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Michael J. Bassett


Michael: "".

Conducted by Phil Davies Brown
August 14th, 2006

Michael J. Bassett became known amongst genre fans when his first feature film Deathwatch was unleashed on cinema screens here in the UK. The film did well and was equally as popular on DVD domestically and in the rest of the world.

I caught up with the talented newcomer ahead of his second film's release - survival horror movie Wilderness.

The film sees some of Britain's brightest talents (Sean Pertwee, Alex Reid & Toby Kebbell) trapped on an island with a mad survivalist and a pack of rabid dogs.

With Michael's popularity increasing amongst horror fans and his genre peers alike (Wes Craven recently earmarked him to direct The Hills Have Eyes 2) I caught up with Michael to discuss his work.

Read on to hear all about Wilderness, THAT meeting with Wes Craven and Michael's hopes for the future.

Wilderness is in cinemas in the UK now.

You started out in the industry as a TV presenter. When did you first become interested in filmmaking?
I always liked movies but it never occurred to me that I could make them. As a young teenager I was obsessed with ALIEN but it was years before I was old enough to actually watch it. It was really the first time I was aware that someone actually directed a film. Thatís why Ridley Scott is my idol; Alien then Blade RunnerÖthereís nowhere else to go after that double really.

The truth is, as a kid, I wanted to be a vet and thatís where my energy and interest lay when I was younger. I was a vetís assistant in the evenings and weekends when I was a teenager and ran my own wildlife hospital, so the filmmaking was never something that loomed large for me. It was only after I spent a few years on screen working as a TV presenter (rather badly as it turned out) that I thought I should just throw all my energies into trying to make films. Initially people thought I wanted to make movies about animals but the truth is I just want to blow stuff up :-)

Your feature film debut was the war time horror movie Deathwatch. The film was a hit at the box-office and was number 1 on DVD. How long did it take you to write, and how did you go about getting it made?
Itís generous to call it a hit but it wasnít a vast success, though it returned the investment which is an important part of the filmmaking equation. At least if you make your money back you have half a chance of getting another go round.


Michael: "".

Deathwatch evolved as an idea from two different directions: first, I wanted to make an interesting and unusual horror film that was going to be relatively cheap and easy to make (ďits nine guys in a hole in the ground, how hard can it be?!Ē) and also an interest in the human horror of World War One. Reading the war poets and just looking at photographs from the trenches it occurred to me that a horror film in that environment was going to be an interesting way of exposing the real terror of what happened to these men without it becoming an obviously preaching, tub thumping anti-war movie.

What was the shoot like? The characters went through a hell of a lot so it must have been taxing for the cast?
It was a spectacularly grueling shoot because we were literally in real trenches for 6 weeks. Ankle deep in freezing mud and being rained on constantly. It was all my fault, of course, so I couldnít complain but it was hard. I was pouring about 60,000 liters of water onto the set every day.

The cast were, without exception, astonishingly tough and good natured about it. Partly I think it was because no one wanted to be the guy who complained and seemed weak. Jamie Bell was only fifteen when he did Deathwatch and never complained at all Ė even when the rest of the cast grabbed him and rolled him in the mud, or when I nearly blew him up or whenÖwell, the incidents were endless and it was exhausting but we got through it.

The film ended up really looking and feeling just how I wanted it to and I think my cast did a pretty uniformly excellent task. The only real problem with it, as I look back now, was my limitations as a first time director and my handling of the horror itself. Probably to be a real hit, it needed more Ďschlockí horror stuff in it, but that might have taken away from the more cerebral and somber elements which make it popular with itís fans.

Speaking of the cast, how did you manage to assemble such a group of well established Brit talents?
I love casting and spent a long time meeting with many different actors. With an ensemble like this, you have to be careful about how you craft the dynamics of the group, but the truth is a good script attracts good actors and the script for Deathwatch seemed to work for them. Simple as that. Also, thereís nothing like running round with a gun pretending to shoot things. Most guys love that kind of thing, I know I do.

Were you surprised by the films critical and commercial success?
As I said before it wasnít hugely successful either critically or commercially. It ended up making money but it didnít ever really break out.


Michael: "".

Critically it was a really mixed response too from people hating it with an incredible, venomous bile (even emailing me and asking for their money back) to others thinking it was one of the smartest, most well executed horror films of recent years. What I do like is that it seems to grow in reputation as time goes by. It was never an instant smash but people seem to have come round to its more thoughtful elements and forgiven the failings, which is nice to hear. Trouble is, no matter how many nice comments you hear, itís only the bad ones that stick with you.

