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An Interview with Peter Handford


Peter: "I wanted it to be a complete story and not just one that had characters who were there just to die".

Peter Handford
Interview conducted by John Townsend
29 January 2014

Peter Handford established Mod Scientists in 2010 with fellow film school alumni Bethany Clift. Their aim was to independently produce films their way and first feature Heretic is available now. A truly absorbing, and disturbing ghost story Heretic tells the tale of a priest struggling with his own personal demons.

Religion and the supernatural are very popular themes for horror films. What do you think sets Heretic apart?
The religion element is there but I wanted the film to have a broader theme and for me itís more about blind faith. I was brought up Catholic but not to the extreme levels of the film which is very much old testament. The film is about a man, Father Pallister, who completely invests himself in a doctrine that he canít see beyond or even question and just follows it blindly. That leads to the tragedies in Heretic. I think the Catholic element makes it more powerful especially in a mainly Christian country like England. Our main character could easily have been a teacher or had any other job and while this may not have been as impactful it would still have been about someone who does and sees things differently. He doesnít think for himself and just hides behind the rules.

There are the two priests; Father Pallister who is questioning his faith and is cynical following past events and Father OíNeill who is more modern and relaxed. How important was this contrast to you and to the film itself?
Absolutely important. Once we came up with the characters it was imperative that Father OíNeill was completely opposite to Father Pallister. I tend to describe it as the Old Testament meets the New Testament in terms of thinking. Father OíNeill sees religion as a helpful force which is a more modern take and Father Pallister is still stuck in the old beliefs, a world full of rules and doctrines and penance. It was important also that the other characters could grow while Father Pallister remained stuck in his world.

The film could be termed a slow burner in the sense that elements of the truth are only revealed very slowly. Was it difficult to construct an absorbing narrative without giving too much away too early?
Itís difficult to answer as to be honest I didnít have the ending when I was writing it so I didnít know exactly where it was going. Then through the development it all slotted in to place and I then had to go back and rewrite a fair bit. In some respects though this worked as for a while I was the audience, I didnít know what was going to happen either, until the penny dropped. It reminds of something I once read by Stephen King, where he says that the story is already there and that you just have to let the characters tell it. Thatís great in theory but not always so easy. I guess the ending of Heretic was one of those few organic moments where it just came naturally.

I wondered, did you initially set out to write a horror story or did it begin as the tale of a troubled priest and develop from there?
It was always a horror but the original concept was very different. At first it was about a priest trapped in his church under siege from these creatures. When we were developing it in the early stages though I wanted to do a spooky horror that had something to say for itself. I wanted it to be a complete story and not just one that had characters who were there just to die. Then slowly it became this story of a man who had let a young girl down.

Peter: "I wrote it with no thought for budget".

Hereticís style reminded me of classic horror, perhaps in the Hammer style at times, of being chilling rather than relying on more obvious scares for its impact. Was the atmosphere of the film more important than simply scaring the audience?
The question that pops up is that whether the atmosphere is created by a lack of budget. I wrote it with no thought for budget but I always knew in the back of my head that we were going to make Heretic ourselves so we wouldnít have access to millions. That meant it wasnít going to be hugely bloody and effects laden. What we did was go back and write what I called budgeting drafts where we prepared the script for what we could do. We were conscious of not making just another bloody, violent film and wanted to make something creepy and old school, maybe with the odd explosive moment. The intention was always to keep it fairly quiet and have the horror in the audienceís mind as much as on-screen.

I did wonder while watching if you had grown up with enforced organised religion as the film does seem to have a message of questioning the whole sin and repent confession culture. Were you conscious of how far you would take the message and what people might take from it?
For me it was more of a structural thing. If the reveal had been earlier then maybe we would have explained that further. In a much earlier draft this was the case and the film became much more a battle of wills like in the original Halloween film, almost like a cat and mouse situation. We moved the focus of the story so the end of film was from Melissaís perspective, and left James as a killer who never comes to terms with what he is. But as I was writing though the focus changed and centred on Father Pallister and his story, and this is what we ultimately wanted. We were keen to make it more than just black and white and this was why it changed. We reined it in a little and kept it to his personal story and journey.

