Interview with Michael Bassett, Director of Wilderness
11th Nov 06
What comes to mind when one thinks of the term ‘British Horror?’ Hammer House of horror? Amicus? The films of Pete Walker? Whatever the imagery conjured up, the connotations are perhaps most likely those of traditional, low budget, seventies-style fare, all heaving bosoms and turreted castles. The Seventies was the heyday of truly independent film production in Britain and this decade marked the peak of creativity for the genre. There is something quite stately about it, routed in a definite period, populated by various types whose comfortable lives are intruded upon by the likes of vampires, the occult or various spooks and ghouls. It’s unquestionable that the legacy left by Hammer Horror was indeed a strong and distinct one.
This somewhat dated image of the British Horror film has been changing recently, with more and more notable and prematurely–dubbed ‘classic’ films produced here. Over the past few years a distinctly new face has attached itself to British Horror. Films such as Dog Soldiers, 28 Days Later and The Descent have all done their bit to completely rejuvenate the genre on these shores and the homegrown horror film is making a come back and making it’s mark. With not a swishing cape, a clove of garlic or a wicker man in sight.
Wilderness, released on R2 DVD on October 23rd, presents itself as a gritty survivalist horror film with sadistic imagery and everyday characters thrust into an uncompromising situation. Director Michael Bassett had a very clear idea where this film would draw its influences. “I can remember watching a load of movies I thought would have some vague element of Wilderness in them. I watched stuff like Battle Royale and Deliverance.”
From a screenplay by Dario Polini, the film features six inmates from a young offenders detention centre who are sent to a remote Scottish island after the suicide of a fellow offender, for a week’s rehabilitation.
However, waiting for them on the island is someone with a somewhat different agenda. Equipped with an arsenal of weapons and a pack of highly trained attack dogs, a ruthless hunter begins to stalk the offenders, one by one, with ruthless and brutal efficiency. The hunted try to work together to face their attacker, but as the tension - and the body count - starts to rise, the inmates realise this is a punishment and the fraying binds that tie them together begin to unravel as dynamics shift. Filmed on location in Northern Ireland, the film stars Sean Pertwee, Alex Reid, Toby Kebbell and Karly Greene.
Wilderness has come about at a time when mainstream horror cinema seems to have reached a new peak in terms of violence and sadism on screen. Recent hits such as Hostel, Wolf Creek, The Hills Have Eyes and, perhaps most significantly Switchblade Romance, have created a new benchmark for what has become, seemingly, acceptable in terms of graphic imagery depicting rape, torture and blood flow in our multiplexes.
It seems that the last trend of popular horror where the power of suggestion took precedence over actually showing us what it was that we were afraid of really left audiences, while decidedly creeped out, obviously hungry for violence and gore. Heavily influenced by the legacy of Val Lewton, we had the likes of The Blair Witch Project, The Others and The Sixth Sense, all creeping horror and tension and never approaching anything that even remotely resembled explicitness.
Perhaps in a society where finding violent imagery isn’t too difficult (one only has to look at the internet to see all manner of corrupting and startling images), film makers have had to really push the boat out in terms of keeping up with the here and now.
The one thing that certainly sets Wilderness apart from the latest spate of extremely violent, sadistic horror films is the cast of young offenders as they are certainly afforded more characterisation than the usual run-of-the-mill slasher movie characters.
Bassett commented, “I thought there was something about this that was a little different. If you’re going to have a bunch of young offenders as main characters that makes it quite interesting. You can do interesting things with the characters; the actors can also do interesting things with the characters without turning it into an out and out character piece. I feel that may have turned off a genre audience, and that’s who this film is for, it’s a genre piece.”
So despite the carefully drawn out dynamics between the characters, this is still above and beyond all, a horror film at heart and its intentions are the same as any other horror film: to disturb, scare and excite. Bassett added, “I thought that the central idea was a pretty cool idea, when you boil it right down it’s basically a slasher movie, which is cool, I grew up watching those – there’s a place for those kinds of films in anyone’s video collection.”
