Interview with Hellbride director Pat Higgins

At Nicole’s wedding there will be blood, mayhem and slaughter… There will also be cake and a late bar.

The third feature from writer-director Pat Higgins (TrashHouse; KillerKiller), the independent British horror-comedy Hellbride is a supernatural stew of laughs, scares and bloody carnage that mixes rom-com traditions with splatter conventions to unique effect. Lee Parker and Nicole Meadows are all set to be married. There are, however, one or two problems on the horizon. Nicole's engagement ring is cursed: once the property of a wronged bride who went on a killing spree, the ring has a history of bringing death and destruction to all who come in contact with it. Not only that, but Nicole's father has become involved in a fearsome dispute with a local mob boss, a situation that looks perilously close to spiralling into bloody violence at any minute.

Included in the mix are a massively unreliable best man who yearns to reunite with his ex-girlfriend (who happens to be the bridesmaid) and an eccentric expert on the occult who has been hunting for the cursed ring for years. With the wedding day approaching, one thing is certain… bloody chaos and supernatural vengeance will reign. On the bright side, there will be cake and dancing, too.

I recently caught up with director Pat Higgins to have a chat about his film work, why comedy and horror are often comfortable bed-fellows and the trials and tribulations of making low budget movies today.

Behind the Couch: How did the story for Hellbride come about?

Pat Higgins: Kind of embarrassing to admit, but Hellbride actually grew from a kiss-off line. The very first thing that popped into my brain was the very last line of dialogue which is ultimately delivered by Natalie Milner in the final film. I worked backwards from there. It actually went through an awful lot of rewrites; more than any of my other films. It was a matter of getting the balance right. In the initial drafts the character of Lesley was an utter bastard, which took the story into rather darker places and kept throwing the comedy off-balance.

Behind the Couch: How did the story evolve from screenplay to screen? Was it a tough shoot?

Pat Higgins: What was in the screenplay is more or less what ended up onscreen, other than the material that was added in reshoots after principal photography. It was actually the nicest shoot I’ve ever worked on. It felt utterly, utterly blessed. Nothing went wrong for the whole shoot. Until the one fateful day, the last day of the wedding shoot, when all of our bad luck arrived at once and nearly wrecked the entire ending of the movie. But that’s a whole other story.

Behind the Couch: Was it difficult to produce such a low budget film?

Pat Higgins: I’m actually getting quite used to it! It was certainly tough given that the final set-piece involved, surprise, a wedding, and weddings are notoriously tricky to do on the cheap. We did our very best though; the budget cracks show in a few places but I’m very proud of what we achieved.

Behind the Couch: What are the merits, if any, of shooting on such a low budget?

Pat Higgins: Total and complete freedom. I love that nobody can tell us that we have to do something in a specific way to please a certain demographic. I really can’t imagine Hellbride coming together in the same way in a huge-budget setting; I imagine that it would have been pushed into one of two boxes. Presumably either the PG-13 box, where we’d have had to lose all of my favourite gags, the gore and lighten up all sorts of elements, or the straight horror box, where we’d have had to lose loads of the romantic and character stuff that the Saw crowd wouldn’t have been expecting. With such a low budget, we could just say ‘screw it’ and shoot the exact movie we wanted to.

Behind the Couch: How do you usually gather together your cast and crew?

Pat Higgins: Back when I shot my first movie TrashHouse at the very beginning of 2004, we recruited our whole cast and crew from scratch by advertising online. Since then, things have kind of developed organically. Over the course of five movies, we’ve built a great company of cast and crew that we know we can go to for certain jobs or roles. If we’re stumped regarding who might best fill a particular position, we still hold auditions to make sure that we get exactly the right person. But we’ve got a lovely group of ‘go-to’ people who will often be our first choices.

Behind the Couch: How do you go about getting the right balance of comedy and horror in your films? Do you think you lean slightly towards one more than the other?

Pat Higgins: I seem to find it nearly impossible to write straight horror with absolutely no comedy whatsoever, although the style of comedy varies immensely depending on the project. Recently, I’ve been working on a screenplay called House on the Witchpit, which is easily the darkest, scariest thing I’ve ever written. There’s still just as much humour in the screenplay as usual, however, it’s just much bleaker and more uneasy. I always think of the movies as horrors foremost, though, so I guess that’s the way I lean! Sometimes I’ll have to lose a joke if it throws a scene off balance; in rarer instances - as with those early drafts of Hellbride I mentioned - I’ll actually lose a plot element if it’s throwing the jokes off balance.

Behind the Couch: Your own background in stand-up comedy must serve you well when writing material for films – and with titles such as Trash House and Killer Killer already under your belt, what do you think ensures comedy and horror can so often go effortlessly hand in hand if approached properly?

Pat Higgins: Caring about both of them. Comedy-horror fails when filmmakers don’t care about one of the two genres, or, even worse, if they don’t care about the characters that they’ve written into the comedy-horror situation. If you aren’t feeling genuinely gutted to kill off a character, first on page and then on the screen, when you’ve lived with that character for months or years, how on earth do you expect anyone in the audience to give a damn? They only met the character an hour ago! If you aren’t feeling at least a little choked up to kill a character off, you’re doing something wrong.

Behind the Couch: What stories and ideas appeal to you most as a filmmaker?

Pat Higgins: I like making the same sort of movies that I like to watch. I’ve got no interest in making an entirely by-the-numbers slasher or any kind of movie where I feel that I know exactly what’s going to happen in the closing scene by the time the opening scene has finished. When it comes to story ideas, there are certain themes and images that will keep cropping up through my stuff. Sometimes, however, it just boils down to a single image or a single line and then I just sit and type and see where that tiny seed of an idea takes me.

