Back from the dead

Good news! The Ditch is back in business!

Of course we were never really out of business – production was only temporarily halted last September because of the rain. Sheena has now rewritten the script so that the action takes place indoors, and we actually think it makes it a stronger film. It means that we can use all the stuff we’ve shot and, although we have had to change the order of events in the story, it’s much closer to the mood and style we originally hoped for.

Shooting takes place next month, and we’re getting everything together for the last stage before we go into post-production. So it’s very likely that you’ll be getting to see the film this year! (Remember if you donated £10 or more in last year’s highly successful fundraising effort, you get to see the film first – it’ll be just after the cast and crew screening; all dates will be announced in due course.)

We’ve not been idle these months. Sheena has been working very, very hard on several productions with her company Drunken Chorus. These have included live performances at the Battersea Arts Centre, the Rich Mix venue and pubs in the City of London and Croydon, as well as performances in the north of England. Drunken Chorus, which has secured Arts Council funding, has a number of projects in the pipeline and has come a long way from its early days. Henry has been making music videos, and as I write is about to co-direct the videography at Adam Ant’s 2014 live tour show in Hammersmith. And me, Stephen? Writing, mostly, and researching. And blogging, elsewhere. Life doesn’t stand still; it’s alarming how quickly the last seven months have gone.

Anyway, it’s going to be great getting the team back together, though inevitably there have been a few changes in personnel because of availability. More about that as we get closer to the date. In the meantime, we look forward to keeping you up to date with how things are progressing!

Something scary through your letterbox…

I’m delighted to announce that, after a series of journeys across London and indeed the UK, we have a whole set of signed posters ready to send out to our most generous donors – and also some concept art for those who gave especially generously.

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Signed by both members of the cast, and by both producers as well as (of course) writer-director Sheena Holliday, the posters are A1 sized and very much a limited edition! The concept art is, as you know, by Olympics 2012 artist Adam James and comprises four A3 sheets in full colour.

So look out for these arriving soon, you very lovely generous people!

(NB The posters aren’t really all that scary. Unless maybe I slip a spider into one of the tubes or something…)

We lived inside the dream…

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Last night I had a dream. And then I went home, and had a dream.

The Drowned Man is the new production by notorious theatre company Punchdrunk, this time staged with the backing of the National Theatre. Having missed their previous London show, The Masque of the Red Death (now six or seven years ago), I was desperate to see this one. As it happens, Punchdrunk seem to have anticipated this yearning among their London audience by enormously inflating both the number of tickets available and the space in which the production takes place.

There are plenty of reviews online which will give you a flavour of the experience, without spoiling it for those who haven’t been (I do strongly recommend going, though, especially if you’re a Punchdrunk virgin). Critical opinion splits about 80:20 in favour and the show tends to excite opinion to one extreme or the other – those who love it adore it, those who hate it do so with a passion. I want to use this post to explore what the experience meant to me, and to maybe start a discussion about how cinema – especially horror cinema – might learn from what Punchdrunk is doing.

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Because I (like the whole audience) had to be masked throughout I couldn’t wear my glasses. My prescription isn’t very strong, so I could manage without. This meant, however, that my vision was slightly obscured, so that everything not up close took on a blur. What made it worse was that every bit of the production space (we’re talking 100 rooms spread across four – or was it five? – floors) was filled with a gentle smoky haze. So the action unfolded in front of me in a mist, people’s expressions vague, their faces indistinguishable, the lights rendered remote yet still blinding at the wrong angle. On top of this, the soundtrack (relayed through speakers in every room, but different depending on where you were) was remorseless, varying from torch songs to half-heard snatches of music to throbbing drones and hums. Every room was fitted out in the richest detail, all of it lovingly and accurately redolent of its 1960s Americana movie setting, whether that be a suburban home, a medical lab, a foley studio, a cinema or a dingy motel. And in every room, surrounding the actor-dancers, pressing in from all quarters, were us: the audience. Masked. Every one of us in a death’s head mask which hid the mouth so not a single expression was visible. In the obscure lighting all I could see was the same face, duplicated across the darkness, its plain, greyish, blank stare confronting me. A crowd of ghosts. And my mask pressed on my face so I couldn’t breathe deeply.

