Creature Feature Interviews
Michael Anderson (The Hatching)
Film-maker Michael Anderson has had a long and varied career spanning multiple decades and now, he has turned his hard-earned skills to his feature-length directorial debut, The Hatching.
Co-written by Anderson and his writing partner, Nick Squire, The Hatching was produced entirely in the UK and has already wowed distributors from the US.
In the UK, The Hatching has made plenty of waves on the festival circuit and I managed to catch up with Mr Anderson to discuss everything from the movie to the British sense of humour, shooting a film in the UK, the use of real crocodiles vs CGI and the Winter Floods of 2013.
And if that wasn’t enough, we got some exclusive scoops on some future Creature Feature projects that Mr Anderson has in the works…
[MA] I think that I will be able to go and lay my head to rest feeling very pleased that that is an accolade that I can have maybe written on my gravestone.
The film’s story is set-up by three youngsters sneaking out from boarding school, going out to steal crocodile eggs as part of a bet and one gets eaten on the way out. We cut to 15 years later and our lead character is the young lad who caused the death of his schoolmate and has come back to take over his father’s factory when his father had died. And of course, he comes back into the area and the whole thing is that, in the 15 years that have elapsed, the crocodiles have hatched, grown into these huge beasts and now people keep disappearing. So he goes out to try to catch and kill the crocodiles and set the score right.
The whole project came about because a good friend of mine, Nick Squire, had had this idea about some boys stealing crocodile eggs in Somerset and the crocodiles hatching. He knew that I’d been developing scripts – I’ve just been working on Henry V and I’ve developed a script in India called Animal’s People based on a best-selling novel – so he approached me and said ‘Hey, I’ve written something, would you like to have a look?”
It was the first thing he’d ever done, I had a look at it and we spent the next two years re-writing it and working it into a package. I then approached Nigel Wooll, a producer who I‘d got on very well with on Henry V and he’s been around for many, many years. He was used to working on big budget movies, you know, he’d done everything from the last Madonna film [W.E] to Keeping Mum.
Regardless I said ‘would you be interested in doing a low budget movie with me?’ And to my utter surprise and delight, he said yes. So he produced it and he brought it in on schedule and in the budget which is very good news.
It cost a £1,000,000 to make [roughly $1,475,000].
Well the crocodiles are part of the story but the storyline is strong. I’m not denigrating my fellow film-makers but in many of these creature movies, it’s often about the creature rather than the story. This is a creature movie but it’s got to have a really good storyline and be entertaining in its own right.
Of course, the great creature films like King Kong, Godzilla and all the other ones, they are just wonderful stories with wonderful animatronics and CGI and I am full of admiration, but they had multi-million dollar budgets and we had to make a decision.
The effort as far as I’m concerned as a director, was that I had to have a really good storyline with really good actors and that we should make the whole thing real. It was important that it happened to everyday folk and that we took all of our characters very seriously; none were caricatures. I hoped that the audience would believe in the premise because if the characters were real and believable so were the crocodiles in their midst.
It’s very non-PC, you don’t often see children being eaten and that was to 1) set-up a real jeopardy at the beginning of the film so you thought the crocodiles were real and would do damage so we knew they weren’t a joke and 2) to establish the sense of gallows humour.
It is and I suppose I have a very British sense of dry comedy and understated comedy. I’m not into slapstick but I do like the juxtaposition of comedy and gallows humour and I do like the mixture of horror and black comedy. I mean, in my early years when I first started off in camera crews, I worked on American Werewolf in London with John Landis directing it and of course, that is a great classic of black comedy so I think that definitely had an influence on me.
Absolutely, you know there are many ways of coping with morbid situations or horror and one of them is to laugh and that’s what I encouraged.
We were shooting in the Somerset Levels and there was a certain serendipity – [screenwriter] Nick Squire happened to be brought up there and I know the area very well because I got married there, many of my family live down there and about 25 years ago, my first commission as a director was from Channel 4 to make a documentary called Life on the Levels.
I knew it as an interesting, watery world, slightly bypassed by the rest of the world and it has a very special idiosyncratic feel. So when the story was suggested that we set it on the Somerset Levels which is criss-crossed by waterways, full of canals, water is allowed to overflow into fields and there’s lots of flooded moors, I thought that it was actually the perfect location for a couple of renegade crocodiles. So that was really a wonderful location to shoot at, when we filmed there in November.
