Tuesday, 26 August 2014

2013-2014: House of VHS

Trying to produce and direct a film like Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein, when you don't have the money, the experience or the reputation, is a bit hot-headed. The first step, I had been told by financiers, was to go microbudget for a first feature directorial effort. I couldn't really make Sherlock Holmes on a microbudget, so I concentrated on a script that would use as few resources as possible. House of VHS: a haunted house movie, with six characters and a supernatural element. Writing it was a blast, and we decided to film in a house owned by Jean-Noël and his family, located in the Center of France. We set filming dates in August 2013, and started working on pre-production and financing simultaneously... in March. Fast-tracking the project was a good way to make it happen, but also a gamble: what would happen if we couldn't pull it off? Five months before filming, we had zero cast and crew, very little money, and a script that was still a bit deliberately loose (it was designed to be adapted to the actors in due time).

In April, we travelled to the house and took a lot of pictures. I had never seen it before, and being there allowed me to make a few changes in the script, in order to take advantage of what the location had to offer. Then we started casting: in June, we had our first casting call, where we met thirty actors and actresses (out of 270 applications, which was way more than we had expected!). Four actors stood out: Isabel McCann, Delphine Lanniel, Morgan Lamorté and Nafees Hamid. However, we still had a few people to meet, and we needed to cast the last two characters. Two weeks later, we had this second round of casting for House of VHS, with the four actors above and a few new faces, among which Florie Vialens (now called Florie Auclerc-Vialens) and Ruy (who calls himself Ewen Blumenstein). We had found six talented actors who worked really well with each other, and were all very excited to be a part of this project.

Then we gathered the crew. A small one, to be honest: the budget and the house only allowed us to have a full crew of six people, including Jean-Noël and me. We shoehorned in the planning the presence of an SFX makeup artist for two days, but the rest of the gang was only comprised of:

  • director of photography
  • his assistant
  • sound recordist
  • unit manager

To be fair, we would have needed twice as many people and twice as much time, but complaining would have led us nowhere. We were lucky enough to enlist François Reumont as director of photography – an experienced TV professional, he had shot a few short films like Zombinladen and Paris by Night of the Living Dead, as well as feature film The Black Door.

Less than two weeks before filming began, Nafees had to drop out due to visa issues (he was a US student living in France), and we had to figure out how to replace him. You would think that the replacement would have been found among the actors we auditioned in June... but in fact, we chose an Icelandic actor called Pétur Sigurðsson, who was recommended by Ewen Blumenstein. He turned out to be great, showing up at the last minute and taking immediately the mantle of his character.

So there we were, twelve people in a house for two weeks, trying to follow a crazy schedule that involved action, special effects... until we realized that the SFX makeup artist had no intention of showing up. After having said that she had prepared and tested everything, she simply stopped returning phone calls. We suddenly had to handle the fact that there was not going to be any on-set special effects in our supernatural/horror film! A heavy rewrite was made on the spot, and I left space for a few SFX shots to be added afterwards. When we got back, we ran a small crowdfunding campaign, and managed to craft a cool gory shot with the people who had made the monster eye for the 'Frankenstein' teaser. After having drawn a few FX scenes and concept sketches that never made it to the screen, Lucie finally storyboarded a new one that we were able to put in the can.


Post-production on House of VHS has been forever, it seems. We are now in the second half of 2014, and it's not yet 100% completed. But we're almost there, thanks to all the people who joined and supported the project. It was not an easy one, but if we can survive this kind of hardcore filmmaking and turn over a satisfying movie, it should be no problem to handle Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein with a decent budget.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

2012-2013: Doubting, waiting, rewriting

At the end of the summer 2012, things were starting to slow down. We were getting messages from very interesting people wondering about the project, like Oscar-winning makeup artist Dave Elsey (Star Wars ep III, Mission Impossible, X-Men First Class - he won the Oscar for Wolfman, together with Rick Baker), who said he would love to be involved. But what more was there to do for Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein, until funding would come together? So I took some time for other projects. First, I wrote a script called The Werewolf Mummy, an adventure/horror story set during the crusades. Jean-Noël and I also had a pet project: a film version of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, so I worked on developing that script too. And of course, I started working on Jane Clark's movie Slate & Kelly, a buddy cop story set in Paris.

By the end of 2012, I was worried to realize that the company had been in existence for one year, and Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein was still not happening. I started to think that maybe we had aimed too high, too fast, and maybe a microbudget film would be a good way to climb our way up to a serious budget. So I put the first hand to a script called House of VHS, which was designed to use only one location (a house), a supernatural menace (VHS) and a total cast of no more than six characters.


