Anthony Straeger Interview

Anthony Straeger Anthony Straeger is the Director of Call of The Hunter. Gorepress’s Boston Haverhill met up with him in the classy establishment that is The William Morris Wetherspoons pub In Hammersmith. Ignoring the drunks, the smell of spilt alcohol and the carpet that feels like angry Velcro, we sat down to discuss his first feature film. At length.

To say Anthony Straeger is a man of few words is a lie. And a ridiculous one. But when he speaks it’s compelling and forthright, good humoured and honest – and you realise he’s a man of experience and knowledge, who has cut and sliced through the bullsh*t of the industry to come to his own opinions. He’s gone through a lot to get Call of the Hunter off the ground and noticed, and he’s wonderfully candid about it.

Anthony Straeger talks tantrums, distribution, a homage of death, the power of pornography, sh*tting through the eye of a needle and his absolute, thorough dislike for Dead Man’s Shoes. Read all about it below…

Gorepress: What drew you to the story of Herne the Hunter?

Anthony Straeger: Herne the Hunter came through Stephen Gawtry – the writer – he works in the area of legends, of the lore of the land. At one point we were talking about doing a series of documentaries on towns or areas. And then I’d written about three scripts that I’d been pushing for a long time, and got close with two, and he said “why don’t we just make something ourselves?” and I said, for a start, it has to be incredibly low budget. He said “If you give me the perimeters I’ll come up with an idea”. So I said okay, it’s very simple; one location, preferably a forest, preferably a house, with no more than eight characters. He said “What about actors? Do you have any in mind?”, and I said, okay, there’s these four and we’ll audition the rest.

How did the auditions go?

Actually, the auditions were really successful. Because we got three really great actors. Sarah Paul, who’s the main lead, who’s amazing. She’s done a lot of TV. Julia Curle who’s the young girl, who’s super, and Johnny Hansler who’s done all kinds of everything and has a very smarmy look… for the character!

He played Max.

He played Max, but he’s completely off the wall, completely. So, we came up with the story, and we wanted to do something with Herne the Hunter. You have of course the legend of Herne Hill, which is in Central London, which is where the Oak was supposed to be. So Stephen Gawtry drafted me a story, and I went through it, he then did the treatment. I went through it, he wrote the first draft and I completely edited it and cut it down. And that’s basically it.

So it was a real collaboration between you and Stephen?

We had to do it. Stephen is more geared towards a theatrical process. That’s why there’s a hell of a lot of dialogue in there, but it’s all good, and that’s what makes it work. You’ve got a history going on, you’ve got the characterisation going on there, and hopefully it’s the right balance to make it work. We both like comedy, and I don’t like a horror film that doesn’t have a sense of humour, so we put in a lot of silliness, like “lick-a-lotta-puss” and stuff like that.

Essentially it’s a very British thing to do, that comedy style – look at Dog Soldiers or Severance or Doghouse - Call is a very British film.

It’s something like Mash. You need the light with the shade, the dark and the comedy.

The original script that you both put together, is that what we see now, as a finished film?

It was fairly well set in stone. When we got there we were running out of time and had to start cutting into the original script.

How was the shoot?

Very successful. It was twelve days, it was very intense, we didn’t do less than twelve hours a day and we didn’t do more than eighteen, so that doesn’t take much maths skill to understand how tired people were getting.

The DVD extras had a half-hour blooper reel and the short comical piece The Unfortunate Demise of Michael Instone, so obviously even though you were working really hard on it the atmosphere was reasonably relaxed. Is that accurate?

I tell you what, we had a very very small group; we had a cast of eight people and that was it. We had one place where we stayed, worked, slept and eight.

For twelve days.

If you were in a room with your wife for twelve days… see how well you maintain your decorum. The same goes for sixteen people working intensely. I would say nobody went without a tantrum – having said that, it was limited, it was controlled and it was mainly due to tiredness.

Like being in the Big Brother house, except working constantly instead of sitting around preening yourselves.

It goes against you, it’s got to go against you – I can’t not get on your nerves at some point. At some point I would just get on your tits and bug you. And you’d just blow. I blew once, and just went off at four o’clock in the morning about one particular thing that was going on. The cameraman did remarkably well, because having your eye glued to a lens for twelve days is pretty damn difficult.

Having such tense moments on set is surely quite useful for a horror film?

[LAUGHS] Yes, yeah.

Luckily no actual violence.

No.

How did you approach the “fake” violence within the twelve day shoot, within that environment?

Anything to do with a murder, a violent act, it has to be very well choreographed. Then once you’ve got it choreographed you’ve got the limitations of the time limitations that say how long you’ve got to shoot it. For example it took all day to rig the hanging.

Really?

Sure, because you’ve got a guy in a harness hanging there for twenty minutes, it’s not comfortable. You’ve got the guy who’s got the responsibility, he is the stuntman, he is the one with the qualifications. If he hangs it’s his fault.

