Currently making the festival rounds, writer/director Peter Hearn’s Scrawl is a fascinating, micro-budget journey into the (dangerous) minds of a group of teenagers in England, including a pre-Star Wars: The Force Awakens Daisy Ridley. Daily Dead recently caught up with Peter for a chat about the film and the inspirational story behind its making.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to Daily Dead, Peter. As Scrawl is just starting to make its way around the festival circuit, could you give our readers an idea of what it’s about?
Peter Hearn: Gosh, where do I start? If I were to pitch it I would describe it as Big meets A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors by way of Phantasm and The Evil Dead. The story revolves around a boy who writes a comic book with his best friend, before finding situations depicted in the comic book coming to life. A mysterious girl appears, causing the boy to force himself to face the reality of what he has written, and with the help of someone from his past, he begins a battle to attempt to rewrite death.
That’s a level of it for sure, but people that have seen it give me their own interpretations of what they’ve seen, and I like that. It’s one of those films that can be interpreted in lots of ways, like Phantasm, where there are multiple meanings. It’s a blast when I discover films like that and I wanted to make one of those films.
Have you always had an interest in horror films? What are some great early horror memories?
Peter Hearn: Most of my earliest horror memories came on TV, watching Jaws and being scared of going to the toilet afterwards. But the film that made the biggest impact, horror movie-wise, was The Evil Dead. I remember watching it as a bootleg VHS that my brother’s friends brought round (this was back in the day when in the UK it was a banned "Video Nasty"). My memory of this film is me sitting on the stairs looking through the bannisters whilst my brother and his mates watched. I knew it wasn’t suitable for me at the time, but I vividly remember the final dawn shots of the evil racing through the woods and cabin and getting Ash, then cutting into the jolly music. Never forgotten.
For many years though, horror wasn’t really my go-to. Sure I had some films that fell into that genre that I loved, but most of these were tinged with fantasy. It wasn’t really until I sat down with the intention of making a horror film that I seriously fell (back) in love with the genre and the possibilities it offered me as a filmmaker.
So there you were intent on making a horror film. Was Scrawl your first attempt?
Peter Hearn: It should have been, but in the end, no, it wasn’t. Scrawl went through many different incarnations as a script before it settled on what we actually shot. The reason for doing Scrawl in the first place came out of me working as a film lecturer. I had made a couple of ultra low-budget comedy features over the years and a number of short films and had found myself ending up teaching it, rather than doing it. I got itchy feet like I often do and thought, "What if I could utilize what I had around me—the students—and give them the experiences of working on a low-budget film set, rather than just teaching it theoretically in the classroom.
My main problems began from that point on as I knew I had to come up with an idea that would give 30-plus students something to do in front of the camera and behind, which is a tricky and not very organic place to start from. Initially I had an idea of the students all being scouts, battling a monster with the help of a scout leader on a camping trip. So I sat myself down and watched some films and TV to give me ideas of where to go next.
I remember watching the TV series Harper’s Island, Phantasm, Attack the Block, and Pitch Black to name but four. Harper’s Island and Pitch Black were certainly for the female lead aspects, as I knew I wanted to work with the two actresses, Nathalie Pownall and Elizabeth Boag again, and I like writing strong female characters. Attack the Block was because I had the idea of setting some on the now evolved script in a tower block and Phantasm came about from writing an elderly caretaker character who was more otherworldly than he appeared to be. We cast the main roles amongst those we auditioned and then I decided to put the feature on hold to shoot what became my first horror venture, the 12-minute short Motto, which went back to that original idea of the scouts and monsters, and we shot it very quickly as a silent Friday the 13th-type slasher.
Some of the characters that appeared in the short were from the Scrawl script as it stood at that time, but there were other characters that I enjoyed in that short that I wished were in Scrawl. So, as well as writing what was then a standalone comic tie-in (yes, there’s a cool comic reflecting the film as well), over the space of the following three months I completely rewrote the script.
The film has an intriguing structure that bears repeat viewings. Flashbacks (and flash forwards) help to not only fill in plot points, but enrich the characters. I know the film went through several iterations on the way to the screen. What compromises were made to have this be the vision for Scrawl?
Peter Hearn: Because of the nature of the project and the large cast there were lots of ways for the piece to go in the edit, and as we moved on and shot more and moved on more, I found myself playing with the structure. It also allowed me to infuse a nightmare logic, much like Phantasm has, which being one of my favorite films, pleased me greatly.
We shot with a very small budget, so we were working with favors and goodwill, therefore some of the things that appeared in the script, or imagined in my head, made their way to the screen in a totally different form due to budget and location restrictions. Which is fine, I knew I had very little money to work with, but I always like to be ambitious and if someone says, "You can’t do that," I like to try and prove differently.
Then you have the problem of losing one of your reasons for making the film in the first place, a specific actor, to cancer before you have a chance to shoot all that you’d like, so rewrites come in. And when you lose footage due to hardware failures you have to make decisions that sometimes you wouldn’t need to make. Ultimately, it made me more creative, it made me have to think, to work out how to solve problems. For the most part, the post-production is my time to "play." After all, my initial idea with this film was just to make a fun horror, but it became more "nightmarish" than that, in a lot of ways!