Berlin 2013
During that time, Parkland Pictures and I were discussing the script for Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein, and it became clear that it could use a real rewrite. To work on it, producer John Cairns brought in a seasoned writer called Stephen Marians, who used to be a production and writing partner of actor Simon Ward (Peter Cushing's reluctant assistant in Hammer's Frankenstein must be destroyed). Stephen came up with his own version of the script, that I was able to read right after the Berlin Film Market, in March 2013. Then we spent a weekend in London, with Stephen and the Parkland people, examining page by page his version and mine, and sorting out what to keep in each – and what to add, change, etc. I went home with a pile of notes, and assembled the new and improved version of the script.

The final version came together during Cannes, in May. During that same festival, I had a few good meetings about the project, and in June, I went on to pitch it to finance people thanks to a selective program run by a group called Peacefulfish. What I heard there could be summarized as: “sounds great, but what have you done before, where's your first feature film?” Well, luckily enough, my first feature happened to be on its way.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

2012: Marteau

Marteau Films Production was incorporated in December 2011, the same month I quit my day job. The plan was simple, and at the same time incredibly ambitious: to figure out how to produce Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein as a French/English genre film, then move on to other projects. At first, things went smoother than I would have thought: talented actors and award-winning crew members were easy to contact, and responded very positively to the script. Within four months, we had a commitment from UK sales company Parkland Pictures to handle the movie. But then came the hard part: financing the project. It took a while to realize that the initial plan wouldn't work. I didn't give up right away on getting French funding, which was a mistake. People wouldn't understand why I wanted to film both in French and English, and French TV channels wouldn't follow us on a genre film. I eventually gave up on the idea of filming in French, which was foolish from the start. But hey, one needs to learn from his mistakes!

Among the first people I met was director of photography Jérôme Alméras. He suggested we shot a short test film, to show as proof of concept. We decided it had to be ready in time for Cannes 2012, and got down to work. The location would be an underground place which used to be owned by monks. The actors would be Dario Costa as Sherlock Holmes (remember, he played the part in the public reading a year before), and Angèle Vivier as a screaming victim of the monster (she will play Christina, the innkeeper's mute daughter, in the movie). Costumes would be designed by Pierre-Jean Larroque, an Emmy and César winner with a taste for period pieces. And we hoped to have a great monster with crazy prosthetics... until we realized how little time and money we had. We had almost none of either. So we settled for a close-up of the monster's eye, which ended up being quite effective. We had a cold sweat a few days before filming, when Jérôme learned that he couldn't be there due to an important meeting for the film he was about to make with Pierce Brosnan and Emma Thompson (Love Punch). But his assistant Simon Blanchard prepped the shots with him beforehand, using the storyboard drawn by my wife Lucie, and everything went smoothly on set. In fact, I was happy to keep the crew as small as possible, because it felt strange to have so many people working around me: two makeup artists, the costume designer, two unit managers, a propmaster, and four people for the photography (we used an Alexa camera). They were all intrigued by the fact that I didn't have at least one assistant director, but I told them I never had any! Shane Briant provided a deep voice over, Matthieu Huvelin crafted a great music, and the teaser turned out to be pretty acceptable, eventually making it into two festivals (which wasn't the initial plan at all!)

Cannes 2012 was interesting, but Jean-Noël and I went there unprepared, having made no appointment beforehand, and kind of hoping meetings would happen spontaneously. We were partly right, because we met American director Jane Clark, who told us about a film she wanted to make in France – and we're working on it with her now. But we didn't find a pile of money waiting for us, or anyone ready to finance with their eyes closed an expensive film from a first-time director.

After Cannes, I went location scouting in Belgium. I had the best guide in the world: actor Eric Godon, who will play innkeeper Johann Klein in our film. We visited castle Reinhardstein, near the German border, and found all the places we needed in the area: the forest, the village, the inn, the Burgermeister's office... I came back with a good idea of what the film would look like. We were supported by the French Sherlock Holmes Society and its president Thierry Saint-Joanis, who said he would lend all the furnishing and props needed for the Baker Street set. At that moment, we were pretty confident that the film was about to get made, to the point where we issued a press release in June, right before I left for Belgium. When I returned, numerous websites had spread the info, and a few magazines had mentioned Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein with our promotional poster (by Gil Jouin, who had designed with his father Michel the French posters for Return of the Jedi, Young Sherlock Holmes, etc). A lot of people thought that filming was imminent. Well, it turned out it wasn't. Two years later, we haven't even started. Is everything ready? Yes. What happened since then? Wait till next entry!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

2010-2011: The script!

