Event Summary: The Journey to the Devil’s Rock, 25th October, 2011, Auckland Writer’s Room

Horror can be a tough sell in New Zealand so it was always in the plan that Paul Campion’s debut feature film The Devil’s Rock would crack the worldwide market.

And indeed it has but the story behind the glory is as nail-biting as the film itself. Both director Paul Campion (Night of the Hell Hamsters, Eel Girl) and producer Leanne Saunders (The Devil Dared Me To, Blue) laid a lot (including Paul’s house) on the line to make this film a reality and revealed all at the October Writers’ Room.

The Devil’s Rock centres around two kiwi Commandos who discover a Nazi plot to unleash demonic forces in an attempt to win the Second World War.  “It’s really cool to see this film out there,” said MC Ant Timpson (Incredibly Strange Film Festival, 48 hours Furious Film Making, The Devil Dared Me To), “because it’s a great story and has made a fantastic film.”

Paul took some ribbing from the panel and audience alike for being an Englishman coming over to New Zealand to make movies. “I am a New Zealand citizen now but I have no cultural background here and no New Zealand stories in me. The stories I pitch are international with no New Zealand content and that can make it challenging to raise the money.”

Paul began his career in the visual arts as a book cover illustrator, retrained to complete a Masters degree in computer animation and worked his way through the ranks at Weta Digital before setting out to make The Devil’s Rock. When asked why more film makers are not emerging from the Weta stables Paul replied, “You would expect to see them and indeed many are entering films in the 48 Hour Film Festival but it’s quite a leap into a feature film. Also it’s difficult to leave the Weta paycheque and commit yourself to a project for a period of time.”

Leanne promotes indigenous projects with a keen eye for emerging talent. “I want to make New Zealand films and develop talent. If a director has had international success with short films, as Paul has done, when they want to make their first feature you want to get on board with them. Short films are a valid way to get noticed internationally. I made the initial contact with Paul and he came back to me about a year later. I asked him if he had a project and he said he had an English producer but they just couldn’t get it together. In the end, we shook off the UK producer.”

But it took time for these two to get together. Project ideas came and went. They lost contact for a while until Paul resurfaced with an idea he thought would make a good low budget film. He was 100% committed, having mortgaged his house for the start-up money. Leanne read the script and was confident she could raise the rest.

Paul came up with the idea for The Devil’s Rock over Christmas 2010. “I was in the UK trying to get projects off the ground. I wrote a treatment, returned to Wellington and was told all of the industry work was happening in Auckland because of The Hobbit. I spoke to Richard Taylor (of Weta) and met with Leanne at Auckland airport before flying back to the UK.”

Leanne said she heard the word ‘money’ before ‘story’. Paul had put up $150,000 of his own money and key team members were already in place. “If you have some money in the bank then a film will be made.”

The road to funding nirvana was not smooth. “I knew how much more we needed,” said Leanne, “and I went for $400,000. I thought we’d get it due to the money and the team we already had. I considered it a solid investment in talent because Paul had proven himself on the festival circuit and was putting up his own money too.”  When taking on a film Leanne never looks for a 100% ‘hand out’ from the New Zealand taxpayer (through the NZ Film Commission). “Most of the films I’ve made have some external investment and the return on those films to investors has been good.”

But things became pretty tense. “I made out that I was far more confident about the funding than I actually felt but we just kept going.” Shooting began in August, only six weeks after funding was secured from the NZFC. “It would have been a lot easier if we’d had more time. Paul was our cash flow while we waited for the funding round for the NZFC and it was pretty risky. We paid Weta cash up front to do the work on the demon head casting for a film that was not green lit. It got rough as we did run out of money before the NZFC funds came in.”

Weta provided some relief during this difficult time. “An advantage of working at Weta Digital is you are considered part of the family,” said Paul, “so we received ‘mates rates.’ They really backed me, as did Park Road Post.”

Development for The Devil’s Rock digressed from the traditional lengthy path. “I’ve done a lot of films that haven’t gone through the NZFC film development process,” said Leanne. “I just get things made. A long time in development would not have added much value to a film of this budget so we sold it to the NZFC based upon the marketing pitch. It really was a sell to the sales team. They were looking for something different to the usual dark dramas.”

Paul wrote the first draft in seven days. “We couldn’t afford too many actors so I had to kill off one of them in the first five minutes – that was my token New Zealand character because he was Māori. I spent 24 hours non-stop taking out special effects that would have turned it into a twenty million dollar film.”  To receive funding from the NZFC they needed more kiwi content. “The main character was British … so I thought, ‘Do I really want the money? Yes, I do!’ so we had two kiwis. No one has commented on how historically accurate that is.”

Ant said there is a myth that low budget breeds innovation but in reality everyone can always do with another $5,000. He asked if there was a positive side to the restrictions of budget.

“The Production Designer and DOP really made the film for us,” said Leanne. “We shot mainly in the studio and I thought, ‘Why don’t more NZ films do that?’ I came onto the film three days before shooting began and the whole thing was pre-lit, we had really good actors, highly experienced crew and being in a studio we didn’t worry about the weather so it worked for us.”

“There was no advantage in choosing 15 days for the shoot other than that we had to move fast,” said Paul. “There was no time for fluffing about. You have to hammer through it and that energy feeds the process in a positive way. I was tweaking and storyboarding all the way through the film during that time. As a director, I didn’t have time to do 15 takes. I trusted the crew, let everyone do their jobs, eight pages of script a day, and they did.  We weren’t shooting the same four pages of script from different angles and when you only have two takes to get your lines you have to get them right. Good actors were able to nail it.”

