horror in a way, and it’s not like I watch horror a lot anymore apart from those classic movies.
Bringing the conversation around to your most recent foray into horror, what was the genesis of Hangman?
I moved to LA in 2006 and I continued making independent movies; mainly horror stuff. But then as the economy crashed and the DVD industry just died it became harder and harder to raise money for those movies. So I transitioned into writing with my writing partner Simon Boyes who is also from England. We moved over here more or less together and we ended up bumbling our way into becoming studio writers. So now we write mainly action movies, thrillers and stuff… Being more successful at that than my directing career, which sort of happened by mistake. But it has been a very pleasant and unexpected occurrence, and along that path we ended up writing a number of things for Jason Blum who produced Paranormal Activity (2007), Sinister (2012) and The Purge (2013). He’s the king of horror these days in the studio system in Hollywood. So we were engrossed in that kind of world for a while, and we learned a lot about what seemed to work and not work in the studio system.
I had my first child and I was just doing up our house one day when I saw a couple of reports in the newspapers about families finding homeless people living in their antics and crawl spaces – unseen for months in some cases. It seemed like a very chilling way into a home invasion movie set-up, and it also set the seed in my mind as a way into a sort of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) type movie using a true story. There were a series of these cases and they are actually still going on. Then through the Blumhouse connection the found-footage thing seemed to actually make sense – to put the camera in the hands of the antagonist instead of the protagonist, which for me is always the biggest flaw of found footage: why do these people keep filming? So by doing that it just seemed a sensible way of maintaining believability and trying to do something a little bit different with found-footage, which I feel has become stagnant in the last few years… And of course being able to do something very cheaply. So all of those things combined and we wrote it and then we went out and made it.
How did Jeremy Sisto’s dual role as lead actor and producer impact the collaborative process?
I have known Jeremy for almost ten years now since I first moved to LA. It was just socially as we were not necessarily friends, but we hung out a bunch of times. I did a short film for one of the scripts that we wrote for Blumhouse called Not Safe For Work (2014), which was directed by Joe Johnston who made Jumanji (1995) and Captain America (2011). I did a sort of short film, web teaser type thing and I asked Jeremy to be in it. It was only a couple of hours work for him and he came down and did me a big favour, and we ended up really enjoying working together. He’s also a musician and he gave me a call shortly after that to ask me to direct a music video for him. And so we collaborated again, which was another enjoyable experience.
Simon and I had this idea for what became Hangman and I just texted Jeremy and said: “Do you want to collaborate with me on this home invasion movie where the killer is living in the house unbeknownst to the family?” He immediately came back to me and said: “Yes, very interested… Let’s do it.” If that hadn’t happened I don’t think we’d have continued making the film… It would have just been one of those ideas that went away. He came on board very heavily and Simon, myself and Jeremy met up every day to develop the idea from the ground up. He was very involved on a script level, which was great. Initially we had an investor lined up and we were going to do the movie for a few hundred thousand dollars. It isn’t a lot of money, but it is a lot more than nothing. We cast the whole film, found the location and we had everything done. The lawyers were involved and then at the eleventh hour just before we were about to start filming the investor dropped out – I think it was two weeks before we were suppose to start filming. And so for a second it felt like the project was dead. But then I had a think about it and I reached out to Jeremy and Simon and said: “Look, I think we can probably do this for twenty grand or less.” I explained how I would do it for that amount of money and Jeremy immediately said: “Okay let’s do it.” He put his own money in and so once again without him we wouldn’t have been able to make the film.
When I interviewed Tom Holland he said: “I still think horror and sci-fi are the most plastic and are best able to carry a metaphor about whatever is going on in society. Genre pictures reflect society much quicker than any of this major $150 million stuff that the studios are doing.” Picking up on your point about the genesis of Hangman being news reports, alongside the style of the film it taps into the contemporary social angst of surveillance.
