Christopher Smith Interview: Changing the Shape of Horror

Christopher Smith’s Triangle (out now on DVD) may not boast as much gore as Creep or Severance, but the story of six shipwrecked pals who climb aboard a seemingly deserted ship is his most unsettling outing to date. The gleefully enthusiastic filmmaker chatted to Matt McAllister about twists, doubles and the upcoming Black Death…

Was Triangle inspired by a single idea or image?

Yes, I wondered what it would be like if you were on an upturned yacht and you approached a ship and found someone looking down on you… and then the final image is of you looking down on yourself. I’ve been thinking a lot about what inspired Triangle beyond that. I was obsessed with La Jetee for a long time, and The Shining is obviously an influence – we don’t know whether it’s all in her mind or it’s actually a haunted ship.

But also, looking back I’ve realised that I’ve been obsessed with doubles. There’s this scene in Severance where Danny Dyer looks at himself, which is inspired by the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey where he goes through the time hole and sees himself. I think I’ve always been obsessed with this idea of two people looking back on themselves – that’s where the themes came from.

It’s a pretty complex, twisty story. Did you find it difficult to avoid tying yourself up in knots with the plotting?

I was tied up in so many knots! But I spent two years on this idea. I see the kids talking on the net. There are always a few that go, “It doesn’t make sense mate!” because of this reason or because of that. But all the things that these kids are thinking of, I’d already thought of during the writing process! (Laughs) They still haven’t got one that works – I’m watching it waiting for them to come up with a loophole that does!

People seem to enjoy speculating on what it all means…

Oh yeah. But I don’t want to say it’s about one thing or another – it’s about all of the things people think it is. It’s about psychosis, it’s about a person dying and ending up in her purgatory, it’s a ghost ship story…

I wanted it to have all of these readings. I didn’t want it to be like an M Night Shyamalan movie where there’s this final big twist – it would have been horrendous if you’d go, “Oh, I get it,” at the end. Instead I go to film festivals and see people coming out saying, “That was weird!” (Laughs)

Despite the clever plot, there’s still a real character at the heart of the film…

Oh, absolutely, it’s about emotion. All those films that are about a twist or a clever idea can often be about nothing else, and you walk away and don’t remember them. I was keen not to fall into that.

The only thing that is tricky in a film like this is that the other characters are subservient to the main character. But with Jess, you get a whole emotional journey across the movie. You see different sides of her at different times. You can see that she’s a deeply troubled woman right from the get-go when you see her struggling with her kid – you know straight away that this isn’t going to be the remake of Friday the 13th. And you feel real emotion at the end.

What I love about films like The Shining and The Exorcist is that you care for the characters. We’ve kind of lost that. A lot of the films I watched as a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, they didn’t care about that. It was just about body counts, and we’re still obsessed with that in horror movies. It’s much better and more twisted if you get to know the characters!

It’s a very ambitious movie. Were there any particular challenges you faced during filming that you hadn’t come across before?

Well, the hardest thing with Triangle was the writing of it. The only hard thing about shooting was we were on a very tight budget and it was a very ambitious film. Actually, it was the biggest budget I’d worked with, but it felt like the smallest. You could make a hundred million dollar movie and it would make no difference. Because all you want as a filmmaker is time.

You think a bigger budget would make it harder – it doesn’t. Or you’d think a scene like the storm sequence would be hard, but it’s like a playground! Breathing life into scenes – that’s the important thing, especially as potentially this could have ended up as a sterile movie. I have this crazy style on set where I run around like a big kid – I think the energy comes across on screen.

Another inventive genre movie recently was Timecrimes. Have many people remarked to you about the similarities between the two films?

I haven’t actually seen Timecrimes. But weirdly, when I came up with the idea for Triangle in 1994, I had such a swagger about it. I thought there’s no way anyone could make anything even remotely similar to this!

I don’t just look at Timecrimes, I also look at Moon and others. There are a lot of films at the moment that deal with looking inwards. If you look at the period from 2003 to 2006, there were a lot of torture films being made – and I made two films with torture in them, Creep and Severance. I think that the images of torture on TV – of Abu Ghraib and things like that – fed into us and made torture the unpalatable thing that went on behind the scenes. What happened later was we kind of asked who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Should we be there or not? That, I think, has fed into culture with films more recently.

You know, I really must watch Timecrimes. The reason I haven’t is that I’m worried if they have a very simple fix to a problem that took me years to fix! But everyone that’s seen it tells me that it has a neat but not emotional ending. My film’s got an emotional dream quality to it. They’re remaking it in America in the next few years. I thought of going to the company and saying can I remake it? That would be something! (Laughs)

How you think you’ve developed as a filmmaker since Creep?

