The director and writer/producer duo talk about their debut feature Hollow, a found-footage horror film that has just received its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.
Hollow, the debut feature from director Michael Axelgaard and writer/producer Matthew Holt, follows two couples on a weekend away in the UK’s East Anglia in a remote location near a tree where couples have committed suicide over the years.
Shot in a handheld, found-footage style, the film received its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival as part of their ‘Playback In Black: The Next Wave’ spotlight. The film previously showed in this year’s Cannes Film Market but since then the pair have re-cut it, with editor Chris Gill who worked on the likes of 28 Days Later, with the aim of increasing the ambiguity of the overall piece.
The pair spoke to Screen at Fantasia about the decision behind the new cut, the emergence of found-footage films within horror and the benefits of working collaboratively on a project.
How did the idea for Hollow come about?
Michael Axelgaard: Matt and I did a short a couple of years ago [The Lollipop Man] that got into a bunch of festivals and was very well received and we wanted to do another project together. Both Matt and I have many, many ideas that are in development with different levels of budget and involvement that are required from them. We were talking about the ones that we could do with the resources that we thought we’d be able to pull together and we also wanted to do something that played to both of our strengths. Matt’s a very good dramatic writer and I’m very into genre films and so we tried to come up with a project that had the best of both worlds.
Matthew Holt: So how do we combine all our strengths into a relatively low budget film that uses those two different elements of where we come at films from. In writing the script, we use this term “writing to scale”. We came up with a project that we thought we could create with the money and that’s why we used the point-of-view camera, so all of the elements of the puzzle came together. We defined the parameters of the project before we started writing and actually knew what the story was, so we said it needs to be this shape, this budget, probably maybe some kind of found footage, maybe some kind of horror with drama element to it and then we said, right, let’s create a story.
There’s a strong English folklore element to the story, so how much of it was fiction and how much based in established lore?
MH: It’s mostly made up…
MA: But it draws very heavily on actual legend and mythology from that area. Once we’d started to mine it in the development process, it is something that we got really excited by. The mythology and the legend around this very spooky region in East Anglia is something that has a life of its own. It really provided us with a very intriguing, mysterious and exciting base material to work with.
MH: There are lots of ghost stories coming from that area. Lots of ruined monasteries and all that kind of stuff so it just seems to leap out of the countryside. Dunwich, where most of it was shot, was a big port in the middle ages and some people slightly over-egging it call it Britain’s lost Atlantis. A lot of it disappeared into the sea so it had that abandoned feel which is a good backdrop to any horror.
MA: There’s this very creepy story that if you go out on a cold winter’s night, you can hear the bells of the churches under the water.
When it came to casting the movie, was it important to use relatively unknown actors in order to maintain the realism of the film?
MA: Definitely. We went through a very meticulous casting process finding actors who weren’t instantly recognisable but were strong enough to pull off the character drama of the script and we went through many, many people until we found the right people. Then not only that, they also had to be good at improv because the way that we structured how we went about doing the scenes was we would have an improv element to the beginning of the scene and then we would go into the actual scripted line and then we would come out on an improv. It created a very real dynamic and you also get some interesting material at the top and tail of the scenes that we actually put some of into the film.
Were there any particular influences from other films when making Hollow?
MH: Things like The Shining, Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, those ’70s stories where you just feel off-kilter all the time, you’re not entirely sure why necessarily and I think creating that backdrop is something that modern horror loses because it’s very much about what you see on the screen, it’s special effects. There’s nothing worse than that slightly weird feeling when you’re not quite sure why something is odd, you just know that it is and I think some of the great films of the 70s did that very well. I think it’s something we’ve lost and that for me was what we’re trying to create here, a sense of something just not being right.
How did you go about creating the atmosphere of the piece?
MH: We tried to do a beat of character tension, followed by narrative plot tension and it’s an interesting dynamic between the two of those. In a way, it’s part of the modus operandi of the monster that it affects people’s emotions or perceptions of how they think about people. So that gave us a sort of tag team between the character tension and the physical drama. That’s what we tried to build as a baseline, those two things underplaying with each other to a crescendo at the end where they’re both in effect of each other. Otherwise you can’t sustain that level of ‘ooo, I’m in the dark, what’s behind me’ for a whole 80 minutes.
Talking about balance, how was the experience of working together collaboratively on a feature film?
MA: It’s been fantastic, a true collaboration in every sense of the word. We’ve learned each other’s strengths and when to let someone run with something and when to put our heads together on something and have a heated debate then come to a constructive conclusion.
MH: Lots of heated debates, lots of argument but a fundamental agreement on the direction of travel and I think that’s healthy. We’re both pretty opinionated. Michael’s extremely good at getting decisions made, whereas I might vacillate a little bit more, but I think that’s good. It keeps us moving.
The start of the film originally told the story of what happens at the end, so what was behind the decision to remove that structure?
MH: One of the driving factors for the change at the beginning was that we thought do we really need that? It’s a bit like using a sledgehammer to nail it to the wall. My feeling is that it was a confidence thing. Coming into it, if you nail that to the wall, then it gives you a foundation for the character-based stuff in the first 20-25 minutes to be imbued with a certain weight because the question in your mind is how do they go from happy-go-lucky to dead. The question was whether we actually needed to do that and until we started to get the reaction to the film, it’s hard to judge and that’s why we sort of now take a different course to throttle back on it.
A lot of found-footage films do start in a similar way, so was it also a conscious choice to be different from what has come before?
MA: We didn’t try to re-invent the wheel completely. I believe this is an entire sub-genre of horror and now we’re at the point where the conventions have gotten established enough to where you don’t actually need to say it outright explicitly. So one of the things we’re doing with this new cut is saying, you know what, the audience knows how this works. They’ve seen this go down several times before, they love it, they want to see more, but let’s not use a sledgehammer and let’s just say it just is.
Was Chris Gill involved from the start or brought in specifically for this cut?
MH: We were courting him from the beginning. He saw it at script stage before we went on set because Michael drew a list of editors that he’d want to cut the film and we contacted them and Chris was interested from the beginning.
MA: But it worked out that he had time to be available for our project and his contribution has been very key and it’s very much his influence that you’ll see in this new cut.
Looking to the future, what’s the next step with Hollow?
MA: We literally completed this week so we’re just catching our breath now and figuring out what the next step is.
MH: Because of the exposure from Fantasia over the last couple of weeks, we’ve had lots of festivals contacting us. But it’s tied into a whole distribution strategy that is, as yet, not completely formed. Where we’d want to show and how and when so yeah, this is our first landing place, figure out the lie of the land, what reaction we get and take it from there.
And looking to the future, will your next project be together as well?
MH: I hope so. In a way, if you imagine a Venn diagram, Hollow is the overlap of our interests in a sense, so the next project would have to be in that same overlap and we’ve both probably got projects in our minds that go out of that area. But certainly, now that we know we’re a good team, a team that works, we understand each other, we’ve got a shorthand, we understand each others’ strengths and weaknesses so boy, if we can find a project for the both of us, it’d be sensible to go for that.