Well you say that but we’re used to shooting outside in variable weather conditions in England. You go to California and the sun comes up in the morning and goes down in the evening. It’s the same in England but you can have eight different changing weather conditions and lighting situations in one day. That’s why English cameramen are so well admired around the world, they have to constantly re-adjust and match shots so we’re used to working in changeable and different weather conditions and that’s not a problem.
And I knew the locations off by heart and we had a really good support from local people letting us film on their land and where we needed to set the different scenes. And so that wasn’t difficult.
What was hard was trying to fit in the number of hours in in the daylight. As you know in November, you have far less hours of daylight than you do in June or July but the idea was that the scene should have been quite bleak and a bit menacing so that was the time of year we chose.
We had extraordinary luck because even though it rained for the first couple of weeks, we had very fine weather at the end. We got out just before the rains came down in a deluge which, as you know, flooded the Somerset Levels for many months and caused real hardship.
That’s right and our locations were actually underwater. If that rain had come down a little bit earlier or we had postponed the shoot until just after Christmas, it would have been literally washed out. So we had luck and we had a great crew.
I was blessed with very good heads of department and these were contacts of mine that I’ve made over the years. But like with any low budget film, we didn’t have quite enough money to shoot as many weeks as we would have liked or to have crewed it fully but we started a few careers and we spread our money amongst the locals and generally it was a good thing.
And of course, when you have a film going to an area, it adds to the interest of a location. People actually come down to see where things were photographed and filmed and that has had a beneficial effect on the local area. So we ticked a lot of boxes.
The cast was predominantly all young British actors and when I say young I mean 18 to 25. Our two leads, Laura Aikman and Andrew Lee Potts are slightly more established but we had lots of cast who were up and coming and hopefully going to be names for the future. Some of them were outstanding actually in their performances; people like Jack McMullen, Danny Kirrane, Thomas Turgoose, who you’ve probably heard of, and they were brilliant. I was blessed with a wonderful, great fun, highly energetic cast and it was a memorable time.
Andrew Lee Potts, who plays our lead character, had a very straight role of somebody who was sensitive to the situation, was coming back in bereavement and was returning to his home which he had fled from when he was younger because of the bad situation that he’d left in. So he was playing a very nervous and wary character who didn’t want to believe the real truth of what has been happening in his absence and what had happened to the crocodiles. But his past caught up with him so he then had to go through a transition of being someone who was just nervous to taking control and trying to do something about it.
We wanted somebody who had a good screen presence and the one thing about Justin is that you can’t miss him, he fills the screen. He’s been a comedian and TV presenter, he’s a big hairy beastie, he comes from that area and he is a real presence so we felt that he would bring something.
I mean, we thought he’d make a magnificent baddie and he was brilliant. He had to leap into the ice cold water, it was -1° when he had to jump in and even though he had a wetsuit on, I can assure you it was absolutely freezing. He’d have to swim away from the crocodile and then we had to rescue him and pull him back in, but his body temperature had dropped to such a low degree that we had to put him into a hot tent with a nurse. The nurse would take his body temperature and only when it had returned to normal were we allowed to redo the shot.
He was a real sport; there’s not many people who would dive into freezing water, escape from the jaws of a crocodile, allow the temperature of your body to fall way below what it’s supposed to be, be warmed up again and then repeat the whole process. So I’m a great admirer of his and I know that people, when they watch the movie, have thought that his performance was really fantastic. I take my hat off to him.
As I said, I’ve worked on various big films; I worked on Superman, Flash Gordon and of course American Werewolf. Even though it was many years ago, I always remember Richard Baker getting the Oscar for Best Special Effects but the effects themselves were terribly time-consuming and required a huge team. So I didn’t particularly want to make it a Special Effects movie and I certainly didn’t want to do a CGI movie because unless you spend fortunes on CGI, it can look really bad. I wanted us to do everything in front of the lens and in front of camera and I wanted to have the crocodiles in location looking as natural as possible.
The problem with using live crocodiles and animatronics is that when you cut them together, they often don’t work, so you’ve got to be very careful which line you go down. And you can quote me on that.
Yes, I saw on television a documentary about people filming crocodiles and apparently crocodiles think that food is near the surface so the trick is to swim down and lie on the bottom. Now, you’ve got a bit of a snag as if you don’t have an oxygen tank, at some stage or another, you’re forced to come up.
So you have to make a judgement call at what stage you surface but my piece of advice is that you’ve got to swim to the bottom and lie there and they’ll think you’re another crocodile and not think you’re food.