“In terms of cast, Sean Pertwee is of course known well in the genre (Dog Soldiers, Event Horizon) and it was cool to work with him and also we had Alex Reid who was in The Descent (and the Fantastic Factory production Arachnid), so we had a bit of a Neil Marshall cast off. It was then a question of trying to find the right faces for the rest of the characters.
Toby Kebbell who was in Shane Meadows’ film Dead Man’s Shoes plays Callum. His character doesn’t really have much to say so I was looking for someone who could be quite expressive. It was just a case of mixing and matching what you have.
The actor who played Steve (Stephen Wight) actually auditioned for another role however he gave such a ferocious performance I had to have him as Steve. You only needed to look into his eyes and you were convinced there was a psychopathic killer in there somewhere.”
The idea for the film and the subsequent drafting of the script, which came about in the current climate of brutal British horror films, was an interesting coincidence. Bassett and his producer Robert Bernstein were working on one idea, while writer Dario Poloni was working on a completely separate yet oddly similar script.
Bassett explains: “Robert and I were working on something else together and there’d been talk about this other script for a while and I was thinking ‘Well, why haven’t I seen this bloody script yet?’
So, I finally got hold of a copy and realised that what Robert and I were already working on (Wilderness) was not a million miles away from what this script was. At one stage another director had been attached, however because I tend to get pigeon holed as a director of horror, it was thought I might be more at home making the film. I did several drafts of the script; the original was by Dario Poloni. We combined our central ideas and I added further elements. I wanted to make sure that it had a certain element of my voice in it though. I made the characters a little bit darker, a little nastier; I introduced the rape sequence and a few other elements to make it interesting.”
Another element that Bassett brought to the film was to flesh out each of the characters enough to create an ensemble piece, in which it would never be clear who would survive and who wouldn’t.
Bassett comments; “This film is also an ensemble like my first feature film Death Watch. I like ensembles because it’s interesting to give each character their own little moment, something interesting, telling and quirky to do.
It takes time to establish characters and the situation they are in. It was no different in Wilderness. There is also quite a long time before the opening titles appear. This was a last minute but very definite idea. I wanted the Borstal scenes at the beginning of the film to be a completely separate entity to the rest of the film. The only way to make a clear divide was through the titles. It’s a major structural issue.
Certain things needed to happen in order to fuel the narrative, these characters needed to be fleshed out quite significantly early on. The only danger I can imagine with this is that the intrusion of the titles will maybe take some viewers who have already got involved in the movie, back out of it. I’m hoping it will be easy to plunge back into it again though. I hope the characters will be strong enough to help this happen.”
In terms of trying to create a horror film that is quite different and interesting and perhaps even a little unconventional, but still atmospheric enough and effective enough to affect the audience is something Bassett seems to strive for in his work. Like Death Watch before it, Wilderness features a limited number of pronounced characters in a manageably small location and has a different feel to it than many horror films. Trying not to fall into stereotypical and clichéd standards, Bassett creates fully fledged characters, not slasher fodder.
For all Bassett’s pains though, the film does feature one element that could be described as an old and somewhat detrimental cliché, the fact that the (only) black character dies first. Bassett explained that this had been a cause for concern for him.
“I was slightly concerned with all the subtext of having a black guy strung up in a tree, he’s also the first to die, but there was no deliberate attempt to do that. It was just how the cast fell; it was all down to chance. I talked to the actor who played this character to see if he had any concerns about this and he said it made no difference to him.”
While this was a cause of grievance for him, Bassett is also quick to add that this particular moment in the film was also a catalyst for behind the scenes dark comedy. “I remember shooting the scene where Jethro is hung from a tree beside a river. So here we have him, up in a tree, his insides on the outside, covered in gore, dying and all of a sudden a party of school kids came along the bank on the other side of the river and all of a sudden we had a lot of very frightened kids and very concerned teachers!”
Another element of the film that stands out and proves to be quite effective is the use of a pack of bloodthirsty hunting dogs.
