If you haven’t yet seen The Devil’s Rock, a WWII-based horror film that marked the feature debut for New Zealand director and Weta Workshop special effects artist Paul Campion, you’ve missed a dark, gruesome and intense tale that feels like it’s torn straight from the pages of the classic horror comics… although it’s actually based in part on historic events, along with some chilling occult lore. Here’s the trailer:
I was introduced to Campion recently (by Bane of Yoto author Josh Viola), and I found out he’s got tons more amazing horror projects in the pipe – most notably a feature adaptation of Brian Keene’s acclaimed horror novel Dark Hollow. Naturally, I had to learn more about that, as well as Paul’s amazing short films, and he graciously offered us the scoop.
FEARNET: For those who haven’t yet seen The Devil’s Rock, can you explain the genesis of that project?
CAMPION: It all happened very quickly. I was in Guernsey in the Channel Islands for a screening of my short film Eel Girl, and happened to visit one of the real WW2 German fortifications there, and thought that that would be a great contained setting for a horror film. Also on the same trip, I was asked by the local newspaper if I knew anything about Guernsey’s history of witchcraft and werewolves, which of course piqued my interest and led to a bit of research, and finding out about the “Bad Books” – genuine books of black magic from the Channel Islands.
At the same time I’d been getting frustrated with trying to get several other feature films financed, and was trying to come up with an idea for a film that could be shot in a single location with just a couple of actors, and that I could maybe take a gamble on and finance myself, and I came up with the idea of setting it in WW2 with the Allied commando, the German and the shape-shifting demon, all taking place inside the bunker.
I pitched it to a few people including Richard Taylor at Weta Workshop in New Zealand, then talked to my bank about re-mortgaging my house to finance it. A week later I’d greenlit the project, and Paul Finch and I started writing the script. The New Zealand Film Commission eventually came onboard with some extra financing, and within six months we’d finished shooting. It doesn’t normally happen that fast!
There have been tales about the alleged occult practices of the Nazis, but Devil’s Rock may be the most historically-founded film based on those accounts. What inspired you to tell that story?
It was all based around the German occupation of the Channel islands, and the Islands’ history of black magic and witchcraft. I started doing research and discovered that during one period in history more witches were burnt at the stake there than in any other part of the British Isles, and that the Bad Books actually exist – they’re locked away in vaults and libraries there, one dating back to 1644.
Then I started researching the German occupation of the Channel Islands, and the huge concrete fortifications there, as well as the Allied commando raids on the islands and the history of the SBS (Special Boat Service), who used commando kayaks to carry out reconnaissance, sabotage and distraction raids. Of course Hitler’s obsession with the occult is well documented, and together Paul Finch and myself put all those elements together. The idea all the way through was that we wanted to keep it as historically accurate as possible – apart from the demon, everything else is based on a certain amount of historical fact.
How was the film received worldwide?
I think it would be fair to say it was mixed – audiences seemed pretty much split 50/50 over it. Either they hated it because there wasn’t enough action and it was too slow and talky and had a bit of depth to it, or they loved it for those very same reasons! Looking back at it now, I do agree it’s a bit too slow; if I could I’d go back, I’d chop out ten minutes of dialogue and probably shoot some more visuals to cut in under all of Colonel Meyer’s exposition, which might have helped give it a bit wider appeal… but when we were making it, I was trying to pull off a “two-people-in-a-room” type film like Hard Candy, which I now know is very difficult to do!
To me it seemed mis-marketed in the US as a sexy gothic horror film, which might have held it back.
Yes, that probably didn’t help. As an independent filmmaker you don’t have any control of how different distributors market your film, and in this case there was some early artwork that was done for the New Zealand release that was used by the US distributor that made it seem more like a sexy Nazi exploitation film, rather than a more thoughtful serious horror film. There was also a tag line “Saw with Swastikas” that came from an early review that got used everywhere, which completely mis-represented the film.
It seems they totally missed the point there.