There’s a great documentary on YouTube on the making of the film, with the majority of cast and crew. It really does sum up the "can do" spirit and intent behind the film. Speaking of the cast, it really is top notch, with a mixture of novices and some more seasoned professionals. In fact, one of the actresses is about to be shot into the stratosphere due to an imminent project. Tell me a bit about the cast. They really are terrific.
Peter Hearn: Yeah, the doc really is great, a couple of the students put it together, Jake and Matt, and they created the opening credit sequence too. Both are now at film school, and both have amazing careers ahead of them.
When putting together the film, I really looked at Brian DePalma’s Home Movies as a template, which he did whilst teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in the ’70s, using it as a training exercise for the students, mixing the pros with the novices. So we used this template for casting as well and cast a bunch of great professionals to play the adults, including Nathalie Pownall and Elizabeth Boag, who I had worked with on various projects including Motto, along with actors that were just found via auditioning, which included the great Mark Forester Evans, who has been such a supporter since.
As for the kids, they were a mix of performing arts and media/film students. They auditioned like the other actors did, and for a lot of them they shot on and off over a couple of years, which continuity-wise was a pain, but it was the only way we could realistically do it.
Liam Hughes, who plays Simon, was someone that I came back to after the initial auditions. I originally had him earmarked for a different role, but he certainly had the energy you need for a central role—he kept it grounded. Joe Daly played Joe. He was initially going to be behind the camera but he tweeted early on in the process that he really wanted to be Spider-Man, and while I couldn’t grant that wish, I incorporated him into the comic as a character and from that into Scrawl. Ellie Selwood was our replacement Rosie, which made me rewrite a late twenty-something character to a 16-year-old. Ellie was in the right place at the right time and had hit it off with Mark so that when Lara Honnor couldn’t continue, Mark Forester Evans suggested Ellie for the role.
Shayla Park, who played Beth, grew and developed that character over a good couple of years. I’m glad we had the time to do that, cause Shayla is amazing! Catherine Ruddick, who played Charlie, one of the monsters spawned by the comic, played her (mostly) silent killer from the word "go" with a bundle of energy. Annie, like Charlie, was one of two characters that barely changed between the scripts. Annie the character was based on my student Annie Le Gresley, who, when she first read the script, gave me funny looks and then said, "Is this me?" Ultimately she had one of the hardest jobs on set—17 years old, producing a fairly large-scale feature film and acting in a substantial role too—a testament to her commitment and hard work that she is now working in the industry. You’ll hear more of her, she’s a star!
Annie’s grandfather, Derek Jones, played my Tall Man, the caretaker in Motto and again in Scrawl. By the time we came to Scrawl, we didn’t know at the time, but he had cancer, and even though he didn’t have the biggest role, we had planned to come back to shoot more with him, but this was not to be. He was a gentleman through and through, and is sorely missed. But at least for Annie and her family he can live on through the movies.
I would be remiss to not mention the proverbial elephant in the room, Daisy Ridley, who played the role of Hannah before she got the Star Wars gig. She came to us via a recommendation from Liz Boag, who had just done a commercial with her. I met up with her over a cup of tea, very British, after we had shot Motto, and showed her that. I was in the process of rewriting and thought she was a striking presence and told her that if she was interested I’d write a role for her. I knew nothing of her abilities, she just had the look of someone I thought could come across as devious, something the character needed. Little did anyone know, that girl I drove to and from set, in the freezing cold winter with little more than chips and soup for catering, would end up rubbing shoulders with a Wookiee.
Congratulations on winning six prizes at the ZedFest Film Festival. That’s an auspicious start for Scrawl on the circuit. Surely you must be feeling like a proud father by this point.
Peter Hearn: Thank you, it wasn’t something I was expecting, so it’s lovely to get any recognition. I’m hoping we get more festivals seeing the worth in our rough ’round the edges film, but it’s a hard sell, despite the Daisy Ridley connection, as it doesn’t easily fit into a "type"—despite being influenced by a bunch of things, it’s very "me."
I am proud of the film, but I’m more proud that I made a difference to a lot of kids that went through this "film school"—especially those that got bitten by the bug and took it further. I really wanted to make a film that was a blend of all those horrors I watched growing up, but with my own spin. I feel I did this, and I hope it finds an audience.
So now that Scrawl has come to life, what are your upcoming plans?
Peter Hearn: Making a film is hard work, more so when you’ve literally just a few thousand pounds to play with. I started making this in my thirties, I’m creaking into my forties now. Who knows? I do have the original version of the script that if I had the location, I might be tempted to do, as it’s way different. I’m currently working on a stop-motion, but that’s purely for fun. I’d like to dabble in Super 8 again, as that’s what my first feature was shot on, and I’d really love to shoot another short on that format. I’m writing a script that is influenced a bit by Charles Burns’ Black Hole comic series, and what I’d really, really love to do is make a practical monster movie, so watch this space!!!