To celebrate the DVD release of the enjoyably twisted I Am Not A Serial Killer – starring Christopher Lloyd and Max Records – Tom Leins caught up with the film’s Devon-based filmmakers: director Billy O’Brien and master puppeteer William Todd-Jones.
* Firstly, I believe that you both live in Chagford – how did you first cross paths, and how did this particular collaboration come about?
TODD: Billy called me in 1998 for a short film called “The Tale Of The Rat That Wrote”, he was writing and directing. He was looking for puppetry advice. It was a crazily ambitious project: Victorian London, puppet rats, big scale and fictional world. It’s a good example of not being afraid to pick up the phone to the right people. The finished film went on to win festivals all over the world, as well as being BAFTA nominated, so… a good call!
BILLY: That was a freezing cold shoot in December ’98 at Chatham Docks in Kent so naturally I thought of Todd when we decided to make I Am Not A Serial Killer in the freezing cold of Minnesota in winter! Over the years we’ve worked on several projects together, we now live down the street from each other and so pop in to talk about the latest mad ideas!
* How has being based in Devon affected your respective careers – either positively or negatively?
TODD: Growing up in Wales, I found landscape and the secrets it has to tell inspirational… and here on Dartmoor, it’s clear that each tor might have a tale poetic and epic in scale, with nature as an ever present, hugely powerful character. In the projects I get involved with, often it’s only the location that’s changed – it’s as much about people interacting with the environment, as it is about their personal stories… they just happen to be set in Hogwarts, Narnia, Fantasia, or Outer Space.
BILLY: Coming from a farm in Cork I am well used to the rain here! And after ten years and my kids growing up here I love the wildness of Dartmoor and the community in Chagford. There is a great group of writers and artists living here, inspired I guess by the moor – Alan Lee, Brian and Wendy Froud and David Wyatt to shamelessly name drop a few amazing artists.
* I Am Not A Serial Killer is pure Americana. Have you considered working on a project closer to home, or have the number of lacklustre Dartmoor horror movies put you off that kind of endeavour?
BILLY: That’s funny, as I’m in the middle of writing a pretty crazy folk horror musical set on Dartmoor. I follow story – I Am Not A Serial Killer was adapted from a book of the same name and set in the Mid-West. It was great to go over there and help make it come to life. Similarly ever since I moved to Dartmoor I’ve wanted to shoot something here but as you point out, it’s pretty unforgiving on films. Somehow Dartmoor shows up the weakness in films shot here. I suppose what I mean is, it’s hard to capture the magic and your story better be bloody good. This crazy one I’m working on does it for me.
TODD: As with Billy, it is characters and story that are key for me. When the right story emerges from the moor mists, I’ll be there.
* Which films – if any – were an influence on the look and feel of I Am Not A Serial Killer?
BILLY: Well we spent six years getting this off the ground and over that time I scouted a lot of the Mid-West on various trips. In our van myself the producer and cameraman all old friends for whom this was a passion project, we must have discussed dozens of films driving around. Ones that stand out were Rivers Edge, Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Let The Right One In, and anything from the 1970s really.
* What were the biggest challenges in getting the film made?
TODD: The appalling cold that made the black goo freeze onto Christopher Lloyd’s glove-less hands, meaning that I had to chip his fingers out before we could go for another take.
BILLY: I didn’t mind the cold because at long last we were making the film – all those days and nights waiting for finance to click, that was terrible. And hanging on there, hoping the money came, none of us giving up – including Todd – that was the biggest challenge. Being on location in this beautiful place, the Iron Ranges, about a hundred miles from the Canadian border in the middle of the continent and in blinding white snow with the temperatures about minus 20C, well that was fun. You don’t get to experience that every day of the week. It is what we do this business for.
* Conversely, what were the high-points?
TODD: Becoming a fully endorsed member of The Wolf Club. (Maybe not.)
BILLY: That…. is not even funny! Put it this way Rural Minnesota in the depths of winter has some scary clubs you do not want to get involved with. I think we all ran away fast!
TODD: Wheels of cheese.