Yes, if you liked Saw, then you probably weren’t going to like this… and if you didn’t like Saw, you probably missed something you might have enjoyed! In the end, I got so frustrated with criticism of some of the posters I commissioned my own, which much better represents the film I was trying to make.
Absolutely. You mentioned you’ve got a sequel in the works… is the screenplay complete?
We have a full 30-page treatment that we’re continuing to fine-tune.
Can you give us a hint about the plot?
It takes place immediately after the first film… I don’t want to say too much about it yet, but it’s less talky and much faster paced; more soldiers, more demons, more zombies, and a lot more action.
I’d love to hear more about the status of the Dark Hollow production. How did you come to work on an adaptation of Keene’s bestseller?
I’ve been friends with Brian Keene for years now, ever since I tried to option his classic zombie novel The Rising, but someone else beat me to the rights. Then I started working on another zombie film, Voodoo Dawn, written by Paul Finch, but financing on that stalled as it was too big a budget for me as first-time director, and also because there were a lot of similar projects coming out: The Horde, Cockneys vs. Zombies, Tower Block, The Raid and Dredd. Voodoo Dawn is also set in a tower block, so the timing just wasn’t right.
I knew about Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow, and thought that might be an easier lower budget film to get financed, so I went back to Brian and optioned it and started developing it also with Paul Finch. Then Devil’s Rock suddenly came out of nowhere, so Dark Hollow and Voodoo Dawn went back on the shelf. I’d learned so much making Devil’s Rock, particularly as a writer, and so I pulled out the script for Dark Hollow, re-read the book and started working on the script again and pretty much spent the whole of last year trying to get it financed as a New Zealand/Canadian co-production. We had some great actors attached, and Weta Workshop was going to be doing the creature makeup effects, but then the New Zealand side of the financing stalled, so we’re just trying figure out a different way to get that up and into production.
So many hurdles there…
It’s tough business trying to get films financed! I just read that Dallas Buyers Club took over 20 years to get made, so you’ve just got to be patient and not give up.
Since zombies are still a fairly hot commodity right now, I imagine Voodoo Dawn could gain a little traction soon.
We’re just revisiting it now and will be trying to get that made, along with everything else! You need to have a few projects on the boil, as it’s impossible to know which one might get financed first and hopefully now that I’ve got a first feature under my belt I’m a bit more bankable as a director.
You also mentioned working on an adaptation of Keene’s Kill Whitey. Is that still on the table?
Kill Whitey was a project that Brian let me enter into the Make My Horror Movie competition in New Zealand, where you could win NZ$200K to make a horror movie. We didn’t win, but out of that we’re now trying to get it made independently as a micro-budget and totally over-the-top grindhouse/exploitation film… if you know the story, you’ll understand exactly what type of film it could be.
Your short films have received a lot of positive attention over the years, and you mentioned you’re working on a couple of new ones. I’m really interested in Project Nightstalker, based on Peter Watts’ “Vampire Domestication” essay, which is pretty amazing in itself.
That was another project I tried to get financed through the New Zealand Commission’s Premiere shorts fund, where they select six projects a year to fund with a budget of NZD$90K each. The project got shortlisted in 2012 and longlisted in 2013, but frustratingly still didn’t make the final selection.
Did you work closely with Watts in development? I gather he’s quite a colorful character.
I’ve only talked with Peter via email, but he’s been fully supportive of how we adapted his essay. It’s based very closely on his original talk, and Peter had a lot of great input in the script. We have a full length animatic/pre-vis of the whole film, but it’s going to be tricky to get it made now without that money from the NZ FIlm Commission as it’s too expensive to self finance, but we might try raising some money through Kickstarter… although that in itself is a huge amount of work.
Any other shorts in the works?
I’ve got one called The Naughty List, based loosely on Brian Keene’s story “The Siqquism who Stole Christmas.” That’s more likely a Kickstarter candidate, and if we can get that financed and made then hopefully it might help toward getting Dark Hollow off the ground.