Two sets were needed and the studio was not big enough to accommodate them both at once. “There was a lot of pressure,” said Paul, “no wiggle room. We filmed on location at the beach and that gave them 72 hours to rebuild the second set so we could meet our schedule.”

In spite of all the restrictions and constraints, there was little overtime. “The actors did some,” said Leanne, “but we didn’t do shooting overtime. We stuck to our ten-and-three-quarter day. That’s the thing with low budget. If you can maintain that discipline, you can turn the camera off.”

When asked what would be done differently, if working with a similar budget, Paul replied, “Nothing really went wrong but I would definitely want more than 15 days next time. Our DOP suggested using two cameras and I’m glad we did as we would not have made the schedule with only one.”

A collaborative, supportive and productive relationship between producer and director is integral to the success of any film and Paul and Leanne have one that really works. “My job as producer is to bring as much as I can resource-wise to your film,” said Leanne. “That’s what I do. I believe in you, otherwise I would not be investing in you. There’s a lot of trust but it was hard at the start for Paul and I. He didn’t really know me but I knew he could direct.”

Paul felt he was the least experienced person on set because the team’s level of experience and qualification was so high. “We were filming the beach scene and I had a disagreement with some of the crew. Then I realised that these guys were way more experienced than I so I stepped back and let them get on with it. I did feel as if I was losing control of the film and knew I had to take that control back by the end of the day and I did. There was no bad feeling and we stayed on track but I think this was all due to my lack of experience dealing with crew.”

Paul said he felt like a ‘git’ telling the crew to do this and that, all the while feeling as if he was doing nothing. “I thought if I helped it might save us a few moments but I learned by the end of the shoot that all I needed to do was stand there and watch, leave them to it.”  Leanne added that a director is remembered by the performances onscreen. “In a short film the director often does everything but in a feature a director has the luxury of letting a team do the work so he or she can just hang out with the actors. We had 45 highly experienced people on a multi-camera set every day with a tight schedule so there was a lot of pressure on Paul. Most first time directors wouldn’t take on something like that. Around Day Three I realised this was really massive for him. He was quite hands on and the crew just weren’t used to that.”

There were challenges when it came to the marketing and distribution too. Leanne went to Cannes and tried to pre-sell the film, hoping to raise much-needed production finance (before the NZFC came on board).  Horror movies traditionally do not do well in New Zealand so she was not sure who would take it on. “I talked to UK distributors when I was at Cannes. Both Metronome and Revolver were interested so I knew the film was going to get up. I used this as leverage in my pitch to the NZFC but horror is very risky. They may be great films and do well internationally but they are not strong at the box office here.  Paul had packaged the film as horror so I couldn’t hide that. I don’t think people really knew how to market it so there was some trial and error. It has been a learning curve in that respect because genre films are difficult in this country. I never thought the film would be a great theatrical take here. That was never part of the agenda. It was always about how well it would sell overseas and I look for that in the films I take on. We have films that do well here but haven’t sold well overseas and Devil’s Rock will not be one of those. My interest is always how we can make films here that will find a niche in our country but sell well overseas too. One of the NZFC’s mandates is the film must bring in New Zealand audiences but you can’t have that as your sole focus otherwise you’re making films for a single market, one that will become quite narrow and cluttered. We spend a lot of money going to markets and getting films into festivals but if we’re not making films with overseas sales in mind, why bother? ”

Leanne also pointed out that there is less money available in New Zealand and filmmakers are often told to find co-production finance. “How do you do that if your films are not known outside of the country? You can’t make films that only have domestic appeal because no one else will be interested in them.”

Paul has been promoting the film since May, largely from his own pocket, visiting a number of genre festivals including the Montreal Fantasia Film Festival and Cannes which was ‘horrendously expensive’. “The festivals are the icing on the cake, the fun part. After all the hard work of making the film, you can bask in the adulation!”

Leanne had a word of warning about the festival circuit. “I have become aware of a proliferation of festivals and only a few are really worthwhile. Filmmakers think that having a wreath from any festival is of value but most of them are just a money-making exercise so be careful.”

A question time discussion focussed on the financing for the film and how much crew and actors were paid. “Funding included post production and we spread the money very thinly,” said Leanne. “Our model was to pay everyone in the crew $150 per day across the board and the flat rate meant that everyone knew what they were being paid up front so there was a real openness for the whole crew. They weren’t doing it for the money. They wanted to be involved in the project. The actors were paid more because of the value they bring to the screen and the sales that generates. You cannot put a value on that in the same way as crew. I decided to put greater value on the acting talent to get the people I wanted for those roles.”

And when will the huge investment of time and money begin to pay off for The Devil’s Rock? “There is nothing quick about getting your money back,” said Leanne. “After the sale to Metronome there wasn’t much left for us but we’ve just sold to E1 in May so sales should begin to show a better return.”

For now, the film is holding its own in the cutthroat UK market and will be available here in DVD in time for Christmas. “The Devil’s Rock is really engaging with these other markets and there isn’t enough of that with New Zealand films,” said Leanne. “We’re too myopic and insular so it’s great to see this happening. I hope more people will get out there and make it happen.”

Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen