Director Interview: Graham Hughes

Following on from his review of the brilliant UK indie horror hit Death Of A Vlogger, Hugh had the chance to catch up with the film’s director, Graham Hughes.

Death Of A Vlogger director Graham Hughes

Hi Graham thanks for agreeing to speak to us today.

No, thanks for reaching out.

I watched the movie on Monday on its release and I was totally blown away by it, completely caught me off guard. You must be happy with how it has been received?

In some ways yes in some ways no. The people that are enjoying it I’m really surprised at how much they are enjoying it. This week has been a bit mixed now its on a wide release, its been a bit stressful.

What drove you to use the found footage / mockumentary style?

Death Of A Vlogger Poster

It was mostly necessity. Though this was my third feature, I tried to make another in between my second and this one.

That was micro budget as well, bigger than Death of a Vlogger but still nothing like studio budgets. I was trying to make it look a lot more expensive than it was and it was an absolute disaster! It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life and the film just sort of fell apart.

So, I was wallowing in self pity for a while, then I saw this film The Dirties, a Canadian found footage film that I would highly recommend. Its not a horror, its about two kids who are planning a school shooting, so it’s a comedy (laughs).

They just wore their budget on their sleeve. I think it was a ten grand budget and they were very much like; “This film cost ten grand. Deal with it!”. They made that the aesthetic, and that was the exact right film I needed to see at that point. It inspired me, and I was one of those people who kinda thought found footage films were dead. But I sought out more found footage films and found so many amazing and cool things in the genre.

I figured that I’d tried the traditional approach a few times with mixed results, maybe this is something that can make the budget work to the aesthetic rather than the other way around.

Are there any other mockumentary movies that stood out to you or inspired you?

Well, there weren’t many that directly inspired it. The Dirties was the main inspiration behind filming this way but I watched a lot of films over the course of filming. I shot Death of a Vlogger over about six months, so I took in ideas and inspiration as I went along.

I saw Lake Mungo about three months in to filming Death of a Vlogger and I just fucking despaired because its so good and there are some plot beats that both films share; there’s a haunting that’s then debunked halfway through, then another haunting happens and I was just like “Fuck! People are going to think I’ve ripped this off.”

Savagelands, The Conspiracy are two that stand out. Mockumentaries are probably one of my favourite subgenres.

You say it took six months to film; did you do all the filming yourself or were you helped?

It was a mix. A lot of it was just me and my phone. The film that fell apart was scheduled to be over a two-week shoot, and everything had to be organised; putting a production like that together was like event management and you’re spinning so many plates.

I didn’t want to do that with this, I wanted it to be piecemeal that I could pick up and drop as needed. I held down my nine to five job and it let me decide on the way home whether or not I fancied doing a scene, can I be bothered? (Laughs).

It meant that I could text the actors I needed to see who was free and get their availability and just put it in the books. All the scenes shot by my character were shot by me, but the scenes with the documentarians I had professional videographers (Kevin Walls) and sound guy (David McKeitch) because I wanted to make a distinction between the two parts of the film.

How did you connect with the other actors in the film?

Most of them I had worked with previously. Annabel Logan and Patrick O’Brien I had worked with on my previous feature. Paddy Kondracki is an old friend, he’s mostly a writer but I’d seen him act in a bunch of stuff and he’s a really good improviser.

Joma West is my girlfriend and I had asked her to do a smaller part in the film. But when I saw her performance I saw that she had been holding out on me and I asked if she would take a bigger part.

I didn’t want to ask too many favours, so I asked people who I knew would enjoy the experience.

The cast are terrific. Paddy in particular almost jumps out the screen when he shows up, as though he’s stepped in from another film! He’s a really fascinating character to watch. Tell me, were those his own Hawaiian shirts or was that enforced on him?

Laughs No they were enforced. They are all my shirts….

One of the things the film deals with out-with the paranormal events is very prevalent today. The whole idea of ‘Cancel Culture’ and online bullying is all over the news right now. Is that something you or someone you know has ever dealt with?

Fortunately not. Not to the extent in the film anyway. I’ve been making online content since YouTube started, so I have seen some not so favourable reactions to it, but not the extent of a cancellation; the internet is a cesspit, really horrendous sometimes.

I’d read Jon Ronson’s book “So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” and that was a big influence. Just talking about how dangerous and toxic the internet can be.

I’m sure this comes up a lot, but I have to ask about the séance scene. What kind of camera did you use to get that effect and how difficult was it?

Thanks for asking about it, I think you’re actually the first person who has brought it up! We used a GoPro Fusion which is like a VR camera. It’s got two fish-eye lenses pointing in opposite directions. The lenses are so wide that it records the whole screen and you get a 180-degree vantage.

That scene was left till last because I was so terrified of it. We had to rent the camera, so that became one of the most expensive scenes in the film, and it’s probably the most cast we had in a single scene.

