Interview with Matthew Holmes, the director of ‘Territorial’
‘Basic human survival at its most primal’
The poster for ‘Territorial’ came from nowhere and made quite a splash. A traditional monster-movie drawing from Australian history and Aboriginal mythology? Sounds great – provided that the director ‘feels’ the genre and knows what he wants to achieve. Fortunately, it seems Matthew Holmes is a right man in a right place.
Holmes started his adventure with cinema in 1995, taking his first steps into the visual effects industry. Soon the young enthusisast would find himself taken under wing of a VFX company Anifex Pty Ltd, where he would deal with modelling and stop motion animation – among other things.
In 2001 he started the production of his feature directorial debut Twin Rivers: a road movie set in the year 1939. An independently financed film, made mostly on weekend with a crew of volunteers, has been completed only in 2007. The effort paid off – both critics and the audience appreciated Holmes’ work.
The director’s own production company Two Tone Pictures is currently working on a horror picture ‘Territorial’. Although the project is just in the pre-production stage, it’s already worth keeping an eye on. We asked Matthew Holmes about his vision, inspirations and preferred cinematic techniques.
Michal Puczynski: You said you want to make Territorial using traditional techniques – because you want it to be gritty and realistic. Does it mean you’ll shoot it on film, instead of using digital cameras? How exactly do you want to achieve the gritty look that’s so rare in modern cinema?
I believe the format you shoot on has little bearing on how ‘gritty’ the film turns out. It depends on how you shoot it. Film can look as pristine as digital if you shoot it that way.
Although we will most likely be shooting on a digital format, one of the key ways to make Territorial ‘gritty’ and ‘real’ is to use as much natural light as possible, and since most of this film will be shot on location, we will be using a lot of available light.
I’ve noticed that many filmmakers today overlight their movies, especially night scenes. I don’t want to do that. I’m not afraid of lots of darkness and having areas of pitch black in the frame. Darkness will make this film work – not being able to see into the dark IS reality. Most times, we can’t see everything in front of us. That’s scary.
I also don’t want to use the shaky-cam, handheld, grainy, desaturated style that is so popular today. I feel that distracts from the story and it often feels like sloppy direction. It also makes the audience too aware that there is a camera. Camerawork should only ever be telling the story, not drawing attention to itself as a particular ‘style’. I think less-is-more with camera work. The look of early films by James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and John McTiernan are what I’m aspiring to.
You also said you’re not going to use any CGI. Is it easier or harder to use practical effects, especially while shooting on locations as harsh as Australian outdoors?
Shooting with practical effects in the harsh Australian landscape will present some challenges for sure. But every movie creature is a great challenge, even when doing it in the computer. Nothing is easy, it just depends on where you want to do the hard work. I like the idea of getting my hands dirty on location and making this creature come to life right there on the spot, instead of spending months in front of computers hoping and praying it will turn out alright.
Using practical effects, we can get our creature amongst the environment and with the actors. It would be much easier to just shoot empty background plates and say “we’ll superimpose the monster in post” – but that is not going give us the best looking creature. Ultimately, that’s all I want; the best looking creature I can deliver. Even if I could afford the best CGI money can buy, I’d still be going 100% practical effects on Territorial – because I personally believe they look more realistic. You cannot beat a real object in a real environment. Its very hard to make CGI look unmistakably real. Few films have achieved it. The notion that CGI is cheap or easy is a total misconception.
We don’t intend to show our Creature too much either. We’re keeping it hidden for the majority of the film. This is for greater dramatic impact, but it also means we can get away with a lot as far as practical effects go. It’s a win-win situation all round.
You’ve been dealing with VFX for quite a long time.
I come from a background of practical effects. I worked at a stop motion animation company for 10 years where I was a sculptor, model-maker, puppeteer and stop motion animator, so I have a good understanding of what can be achieved in-camera. There is so much potential with in-camera effects – even more than 20 years ago – but many people are not fully utilizing that potential and just opt for CGI.
Take stop-motion animation for example (the process of using small scale puppets and photographing them one frame at a time, Ray Harryhausen style) This was more or less abandoned as a realistic creature effect sometime in the late 1980s. ‘RoboCop 2’ may be one of the last major films that utilized it. But huge advancement in technology now allows animators to achieve super smooth, highly realistic stop-motion animation like never before. Territorial will proudly be the first action/horror film in nearly 20 years to use stop motion animation in a serious live-action feature. Having said that, our creature won’t be entirely realised via stop motion; it will be just one of many tools in our ‘practical effects’ toolbox.
Can you tell us something about the pace of the movie? Do you want to make it a fast, action-packed thriller, or rather a slow-developing, tense horror story?
Territorial will be both. I think the best monster movies are a good blend of both. You need the slow-developing moments to build tension and character, but you need the fast paced action as well. I can tell you that Territorial focuses a lot on the characters, perhaps even more than the creature elements. It’s import_ant the audiences cares for the characters or they won’t be rooting for them when everything gets dangerous. ‘Aliens’ was a benchmark for myself and co-writer Alex James. We always referred to that film. Aliens is a slow-building film that explodes into a fast paced thriller. Territorial takes a very similar approach.
Territorial’s Creature is a monster from Aboriginal mythology. Will it closely resemble the legendary creature? Did you incorporate any other elements of Aboriginal culture into the plot?