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Doesn’t this sound like a nightmare? That’s the idea. Punchdrunk’s trademark is bringing alive the darker, unsettling aspects of the story (and they’ve picked some pretty dark stories to display over the years – Macbeth, Peter Grimes, Woyzeck – so much so that some critics are wondering if they can actually move out of what appears to be settling into a thematic comfort zone). Hammered by the ear-splitting soundtrack, disturbed by the ghostly faces and the darkness, fearful of the unpredictable story and of being caught up against my will in the thick of the action, I felt I was living in someone else’s subconscious brought alive around me. And when I caught sight of my own unblinking, unmoving face in a mirror, it was like a threatening stranger challenging me to do something but giving me no hint what.

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Those whose minds are turning to David Lynch aren’t far off the mark. Punchdrunk don’t cite him as an influence, but the shadow of Mulholland Drive, and other films (I thought particularly of Inland Empire with its disjointed, difficult narrative, fragments of scenes being played out before being abandoned) looms large over this production. Many of the details – the woods through which the characters run, the chequered dance floor, the droning hum of white noise punctuated occasionally by stentorian voices, the cabaret singers, the red curtains – are so obviously inspired by Lynch films that perhaps they didn’t feel they needed to cite him. (The title of this post? At one point, I distinctly heard the words “we lived inside the dream” being boomed out from the soundtrack. It’s a slight modification of the line “we live inside a dream” from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Coincidence? Yes, it could be…)

I went home from the production, utterly exhausted from three hours of walking (occasionally running), concentrating, staring into the blur, feeling my ears bleed from the noise, and trembling with fear and anticipation. That night, I had a dream in which the character playing Wendy – with whom I felt I didn’t spend nearly enough time – climbed up to an enormous clock near the ceiling which she somehow folded around herself. She then sang the “In Heaven” song from Lynch’s Eraserhead. Sitting here now, my head still cloudy and spinning, I’m no longer sure which parts of the experience I lived through in real life and which parts I dreamt.

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Shouldn’t horror cinema leave you feeling like that? How would we, as horror filmmakers, achieve the same sense of confused reality, the same kind of disturbed mental state, the same blurring of the real and fantastic? Our audience does not move around wearing masks: it sits in padded chairs in a cinema, or in a brightly-lit living room, or in front of a computer or smartphone. That fourth wall – which Punchdrunk breaks so immediately and effectively – is always there in a film, a barrier to full immersion. How do we close that distance between us and the audience, so that they are no longer safely behind the glass looking through it?

I don’t know the answer (although I have a few ideas, which I’ll keep to myself just for now because I might want to use them). But right now there’s a sense amongst aficionados that Punchdrunk has peaked, that this is the culmination of its last ten years or so of activity. Perhaps it’s time for other art forms to think about how to incorporate some of the Punchdrunk experience into what they offer.

[Footnote: all photos on this page are shamelessly cribbed from the National Theatre's website. I did not take any photos during my visit to the production. It's not allowed, and I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone else. You have to experience this for yourself. The production runs until the end of December. Book here.]

 

Important announcement about The Ditch

Please read this post if you’re one of the people who has kindly donated to our project, or if you’re just interested in where we’ve got to.

As you know we had everything prepared for the next stage of filming in the middle of September, when we were unlucky enough to come up against a particularly bad spell of weather. Because of this, it was impossible to film that weekend. Luckily we were able to cancel most of the things we had booked (location, accommodation, equipment, etc.) so we have not taken too big a financial hit.

After negotiating with the owners of the land, we were hoping to reschedule the shoot for this coming weekend but this has also proved impossible. Not enough people are available, and in any case there would have been less daylight.

Although it would be easy to see all this as a setback, we’re looking on it as an opportunity. We don’t want to wait yet another year, so we’re having a big think about the whole project. We are rewriting the story of The Ditch so at least some of it will take place indoors. The existing footage, which was shot last year, will be incorporated into the new story.