BILLY: Oh yeah, I forgot them. On Sundays, nowhere was open except one Saloon where we’d play pool and watch the local drunk fights kick off. If peckish there was always the frozen pizza selection. Including the infamous Wheel of Cheese.
TODD: Being able to point a camera in any direction in Virginia Minnesota and have it be perfect. And when as Chris stand-in, I was driving Crowley’s Cadillac for scenes for which Mr Lloyd didn’t need to be visible, I had the local police wave me through stop lights when its brakes failed.
BILLY: The Caddy was like a large boat, swaying gently over the snow, and that first morning, when you pressed the brakes and it continued to sway gently straight through the red light…
* Perhaps unfairly – I hadn’t realised how active Christopher Lloyd was these days. How did he come to be involved with the film?
BILLY: He loved the script, said he hadn’t been offered such an interesting role as Mr. Crowley before. Lovely man. Threw himself into it, never complained about the freezing conditions once.
TODD: I’d worked with Chris on Who Framed Roger Rabbit years ago and knew of his ability to create characters that were larger than life. We knew that for Crowley, Chris would need be much closer to himself than his usually asked for Back to the Future, Doc Brown-type performance. Billy kept pushing for the real Chris and I worked with him to keep the moments where the monster manifests as similarly real.
BILLY: Yes that’s right, at the London Film Festival in October Chris on stage reminded me of this! I’d forgotten I kept telling him to “Drain it out!”. In fairness to Chris, by day two of the shoot he’d completely clicked the realism we were after and loved that we didn’t just want an echo of his earlier famous performances.
* I was very impressed with Max Records in the film – he seems like he has a bright future ahead of him. It is a pretty intense role for a young actor – how difficult was it to cast?
BILLY: Well we met Max when he was 13 and gave him the role then, even though he was too young. He’s incredible and when we met him it was immediately obvious why Spike Jonze had plucked him from nowhere to play Max in Where The Wild Things Are.
TODD: To walk the line of a diagnosed sociopath, who also has normal levels of teenage angst, whilst dealing with the corpses coming through your single mum’s mortuary, plus being conflicted about the attention you’re having from girls, and withstanding the desire to react to the bullies… could easily have gone into cliche. Instead Max found the centre of John Wayne Cleaver and held onto it… even when (as has to happen) we shot out of order. This is why he was rightly nominated in the Best Actor category at this year’s British Independent Film Awards. Max is a also a fan of Dartmoor, having stayed here a couple of times. The outdoors is a place where he can leave behind the characters he so deftly plays and explore the Wild Things in nature. He also rather likes the ale to be had in the local hostelry.
* What projects are you working on next? Are further collaborations on the cards?
BILLY: Yes, we’re chatting all the time about quirky, odd ideas. Always great to brainstorm with Todd over a beer.
TODD: I think there’s something in the beer!
* Finally, what advice would you give to other filmmakers based in the Westcountry?
BILLY: I think really there are few excuses today, you can shoot, record sound and edit to a professional level very cheaply. So the key is as ever, story. After that directing is two simple questions: where do I put the camera? And what do I say to the actors? That’s your job. Just get out there and shoot. As Beckett said “Try. Fail. Try again. Fail better.” You learn every time. Years ago, I guess you’d have had to go to London from Devon/Cornwall. I ended up there from Cork. But today you have it all at your fingertips via the internet. If you’re a more experienced shooter then I would put in a plea to try shooting some film. It’s special, and can make your film special. Digital is here to stay but it’s worth experimenting with 16mm and 35mm, before it’s all gone. Labs like iDailies near London will be pleased to help, I’m sure. Personally I love it.
TODD: The boundaries are only the ones you build.
The creature shots we needed for the conclusion of I Am Not A Serial Killer required a scale version of the mortuary set, so we built it in Billy’s garage. I’ve built creatures and puppets that have been performed across the world, before millions of people, from materials supplied by the local hardware stores.
Put down the glass and get on with it.
I Am Not A Serial Killer is out now on DVD via Bulldog Film Distribution.