“Necessity really is the mother of invention, and people found ways to achieve things that you wouldn’t believe if you knew what their budgets were”
Richard Rowntree is a British indie film director who, yes, started watching horror films FAR too young.
But he’s put that early cinematic exposure to the darker side of life to very good use – Dogged, his folk horror feature about a sinister cult in an English village, was made for a tiny £14,500 after a crowdfunding campaign. The movie started life as a short film, coming 5th in BBC Three’s The Fear, a search for the best up-and-coming horror directors, judged by Blair Witch Project’s Eduardo Sanchez.
1. Is there any film or franchise growing up that made you think “this is what I want to do too?” (Either because it was amazing or because you thought you’d have told the story differently!)
I’ve always loved movies – it was a huge form of entertainment and escapism for me growing up. I can pinpoint the moment I knew I wanted to make films exactly (though I’m not sure if I was 6 or 7 years old). “The Shining” was on TV. I watched it (way too young!) with my mum – I was utterly transfixed and terrified in equal measures, and when the credits rolled at the end, I told her that I wanted to make films.
The beauty of the cinematography, the mysterious plot (where you see very little of “traditional” horror), the strength of the characters, they all combined to leave me in awe of how anything could so totally absorb my attention (though I was obviously too young to articulate this at that stage). It’s still one of my favourites.
2. Dogged started out as a 4 minute short film – was the plan always to use that as a proof of concept or was it more that as it became successful you realised you had an opportunity to capitalise on that success and expand the story?
It was never intended as a proof of concept film, no. We saw the ads for the BBC Three show The Fear and, having previously entered a few 48 hour filmmaking competitions, we thought it would be a fun thing to do. The people I work with all love good horror films – and we thought we could put a significantly different spin on the usual fare we see. When the film did so well with the programme makers (despite being cut from the actual aired show!), we decided to enter a few festivals and send it out speculatively to some horror review sites.
We were blown away by the responses. This little film we’d shot in one (18 hour long) day for £200 started getting selected for good festivals and the reviews were amazing. We’d already discussed at length possible back stories for the film shortly after we’d made it – it was always intended to be a small snippet from a much bigger story (as with all of our short films), so when we’d agreed on a suitable one, Matt Davies and I spent around eight months thrashing out 19 drafts of the script until we had it in a place where we were all happy.
3. The feature-length version of Dogged was made for a tiny £14,500. How did you decide on that figure? Did you cost everything out or aim for something you thought was achievable to raise?
We did extensive budgeting to work out what the very lowest figure we could make the film was. It came out at £15,000 and there was no contingency included in that amount. Having done Kickstarter campaigns before, we knew that you lose between 5-10% of the money you raise to the platform – so we figured that if we could hit £15k, then we could probably make up the shortfall between the 4 of us as producers (myself, DOP Chris Foulser, editor Lee Wignall, and writer Matt Davies).
Although we weren’t under any illusions as to how hard raising the money would be, we were all very determined to give it a go – we had nothing to lose except Facebook friends and Twitter followers! It was hard going – much harder than making the film – but undoubtedly worth doing.
4. I’m seeing more and more filmmakers looking to raise budgets via crowdfunding. How long did it take to raise the money on Kickstarter? As far as you’re aware did it tend to be other filmmakers supporting you or general cinema fans?
Our Kickstarter campaign ran for 60 days (the maximum allowed on that platform). We chose to do that to give us the best chance of reaching our goal (even though statistics point to shorter campaigns generally having better outcomes). We sent messages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, text messages, email, whatever you could think of, pretty much non stop for those 60 days. The first 45 days or so was mostly pledges from friends, family and film-world acquaintances – once we got past the £10k mark, other people started chipping in from all over the world, which was what helped get us over the line.
We did have one incredibly generous backer who actually put in £5k – and without him, we wouldn’t have made it I don’t think. So I’m eternally grateful to him for that enormous shot in the arm. Crowdfunding, from what I’ve experienced, is largely a myth in so much as it’s your circle of friends and family who help the most, certainly to begin with. Once you have an established audience and a body of work behind you with features, perhaps it changes.
“Everyone, right from start to finish, was as frugal as possible, which meant we didn’t have to cut corners”
5. What are the last things you’d cut corners on with a small movie budget? (At this point I should probably say thanks for not skimping on the effects people. The squelching organ-removing scene was terrific, and that’s not a line I ever thought I’d write.)