Luckily he didn’t hang.

He didn’t hang. Or he did. Well, you’ll never know.

That’s spooky and a bit disconcerting. Did anything actually weird happen on set – after all you’re dealing with Herne the Hunter, a mythical force you don’t want to mess with.

Um… not that remember. Someone said something happened, but I can’t remember what it was. I just seemed to be awake for twenty-four hours a day, with occasionally a bit of sleep for a couple of hours.

So you might’ve hallucinated.

I may’ve hallucinated. I was actually imagining that one day England would play good football.

You were going mad.

Completely.

So what were your major influences on Call of the Hunter? Directors or writers –

Anthony StraegerOne of my favourite directors has to be John Carpenter, who is a leg-end, and there’s David Cronenberg and Wes Craven. They are the masters, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not an uber-fan of Italian horror. I think it’s too slow for my liking. You take something like John Carpenter’s Vampires, it’s a film you can watch time and again, with some great pace. And the way Carpenter shot it in that John Ford style, just made it incredibly stylish and exciting.

These directors all have a distinctive style an audience can recognise. How do you want your audience to feel while watching Call of the Hunter?

I’d like them to feel almost like they’ve been educated, and fascinated, as it’s a great legend and something people should know – about our culture and history. I’d like it to be something people say “My god, did they really make that with so little money? I was totally entertained for eighty-two minutes in the U.K. and eight-five in the U.S.”

How difficult is it getting funding for an independent horror film in the U.K.?

Getting funding in the U.K. is like trying to shit through the eye of a needle.

Relatively difficult then?

Relatively difficult, yeah. I’ve had conversations with the likes of Warp, and Warp have a very warped way of dealing with their financing because they’re totally in bed with the Film Council. You can’t get in with the Film Council unless you’re with Warp and you can’t get in with Warp unless you’re with the Film Council. And then you’ve got to take into the situation that if you’re attached to Warp, like Paddy Considine, and people like that, the they can suddenly find that five hundred thousand quid to make that crap little movie called Dead Man’s Shoes.

Not a fan then, no?

It’s possibly one of the worst films made in the past twenty years, and still people try and convince themselves that it’s actually worth watching. It’s directed badly, it’s got no script, it’s got little story and he’s about as threatening as toilet paper.

If you had a Hollywood budget, then, would you add some CGI, some Sam Worthington or maybe a plane crash?

What? With Call of the Hunter? Well… with a Hollywood budget? It’s a film that wouldn’t really need that. I talked through this very carefully at the premiere. I said if we made this film for £25,000 and I’m lucky enough to recoup enough money, then I’d pay all my cast and crew and everyone else on a daily rate which I promised them, which was £100… then I’m up to £120,000. If I could have the extra time on that budget, to be able to have a twenty-one to twenty-eight day shoot, then we’d be up to £200,000. If we’d paid everybody the Equity rate we’re up to £500,000 – which is half a million! And if we decided to have a star name in it, then you’re up to £1.5 million. Then if you’re going to change your camera to something like a Red 35mm then you’re looking up to £2 million.

That’s what it takes?

That’s what it takes. And that’s why, when you look at people and they do something for £3000 it’s rubbish – they’ve just got a camera, they’ve imported it to a computer – so what do you expect for £3000? But that was never my attitude. I had one person that started the ball rolling – John Slocombe, who is the executive producer – who put 50% into the production. He’s a successful businessman and he fancied a gamble, and I hope it pays off, because he’s the one man I do want to pay back, because it takes – well, it’s a pretty substantial amount of faith to lose in something.

Well, it’s about getting people to pick it up and buy it. You got distribution in the U.S. first, which is odd considering no one in America has ever probably heard of Herne the Hunter. It’s a very British character.

We looked through our actual distributors catalogue, and it’s probably got about eight good movies in it.

Out of how many?

About 100. So they watched Call of the Hunter, and it’s a good movie, so it didn’t matter about the subject matter. We love a bit of hunky American – they clearly love a bit of hunky English.

And you educated them on the history of Herne the Hunter. Kind of.

Why not? They can turn it around, put Jet Li in it and remake it if they want.

How’s it been received across the pond? With the Herne the Hunter mythology?

Again, we’ve had several people come back and say they loved it. A director who’s working on a sit-com in Chicago at the moment, he bought a copy and he said “The great thing I love about this film is not only is it a good film, every cent is on the screen” – and that’s as good a citation as you could get.

Distribution in the UK – how’s that going?

