Frightfest London interview: Hangman director Adam Mason Emily Stockham July 26, 2015 Editor's Choice, Film4 Frightfest, London, London Interviews 1963 Without giving too much away, director Adam Mason’s home-invasion-with-a-twist shocker Hangman is one of the films screening at this year’s Frightfest that will definitely get the Movie Ramblings seal of approval (having checked the movie out earlier this week). So much so, that we decided to track the British director (who has the likes of Broken, The Devil’s Chair and Pig on his resume) down and get his thoughts on his latest film. Here goes….. Q. Did you always want to make horror films – how did you get into the genre and filmmaking in general? Yes I suppose I did really. I was always making short films when I was a teenager and they were invariably horror themed. The movies I grew up loving were all horrors… mainly the darker ones like The Wicker Man, Angel Heart, Jacob’s Ladder, The Exorcist, TCM… But before that I used to love Re Animator, Braindead and Fright Night… the more fun, splattery kind of horror movie. I got into directing horror features out of frustration at failing to get anywhere in the UK film industry. 15 years ago it was very much like a charity over there, all funded by the National Lottery. The kind of films that were getting made were very uncommercial, and it was frustrating coming to it from a horror sensibility. I made a little film called Broken for around five thousand pounds in 2006, and got the money to make the Devil’s Chair off the back of that. Broken got picked up by the Weinsteins and Devil’s Chair premiered at Toronto, so I got signed to CAA as a result and was able to move to Hollywood and haven’t looked back since. Q. What was the inspiration behind Hangman and how did it come to be the feature we see today? I had been thinking a lot about home invasion movies, and how they are kind of the ultimate horror story really, in the sense that being attacked in your own home, the place where you feel the safest is a nightmarish thought. At the same time, my writing partner Simon Boyes and I had been reading a couple of newspaper articles about people finding homeless guys living in their houses… one was in the attic I think, and so we started ruminating about the idea of a home invasion movie where the protagonists didn’t actually know their home was being invaded. I had always loved the Hitchcock quote about how suspense is the audience knowing about a bomb in a family’s car, when the family don’t know about it… and that laid the track for Hangman. I loved the idea of making a film where the audience know from the first second this family are in huge amounts of danger, whist the family themselves have no clue. I knew that idea alone was inherently loaded with suspense. But ultimately it proved quite tricky to pull off, because as the family are so oblivious to what’s happening to them, the narrative drive of the story was taken out of their hands – which was quite hard to write, because they are the ones on camera 95% of the time! Usually in a horror movie you have your protagonist, and they start to realize they are in danger and have to fight to stop it. We totally threw that concept away, which was a fun challenge. I’d also been trying to break down what it was that I didn’t like about found footage movies, and can to the conclusion that it was two things. Firstly – it is completely unbelievable that people would continue to film themselves when their life is in danger. I don’t know how many times i’ve heard the line ‘we have to keep filming to document this.. people need to know.’ That is nonsense. And the other thing is that the acting is almost always rubbish because people think you need to cast unknown actors to maintain believability. And theres a reason those actors are unknown! I personally feel that audiences are smarter than they are given credit for, and these days when they watch a found footage movie – they know its not real. Its obvious really, but you never see name actors in a found footage movie. So I chose to ignore that totally and to cast the best actors I could find, regardless of whether they were stars or not. Q. The POV / found footage camera style works well with the plot in Hangman – did you want to shoot something in that style or did the storyline come first? Simon and I had been working with Blumhouse on a couple of things we’d written, so we took inspiration in the kind of material Jason has been so successful in making. That led to the idea of doing something cheap, which found footage obviously lends itself to. We solved the problem I have with found footage by putting the camera in the hands of the antagonist, who obviously wants to keep filming every little detail of his sick fantasy. Once we’d figured that out the rest was plain sailing. It was actually nice having these very rigid rules imposed by the camera set up… it made things simpler somehow, as we had to basically shoot the film as the intruder would shoot it, and by thinking like he would think, the movie kind of made itself. We had 8 of these cheap handicams, and put them up on brackets all around the house. I think there were 8 camera setups downstairs, and 10 or 12 total upstairs. So basically we’d set them up and hit record on all of them, and then just roll until we had a scene down. It meant we could shoot take after take after take, and it was wonderful because it felt like we had all the time in the world, which is very uncommon on these lower budget movies. Usually everything is an awful rush, and you end up making compromise after compromise. With Hangman, even though we made it for only $20,000, nothing felt compromised. I felt like I made exactly the film I wanted to make at the end of the day. Q. Why does Jimmy use the Hangman sign – It has a macabre element to it but is also recognisable to many as a game, something childlike… – was there a reason why you chose to use this iconic symbol? The Hangman thing worked its way out organically from the first beat with the hanging mannequin. Originally that was just a device we came up with to get a cheap jump scare in the beginning… but from that came the hangman symbol smeared in the mirror, and then the ending evolved from that… and suddenly it seemed like a good idea that this guy was casting himself in the role of Hangman. He’s basically judge, jury, and then executioner. At one point, we wanted to try and implement the game into the movie, where each time Jimmy felt like the family had made a mistake, or he’d caught them out, he would draw another part of the picture, and then would initiate his end game once the hangman was fully drawn. We tried it, but ultimately it felt too tricksy for this kind of movie. Q. How did you go about casting for Hangman? Well from the moment I had the idea for the film and Simon