ANDREW GARVEY speaks to David Keith, director of new Scottish horror flick, Attack of the Herbals
Attack of the Herbals is your first full length feature film. Can you tell us a little about your earlier work?
David Keith: I’ve made three short horror movies prior to making Attack of the Herbals, I really think it’s the perfect genre for up-and-coming filmmakers to learn the mechanics of filmmaking and is by far the easiest and cheapest way to get a movie made. My first short horror film as called Evil In The Hills, a 20 minute traditional slasher movie set in the Scottish Highlands. At the time I had no crew and only a few friends that were interested in helping out on the production. We more or less marched up to the Highlands with a camera and started constructing the film round a single lone character. For me, personally it was a great film to make as it relied solely on the camera and direction to tell the story as the main character doesn’t speak. My other short movies Demonic and Dead-Funny got some festival recognition and gave me the chance to work with dialogue, it also give me the chance to mix with industry insiders and get some good advice and feedback.
Which horror films (particularly British ones) have inspired your work?
DK: I won’t lie but I find hard to really pick out some truly great British horror films that I personally like. Most of my youth was spent watching films from the US like Nightmare On Elm Street and The Evil Dead. The last British horror movie I liked, I guess, was Severance. I know most filmmakers my age say this but I still love watching the old Sam Raimi films. If you want to learn about camera movement and amazing dramatic shots you only have to stick in the Evil Dead trilogy to watch a true master at work.
Where did the idea for Attack of the Herbals come from?
DK: While making the short films I always wondered if I could pull off a feature film, I was down at a horror festival in London and our short film Dead-Funny had just won five out of seven possible awards when a producer from ‘Working Title Films’ started speaking to me, he more or less told me short films are only seen as ‘show reels’ in the industry and if I wanted to get to the next level I would need to produce a feature film.
I decided to stick with the horror genre but this time add in some humour just in case I couldn’t pull off the scares. My thinking at the time was ‘if I can’t successfully scare them I’ll make the movie so silly they’ll have no choice but to laugh at it’. Crazy people addicted to tea seemed like something I could make fairly cheap, add in the back story about Nazis and I had something I thought might be possible to shoot and at the same time have some commercial value.
At this point I had been working with a small local production company in Aberdeen for nearly nine years and had just parted company, it was this exact moment I decided if I was ever going to make a feature it was going to be that time. I took all my savings and invested it into the movie and within weeks had started shooting. Looking back it probably wasn’t the most sensible thing to at the time but it really forced me to knuckle down and get it finished.
Horror-comedies can be extremely difficult to do – getting the balance right between laughs and scares isn’t easy and far too many films end up neither scary nor funny. How do you do it and which films do you think get it right?
DK: I thought it would be a good idea to place the characters in an almost exaggerated version of a small Scottish village. It seemed funny to me to play with all the clichés and stereotypes associated with Scotland and incorporate them into the script. The more silly the scenes got the more I asked the actors to play it straight and I think we just get away with it and no more. I think you need to have a lot of balls to do a straight out horror or comedy. Ultimately, your movie will succeed or fail on how successfully you pull off the scares or laughs. I decided to be a coward and use a little bit of both with an added pinch of salt. My next film is a straight out horror movie so I guess I’ll find out if I can pull off horror, but for Attack of the Herbals and the circumstances around which it was made I think I did the right thing by making the movie more of a spoof. Films like The Evil Dead and Shawn of the Dead absolutely nail getting the balance right between getting laughs and scares. If I can at least get one jump or laugh I’ll be a happy man.
Can you tell us a little about the making of Attack of the Herbals?
DK: The final budget was just over £15,000. I wouldn’t even regard the movie as low budget, it was micro budget. I had built up a large amount of film gear while shooting my short films so decided to use that and cut and mix the movie myself to save money. None of the actors got paid while shooting and when not acting in front of the camera they would also be the camera crew behind it. It was funny to see actors covered in blood pulling focus and a grown man dressed head to toe in a full Scottish regalia recording sound. At one point even my girlfriend’s seven-year-old daughter was doing the clapper board to help out.
Because the actors had day jobs I was forced to shoot at weekends. The film took 35 full days to shoot stretched out over nine months. The free days in-between shooting give me the chance to cut the movie as we were going along and gave me the chance to change things or re-shoot parts that weren’t working out. I cut a rough version of the film and was fairly happy with what we had done with more or less no money. I gave the footage to a friend and he cut a three-minute trailer we hoped would bag some kind of distribution deal or at least some interest. Armed with a list of all the companies that had attended the Cannes Film Festival the year before, I started emailing out the trailer praying someone would see some potential in the movie and help us get it out to a audience. At this point I was flat broke and really starting to question If I should have risked everything for a movie of this type. Having to explain the movie revolved about Nazis and tea was one thing, but getting a distributor to pick it up was another.
We started getting replies from all the British distributors who proceeded to politely pass on the movie, then suddenly we started getting replies from America and Australia all interested in representing the film. LA based sales agent ‘Camelot Entertainment’ phoned us up and offered to help us through post-production and final delivery if we signed up straight away. Their jaws hit the floor when I told them the budget for the movie and how we made it. They give me some good pointers on the edit and gave us a budget to go back into production and shoot some big action set pieces. We always had a wish list of big action scenes we wanted to do but just never had the money to pull it off so it was great to finally get the movie the way we had always intended it.
So it’s not exactly easy getting an independent British horror film made and distributed.
DK: Not at the moment. Looking back it’s amazing we managed to get it made. The trailer and artwork made by our sales agent cost more than our entire feature film budget put together. It kind of puts it into perspective when you hear stuff like that. The entire industry is changing though and I personally think getting low budget movies distributed is going to get easier in the future. The way films can be streamed now and the fact VOD (video on demand) is starting to really take off makes me the think having to buy a physical DVD might soon be a thing of the past.
Speaking of which, Attack of the Herbals is released on DVD on Monday 25th June. What sort of reception has the film had so far at screenings, festivals etc.?
The reviews are slowly starting to come in and have been very positive so far. The movie is so tongue in cheek I think people are finding it hard to give it a bad review. It’s definitely not a movie that will appeal to everyone but I think the audience it was intended for will enjoy it. It just goes to show you don’t need a big fancy camera and hundreds of thousands of pounds to make a successful movie. Attack of the Herbals isn’t going to win any awards but it will sure as hell make you think twice before you have your next cup of Nazi tea!
You make a fine point. Before we finish, I wanted to ask about the Scottish film industry. In the last few years we’ve seen a lot of Scottish horror films and a lot of horror films set in Scotland. Why do you think that is?
Apart from Scotland being an amazing location to shoot a movie I think it has a lot to do with new camera technology becoming more available to filmmakers. Making a film doesn’t seem to be as impossible as it did 10 years ago, and if you’re a filmmaker in Scotland you only have to drive for three hours to get locations big Hollywood productions can only dream of getting.
And finally, what can you tell us about your next film project?
We have two movies in early pre-production, Sucker-Slam and The Red Wood Massacre. Both movies have gotten a lot of interest but it looks like it’s going to be The Red Wood Massacre first. It’s more your traditional slasher film with a cool genre-bending twist, while Sucker-Slam is all out crazy with vampires against wrestlers and alternative dimensions. We also have a finished script for Attack of the Herbals 2 which could happen in a few years if the original sells well enough.
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David Keith’s previous short horror films
ANDREW GARVEY lives in Staffordshire. He writes (infrequently) about mixed martial arts, professional wrestling, history, horror and folklore. Follow him on Twitter: @AMGarvey Check out more Andrew Garvey articles for the Spooky Isles here.