At the moment it’s difficult. R-Squared currently have worldwide rights, which has to change. In the interim we need to have some kind of launch in the UK as we’ve had pre-sales, on a DVD that didn’t exist. I’d like to take the PAL rights from R-Squared, because they’re only really dealing with NTSC. Like I said to you earlier on, the one problem I do have is that Call of the Hunter is not a project I could afford to take a year and a half to two years putting around film festivals and then wait for the right distributor. It’s been more like – throw a bit of line, reel a little in, throw a bit of line, reel a little in – it’s been a bit of a frustrating way of doing it. I did jump at two or three festivals quickly, who all wanted it, who then pulled it because we already had distribution.

Is that how it works?

A lot of the good festivals, they don’t want distribution. They’re about throwing out the product and seeing who snaps – that’s the point of doing something like Sundance.

Regarding your own career, you’ve done a variety of work – theatre, film, directing, photography, acting… you’ve even done mime. Why the horror genre, and why directing?

The story begins with my mother. My mother always loved horror and there used to be a thing when I was a child called Mystery and Imagination, something you’re probably not aware of.

Erm… yep…

If I was a really good boy on a Friday night, she’d let me watch it. Also, if I was a really good boy in my teens she’d let me watch the Midnight Movie by Hammer House of Horrors. I just loved it with a passion. The moment I was old enough, the first movie I crashed into see was A Clockwork Orange, before it was banned. They’d got a limited showing, and I remember going to the playhouse and I was just hooked. I had a lot of junk horror movies – I probably have over a 1000 DVDs, of which at least 600 are horror movies. Some of them should be burnt on a cross upside down, but there’s something always in them that I love – I’d like to go back and take random deaths and make a homage to them. A film of it. A death homage. I like the sound of that. I don’t know why, but I do!

I suppose if the horror genre is good for anything, it’s inventive, interesting ways of murdering people.

[LAUGHS] Precisely. Take anything – Zombie Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox

I Spit On Your Grave?

Yeah, which is one of the lousiest films ever made. But the book that it’s based on, however, is amazing. The novelette. If you get a chance you should read it.

They’ve remade I Spit On Your Grave.

Well, as long as they stick to the novelette, it could be excellent.

They won’t.

Well, a couple of the remakes have been very good. They’re not all terrible. I certainly think the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre is fabulous. Toolbox Murders was pretty good.

The Hills Have Eyes?

Yes, that was a pretty good remake. The original only has the bald guy as an image and nothing else. It’s lousy.

What’s your take on remakes? Can you see things now being remade in the future? Like Dog Soldiers being redone in 10 years time?

What horror did in the 70’s and 80’s was push new ground. It’s like the internet – the bounds of the internet have been pushed. Not by the providers or the programmers, but by pornography. Pornography has the most influence in security, in development, in web-streaming – that’s where it’s driven from. In the 80’s, some of these guys that were making horror films really changed the boundaries of film-making and affected what was happening in Hollywood. You look at that video nasty era, you look back at it and you see how many of their ideas were filtered into the mainstream. You take something random and new like Blair Witch, now every big-budget Hollywood film has tried that random camera-work to emulate it. Not just in the horror genre too. I don’t think the modern horror genre, where you can get absolutely great quality cameras for very cheap, is spawning a great deal of anything new. What it’s actually allowing them to do is make their own interpretation, and so there will be another Dog Soldiers, kind of, there will be another Wilderness, kind of, because it’s just part of the genre… kind of.

So you think there won’t be actual remakes of modern films? A Call of the Hunter remake in five years?

No, I don’t think there’s any need to. You just keep knocking the same sort of stuff out, and I think Call of the Hunter is a good story and it works. It could be made better and for more money, but I can’t see anyone remaking it – it’s too much of a convoluted story. If you drag it down, out of the convoluted story, you’ve got a “slasher in the woods” story.

What is the greatest thing you’ve learnt from making Call of the Hunter?

When I started this I’d made probably about ten shorts, I’d been involved as a cameraman on a couple of documentaries, I’d worked as an actor. Having completed a feature, somebody who’d also made a couple of movies came up to me and said “Congratulations on joining an elite group of people who DID”. I think the difference between the “doing of” and the “completing of” is such a mammoth task when you have so little money, and the time. If you took all the work I’ve done on Call, and split it down to your average 40 hour weeks, I think I’ve spent 5 years of my life doing it. That’s how it feels. It’s consumed my life, it’s consumed my time, it’s consumed my finances. Very much like David Lynch endured in his first film, which made him bankrupt. You question yourself, and ask why you bother to put yourself through it, but at the end of the day when I look at it, I love it and realise it’s probably something I should’ve done sooner. But, that’s just the way it works.

So what’s the greatest sacrifice you’ve made for Call of the Hunter?

Sacrifice? It’s always got to be time. There’s always something you have to deal with in the course of making it, and every day since conceiving the idea I’ve had to do something on it. Every day. You can’t just wrap it, edit it and sell it. It’s not that easy. Well it could be, if I’d had a huge budget and a studio behind me, but I haven’t. And I’m still working on it, and people are asking “What’re you doing now? What’re you doing next?”