Once I had my mind set on writing Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein, I went through documentation again. I looked up more Holmes books, comic books and movies, re-read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of course, and also went through countless Frankenstein films (although I can't say I learned a lot from watching Blackenstein).

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
One of the things that came out of my research was the existence of a real Franckenstein family. That's right, with a “c”. Their name is not a coincidence: Mary Shelley was visiting Europe with her husband and Lord Byron when she wrote the book, and they had been near Castle Franckenstein not long before. In the book, they're a Swiss family, whereas the real family is German.
The current Baron is Clement von und zu Franckenstein, who happens to be... an actor! Starting as a bit player in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (of course), he went on to play bigger parts, with Jean-Claude Van Damme in Full Contact, Bruce Willis in Death Becomes Her or Michael Douglas in The American President (where Clement plays the French president, despite being a German raised in the UK!). He was also in another Mel Brooks film: Robin Hood, Men in Tights. My script features characters based on his father Georg, his uncle Clemens and his grandfather Karl. More on this matter later!

The script came together easily enough: I had a map of the characters, their relationships, the main plot and the subplots, and defining the sequence of events was a natural process. Oddly enough, several elements from Zorro vs Sherlock Holmes ended up in this story: two antagonist brothers (something that derived from The Sign of Four, my favorite Holmes adventure)

I had a first draft in June 2010 (the same month my first child was born, would you call it a coincidence?), and I handed it to my wife and to Jean-Noël. With their notes and a few new ideas I had come up with, I made corrections and invited ten friends to a group reading in September. We had a good talk afterwards, especially about the ending – it was almost unchanged since the time I was working on Zorro vs Sherlock Holmes, and it didn't feel quite right. The rest of the script everyone liked, but the ending was putting most people off. I came up with a new version within two weeks, and had another reading in October, with a group made of both people who knew the story, and people who hadn't read any version yet. This time around, the reactions were very positive, and it felt like the script was in the right place.


Time had come to think of how it could be brought to the screen. I had written the script in French (the exact title then was
Sherlock Holmes contre Frankenstein!), but when I was scanning casting ideas in my head, a lot of them were English-speaking actors – which of course made sense, Holmes and Watson being British characters. So I decided I should translate the script into English. I was familiar with the language, but writing 19th century dialogue is different from writing an e-mail or even a term paper. So I took my time, enlisted the help of a fat English dictionary and Conan Doyle's full Canon, and came up with a version that sounded English enough to me. A friend of mine introduced me to a charming British lady called Stephanie Campion, who made a lot of corrections and set up a public reading of the scripts with professional English-speaking actors. The reading took place in February 2011, in the parisian pub Carr's: it was a regular informal event where the small audience would discuss a play or a script with the author. The feedback was good there too, and it was great to have real actors read the script out loud. I felt the relationship between Holmes and Watson worked quite well, which was important to me – Dario Costa and Damian Corcoran played the detective and the doctor.

Damian Corcoran & Dario Costa
The next step was to reach out to actors, production companies, and put the project on tracks. Or so I thought. Remember, at that time I had no real idea of how the filmmaking industry worked, and I knew absolutely no one there. So I sent out letters, e-mails, to a few agents and French production companies. It took me some time to realize that no French producer would touch in a thousand years a project called 'Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein'. There are barely any genre movies made in France, and the few that are produced have a contemporary setting, or at least take place in France. A film with British characters investigating a supernatural matter in 19th century Germany is not something that the French financing system will support. But I was more lucky with my messages to agents: the first actor to express interest in the script was Shane Briant. I was leaping with joy when I heard back from him, and he said he would meet me (he lives in Australia, but was headed to London and we saw each other in Paris). Hammer fans remember him of course as Peter Cushing's assistant in Terence Fisher's Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, and I had named the Burgermeister in my script after his character: Simon Helder. When we had this meeting in August 2011, we discussed the script, Hammer films, etc., and he said he would be happy to play the part and support the project. Not long later, Clement von Franckenstein also said he really liked the script, and wanted to be in the movie. It turned out nobody had ever asked him to play Baron Frankenstein before me – I guess I'm more candid than most!

At that point, I thought the best way to move things forward was to create the means to produce the film myself. But flying solo is a scary thing. So I contacted Jean-Noël, and asked him whether he would create a production company with me. He said yes, and in a way, this is where the story really begins!