I totally agree, and I think that horror movies are struggling a little bit at the moment because real life is so horrific. You just have to turn on the news to see what is going on out there in the world, and I don’t think it necessarily used to be like that. In the eighties horror movies were a lot more fun and I think that’s because the times were lighter. So these days with ISIS beheading people and how you can go on YouTube and see the real life horror everywhere, then it is really hard to compete with that guttural feeling. And those clips are always done on that shaky surveillance style format. So for me it was a combination of that, but also I don’t think people necessarily feel safe in their own homes anymore, which is where people usually feel the safest. Combining those two ideas seemed like a very strong concept and also home invasion movies never seem to go away. It was a reinvention of that whereby it is a home invasion movie where the family don’t realise that their home is being invaded. So for me it was a combination of those two things and then also a quote of Alfred Hitchcock’s stuck with me about tension being a family driving in a car with a bomb strapped underneath it. The family are not aware of the bomb, but the audience knows full well that it is there. So in that instance the intruder in the house is the bomb; the family don’t know that the bomb is in their house and the tension comes from not knowing when it is going to go off.
Picking up on your point about the source of the tension, while watching Hangman I found I was very conscious that I knew more about what was going on than the characters. Unlike most horror films the lack of self-awareness of the characters puts us in an uncomfortable position.
I think the reason the film works for me is that it is told from the point of view of the person who is tormenting the family as opposed to the other way round. If it was Paranormal Activity then the family would be holding the cameras and trying to get proof of the supernatural occurrences in their house. But in this instance it is done from the other perspective and I think the audience realise from early on in the movie that they are watching the footage from that point of view. Essentially this is a film that has been constructed by the intruder for his own pleasure, purposes or documentation; however you want to see it. The idea is an inherently scary one because you are basically watching the actions and thoughts of a lunatic. It was interesting making it because while it seemed like a good idea at the time, it was very hard to write because you are basically following the narrative of this family who are completely unaware of what is happening to them. Normally in a horror movie characters start to think that something is happening to them and then they realise what is happening before they then try to stop it from happening. This is the way these movies work, whereas in this instance the family is more or less oblivious. So we had scenes where the tension was coming out of something that was in the frame that the audience would see, but the family would not. It was interesting trying to put it together and it was definitely different from anything else I have ever done.
One of the reasons the film is so effective is because you like the family and you invest in them as a family unit. As for the intruder you didn’t try to develop too much of a character. Rather you trusted that as an audience we have watched enough films and are clued into human nature enough that just by seeing how he secretly interacts with the family that we would be able to form our own impression of him..
We talked a lot about the family having secrets from one another and how they would not necessarily be the nice people that they appeared to be. The intruder would then uncover the dirt of the family, but it became tricky because it seemed to me that to be effective the family as you said had to be likable. You had to like them and you had to want them to be okay, otherwise you’d almost want them to meet their comeuppance. So originally the father was going to be having an affair and the intruder would secretly film such moments as these that the individual family members thought were secret. Then he would find a way of communicating those secrets to the other members of the family. If we were to ever make another one maybe that is a path we would go down because it would be a way of doing it a little bit differently. But once we had made that decision we also started to focus on the intruder and what he would be like. We talked about making him like something out of Hostel (2005) or a Jason type figure – scary to look at with a big physical presence that inspired fear just by looking at him. But when you see these people who are the new monsters in our society like James Holmes the Batman cinema killer or the guy who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School, they are kind of meek looking and unthreatening. And to me there was something about this intruder being almost sympathetic if it wasn’t for what he was doing. He’s perhaps slightly feeble minded and lonely. When he enters into this situation with this family as well as the other families he has filmed, he just wants to feel a part of the family. So it became that he would start unwinding the more he felt he was not a part of the family, and the happier they were without him then the more mental he would become. We found by not having him talk nor have an agenda that it was scarier because the audience has to fill in the blanks and use their imagination to try to figure out why and what and so on. I think I have a strong idea who this guy is, what he’s doing, where he comes from and what he gets out of tormenting these families. This for me makes for a stronger experience as the audience start trying to piece that together for themselves as opposed to me laying it out.