What are you doing next?

[LAUGHS] Treatments, again. One written by Stephen Gawtry, again, called Theatre of Mirrors. It’s set in Morecombe Winter Gardens Theatre, which is one of the oldest and most haunted theatres in the country. Within two years it’ll be gone. It’ll no longer be a theatre, it’ll be –

A Starbucks?

[LAUGHS] It’ll probably be a hotel or a complex of some sort. Stephen has written a very good treatment of a ghost story and we’re two-thirds of our way through the script, with a financier already interested.

And you’ve only got two years until the set, the actual location, is gone?

We have to get the script all done by September, so we can start working on pre-production. Other than that I also have a script I’ve written called Stan, which has nearly got picked up a number of times but never quite. It’s about a psychopathic Stanley Knife.

A knife itself? Like Maxwell’s silver hammer?

You actually have to deem it a “boxcutter”, as no one in the U.S. has a clue what a Stanley Knife is. Those are my two main priorities – Theatre of Mirrors and Stan. I’m also involved in the production of something called Tripping Up, which is set in Poland. It’s a comedy and we’ve got two-thirds of the finance for that.

So you’ve got a lot on? You also cameo-ed in Call of the Hunter as Herne The Hunter himself.

Anthony Straeger< Of course! It would be rude not to be involved! As they say, you can take the man out of Bradford, but you can’t take the Bradford of out the man. Likewise as an actor. It just wasn’t worth putting in a decent actor. Originally we had a plan where I was going to play Max, but we’d seen so many low budget film where the director wants to be the writer and the actor and that always turns out badly. Obviously if someone wanted to remake it, and someone like Wes Craven wanted to direct, I’d be happy to reprise my role!

So on your own work you’re more likely to do a Hitchcock or early Shyamalan cameo?

Yeah, definitely.

What advice would you give to a fledging director, especially one starting up in the UK?

Start with one thing – a very firm idea. A very good one-page that really encapsulates the story. And you have to do a treatment, if you’re not a full-time experienced writer, because what a treatment allows you to do is to keep the control over where you are going.

And what does a treatment actually involve?

A treatment is the story. Ten page of script is one page of treatment, approximately. So 10 to 18 pages of treatment is a 1 to 2 hour film. It’s very useful for character, knowing exactly where they’re going, and avoids it going off on a tangent. That’s as far as writing is concerned. In regards to making your film, actually directing it, you have to be clear on the constraints of making an actual film. What is cheap is finding a room for rehearsal, because invariably the stuff with the much lower budget – and I’m talking the stuff without Sean Pertwee. Anything that’s sub £100,000 – the acting can get very very ropey. We did a week of evening rehearsals and did three readings. Luckily I had particularly good actors, but you also get “Would you come and be in my film? We’re making a movie!” So you’ve got some plank who looks great down the bar, or your girlfriend, or your best mate’s dog, and it all falls apart very quickly because they can’t deliver their lines or remember them. It’s about getting good quality performance and unfortunately – and I hate to say it – you can get a lot of great actors that are more than willing to do something for free. On the proviso you take care of them. Everyone in my crew had a bed for the night, had all their costs met in terms of transportation, and anything else that happened. All the wardrobe was sorted out, even if I had to ask them to buy three t-shirts, two vests and a wooly-pully – they got that paid back. Everyone had a full breakfast, a full lunch and full dinner… and a few drinks.

The few drinks would’ve sold it to me.

[LAUGHS] Exactly. In reality, if you’re not going to end up paying your people, because you might not make any money back, then you have to have the people walk away thinking you’re good. I’ve done things in the past where I’ve been promised this, and promised that, and that I’ll be paid for my train tickets… and you get nothing back. So my advice is – don’t promise what you can’t do, choose your people well, rehearse the hell out of it and be sure about the script. It’s been a huge learning experience.

And at the end of it, you’ve got a film.

And I’m proud it. I’m proud of all my cast and crew who gave everything they had, I’m proud to have been part of project where everyone involved has turned round and said “I’m glad I did that. In hindsight, it was a lot more fun than it seemed at the time!”

Finally, what is your favourite horror film?

Without a shadow of a doubt – Hellraiser. I love Hellraiser, the budget it was made on, the quality of stars that they got. I just think Clive Barker is one of the greatest writers. I think he’s better than Stephen King.

Thanks for talking to Gorepress, Anthony.

Thanks, Boston.

Call of the Hunter is now available on DVD from Amazon here and from the Call of the Hunter website here

2 Comments on “Anthony Straeger Interview”

  1. [...] Anthony Straeger Interview « Gorepress [...]

  2. Just to let you know that we are pleased to announce that Call of the Hunter has been selected for the Heart of England International Film Festival 2011.

    Thanks for the Interview David was a great pleasure to talk to you.

    Anthony

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