We filmed it all in one take with practical effects, so the logistics of it were a bit of a headache. Everything had to be planned out ahead of time. We had someone in charge of the effects so they had to know exactly where they could stand as not to be in frame.

Were there any other scenes that created issues?

The levitating scene and the scene where the sheet rises from the ground took several attempts. I did all the effects myself, and I don’t have a background in special effects, so everything just had to be put together in a logical way which often didn’t work.

The levitating scene went through several iterations. We had a pull up bar across the door, and I was wearing a harness, We thought that if we just had someone round the corner of the door pulling on the harness then that would lift me; we found out that this just made the rope go all over the place and it turns out its really, really difficult for someone to just lift someone up.

You get to the point where your toes are just touching the ground and it just didn’t work. We tried a pully with two or three people pulling… it took three or four attempts before we got it right.

It was quite fun though!

There aren’t a lot of Scottish horror films or ghost stories; is that something that you intend to pursue going forwards or are you moving into another genre after this?

I think I’ll stick with horror for the next one. A lot depends on how much money the film makes and what opportunities come out of it. I’ve got a few ideas I’m hoping to explore, but id like to stick with horror.

Are there any horror films that you are a big fan of?

My two favourites are probably the Evil Dead 2 and The Thing, which I know are really clichéd choices! They’re just so good.

Absolutely; I hear The Evil Dead 2 frequently when I ask people that question. Its difficult to get that blend of horror and comedy right.

Yeah, I was a very late adopter to horror films. I couldn’t actually watch them until I was about fifteen or sixteen. Evil Dead 2 was one of the firs that I was able to get through at that age and that was about the time I wanted to start making films.

That film is just a box of tricks. I’d read an interview with Sam Raimi where he said that he wasn’t sure if he would ever be allowed to make another film after this one, so he just threw everything at Evil Dead 2, every trick he had. Its such an exciting film from a film makers perspective.

For a young film maker in Scotland, how difficult is it to get a film off the ground? Is it a difficult scene to get something into production?

With a film like this it wasn’t too difficult because of the nature of how it was put together and the story. The only thing it relied upon was favours and I am very lucky to have such a good support network of people who would help me out.

But if you’re talking about being a Scottish film maker getting a funded feature off the ground then its practically impossible, almost statistically impossible. When you look at the amount of active film makers in Scotland making work, the number of funded features every year in Scotland is maybe two or three. The average age of a first time Scottish feature film maker is forty-five or something like that. It’s really insane.

I know that directing is your passion, but you are in front of the camera lot too. Is that something that you are looking to pursue?

I quite enjoy it, and for this film is was more of a pragmatic decision. Everything about this film was approached using the most practical and straightforward ways to keep it manageable. That meant it made sense for me to take the starring role. As soon as there’s another actor in the lead then that’s someone else that you need to schedule.

I’m not going to pursue acting, but if any opportunities arise I would certainly consider them. I don’t think I have the kind of passion needed to forge a career in that side of things.

Now that the film is on a wider release, have you had any pushback or comments about the Scottish accents? I know that for some reasons the Scottish accent is treated with contempt by some, the very intonation of a Glaswegian tone can throw some people off!

(Laughs) No, actually one of the reviews went along the lines of “This film’s shite but the accents are nice” (Laughs). But other than that, no. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reaction, in that there’s been no reaction. I think it helps that all of the accents are quite understandable; my accents quite soft, I was born of the outskirts of Glasgow. Annabel is from all over, I think Paddy has the strongest accent of anyone in the cast and Joma is from down south.

I think the fact that the accents are so soft has definitely helped us out.

The movie ends on a very ambiguous note; You don’t need to answer this, but do you have a definitive answer in your head as to the mystery of the flat?

I don’t. I go back and forth. It is intentionally ambiguous, I wrote it to be that way, which meant that I don’t have to know either. The last few times I’ve seen it, I go back and forth on whether its been faked or real. I mean that’s the point; its very difficult to believe anything you read online and arrive at a definitive answer on a lot of things.

What is next for you? Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

Not at the moment. I’m just trying to figure out what the next steps are. I’ve been writing a new script and depending on what kind of money Death of a Vlogger brings in I could pursue that. Its still likely to be very low budget, but at least everyone could get paid this time which would make a difference (laughs).

I’ve got an idea that fits that, it’s a mix of supernatural-suspense and splatstic, a bit Evil Dead 2. I’ve been inspired by S. Craig Zahler who did bone Bone Tomahawk; I love the way his films tend to be two halves, so that’s my inspiration for the next thing.

I’m waiting to see how this is received. It’s a weird one; I don’t know whether to stick in the zero-budget sphere or to try for funding, but these things take forever.

I’m happy to see what happens!

That’s a good way to be. Graham, thank you so much for your time.

Thanks for asking me. Its such a small film that it lives or dies by things like this, by people being into it and by helping to spread it by word of mouth.

Death Of A Vlogger is available to rent now on Amazon Prime.

By Hugh McStay

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