The majority of our budget went on cast/crew travel expenses and catering – everyone worked for no pay, which was remarkable and I’m indebted to that fabulously talented bunch of people, but of course we couldn’t let them be out of pocket, or left with empty stomachs. There was no way we could cut corners with that. We had a few location expenses, costumes, etc. But it really was a case of scratching every penny we could in all departments. Everyone did a magnificent job with what they had, particularly Mel Wignall the production designer – she kept producing these incredible props and came in way less than budgeted and I was staggered!
James Blakemore-Hoy’s costumes were all thrifty purchases and makes, Gryph and Gemma in the hair/makeup/SFX dept did fantastically well – everyone, right from start to finish, was as frugal as possible, which meant we didn’t have to cut corners. Necessity really is the mother of invention, and people found ways to achieve things that you wouldn’t believe if you knew what their budgets were!
6. How collaborative do you have to be on a very low budget indie, when you’re relying on so many people’s goodwill? (I’m a control freak and would probably piss everyone off on Day 1 if I tried to do it.)
It’s absolutely essential. Everyone knows what your budgetary limitations are (or at least they should) right from the off. We had extensive meetings with crew beforehand and decided what was achievable, and to figure out budgets, timescales, working hours and so on. The goodwill was phenomenal, partly, I think, because everyone loved the script and the ambition of the project. If problems came up, they were figured out by department heads – it was a very collaborative process.
Likewise with the cast. We had casting sessions where we discussed the project with all of the applicants and figured out how the team would function best – and the cast put a huge amount of faith in us as a team. They didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull off a feature-length film, but again, I think they believed in the script, and, hopefully after meeting us, they believed in us too. And I think everyone who worked on the film is incredibly proud of our achievements.
“I think foreign viewers love the quirky eccentricities of us Brits, particularly in the countryside. This idea of small sects of people with bizarre belief systems living right under the noses of the mainstream and their sensibilities.”
7. To me Dogged is a very British film, partly because of the landscapes and folk element, and partly because it reminded me of those detective serials we used to get on Sunday nights (which I loved, by the way) when a whole story was told over 2 hours, unusually involving a seemingly respectable village with seedy goings on under the surface. What has been the reaction internationally?
I agree – it is a very British film – and that’s something we were going for when we wrote it. The folk-horror sub-genre is one of my favourites. Like you say, the landscape, and the horror of it, inspired the film. There’s these huge swathes of British countryside where nobody lives – woodlands and moors – and they’re all somehow steeped in this kind of pagan history dating back centuries that many of us feel an affinity with, or connection to. And I think that mysticism is something that excites non-Brits about visiting here.
Things like Stonehenge are iconic, and we have such a rich history in this country, that it all combines into this cauldron of uncertainty – which is much closer to big cities than you think. We shot most of the film within 20 miles of London but it looks largely like the deep dark countryside.
A few people have made reference to the Sunday night drama type elements of the film, and that’s a good thing too for me – there’s a reason those shows were so popular. The reaction to the film from overseas has also been really positive. I think, as I mentioned, that foreign viewers love the quirky eccentricities of us Brits, particularly in the countryside. You can see this in films like An American Werewolf in London when Jack goes to the Slaughtered Lamb pub, and also in classics such as The Wicker Man – it’s this idea of small sects of people with bizarre belief systems living right under the noses of the mainstream and their sensibilities.
8. I loved the cinematography in Dogged, particularly the island seascapes – Britain seems to lend itself very well to natural landscapes that can turn from safe to threatening in a second, even though the country is so small. Did you always have that look in mind for the film? And how did you find your locations?
Yes Chris Foulser (DOP) did an amazing job, as did gaffer Chris Wilson with his very subtle and naturalistic lighting. A big part of folk-horror is the fear of the landscape and what lies within it – seen or unseen – so it was essential to get that right. I had worked at Osea Island before for a big budget movie, so I knew that a tidal island would be a fantastic setting for the story – only being able to get on and off of an island twice a day for an hour or so made it work so we could isolate the characters from normal life. We did some B roll footage along the south coast too which slotted in well when we needed to reinforce that isolation in the film.