I habitually sit through the end credits as I believe they are an important part of transitioning out of the filmic experience. The end credits of Hangman are particularly creative. What was the motivation behind the credit sequence and how do you view the place of credits within the spectatorial experience?
Most of my films have had some kind of title sequence. I love the art of the titles and I think it is almost its own little genre in filmmaking. A lot of my favorite films have wonderful title sequences and a lot of my favorite moments in films are title sequences themselves. But mainly the motivation with Hangman to do that was simply that we didn’t have enough names to last for the full length of the piece of music that we used. Only a handful of people worked on the film – it was very low budget and very guerrilla the way that we made it. So trying to make something that lasted for three and a half minutes sort of led to the choices of making that music videoish title sequence.
One of the interesting things about Hangman was that we didn’t have a score for the movie, which to me is one of the most important tools you have when making a horror film. So to remove that was quite daunting, but I found a way around it, which was this track. It is the music that plays over the credits, but also throughout the film – basically it is the intruders favorite song, which he plays over and over again. And I very much wanted to use it for the credits and to play it in full because it is quite a powerful piece of music, and to my mind it very much puts you in the head of the intruder. So anyway that led to me wanting to play the whole track at the end of the film, and simply because we didn’t have enough names we took a more creative route and tried to do something that fitted the style of the intruder and his attic space set that we built. All of the photographs and so on were from that.
It is a fun way of ending the movie as well because a lot of these found footage movies such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity, which are the ones I really like and admire just go to black at the end. It is almost like they don’t want to have credits because they want to pretend that none of the people were actors – they were all real and everything you saw was real. In 2015 I think audiences are savvy enough to know whether or not this is a movie they are watching. This was another thing that led to casting Jeremy as well as Kate Ashfield from Shaun of the Dead (2004) and the Simpkins’ kids who have had very successful careers – recogniseable faces. I never wanted to pretend that this movie was real. It was always a movie and so having that title sequence at the end just let the audience know that it wasn’t suppose to be absolutely real.
How do you view the way in which Hangman has shaped you both personally and professionally, and how do you think it has informed you moving forward from a directorial or storytelling point of view?
I think getting married and having kids has changed me a lot as a person. This is my eighth feature now and with all of the other films I have done I have always been very emotionally connected to the material. I have put a lot of myself into them which has probably been to my own detriment. I always found it quite hard to disengage from the film once I had finished it and the film would very much be a mirror of my life most of the way through it, and certainly through my twenties and thirties. But with this film I just set out to make something that was entertaining and even though it is a dark film it is a lot more commercial and accessible than the other stuff I have done. So I really enjoyed making it, whereas looking back a lot the other stuff I have done tormented me and was not necessarily a fun experience. So with this I just wanted to do something that was very much for the sake of the enjoyment of the audience as opposed to in the past when I almost had a disrespect for the audience, and I got a little kick out of antagonising them somehow. Looking back to something like The Devil’s Chair (2007) it now seems almost like an attack on the audience, and I’m not really sure why I did that. It probably came from a place of deep self-loathing I imagine because I myself am a horror fan. So by criticising horror fans I was criticising myself. In that sense Hangman was very cathartic for me because I really enjoyed it and I really enjoyed the situation. The other films I have done have been full of drama off-camera and it was something that I brought upon myself a lot of the time. I think I was quite difficult to deal with and trying to be an auteur and an artist worked to my detriment. So with this I just let go of all that and I embraced the audience in trying to just make a good film that above all else was entertaining and that necessitated making it scary, dark and somewhat nihilistic. But ultimately I just wanted it to have fun and I look back on it very fondly. I don’t have any regrets.
Hangman, which premiered in the US at SXSW 2015, had its European premiere at FILM4 FrightFest 2015.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.