Interview: Brett Anstey

On November 4, thanks to the power of the internet, my questions for Brett Anstey moved all the way across the United States, through the Pacific Ocean, and to his home in Australia! And then back again! For those who haven’t heard, Anstey is the creative force behind Image Entertainment’s newest release, Damned by Dawn.

Brett is a fan of horror in general, especially the classics from Universal and Hammer. We talked about that, as well as the Australian horror tradition, but of course ended up focusing on “Damned by Dawn”.

GS: You made a short film back in 2004 called “Atomic Spitballs”. For those who want to compare your work, where can they find it?

BA: Unfortunately (or fortunately) most of the previous shorts are gathering dust on my shelf! Having said that, SPITBALLS can be viewed on YouTube and IMDB, but one of these days I’ll get around to uploading the rest of the back catalogue.

GS: I know you were influenced by Hammer horror films. Are there any that specifically that stand out, any underappreciated ones you would like to promote?

BA: There are so many lesser known Hammers that I absolutely love to bits. In particular I highly recommend you check out THE GORGON and THE BRIDES OF DRACULA. Truthfully I could be here all day listing my favorites!

GS: I heard that you started “Damned by Dawn” in 2005, but it wasn’t finished until 2009. Can you explain this time lapse: budget problems? Perfectionist issues?

BA: Well we developed and wrote the film in 2005. Then in August and September the following year we shot it. Being an extremely low budget film we faced many hurdles, which resulted in many compromises during principle photography. For example, the script indicated we needed to shoot in a foggy location. So the main location we chose was renowned for its fog — during the location recon the fog looked amazing. Murphy’s Law being what it is, when it came time to shoot, there wasn’t an ounce of fog. Every day we had clear blue skies — it looked like a summer camp and not a creepy atmospheric location! Which was very disheartening. So what that meant was a lot of work during post production. And because I did the bulk of the visual FX, then it just took time — 18 months, in fact!

GS: You have said the title “Damned by Dawn” is not an homage to “Dead by Dawn”, but an accident. And yet, the reviews used on the DVD and press release fully compare your film to (the non-existent) “Evil Dead 4” and “Drag Me To Hell”. Did this “accident” take on a life of its own?

BA: It most certainly did take a life of its own and was something I had no control over. I think what happened was one reviewer compared it to EVIL DEAD and the distributor ran with it! In all honesty, I can’t see the connection, but if others can, then I’m fine with that. Making an EVIL DEAD style film wasn’t our intention at all. As you mentioned, the original idea was to make it a homage to the Hammer horrors and for a number of reasons (lack of budget being the number one factor), the final film evolved into a different beast altogether.

GS: New Zealand has a bit of a horror history, with Peter Jackson and more recently “Black Sheep”. I don’t know much about Australia… is there a tradition there? Would you say working outside England or America limits your cast and crew options?

BA: Most definitely there’s a tradition here. Films like RAZORBACK, DEAD CALM, LONG WEEKEND, WOLF CREEK, BLACK WATER, DAYBREAKERS and SAW (I guess we could debate how Aussie it is all day long, but its roots are Aussie!). And let’s not forget THE HOWLING 3!!! As for cast and crew, we have some of the best people here in the world. Now, it’s true they all don’t work on horror films (I’m looking at you Geoffrey Rush, Eric Bana, Hugh Jackman, Sam Worthington, Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett) but they may one day!

GS: There’s a rumor that your makeup guy, Justin Dix, doubled as a stunt man, at one point even wearing a blonde wig…

BA: (laughs) Yeah, that’s correct. Being a low budget film we couldn’t afford to hire stunt people, so we just asked who in the crew would like to jump off a balcony onto some mattresses and boxes! Actually that’s not entirely true. Let me explain — the script required the Banshee character to be pushed off a balcony. On our older short films from years ago, Justin was the “stunt guy”. He was the guy who would do the crazy shit and risk his life. So naturally enough, I asked him if he would consider jumping off the balcony. He politely said “I’m too old for this shit!” So the plan B was to shoot a background plate and an element of the Banshee against blue screen and comp it later — an effect we had done previously on a bunch of shorts films that worked out okay but not great. Then a few hours before we were scheduled to shoot the plate, Justin was asked again and he finally agreed to do it.

GS: For lower budget films, I’m very interested in their choice of camera and film (if film is used). Traditional film and digital create very different looks. What equipment did you use for DBD and why?

BA: Well shooting on 35mm was never an option for us. So we tested a number of HD cameras and formats and ultimately we chose to shoot on the Panasonic HVX P2. At the time this camera had just hit the market and it offered us enough color space for grading that the other cameras didn’t.

GS: How about for editing and CG… what program would you recommend to new film-makers?

BA: Dave Redman the editor used FCP (Final Cut Pro) to cut the film. I’m not really in the best position to recommend one program over another, but many years ago I learnt how to do character animation in 3D Max. So when it was decided to replace some of the Ghost characters we’d shot against blue screen with CG versions, then I simply used 3D Max again, only because that’s what I was familiar with. I should say we spent considerable effort to shoot the Ghosts (actors in costumes and prosthetics) hung in front of a blue screen. However it became really difficult to match the dynamic camera moves shot on location — so it was simpler to re-do some of those shots with CG characters.

GS: The word that keeps coming up when talking about your film is “atmospheric”. Can you elaborate on that?

BA: I suppose it came out of my love of the Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s and of course the Hammer films, too. These films were full of atmosphere. And not wanting to generalize here — most contemporary horror films are lacking in atmosphere. Well the sort of mood that I love anyway. So I felt it was important to instill that quality into our film. Ask any of the actors and they’d probably tell you my first priority was the amount of fog in each shot “More fog!!!” was heard regularly!

GS: We, of course, want to know what’s next… has the wide release of this film opened any doors for you?

BA: We’ve been developing a new film for a number of months now and it’s terribly exciting I have to say. It’s a roller coaster ride of a film — a sci fi horror adventure comedy. We’re currently finishing this latest draft, so hopefully the moons align and we can move into production soon.

GS: Thank you, Brett, for your time.

BA: Thank you.

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