The fundamentals of the story will not change – it will still be a supernatural thriller, it will still be about Donna, it will still be about her knocking down a mysterious pedestrian and the consequences that come from this. And there will still be a ditch! Rewriting the script means we have even more opportunity to think about developing the central character of Donna, and examine her motives and reactions – which should lead to an even more interesting and entertaining film at the end.

The rewrite means we will be spending more time on script development. It’s critical that we get this right to preserve the integrity and the effectiveness of the story. There will almost certainly be no more filming until early 2014.

If you have donated to The Ditch, please be assured that we are very grateful for your support and your money will be spent wisely. We will be examining the new script to make sure we get the best product for the budget we have raised. If you have chosen a perk that can be printed – posters, concept art – these will be delivered soon. Obviously we can’t send out the script yet, as we’re rewriting it! The DVD/digital download will be delivered once the film is ready, but this will be much later than we originally hoped. We’re confident it will be worth the wait.

We would like to thank you for your understanding. If you are unhappy with this arrangement, and would like a refund of your donation, please contact us urgently. Otherwise, please be confident that we are doing our best to make this film every bit as brilliant as originally planned.

Thank you.

The horror of mental illness

For those of you expecting an update on the shooting of The Ditch, there’ll be an announcement soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to explore an issue which has been on my mind for some time but which has been brought into focus by recent events. As some readers may be aware, there has been controversy in the last 24 hours, because the UK supermarket chain Asda has been caught selling Halloween costumes labelled “mental patient costume”. There’s a screenshot below.

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As you can see, the costume consists of a tattered, bloodstained white coat, a plastic meat cleaver, and a mask which appears to have been modelled on Leatherface of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame. It’s a genuinely unsettling costume and one which would probably be pretty effective if you caught someone unawares on a dark Halloween night. But even if your intention was just to create an edgy, slightly troubling but fun costume which would have people doing a double-take before laughing, it would be a crude but enjoyable product to wear. After all, it’s exactly the kind of thing you expect people to wear when they go out to a Halloween party, and it saves you from finding a lab coat and tearing it up before dropping half a bottle of ketchup over it, then wrapping some bandages (or, in an emergency, some toilet paper) around your head.

But the costume has caused outrage on Twitter. Now, I know you only have to sneeze to cause outrage on Twitter, and the medium has a tendency to attract the thin-skinned and easily provoked. Nevertheless, a Twitterstorm has erupted and Asda has withdrawn the costume from sale (no word, at the time of writing, of who the manufacturer is or whether they too have withdrawn the product). If you need the reason for this spelling out, it’s because of the product description – “mental patient fancy dress costume”. (There’s some evidence, incidentally, that the product was originally intended to be called a ‘zombie’ costume.) To be brief, people have objected to the association of the words “mental patient” with a dangerous, out of control, homicidal person who appears barely human.

I, too, find this offensive, and I’m glad the product has been withdrawn (although I think I would have been content if it had merely been re-titled). Why did I find it offensive? Because, like one-quarter of the population, I have suffered from mental health problems. In my case it was suicidal depression which reached its peak about 13 or 14 years ago and came close to threatening my life. I was put on anti-depressants (largely ineffective) and given a year’s free psychotherapy on the NHS (partially effective – the therapy, that is, not the NHS which is mostly wonderful). I’m not going to go into the details of my illness, except to say that I’ve come out the other side now and I feel much, much better than I did back then. Had it not been for the professionals, however, I might not be here today.

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Bloody weather…

Sadly we were beaten by the weather…

Last year we had the worst summer in living memory, but September was dry enough for us to get two consecutive days of shooting without any interruption. This year summer was fantastic, but September has ended up being unsettled and wet. Oh, the irony.

We’ve had to postpone the shoot. The forecast got worse throughout the week, and even now it looks like there’s no way we could have got everything we wanted on film. We can’t afford to go back to the location again, so we’ve decided to pull the plug for now and try to fix a new date for the rest of the shoot. We don’t yet know when that will be, but we’ll keep everyone posted. It may be we have to come up with a new way of getting this film finished…

Keep an eye on this blog, on our website, and on our Indiegogo page for updates on how we’re getting on.