Kathryn MacCorgarry Gray and Daniel Rands, co-directors of South African Spook Hunter, talk to us about shooting a zero-budget feature film over several weekends, assembling a cast and crew willing to work for free, and everyone learning to dance to the improvisational beat of the spook hunter himself Matt van Niftrik.
Hello Kathryn & Daniel, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. You’ve just completed your debut feature film, South African Spook Hunter, which you’ve both co-written and directed. Tell us what the film is about and who’s involved?
Thank you for talking to us about the film! South African Spook Hunter follows Matty Vans, an eccentric and hapless South African living in South-West London. Plumber by day, paranormal investigator by night. After hiring out a two-man documentary crew to film his exploits, Matty is contacted by the Damon-Murray family to investigate their ‘haunting’, which quickly becomes clear to everyone but Matty to be an elaborate hoax. But all is not as it seems, as some dark truths are unearthed that will change Matty and the Damon-Murray family forever.
From our first ideas about the film, we knew we needed Matt van Niftrik, and we shaped the character around what we knew would fit him naturally, an incredibly funny, buttock-clenchingly well-meaning, deeply sympathetic character. As soon as he was on board, it was a breeze to write. The biggest note we gave to every actor before they read the script was, “this will not be funny if you don’t read Matty Vans lines in your best South African accent.” They all came back in total agreement.
We knew there was only one person who would know exactly how to shoot this film, our constant collaborator Nuru Mkali, and with his understanding of the mockumentary form, he helped to choreograph the humour through improvised zooms.
The excellent Ashley Winter, Michael Demetriou and Valentine Landeg are long-time friends of Daniel’s, and Ella Kean was discovered when Kathryn was sound recording a Sci-Fi 48hr film challenge a few years before. She kept the name in the back of her mind because it’s very rare to see such natural talent from someone so young, especially since it had been her first time acting. We approached Taryn Kay after seeing her comedy showreel, and found Paul Dewdney shortly after. A two hour skype conversation was enough to tell us we wanted him on our set.
We had a bit of trouble casting the role of Danny Gomorrah, as initially we thought we ought to get a bigger name and only when we were repeatedly shot down did we receive a message from Daniel Brace, who without hesitation prepared the most thoughtful audition tape, using various locations. We met him and immediately offered him the part.
Last but certainly not least, Lamin Tamba was an actor we had come across on Mandy and his striking appearance and presence had been irrevocably etched into our minds. We did not consider offering the part to anyone else.
Daniel took on the behind-camera-voice of Jono, and we had our cast. For the majority of the film we had a 4-5 man crew, with loyal friends offering up assistance when they could.
Making a feature film without a budget is a daunting prospect for most filmmakers. Having taken on the challenge, was the experience what you were expecting?
It was surprisingly easier than we anticipated, a lot of work went in but having complete creative control and no strict deadlines meant we didn’t have to answer to anybody. Obviously, we made life easier for our wallets by shooting a mockumentary in locations we had, with equipment we could use and actors we knew or believed in the project enough to work for free. I think the fact that we were making a comedy with a lot of improvisation made the experience a lot easier and more lighthearted than it could’ve been if we were tackling something deeply serious. We had a lot of fun, basically.
What were the biggest lessons you learned?
We learnt a lot. We learnt the importance of being flexible and able to improvise when faced with obstacles, like car crashes, haircuts and moustaches. We learnt how to put our complete faith in the team we were working with, including the actors and make something truly collaborative. Honestly though, the most important thing that we learnt was that it was possible to make the film. I think a lot of people are intimidated by the idea of shooting a feature, but you really do just have to do it.
How was it working together as co-directors? What advice would you give any duos out there looking to do the same thing?
We were juggling numerous jobs on set so we were able to take each other’s slack and work to our strengths. Sharing the vision with someone else helped us to feel fully secure in the project knowing that we had the other there to support and trust us. It was important for us that the collaboration began at the inception of the project so it truly felt like it was both of ours. It has ended up feeling like a child of sorts.
Make sure you’re working with someone who is on the same wavelength from the beginning. We found that it made the writing process far easier if we mapped it all out together, but one person took the reigns in actually putting the words down, that way it didn’t feel like two different writing styles awkwardly sewn together. When it comes to shooting it, we’d say don’t be too precious about the script, just understand your characters and where the story is going and try to adapt to what is happening in front of you. Having a co-director in these moments could be a nightmare if you don’t share the same vision. You’re bound to have disagreements, but if you can trust in your co-director to direct a scene whilst you juggle a boom pole and a shooting schedule then you’re usually too busy to even consider an argument, so the low budget multi-role circumstances probably worked in our favour.
What were the biggest challenges during production?
Everyone worked for free, so we were fitting the shoot around thirteen different peoples schedules. We both work 9-5 jobs so weekends were our only viable option. One of our actors got into a car accident (thankfully everyone was okay) so we needed to find a time to bring back all thirteen of us which proved pretty difficult. It was quite nice to have the break and approach the remaining scene with fresh eyes, but with a month break comes other obstacles like drastic haircuts. Some of our sleep-deprived solutions were seriously ridiculous, but we wrote them in anyway and hoped for the best.
Matt Van Niftrik is a revelation in the film, with great natural timing. Was there much improvisation in the film?
Every single person working on this film had to adjust to constant improvisation because nobody knew exactly what Matt was going to throw at them. We think they had a lot of fun with that. If you listen close enough you might still hear the haunting, distant sniggers of crew members responding to improvised lines. Matt is a natural born improviser, we wrote the script around him with the intention that he’d improvise the dialogue but keep the scene on track for the other actors. He did this brilliantly, it was incredible to work with him, we didn’t have to cringe whilst listening to our own scripted dialogue read back to us.
You recently had your cast and crew screening for the film, how did that go? How did it feel seeing the film on the big screen for the first time?
We held a private cast and crew screening at the incredible Rio Cinema in Dalston, London. We woke up that morning to heavy rain and a few polite cancellation messages, which put us in immediate code red stress levels. We honestly thought no one would come, but overwhelmingly around 250 people poured into the cinema, going far beyond our expectations. We surprised Matt with a life-size standee of himself in his crucifix long johns, it was nice to see people taking pictures with it before and after the film. Seeing the film on a big screen with an audience was a nerve-wracking experience but we were reassured and warmed by the sheer amount of laughter.
Would you make another feature film in the same way?
Ideally we’d like someone to give us some money next time so we can pay people, we were lucky to work with such a talented cast and crew but for the time they put in we’d really like to be able to pay them next time. But then again if nobody gives us any money at least we know we can do it.
What have you each got lined up next?
We’ve realised our collaboration works best in comedy as we have a very similar sense of humour, but separately Daniel is in post on his short film Starblue Heaven and writing a horror feature called Breathing Problems. Kathryn is writing a couple of short films and a dark comedy/coming of age feature Tyreland. This is definitely not the last you’ve seen of Matty Vans though, not by a long shot.
You can follow Matty Vans himself on Twitter: @SAspookhunter
You can also follow Kathryn: @KMaccorgarry
and Daniel: @DanielRands