I read this really good review of Black Death in Variety yesterday and it described me as “This steadily-improving helmer”! (Laughs) I think I’m growing in the sense I’m trying to do something different each time. I’m getting more noticed now, maybe because I’m still chipping away!

But I think you learn to play the game more. I’ve always been a film nut. But you come to understand the way to operate not just the camera but the whole machine that goes behind it. You know when to say, “I’ll need a week to shoot that.” On Creep I was like, “Oh, I’ll do that in a day.” On my short films I had a day to shoot the entire thing! You learn how to use your time more.

If I remade Creep now I’d find a way of making it a little slicker – but would it be better? I don’t know. I wouldn’t have done the torture scene now. Now I would think that scene is hardcore and too near the mark. But when I was 30 I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” But then when you look at something like Lord of the Rings… For me, the story of how Peter Jackson got to make Lord of the Rings is more interesting than the film. The fact that he went from making these small movies like Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles – that’s a story!

Would you like to do something massive like Lord of the Rings?

Yeah I would. I’ve said to my agent I’d like to do a film with a proper budget and schedule! I saw The Wolfman the other day, and there were problems with that film. I just thought to myself, “I could have smashed it out of the park!” There were some brilliant set-pieces, and the first 10 minutes were great. But they needed more character, they should have made it more like Coppola’s Dracula. If you’re making a film like The Wolfman you’ve got to make sure you’re hitting it. If you’ve got a day to shoot something that I would shoot in a hour, it better be good!

Would you tag yourself as a ‘horror director’? Your films are all very different but loosely within the genre…

I think so. But then I’d love to make comedies. I had great fun making Severance, and I feel very comfortable in the comedy world. I would come on set, think of a twisted idea, get Danny Dyer to act it out and then laugh! I’d love to do a rom-com. I’ve promised one to [Triangle actress] Rachael Carpani. It would be a twisted rom-com though!

You wrote Creep and Triangle, but worked from someone else’s script on Severance and Black Death. Do you have a preference?

I’m going to put someone else’s name on the next script I write, because actors seem to be more open when it’s not your script! I think it’s good to hear actors suggest different ways of doing it.

Both have pros and cons, but I actually think it’s refreshing to work on other writers’ script because you come at it from a different angle. I’m not someone who says I’m only going to make films based on my own scripts, because I find it very painful and time-consuming to sit and write a script. I’m not like the character in Almost Famous who stays up every night writing – I like making films!

Your new movie, Black Death, is released in the UK in May. How would you describe it?

It’s a medieval guys on a mission movie that questions faith and the way faith exploits people. It’s a dark film that says this is what we were all like under Christianity 600 years ago. The fear of the Devil got into us. When the plague arrived people thought it was one of two things: they thought it was sent by God to punish us for our sins or it was the Devil. It was a time when fear was being sold to the public. I love the parallel to now.

It sounds like you took a more realistic approach than this year’s other medieval movies, Solomon Kane and Season of the Witch…

Yeah, it’s nothing like those. The period is the thing, and what’s more interesting than the period of the Black Death? Fundamentalism was rife, it was the worst plague that ever hit England… It’s about evil in the real world, but it’s not fantasy.

The Variety review said that it’s easy to become arch in this type of film, but we avoided it, and that’s true. It’s easy to become Monty Pythony in scenes of witchburning – we really had to steer of that and avoid the clichés. We tried always to say what would it really be like? What would a swordfight sound like? We wanted it to be realistic, the sound of ‘clunk, clunk, clunk’. It feels fresh because of that.

In fact, we took out all of the big budget sounds. Sound is amazing in film, especially horror films. But if you put a big Hollywood score on a scene that should feel raw, it can somehow feel cheap. Whereas if you put the right sound on it feels purposeful and designed. You see these guys trying to put big scores on low-budget films and it does the opposite than they think.

What’s next for you? I hear you could be making a film version of Robert Muchamore’s CHERUB books…

Yes, I’ve been working on that for a long time. It’s Spy Kids meets Shane Meadows! It’s based on a book series about an agency that uses naughty kids with ASBOS who are channelled, Nikita-style, to work for the government.

And I want to do a good werewolf film. I think there’s a way of making werewolves scary again like they were in The Howling. The first 20 minutes of that film were dirty… It was great!

Triangle is out now on DVD (region 2) from Icon Entertainment. Black Death is released in UK cinemas in May 2010.

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