Your next feature Wilderness has already attracted a bit of buzz on the internet. How did you wind up directing the film?
I was working with the production company, Ecosse Films, on a different project and they asked me if Iíd take a look at Wilderness. Theyíd had it for a while with other directors attached but hadnít managed to get it off the ground. I liked the basic idea of the script and said Iíd do it if they allowed me to do some work on the characters and set-pieces (which basically meant I wanted them all a little darker, more complex and everything just bloodier.) Once that was agreed the script was sent out and it seemed a relatively easy process to get it up and running. Itís always a nightmare putting low budget productions together and Robert Bernstein, the producer, worked like mad to get it all in place, but once we were up and running it came together pretty quickly.

The cast includes actors from three of the best British movies Iíve ever seen, Sean Pertwee (Dog Soldiers) Alex Reid (The Descent) and Toby Kebbell (Dead Manís Shoes) how did you go about finding your cast this time around? Did they all audition, or were they approached?
I knew I wanted Sean Pertwee to play the warder so it was a straight ahead offer to him when we met. He has just the right amount of masculinity and vulnerability to pull it off and he worked amazingly well with all the lads. They really respected him and that helped the dynamic on set very nicely.

At the time no one had seen The Descent so Alex Reid came in to audition but it was soon apparent that she was a great actress who was very Ďrealí. In my opinion sheís the best actress in The Descent and Iím sure sheís going to go on to great things.

Iíd seen Toby Kebbell in Dead Manís Shoes and just thought he did an amazing job opposite Paddy Considine. Even though the part he plays in Wilderness was so different I just got a sense that heís a movie star in waiting. Thereís a stillness and strength there which I loved and he has such a photogenic face.

I was pretty lucky with the cast all around. Some of the faces you wonít know but there performances on screen for me were really impressive and they help elevate the movie above its generic slasher movie status into something much more sophisticated.

Were the shoots any easier on this film? I would guess no, what with the Alsatians and everything.
I think overall it was a little easier to make Wilderness than Deathwatch. It was still very physical and demanding but then again, all films are hard work. The difference this time was that I knew what to expect and had a little more control over it all. Also, this time, there were lots of locations so we were always traveling and setting up in new places; forests, mountains, rivers and seas Ė as well as dealing with the dogs and the action set-pieces. Itís hard to keep the energy and enthusiasm going all day every day but thatís the directorís job and so has to be done. I loved every second of it.

What are the current release plans for Wilderness?
Wilderness will be released in the UK on August 11th. As for the rest of the world, I have no real idea just now.

Is Neil Marshall pissed off at you for dipping into his acting pool?
Youíd have to ask him but I appreciate that heís testing all these people out for me :-)

Wes Craven announced last week that they are currently in talks with you to direct the sequel to the recent The Hills Have Eyes remake, are you able to comment on this?
I was obviously very flattered to be in the frame for that and it was great to meet with Wes Craven. Iím sure itís going to be a very cool project but the dates they want to make the film are clashing with something else I really want to do. So it seems that this isnít going to work out.

Would you be keen to make movies in America as opposed to Britain?
Unlike a lot of UK filmmakers I know over here, I actually love going to Los Angeles and meeting the studios and executives out there. Iím not an art film maker; Iím a genre guy who is trying to make smart, well crafted films within those boundaries Ė and maybe push them around a little too. In the UK genre has long been something of the poor relation but the Americans love this stuff. Thankfully more UK producers are enjoying spilling a little blood. But still, big movies are very expensive so you have to go.

This question doesnít actually mean anything any moreÖ. Most films are actually made in other countries than the US or the UK because of the costs. So what I think you mean is do I want to make films for American studios instead of UK independents? The honest answer is it doesnít matter to me. I just want to find ways of making the films that excite me that Iíd personally go and see. Many of these are the great big fantasy and action movies that the studios produce so I can certainly see myself doing that one day Ė if theyíll invite me.

Do you intend to keep working in the horror genre?
I donít want to work exclusively in horror but I think Iíll always work within the broad concept of genre movies. I especially like fantasy and sci-fi material and would want to tell some stories in those worlds too.

If you donít end up directing Hills 2, is there another project you would like to get rolling soon?
The project that Iím most excited about right now is called SOLOMON KANE. Itís a script Iíve written based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. My story is a dark fantasy adventure taking place in 16th century England and is a smart, visceral and very powerful story about a character balanced on the very edge of real darkness. All being well, this will start shooting in the autumn.


"Thank you ever so much for taking part in this interview Michael.
And we wish you the very best of luck in the future."

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