Apart from that maybe tell it a few jokes and don’t put any ketchup on yourself.
In any independent movie, you have so many obstacles that you do need someone who will become completely passionate about it. I can assure you that it’s not for the money because if you worked out how many years and how many hours you worked – you’d be better stacking shelves at Tesco.
You do need one or two people to have that commitment. It has my name on it – it’s a Michael Anderson film – and I pulled together the threads of it but we work in a collegiate world where you take on everybody else’s advice and opinion and it’s a real team effort.
But yes, I did instigate it. Yes I was the driving force. But you do it as a team and it’s the team that should get the credit.
At the moment, the sales agents are just in discussion with the distributors. It’s quite a long gestation period between when it’s made to when it’s actually released. We’re responsible to investors to get their money back so we have to make definite decisions on who buys what territories, where it should be released, how quickly it goes onto video, DVD and On Demand, where the best revenue streams are and what’ll do best.
Of course, what you want to do is pay back the investors, show that it was a good investment and make another one. So we are waiting now, we’ve had success with finding distribution in North America, now we’re looking for success from the sales team in Berlin. We have high hopes.
The film has been really well accepted; we’ve had several charity screenings in the area; we had a cast and crew thank you screening in the Strode Cinema in Street (Somerset) which was completely packed; we had another screening in London in Cineworld in which a 600-seater was completely packed; we had a couple of charity dos which were packed, so it’s done very well.
Oh and the other thing is, did you know that we won the Audience Choice for Best Picture at the Bath Film Festival?
So we’re very proud of that.
Well the thing is, because it’s a very black comedy and some of it’s a bit thrilling, some of it’s a bit gory and some of it’s quite funny, we thought our target audience would be about 15 – 25 year olds and of course, at one of the charity screenings most of the audience were over 50. When I did my Q&A afterwards and told them that the target audience was 15 to 25, they sort of rolled around in the isles. They had been laughing and doing all the right noises; going ‘ooh’ when they were supposed to go ‘ooh’ and ‘argh’ when they were supposed to be a bit frightened and laughing when it was supposed to be funny. We seem to be appealing to a much wider target audience than we first thought.
Absolutely, I think older people just buy into the humour and they really like the idea of crocodiles being let loose in an English village. They sort of buy into it just as they bought into Hot Fuzz and a few of these others. You know, we’re purely entertainment and people came out really well entertained so that was good.
We wrote a sequel and then we thought that “let’s not do a sequel, let’s do a slice of life and take many of the characters from there and do something completely different”. So I can tell you, Josh, you are the first person from the press and media who know about this but the sequel is now just beginning to be funded. We’ve finished the script and, after about 340 script amendments (a lot of work between myself and Nick Squire), we’re now preparing the other documents. And I can tell you, Josh, being the first person of the press and media to know the title and it’s called…
Attack of the Were-Poodle.
And Attack of the Were-Poodle is about a circus that comes into England and they have a dark secret and I bet you can’t guess what it is?
Absolutely spot on, it’s a poodle which turns into a werewolf. So as you can see, it’s the same sort of thing, it’s black comedy, it’s exciting, it’s got lots of humour, lots of dark bits in it and also very funny and very fast moving. If you know any financiers, Josh, aim them in my direction.
It’s a poodle.
Now that’s a bloody good idea. We’ve actually got another movie too. There are three films that we’re making; we’ve made the first, the second one is now being financed and we’re just beginning to think of the third and the third film is going to be called Beast of Bodmin.
No no no, that’s all hush hush.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s something to do with how we’re all brought up. In England, we’re more bookish and are brought up on fairy tales whilst the American kids are brought up more on cartoons and Marvel and the whole comic and superhero background is stronger in the young people’s minds.
And so those kinds of characters, out-of-world creatures and strange beings are much more acceptable to an American audience than they are here. I would have thought it was something to do with that.
You have to get it as good as you can get; you’ve got to believe in it and you’ve got to make decisions all the way along the line about whether you want to be the person who wants to take it to market or whether you’re just going to give it to somebody else.
If it’s good enough and you give it to an established director, that’s great, you’ll see your dreams and your writing come true but you won’t be making it yourself. If you want to be a writer and not a director or producer then that’s a great way forward.
But if you want to make it yourself and actually take ownership of it then you’re in for a long hard battle and the only way through is perseverance and determination and you’ve got to believe in yourself and your project and keep going.
It was lovely talking to you.
And hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for the home media release of Britain’s first killer crocodile movie, The Hatching!