“The dogs I used were from Scotland. I wanted Rottweilers but they do not have the stamina that was required. The dogs we ended up with took a lot of training and even then, I didn’t get the one shot I really wanted which was of four or five dogs on one man, pulling him down to the ground and swarming all over him.
There was no guarantee where they would bite, the person would have needed heavy padding, so already there goes the shot, it just wouldn’t have worked, and the padding would have been too conspicuous. I also wanted a few shots from the victim’s point of view but there were difficulties with that too. I eventually decided to just do it myself. I can tell you, when those dogs bite you, they do not let go. My padding was covered in holes but I think it was worth it!”
Wilderness also boasts a number of rather impressive locations around Northern Ireland. Shooting the film there was quite an experience for the director, sometimes good, sometimes not.
“There’s no denying it and there’s no skirting around the issue, there is still a lot of tension in Northern Ireland. Whether or not I’m looking at it as an outsider and have my own baggage because of that and the fact that I grew up somewhere else. We had just finished shooting and had to be out of there before marching season kicked off. On Cave Hill, outside Belfast, while we were shooting there were practice marches and military helicopters all around and stuff like that. Driving back from Cave Hill, we had a map that had various ‘no go’ areas marked off on it.
There were no problems with bonding within the crew though and as I said before I do think you bring a little more baggage with you as an outsider. There was a certain nervousness on my part, but everything went well. We had a lot of crew from Southern Ireland; I believe we were the only crew making a film at that time.”
While things eventually worked out well for the crew while filming in Northern Ireland and he admits the landscape adds to the overall feel of the film, Bassett confesses that he had looked at other locations before settling for Ulster.
“The Isle of man was also a location that we looked at. My main concern was what the camera was pointing at, not where the camera was. It’s all about trying to get a balance of what you have in your head and what you can actually deliver. I don’t believe in approaching my films in an arty farty manner. The machinery of filmmaking impacts the creativity of making a film.
I’m primarily concerned with making sure the film works and will satisfy the audience. I only care where the camera is pointing; I’m less concerned really, with where the camera is. Although I do feel it was a good location for this film and I liked scouting for locations as we went along; going out into the woods and finding the film as it happened.”
The crew were in Northern Ireland for a few weeks, working from late May until early July. It was a 30-day shoot with twelve weeks of postproduction and an estimated budget of £3,000,000. Bassett confessed it could be difficult working within a limited budget.
“The whole business side of film making is something you really need to get to grips with. It can be startling when you make the transition from making short films with relatively little money to feature films with a budget of several thousand. You need to be commercially aware too. Again, it’s a question of trying to get a balance of what you have in your head and what you can actually deliver.
Time was of the essence too. I had to be really tough at times and know when to finish shooting something and go back to it at a later time. It’s important to strike that balance and make the most of the limited time and money you have. When it boils down to it, I’d rather make a film than write a film, so I’m open to adapting to changes, whether they be budgetary restraints or time constraints, I did do a little re-writing to allow for such occurrences. As a film maker I think you have to be willing and know when to do that.”
The willingness to do this without compromising his vision too much, coupled with the fact that he was willing to put himself at the mercy of a pack of attack dogs for a cool shot, marks Bassett as an extremely strong willed film–maker, comfortable with his vision and how to go about capturing it on film.
When asked about the impending future of Wilderness, what the future has in store for him and film making in general Bassett replies:
“I see the future of films in terms of being able to download them. Years ago I might have felt worried if my films didn’t get a theatrical distribution, now I see nothing wrong with releasing them straight to video or DVD or whatever. In terms of keeping costs down, it’s good and people will still get to see it.
People now have home entertainment systems, surround sound, wide screen TVs; you can practically have your own little cinema in your living room. Computers and digitalisation have become such an integral part of filmmaking and I think that you have to move with the times.
It is however, still so important to have a romance with film. You need to have a dream. I’m not that worried about being pigeon-holed as a horror director. My next project is going to be more of a fairytale fantasy than out and out horror.”
Wilderness promises to be a horror-thriller in which the punishment doesn’t necessarily fit the crime.