In the first of a two-part interview with up-and-coming British horror film makers Systir Productions, ANDREW GARVEY speaks to Amy Howell about the company’s background and their award-winning webseries ‘the Syndicate’.
Tell me a little about Systir Productions.
Systir Productions began really because my sister Vicky and I just used to talk a lot about different film ideas and stories and it got to a point where it seemed silly not to do something about it. Vicky was already working in film and theatre so she had the know how and contacts, and I knew about project management and was willing to learn about the business side of it, so it all made sense. I’d had an idea for a horror project that we’d talked about for a while so we started with that… then got side-tracked and ended up with ‘the Syndicate’ webseries as our first production. But the other idea is still cooking – it’ll appear one day!
As for our name, we’re sisters, and as far as we can tell from Google, the only sister filmmaking team in the UK so we should make a feature of that. Systir is actually an old Norse word for sister and we like that – although giving out details over the phone can be a long affair as no one can spell it!
What’s your role at Systir?
Systir on a daily basis is really just me and Vicky. I suppose I’m the producer and Vicky’s the writer/director, but we both produce and we both develop the projects. If we’re writing, we’ll get together to go over story ideas and development, then Vicky will go away and write it and then send me drafts and we’ll go over it again. If we’re in pre-production/shooting/post, the role division becomes clearer as we obviously bring in other people and it’ll be Vicky directing while I’m production managing, or sometimes I’ll be First AD (Assistant Director) depending on what’s needed. It works really well as, being sisters, we have a solid base to work from. That’s not to say we don’t disagree sometimes, but there’s no danger of one of us abandoning the other!
You released your webseries ‘the Syndicate’, a six-parter about an extended family of killers on youtube. How did that come about?
‘The Syndicate’ came about because of an idea I had about two serial killers stalking the same victim, realising this and ending up in the pub together. That scenario actually begins the webseries, but the story went through a large number of changes before it ended up as the story we made. It very quickly became about family, but at one stage it was vastly complicated and that’s when we knew we just needed to keep it simple and get to the heart of the story very quickly. The series is on Youtube and also on Koldcast and Minglemedia – these are all video on demand web platforms which basically act as internet TV stations.
Why did you make a webseries rather than a traditional film?
We made it as a webseries as this meant that we could self-distribute, making sure it got out there and was seen, rather than relying on it being picked up for distribution through festivals etc. When we started shooting in early 2010, webseries’ were just starting to make headway, and now they are becoming almost mainstream with well-known film and television actors and directors producing them. There’s a freedom in webseries as there are no TV channels or money men calling the shots, so the content can be whatever the creators want it to be. And webseries are beginning to be recognised, there are now festivals all over the world which showcase them, TV stations are actually starting to pick up webseries as well, so for us at that time, it was definitely the way to go.
As we were a new company, we knew that it would be very difficult to get any kind of funding without a track record of work, so we knew we needed to create and market that work ourselves. As Vicky had worked for so long in film and theatre, a lot of her friends and contacts were actors or crew members so we started with that. We wrote for locations we knew we had, for actors we knew could do the roles. But if we didn’t know someone right for a role, we auditioned and brought someone in, if we didn’t know someone with an essential crew skill we hired them. The essential thing was that the series should have the highest production values possible. There’s no point in doing something halfway or ‘making do’.
Everyone who worked on the series did so unpaid, either as a favour to us or because they needed material for showreels etc. We paid expenses, provided loads of food – essential on any shoot! – and everyone got full credit, a DVD copy and, if we ever make a profit, everyone gets a share of that profit. We don’t like to work that way, these are professional actors and crew members who are skilled at their jobs and should be paid for their time and talents, but with having to fund it ourselves it was the only way to do it. It is the only time we’ve done that and we really appreciate the fantastic way everyone worked together to produce the series. As a result we now have a track record of work, so the next step is to use that to get funding for future projects – and we’re taking those people who supported us at the start with us of course!
What kind of reception have you got from it?
In terms of audience, ‘the Syndicate’ is not a slasher/gore-fest type series, it’s character driven and a slow burn. We’ve had some great comments, and some lovely prizes from festivals, so that’s a brilliant testimony to everyone’s hard work. We’ve had some interesting reactions at festival screenings. We usually screen episode two, as it sets up the body of the story, but it is also the one with the most gore and we’ve had people gasping, moaning, watching through their fingers and sometimes walking out – which we love!
We’ve had good feedback as well of course, and the good feedback outweighs the bad by a mile, but we’d much rather people had a strong reaction to the series than that they be indifferent. The last reaction you want is ‘meh’. Our favourite reaction was a lady at the Marseille webfest in October who walked out of the screening and who I later overheard telling someone how disturbed she’d been by ‘The Syndicate’. When I, in a very friendly fashion, let her know it was our series, the woman literally threw her hands in front of her face and backed away from me, her eyes wide with horror. Now that’s a reaction!
You won a Hollyweb award for the Syndicate. What exactly IS a Hollyweb award?
