Indie Horror maestro Pat Higgins on his love of the genre
We were over the moon to sit down with Pat Higgins, the man behind cult horror flicks Hellbride , The Devil’s Music , KillerKiller , and the original writer of Strippers vs Werewolves , and talk about why horror gets him out of bed in the morning, how stand-up prepped him for a career in film, and the trauma of learning that Sam J. Jones didn’t really save the universe in 100 minutes.
You’re a writer, director and producer with your own company (Jinx Media), who lectures on screenwriting and filmmaking. You’re also a dad and husband. How do you fit it all in?
With great difficulty! The trick is to compartmentalise and set aside time for each role. Flexibility is essential, different elements need different amounts of time. I had a situation recently where an unexpected rewrite came up and I had to reshuffle everything and cut back on lecturing to concentrate on screenwriting. If you can expand and contract different compartments while still giving them all attention, you can juggle them. It’s a lot better than not having enough to do!
Fangoria described you as “one of the most promising Horror directors”. Tell us about your brand of horror and why it gets you out of bed in the morning.
I love horror. Decades after seeing my first horror film (Alien), the genre can still surprise me. I watch as much of the genre as I can now, although as a kid I was scared of it as I thought it would be scarier than anything in my own head!
I’ve concentrated on horror for much of my career but not because it was all I was interested in. When you work on a few horror projects you can end up being pigeonholed as “a horror guy”. That seems to happen in horror, people still think of David Cronenberg as a horror director even though most of his work since the 90s hasn’t actually been horror. It’s a very flexible genre though, you can be really creative with it. Of my films, Hellbride is a romantic comedy, The Devil’s Music is like a rock documentary and KillerKiller is a thriller, but they all get classified as horror. I’m happy with that. As pigeonholes go, it’s an enormous pigeonhole to be in.
At the Horror-on-Sea festival 2016, you premiered your film, House on the Witchpit, without releasing a trailer, images or details beforehand. That’s brave. Why did you do it?
The idea had existed in one form or another for over a decade and I realised that it didn’t have to be locked down as one edit after it became a film. In the digital age, things aren’t as locked down as they were in the days of celluloid, when once a film was made you’d have a master print and that was final. There’s more flexibility now. KillerKiller exists in different cuts so I played with that idea for Witchpit as I knew it could be more fluid and interesting by not being just one thing.
Little indie films used to benefit from the VHS culture. You might have gone to rent Gremlins but that was out so you’d rent Critters or Ghoulies or Munchies instead. The market for those films existed because a mainstream film might be out from the video shop, something that doesn’t happen in the digital age. A low budget film needs something extra to persuade people to watch it. With Witchpit, by teasing people we hoped to provide something they hadn’t seen before.
You also destroyed the master copy of the film onstage after the screening…
That was a statement of intent: a sold-out room of people had seen that version of the film and nobody would see it again. It doesn’t exist anymore, we destroyed it. It was fun!
Rumour has it that before you made Trash House, you were a stand-up comedian. A good grounding for working in film?
Yes, in some ways. Stand-up helped me hone my writing and it helped with structure, plus it’s a great way to work out how things sound out loud. It also prepped me for being in front of audiences so things like Q&As don’t terrify me now. Standing before people with the sole intention of making them laugh is a weirdly specific task, it’s terrifying and unpredictable. Once you’ve done that long enough, public appearances are much easier.
Art tends to flourish during difficult times. Without wading into politics, do you feel there is currently a greater need for it?
I think whenever times are uncertain or potentially bleak, art reflects those times. There’s a wise quote by Andre Bazin about film being seen as a mirror, a window or an escape hatch. During difficult times, we need to see how others are coping and see our experiences reflected back at us. Escapism is important too - sitting in the cinema watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is important.
How did your passion for making films begin? (We’re sensing it was in a galaxy far, far away… )
I saw Star Wars on opening night in Southend in 1977 but I fell asleep. It was an evening performance and I was only three and a half! I was so overexcited by what I’d seen before falling asleep that my mum took me to see it again. It lit a fire in my brain, as did the re-release of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with that squid fight sequence. I wanted to be an actor then because although I knew it was all fake, I thought it happened in real time. When I saw Flash Gordon I really believed that Sam J. Jones came on set, shot people with a fake laser gun, flew on a fake rocket cycle, snogged Melody Anderson and saved the universe, all in about 100 minutes. It sounded like the best thing in the universe! When reality hit, I wanted to be a director instead. I filmed stuff on my Super 8 camera with my mates, using Star Wars figures. So yes, the fire was lit young in me and it never went away.
Exit 6 is passionate about independent films. In your own words, you make “fiercely independent horror”. How do you feel about the importance of indie filmmaking now compared to when you first started?
Indie filmmaking is an incredibly vital place where people can cut their teeth and experiment, which isn’t possible with bigger films. It’s changed a lot in the 13 years since I shot my first feature, the industry has changed so much in terms of the impact of digital filmmaking. It’s gone from being really difficult to shoot a film to being really easy to shoot a film but much harder to get anyone to watch it. When I made Trash House, my first feature, there were about 14 British horror films that year. Last year, that figure was well into the hundreds. It’s easier to become a fish now but there are a lot more in the pond.
Your films look like great fun to have been part of. What’s been your favourite shoot?
Hellbride was one of those films where everything clicked into place… until the last two days when all our bad luck turned up at once! Until then it was a blessed shoot. Everyone was lovely, everyone worked hard and it was a beautiful, collaborative and fun experience. At the end, the cast and crew ganged up on me and threw a massive drum of fake blood over my head. I didn’t even mind!
When you’re not making films you’re helping others to learn their craft, which you seem equally as passionate about.
I really enjoy lecturing in screenwriting and filmmaking. I’ve been doing it for 8 years and there’s a real privilege in seeing people develop as spectacular filmmakers and writers after they’ve arrived with just an idea or uncertainty about their potential. I’ve always loved meeting people, so lecturing is a vital and engaging part of what I do. I particularly like the one day masterclasses as I get to meet a bunch of new faces and share ideas about how to make the best screenplays we can. People come out of it feeling really energised, like they can do anything and sell their screenplay. It’s really exciting to be part of that.
You’re known for horror but do you ever see yourself stepping into a different genre?
A wise man once told me that I'm in a little box career-wise and my box says 'horror' on it, but that many others would kill to have a little box of their own, so I should try not to resent it. I don't resent it. I love my little box.
Finally, any new projects in the pipeline?
I wrote a script called Your Lying Eyes which I'm very proud of, a dark thriller which plays with the audience’s perception of what’s real. We’ve got an incredible director attached to it. I've also got a script called Killer Apps, which we're aiming to make this year and I'll likely direct it. I'm running more classes too and I’ll do more rewrite work, so there’s a lot to look forward to!
Read more about Jinx Media, Pat’s films and his masterclasses at his website.
You can also follow Pat on Twitter: @ZCarsTheme