And having grown up in the tiny village of Iver in Buckinghamshire, I knew plenty of areas where we could shoot that would look right. The church and the pub are also key locations because they’re such old buildings – they really helped sell the idea that the goings on in the film had been occurring for centuries before our story begins. We were also very lucky with some people who had these incredible houses where they let us shoot, and they were perfect to represent the characters who lived in them.
“Our composer, James Griffiths, is a truly unique talent. We discussed prior to the shoot how in folk-horror the music plays a massive role, and his score is effortless in switching between totally menacing and subtle.”
9. The music is superb (usually I have to make myself think about the score unless it’s someone like Hans Zimmer in Dunkirk). Was that something you always knew needed to be a big part of the rising sense of menace, or more of a happy coincidence that it worked so well?
There was no coincidence about it I’m pleased to say! Our composer, James Griffiths, is a truly unique talent. He had composed the score for the short film, and I knew what his capabilities were. We discussed prior to the shoot how in folk-horror the music plays a massive role, and his score is effortless in switching between totally menacing and subtle. A few reviewers have mentioned this, and I heartily agree – that the score works as another character in the film. It’s seriously good, and James really did an amazing job pulling it all together!
“There’s no boobs! And not much blood”
10. What has it been like putting Dogged out there for review?
Nerve wracking! Although everyone who worked on the film (including myself!) is pleased with it – you never really know how it’s going to be received. Particularly with this film, I was nervous. It falls into the horror genre, but I’m acutely aware that this usually (particularly with ultra low budget films) means “a group of teenagers running around in the woods/haunted house being chased by a monster of sorts and lots of blood and boobs”. A lot of reviewers and audiences expect that from the genre – they might not be into this sub-section of the medium – so of course, it was with trepidation that I sent it out. There’s no boobs (spoiler!), not much blood, and the horror does come largely from the psychological point of view and the menace of the community…but I’ve been delighted as to how it has been reviewed.
I think it’s something of a refreshing change for audiences – and certainly not what most people expect from such a low budget film – ambition to be different as opposed to treading the same boards. I don’t mean that disrespectfully at all to other filmmakers in similar situations but it wasn’t a route we wanted to go down. We wanted to make something different, something we’d want to watch ourselves.
“Film is, and must be, a collaborative art form, so input is welcome from all sides”
11. I read somewhere that you should follow your dream for your first feature as you’ll never have that freedom again. Going forward would you like the chance to make big budget studio movies or do you prefer lower budgets and more control?
It’s a hard one to answer, as obviously you do want to have bigger budgets and the subsequently larger audiences that good P&A budgets bring with them – but the honest truth is that I wouldn’t want to make a film unless I felt passionately about the script.
When you make a film, you’re bringing a story to life, and if I didn’t think I could do that story justice, then I wouldn’t go for it. It certainly was a wonderful experience to have the level of freedom we did have on this film – but like I mentioned previously, film is, and must be, a collaborative art form, so input is welcome from all sides – if that means working with a financier in future to get a film made, then of course, you would go for it! I think I’d only ever want to make a film that I’d want to watch myself.
12. If you could make any movie right now, with any stars, what would it be and who would be in it?
Wow what a question! In true Cluedo style, I’ll say: Star Wars Episode IX with Bryan Cranston as a Sith lord and all set on a jungle planet. It sounds stupid when I say it out loud haha!
13. What next for Dogged, and for you?
Dogged is gearing up for a festival run at the moment, which starts with the World Premiere at the Shawna Shea FF in Massachusetts in early October. Then it’s on to San Antonio Horrific FF in Texas later that month, followed by RIP Horror FF in Los Angeles and Director’s Cut FF in Vancouver (both in November), plus hopefully some more screenings after that.
We’re looking at distribution options at the moment for the film too which is likely to be Spring next year. After that we’re moving on to another ultra low budget horror. But this time more of a horror-comedy, a satire about a section of the entertainment industry which we’re looking to shoot early next year. We’ll no doubt be crowdfunding again for that one, so keep an eye on out Twitter and Facebook accounts for more news as it comes in!
Thanks Richard for answering everything so fully. Keep up to date with Richard and Dogged’s progress via Twitter: @DoggedfTheMovie, @AshMountainFilm, and @r_rowntree. Read my review of Dogged or watch the trailer.