Peter: "The casting of all the characters was very important".

With a pretty small cast and limited budget a great reliance is placed on the performances. Casting is always important but how much more so is it in a film of this nature?
The casting of all the characters was very important but especially Father Pallister as heís on screen for the majority of the film. We did an audition day for all the cast and got it down to about 60 people that we brought in. We had them in for most of the day doing various monologues or threw in generic horror scenes for them to improvise. It was quite exhausting for the actors but what it did for us was let us see who could really play the characters and who could work together as the chemistry was really important. Possibly most importantly though it let us see who we could work with in a real pressure environment. Through the process though we found the right people who really nailed their characters.

You started Mod Scientists in 2010. How important is it that filmmakers like yourselves are taking responsibility for your productions?
I think what we have done with Heretic is right for us but not necessarily right for everyone. I obtained a screenwriting MA and then started writing off to various places, entering writing competitions, but it came to the point where we thought we either just stick to the day jobs or just make something ourselves. So I wrote the first draft of Heretic. We have been asked why we didnít make shorts to learn the craft but unfortunately theyíre just not commercial and with digital advancements making a feature isnít all that different. You still need the locations and the cast and everything else just for a 10 minute piece, and they cost money too. I like shorts but I like movies more. As I say it isnít for everyone but it was for us. As the film has now had a cinema release, and is available on all formats from iTunes to DVD, weíve done what we set out to do.

Given the growth and popularity of film festivals do you think this is the future of filmmaking with word of mouth being more important than marketing?
Film festivals are certainly one channel but itís not the only way. We didnít really do much at festivals in the end. Someone said to us we needed to think about film festival strategy and weíd just finished editing at the time and I couldnít believe I needed to think about this as well. Thereís so much more to worry about in choosing the right festival and if itís a premiere or not, and it just goes on and on. There are many things written about the filmmaker needing to be the marketing guy as well now and for the most part thatís unnatural. Iím not sure if that answers the question or not. (laughs) But ultimately, regardless of how inexpensively you made you film, you still need a way of getting it to an audience. Film festivals are just one of many options.

This a time when it is relatively easy for anyone to go out and make a film with some being shot on iphones even. On the one hand it means creativity has a chance but on the other it means the market could be flooded with poor quality films. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it comes down to what you want to do with your film or product. Iíve always been a believer in shooting for the stars and we really wanted Heretic to have a proper cinematic release so we shot it on the right cameras for that. But if you wanted to do a web series on YouTube then a smartphone becomes a cost-effective option. So it is all about what your objective is. In terms of anyone being able to make films these days I think thatís about a bigger issue of so much being available and how does the good stuff float to the surface. But that isnít just a problem films have, itís the same with books and music as well.

What are your favourite horror films and what have you enjoyed recently?
Itís such a difficult question. I know Iíve spoken about doing things more quietly and atmospheric but I have to say itís John Carpenterís The Thing. I think itís the last truly great horror film that didnít use computer effects. We havenít yet got to the point where CGI is seamless so it can look a little too polished. In fact most of my favourites are 80ís films like American Werewolf In London so it probably goes against everything Iíve said. (laughs) Of the more recent ones Iíve liked, Audition and the first wave of the Japanese horror films were impressive. I havenít really seen any of the recent remakes like Carrie or Evil Dead so I canít really speak on them. To be fair horror is one of those genres where the remake can work if something new and interesting is done with it.

What can you tell us about your next projects?
The next project for Mod Scientists is being written by Bethany. Our deal was that Iíd do the first and sheíd do the second so the one sheís on with now is called The Factory, which is more of a black comedy and very different to Heretic. Itís maybe something like a cross between Bridesmaids and The Descent so very female led and that one looks like it could be pretty gory from the first draft. Personally Iím working on a few projects but Iím not sure which one will become my next.

Thank you very much for your time today Peter.
No problem at all, thank you very much.

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

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