Behind the Couch: How did the idea for Killer Killer come about?

Pat Higgins: I wanted to play around with the idea of the slasher movie, but I had a whole bunch of problems with the structure. The audience for a slasher is basically waiting for kill scenes, and I had no interest in lining up a bunch of pretty teens and kill them one by one. So I thought, okay, if the audience is waiting for kills, how can we play about with that? So I made my cannon fodder a line-up of serial killers, and made my ‘slasher’ a spirit avenging every victim, every babysitter in the shower, every cheerleader, teen or college girl who ever got offed in a horror movie. That actually brought its own problems as a story device, since I was then faced with making a bunch of remorseless serial killers at least vaguely likeable so not to totally alienate the audience. In addition to all this, I had the idea of a killer cheerleader with extending blades concealed in her pom-poms. Sometimes it just takes a cool trashy image that I want to stick in a movie to stop me drifting too far towards art house!

Behind the Couch: Do you think it is difficult being an independent filmmaker in the UK today? Is there enough support for filmmakers?

Pat Higgins: Digital technology means it’s easier than ever to get a film made. A whole bunch of other factors, from increased competition through to widespread downloading and the impending death of physical formats, mean that it’s just as hard as ever to actually make a living doing it. The formal bodies that are meant to support independent film vary massively from region to region in terms of what they offer. Some are useful, some certainly aren’t. I’ve certainly fended pretty much for myself.

Behind the Couch: Your last film Bordello Death Tales was an anthology – where did the various stories from that originate from?

Pat Higgins: Jim (Eaves) and I sat in a pub after the very first screening of his cracking sci-fi/horror flick Bane. I asked what he was going to do next, and Jim suggested to me that he’d always wanted to do an anthology of some sort. I thought the idea sounded fantastic. From there, we had a couple more meetings to decide upon a shared framework and location, and to decide upon another director to approach. I suggested Al Ronald, whom I’d worked with many times before and who had just completed his directorial debut Jesus vs the Messiah, which I thought was genius. Luckily, Al was up for the project too; the three of us swapped a few notes, then retreated and spent a couple of months writing our respective chapters. It all seemed very easy and natural and I think the fact that all three stories were written specifically for the project rather than being inherited from elsewhere ended up helping the final film immensely.

Behind the Couch: You co-wrote and co-directed Bordello Death Tales with James Eaves and Alan Ronald – how difficult/easy is it working on such a close collaboration?

Pat Higgins: I find both of those guys extremely easy to work with, so there were no dramas whatsoever. Besides, we all very much had control over our own respective segments, which meant that we weren’t really rubbing up against each other. There was only a single day on set when all three of us were there at the same time, so it wasn’t like we were calling ‘action’ over one another. I love that the three parts of the movie very much have our own individual stamps on them.

Behind the Couch: Erm, is it true that whilst on the set of your first film Trash House you discovered, much to your chagrin that you suffer from a phobia of chainsaws?!

Pat Higgins: Heh.. I’ve actually been asked that a couple of times! I know it’s in my IMDB trivia section, but that was the first I’d heard of it! I suspect that it was added by someone or other from the TrashHouse cast and crew, on account of how I used to flinch anytime anybody pulled the starter cord on the chainsaw, despite the fact that it had had a vital part of the mechanism removed and was actually incapable of starting. But, no, I’m not phobic. I still have that chainsaw knocking around somewhere at home. Actually, come to think of it, my Twitter profile picture has got me holding a chainsaw up against my face.

Behind the Couch: Aside from chainsaws – what else scares you? What do you think makes for a really effective horror film?

Pat Higgins: I’m all about the psychology, particularly that point where reality spirals out of control and something else takes over. My favourite scare in one of my own movies is the sleepwalking sequence in The Devil’s Music, which came out exactly as I saw it in my head. My favourite scare in one of someone else’s movies is the corridor sequence in The Exorcist III. I think that a really effective horror film works like music; something like The Shining is just a perfect symphony. You need to get into the head and under the skin; loud bangs and Avid farts just don’t cut it for me.

Behind the Couch: Are you a fan of horror films? Is contemporary horror cinema much cop?

Pat Higgins: There’s some superb stuff out there, but there’s a hell of a lot of dreck, too. I used to watch more or less everything in the genre just to keep up with what was going on, but I find it increasingly painful wading through some of it nowadays. Having said that, it only takes someone doing something a little different, like Paranormal Activity, which I greatly enjoyed, or Marc Price’s Colin, and I get excited about the whole genre all over again.

Behind the Couch: Who or what has inspired you most as a filmmaker?

Pat Higgins: Joe Dante’s Gremlins, Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps, but more than anything else my amazing producer and wife Pippa. Without her, there’d be no movies.

Behind the Couch: What is next for Pat Higgins? Any projects in the pipeline you can share with us?

Pat Higgins: Well, Bordello Death Tales will be hitting festivals very shortly and presumably DVD later in the year. I’ve got several really cool screenplays sitting waiting to hit the lens, including House on the Witchpit which I mentioned earlier and am hugely proud of, and Brainbath, which is a splattery satire set in the near future, and it’s just a matter of sorting out budgets and financing. Anyone wanting to invest in cutting-edge indie horror feel free to get in touch!

HELLBRIDE (cert. 15) was released on DVD (£2.99) by Brain Damage Films on 29th March 2010. Special Features include: audio commentary by writer-director-producer Pat Higgins and director of photography Alan Ronald; Not Happy Bloopers; Hellbride trailer; deleted scenes; behind the scenes.


jrock_79 said…
i thought you were better than this garbage, pat. i guess water finds it's own level though.
James Gracey said…
Careful with that sass, Jo-El!

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