Hollyweb is webseries festival in Los Angeles which features screenings of submitted series, and panels from webseries creators and others to do with production and marketing of internet content. Last year was the first year of the festival and it was great fun. The people who run it are very friendly and webseries creators, for the most part, are very much in the same boat in terms of funding and production struggles, so it sounds cheesy but there is a massive camaraderie between them and they are very welcoming. Hollyweb was the first festival we went to – and the first time we went to the States which was also exciting! – but we’ve since been to others, and won a couple of other prizes, and we now have some great friends in webseries creators from all over the world, which is brilliant.
Your latest project ‘Anna’ is a short horror film set in the woods. You raised money through a crowdfunding website. What are the advantages of raising money that way? And the drawbacks?
‘Anna’ is a short horror film written and directed by Alex Nicholson who is a television producer by day and this is his first short film, so we were brought on board to help produce it. This was our first experience of crowdfunding and, although it is a very useful way to raise money and awareness for a project, it is also ridiculously hard work – pretty much a full time job, which makes things a little tricky! It’s also now such an oversubscribed way of raising funds that you have to shout particularly loud to stand even a chance of being heard. But on the plus side, it is a great way not only of raising funds, but also of building engagement with your audience and raising an awareness of your project which you can then build on during the actual production process. We learnt a lot from doing it, and if we went down that route again there are definitely things we would do differently, but it was an interesting experience.
You recently did some filming for ‘Anna’. How did it go?
We filmed in Alice Holt woods which are near Farnham in Surrey and are a great location. They, and Bourne woods next door, are used a lot in big budget productions such as ‘Gladiator’, ‘War Horse’, ‘Harry Potter’ – in fact ‘Thor 2’ was filming next door in Bourne woods on the same night as us and even nicked a piece of our camera equipment when our delivery driver went to the wrong address. Cheeky blighters wouldn’t give it back either, but fortunately the hire company sent us a replacement so all was well in the end. We did tweet ‘Thor 2’ about it to see if they wanted to do battle – Cannibals vs. Asgardians but they didn’t reply… probably too scared…
The shoot itself was hectic as we only had the one night to get everything done, and when it’s cold and wet and one of your actors is permanently naked on screen that can be tricky! We had to adapt the number of locations used due to the weather, but Alex got everything he needed, everything looks great and the film is now in post-production so hopefully it will be finished in early 2013 ready to go out to festivals.
You’ve previously described ‘Anna’ as being inspired by Hammer Horror. What do you particularly like about Hammer and, which other British horror films have inspired your work?
We grew up on movies from Hammer, Amicus, American International and the like as well as the bigger budget Hollywood horrors – staying up much later than we probably should have done as children! Much as we also love a good gorefest, part of the attraction of the Hammer films etc. is that fact that these films were constrained by small budgets and a fast turnover – often using the same sets, costumes and props again and again – and this made them have to rely less on effects and more on characters and what is not seen. This ‘less is more’ approach is often much more scary as what can be imagined by an audience is much more frightening than anything that could be shown on screen. Seeing a knife stab someone through the eye will make you squirm, but hearing the sound whilst not quite being able to see what is going on will make you afraid.
‘Anna’ harks back to these films in that it is very British in feel and there is an air of mystery about the whole story. We are in woods, at night, there is no explanation as to why, there is a naked lady wandering about, pursued by an old-fashioned looking gent in tweed. The film feels as though anything could happen at any moment and that waiting and not knowing what might jump out creates a tension that hopefully will scare audiences.
Do you have any comments on the British horror film scene generally? And where do you fit in?
I think in any film genre the British do our best work when we’re just being ourselves and not trying to ape Hollywood or anyone else. In horror I think we do this perhaps more successfully than in other genres as we have such a strong tradition of it. From Chaucer to Elizabethan theatre to 18th and 19th century gothic novels to Dickens, M R James, Clive Barker, we know how to tell a horror story and we revel in being frightened. Horror films tend also to be an area where a production team can make a mark without having the backing of a studio or a big name, which seem to be the only ways of securing any kind of mainstream funding at the moment. British horror has become expert at using limited resources inventively, keeping locations to a minimum, using unknown actors and that’s something we’ve learned from and which we are continuing.
Any other upcoming Systir projects you want to tell us about?
We have two short films which are still being completed. ‘616’ is a proper B-movie style gorefest with a great central premise, which we want to get out there before someone else thinks of it because it really is something we’ve never seen before, and the other is ‘Drawn Together’, a slightly dark, largely silent rom-com in which nobody dies for a change but there are some creepy elements to it. See, we can’t escape it! Both of these involve animation and so are taking quite a while to finish, but an end is now in sight for both so we hope to have them both completed by the end of the year. We’ve had some interest in turning ‘the Syndicate’ into a feature film, which would be amazing, and we’ve delivered a script, which they liked, so we’re just waiting to see what happens with that. Other than that we have a second feature script we are working on with a view to finding funding for it in 2013, and a long term historical epic project which we’re researching at the moment and hope to be in a position to sell as a script within the next two years as that will require a larger budget.
Where do you see Systir Productions in five years time?
On a yacht hahaha! No, you know what, we’d just like to be in a position to be writing and producing films and online content as our full time jobs, rather than having to squeeze it in around our full time jobs. We’re in this for the long haul, and within five years I’d hope we could become self-sufficient as a production company, producing good work that people want to watch – that’d be great.