was on board with it being our next film, I contacted Jeremy Sisto and asked him if he was interested in doing it. We’d been friends socially for a few years, and I’d directed him in a short film, and a music video I made for him, and I consider him to be an actor of the highest caliber. He was immediately into the idea, I think from the point of view of producing the film with us as much as anything else. He had just produced a much bigger budget film, and was very adept in that field. He and Simon and I basically ran with the movie from that point on. Originally we had an investor lined up for a couple of hundred thousand, but he dropped out at the 11th hour, and for a moment it looked like the film was going to die. But I had a good think about it, and figured out that we could probably make it for about $20k. Jeremy was into the idea, and said he’d finance it – and we just went for it. It actually felt pretty great doing it that way, because I was in no doubt that at the very least he would get his investment back, and it kind of took away any pressure. It also removed the whole commerce side of making films, which is that you are ultimately beholden to the person paying for it, which has created some annoying situations for me in the past. Jeremy has a lot of very successful actor friends from his many years in the business, and we more or less cast the movie through him. His name opened a lot of doors, and made it pretty simple and straightforward. He knew Ryan and Ty Simpkins from a play he had done years ago… and they were a real coup for us. I was particularly worried about finding child actors who were actually good, and those two were beyond good. They were mind-blowing actually. Kate Ashfield I had met a few times socially in LA, and I really liked her as well as being a huge fan of her acting. We really liked the idea of the mum being English, I guess because Simon and I are from there, but also because it felt like the kind of thing you would never see in a movie (i.e an English wife with an American husband and kids)… but see all the time in real life. To us Kate really grounded the film. Her and Jeremy got on very well from the first time they met, and that translated to the performances I think. In fact the whole family got on fantastically – because Jeremy and the kids had known each other for so long. It made it all feel incredibly natural. It was a really fun shoot. Eric Michael Cole is another old friend of Jeremy’s. I had directed a music video for Chino Moreno’s band PALMS with Eric – and loved working with him. He’s the nicest guy in the world, but also incredibly intense. He’s fantastic in the movie. Originally we had thought of Jimmy as being like a blank slate, emotionless and faceless… almost child-like… but Eric brought so much to the character without hardly saying a word. Pretty incredible really given he wears a mask throughout the entire film. Q. I was really intrigued by the music that was used in Hangman – how did you go about choosing those pieces? We were thinking of using a score, as if Jimmy had edited his own music into ‘his’ film. But it didn’t feel right. Jimmy isn’t making a horror film, he’s in love with this family. I don’t think he thinks the movie he is making is scary really, its more him documenting himself trying being part of this family. He’s in love with them to start with. Obviously he is a lunatic, and its a very warped version of that! But fundamentally I think that’s what’s going through his head. About the time we were writing the film I had met up with this guy called Ryan Haysom who was a fan of one of my movies and had just made this incredible short film called Yellow. He introduced me to the guy who did the music for that short – Antoni Maiovvi, and we stayed in touch. He send me some of his music and I thought he was extraordinarily talented. One of the songs was this really fucked up piece of Synth pop called My Moon. As soon as I heard it I felt like I was seeing inside the intruder’s head, and the idea struck me that if i couldn’t get away with having a soundtrack, then maybe Jimmy had a favorite song, kind of like Goodbye Horses for Buffallo Bill in Silence Of The Lambs… and that song could become his soundtrack for the film. I really liked the idea of it repeating over and over and over throughout the film. So to me that one song is the entire score for Hangman. Q. You’re a bit of a Frightfest veteran now – are you excited about unveiling Hangman to the British crowds at Frightfest? Not really haha. I don’t think I’ve ever had a film play there that people have actually liked, so I’m fully expecting another mauling. Which is fine. I’ve made some very bad films in my early years and I fully deserve the venom! That said – the last film of mine that played at Frightfest was Broken in 2006, so it feels really nice to be returning there almost ten years later with a lot of subsequent work under my belt. I love Paul and the guys, they are like family to me – Paul was the first person that ever gave me a break when my very first film played at the very first Frightfest. I’ll always be eternally grateful to Paul for that. I wouldn’t be working in Hollywood now if it wasn’t for him. Q. Frightfest obviously pulls together the best the genre has to offer – how do you see the shape of modern horror? I don’t know really. I don’t watch many horror movies these days so I feel a bit out of touch. I really loved It Follows. I thought that was the best horror movie since Let The Right One In. I liked Spring a lot. Theres a lot of really talented people around. But I’m surprised there haven’t been more incredible no budget movies since the technology got so cheap that literally anyone can make a film. I thought there would be a huge flux of brilliant no-budget work, but like with music, there hasn’t been really. I guess accessibility of equipment hasn’t changed how fucking hard it is to make a movie, let along a good one! Q. Have you seen the Frightfest line up – are there any titles or directors that catch your eye? I haven’t actually. I’m a bit gutted I’m not going to be able to make it, so I’ve been sulking and haven’t checked out what else is on. It’s always an amazing occasion so I’m sure it’s fantastic. Q. Can you tell us your favourite horror films – from classic to modern? Like I said earlier – Jacob’s Ladder, Angel Heart, Wicker Man, TCM. Irreversible is an incredible horror movie. The Danish movie The Hunt horrified me. Q. If you could adapt a book into a film – which would you choose? The Magus by John Fowles. Q. What’s next for you? I’m not sure really. I make a good living being a writer, and that whole side of my career is really flying right now, so I’ll probably stick at that and see what comes up. I’m not pursuing anything, but if anything comes my way I am fully available for work!