The thing about these creatures in Aboriginal Mythology – (or ‘The Dreamtime’ as its known by Indigenous Australians) – is that descriptions vary greatly from tribe to tribe. That’s part of the fun and mystery surrounding Aboriginal Mythology. It varies and changes depending on the tribe (or ‘mob’ as we call them) you talk to. However, we do have an Indigenous Consultant on the project who advises and guides us on all Indigenous aspects of the film, which is terrific. We are doing everything we can to be respectful to the mythology, that’s for sure.
Our creature is not specifically one creature; it draws inspiration from many, some more than others, such as the ‘Bunyip’. It’s an interpretation of these myths, because there are no exact descriptions or pictures of these creatures. The mythology has mostly been passed orally, not with images. We have adhered to as many of the descriptions as we can; I think it’s about as close as you can get.
But we also have to deliver a creature that a modern audience will respond to. I’m certain our beast will surprise people. It’s certainly going to bring this mythology back to its roots. These creatures and stories were greatly feared by Indigenous People, so much so that they did not illustrate them often in artform. We are remaining true to the spirit of these stories by making the creature a truly nightmarish and terrifying being.
Along with the creature, there are also many other Indigenous elements in the story. A good component of the cast is Aboriginal and they play a big part. It’s very inclusive from that perspective. And we’re also delving into some of the racial, cultural and social issues faced by Indigenous Australians at the time of colonization. It’s a very layered and complex script.
Why have you decided to set the movie in 19th century? Will the time period have a significant impact on the story?
Setting the story in the 19th century was an obvious choice for me, though I can understand why it surprises some people. There is a strange mentality amongst some people in the market that a viable monster movie needs to be set in the present day – or in the future. When pitching the script_ around to producers and distributors, I often felt a resistance to setting Territorial in the past. But most regular people immediately lit up with excitement when thet learnt it was set in the past. They ‘got it’ straight away. Fortunately, my Producer Michael Favelle and our EP Greg McLean got it too, right from the start.
Setting it in the past achieves a whole host of things. Most import_antly, it takes us away from the genre cliche of a bunch of annoying teens getting lost in the woods and getting hunted. That plot holds little interest for me as a filmmaker and audience member. Some people have told me that Territorial should be set in the present day or audiences won’t connect with it. I think that is entirely false. People connect with good characters, no matter what century or universe you place them in. Also, 19th century gives us a unique ‘world’ to explore and meet new characters in. Movies are visual, and the past is more visually interesting than our present, because we see the present all around us every day.
I am a huge fan of the colonial period of Australia from a historical perspective, so here was a chance to fuse two of favorite elements together – an Aussie western within a creature/horror. It also allowed us to explore these myths in a time period when these myths were actually being presented to the white settlers. It’s a good ‘bridge’ in which to introduce one culture’s mythology to another culture. In the 1800’s, many white people believed that these creatures the Indigenous People spoke about were actually real and they took precautions. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that they began realizing that these creatures were either extinct, or Dreamtime stories.
Setting Territorial in the 19th century does have a big impact on the story – in a very positive way. One of the biggest problems faced when writing a monster film is getting around this question: why don’t the characters just call someone for help or get away quicker? In the present day, we have highways, cars, phones, GPOs, radios, helicopters, planes and powerful weapons – all very useful if you are lost in the woods and hunted by a creature. And how many more times do we have to watch a radio battery go flat or a car breaking down? Setting the story in the past removes all the modern-day ‘safety nets’. Now the stakes are higher because there is no easy way out, no modern technology to save you. It’s back to basic human survival at its most primal. That’s very exciting, from a dramatic perspective.
Last but not least: judging by your Facebook posts, you really like old-school horror movies. What do you think are the flaws of modern horror/thriller?
Yes, I am a fan of the old-school horror/creature films of the 70s and 80s. Not only do they have nostalgic value, but many are genuinely brilliant films. And they are so simple; I get such a thrill watching a simple story told well. There isn’t a billion CGI ‘things’ flying all over the screen in those films. They have real people on screen to care for. You can easily connect with those films. My favorite monster movies – Jaws, Tremors, Alien, Predator, Aliens (and most of the first Jurassic Park) were all made without CGI effects. Those films are my inspiration, the benchmark – so why would turn to CGI for Territorial? If practical effects worked for them, they’re good enough for me.
I think the greatest flaw in modern thrillers/horrors is not letting the audience use their imagination. The wonders of modern visual effects have spoiled films because they leave little to the imagination. CGI has added spectacle, but robbed us of true ‘wonder’. In a thriller, if you are shown the entire creature as an obvious CGI effect, it immediately dissolves the frightening aspect, because now that creature is a known quantity. But if the beast remains hidden and elusive, our minds fill in the blanks and that’s way more powerful than any visual effect I can create.
I believe as filmmakers, we must concentrate on good characters and good storytelling, not dazzling visual effects or gratuitous, shock-inducing images. If a viewer is emotionally hooked into the story and characters, they will easily forgive a less-than-perfect visual effect. However, the most dazzling, expensive effects in the world cannot save a film that does not emotionally engage the viewer.
I personally feel the fatigue of watching CGI-heavy films. Many people do. You hear it everywhere. Territorial will offer audiences a fresh approach to this whole genre, in it’s story, it’s time period and its approach to visual effects. We want to make a bold statement to the movie-going audiences and the world of visual effects. That statement is ‘practical effects are just as good as CGI’. And perhaps even better, for certain types of movies.
We look forward to getting our hands dirty…
Thank you for your anwers, and good luck on your project!