Seize the Night – Emma Dark (The Vulture Hound Interview)

Earlier this week Vulture Hound writer Sebastian Hayes brought us his on-set report of short film Seize the Night. After the dust had settled on the production he sat down with the film’s director/producer/star Emma Dark.

After all the blood, sweat and tears of making your own short film how does it feel to see your work on the big screen?

Both amazing and surreal.  It’s a wonderful sense of achievement, for myself and my cast and crew to see the film played and audiences enjoying it.  It’s also slightly nerve wracking watching others reactions of course, you want people to enjoy your hard work.

How did you get to where you are now and what do you aspire to be/have (professionally speaking) in the future?

I’ve been in the entertainment business of sorts for the past seven years now.  Initially starting of with alternative fashion modelling and then moving into video based work (music videos and interviewing).  I’ve been successful in all of my endeavours although I really feel that filmmaking gives me an opportunity to fully show my creativity.  I’ll definitely be making more films and have plans to star in creative projects from other filmmakers that I find particularly interesting.

What would be your advice to aspiring film makers who haven’t a penny to their name be?

You don’t ‘have’ to create a film on a big budget. It’s entirely possible to make a creative piece on your mobile phone, it’s all about where you want the final product to end up and the quality you want to shoot it at.  If you naturally have good creative skills and a technical prowess, and the secret ingredient – patience – it’s probably entirely possible to shoot something beautiful on your mobile phone for web and use phone based editing software.  I’ve seen some great direct to web pieces shot on minimal equipment.  

With my and fellow filmmaker Merlyn Roberts short film ‘Island of the Blind Dead’ you might be surprised to know that we shot that on a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W630.  That’s a consumer compact camera!  That was purely by chance rather than planned but the results were very effective for the subject of the film, giving the footage an instantly degraded look, before I’d even got on to colour grading.  

Obviously there are other costs beside equipment and software to consider in the filmmaking process, such cast/crew expenses and salary, props/locations, insurance, transport, marketing and festival submission among others but those are really dependant on your project.  In the least make sure you have the appropriate talent release forms, music releases and any other agreements in place, whatever the level of your film, otherwise you may not be eligible for festival submission.

How are you finding the film festival route? What’s most challenging about it all and what’s the most enjoyable?

I have to say it can be a rather expensive process, certainly for me with the festivals I wanted to submit to.  Although in reality there are enough free festivals, particularly in the rest of Europe, so filmmakers can keep costs much lower than I have.  

Getting into a festival is wonderful, and of course I plan to attend and support as many of those festivals screening ‘Seize the Night’ that I possibly can.  I can only describe it as a similar process to applying for a new job.  You send off your material and wait on tenterhooks for your judging status.  And it really can feel like you are being judged!  Of course if you receive an acceptance it’s a really uplifting experience but there are the rejections to deal with too.  The most important thing to remember is rejections happen for a number of reasons including available slots, fit with other films and the personal taste of the programmer, and are not necessarily anything to do with the quality of your work.  Of course I’d love ‘Seize the Night’ to get into every festival I submit it to, but that is unlikely.

How long did the entire process take to complete the project? From Pre-visualisation to Final Cut?

Probably around eight months all in all, but that’s not including the months spent beyond completion on festival submissions/attendance and marketing.  That’s quite a considerable amount of time for a short film to be fair though and that’s mainly because the film is very ambitious for a short, but also because I’ve given my all to make sure the final piece is both as good as it possibly can be and gives those who have worked on it as much recognition as possible.

Can you go into some depth about your ability to direct/produce and star in your own movie?

Taking on a task of this magnitude was incredibly hard work.  I would imagine it’s hard work at the best of times, let alone on a project as complex as this.  If I were not a good organiser it probably would have failed.  In particular being behind and in front of the camera is incredibly difficult when you have a minimal amount of time to check back footage.  Most on set crew performed multiple roles and I’m incredibly lucky to have had such a professional and dedicated team on board.  I’d originally planned to have a co-director but that didn’t really work out with limited set time and maintaining my vision as I had intended.  So in the end of it my cinematographer Donato Cinicolo took on more of an onset DOP style role but I was able to ask him to direct me where necessary.  So not a co-director in the true sense of the word but taking my directorial vision and feeding back to me if it looked the way it should from the other side of the camera, suggesting changes where necessary.  Both Donato and AJ Singh took on cinematography roles, as parts of the film required specialist action camera work, something AJ is incredibly apt at.  AJ also helped ensure the fight scenes (coordinated by Hollywood legend Roy Scammell) were executed in the best possible way for a realistic end result.

Although in my case key crew had to take on multiple roles in the interest of time a budget giving people more defined roles is probably easier from an organisational perspective, if you have the resources available.

I wrote as a team effort with US based screenwriter and friend Rick Humphries, whom I knew would ‘get’ the concept.  I’ve know Rick a while and we had worked on some other potential screenplays.  I gave Rick the initial concept/story and direction, which he progressed and wrote the screenplay with some adjustments and input from me.  My Assistant Director Merlyn Roberts also helped with a backstory to aid with the screenwriting process and dialogue content.  Rick will hopefully be representing ‘Seize the Night’ at some of the U.S. festivals too and will be armed with his back catalogue of scripts for any production houses who are interested in transforming some amazing and unique pieces into exciting new shows/films.

As far as editing is concerned I spent many weeks in a darkened room!  When I’d completed the rough cut I invited my two cinematographers and a couple of other members of cast and crew to give their feedback, I looked for trends in feedback and adjusted the cut accordingly. The sound design and engineering was then carried out by Bristol based sound engineer Max Phillips, the VFX by talented artist Davy Simmons and the score by LA based composer Eric Elick.  I then finished the final colour grade and credits.

The best advice I can give is to work with dedicated creatives that are great team players and respect the time and effort those people are putting into your project.  They are there because they believe in you and the project and it’s the combined effort of everyone on board that will ultimately dictate the success of the film.  And I’d recommend any of my cast and crew for other projects, they are an incredibly talented team.

How did you get into your character before shooting? Any methods? Any traditional training prior to shooting/in earlier life or did you adopt a more “guerilla” approach?

I’m an untrained actor, although years of experience modelling and doing other video work (music videos and interviewing) certainly helps.  The first scene shot was somewhat of a struggle for me, although I suspect that was more due to the bitter cold at the location.  The easiest way for me to get into character was simply to try and think as that character, become them, rather that actively attempting to ‘act’.  I organised rehearsals before we filmed of course and on set run throughs and spent an additional day with my lead and professional actor Carey Thring, going through our lines in a variety of ways to ensure we reached the point of them sounding as natural as possible.  Obviously I don’t expect to be winning an Oscar anytime soon but keeping to ‘strong’ characters is likely what I’ll be doing anyway, and the that falls inline with my natural abilities.

What would you say are the influences/inspirations of your visual style, acting and/or writing?

I like a variety of films, actors, books etc. from a number of time periods and genres but being a tech-head I can’t help but be drawn to sci-fi horror.  I’m a huge Blade fan, I even have a ‘Frost’ tattoo!  Action / sci-fi / horror cross-genre has a huge appeal for me.  Whilst maintaining a solid plot line films like Blade, Underworld, Dracula 2000, Resident Evil, The Matrix and genre starters like Razor Blade Smile give you a thrill ride at the same time as keeping you interested at a cerebral level.  While I like many films this ‘kind’ of film was the all out ambitious fun type I wanted to make as a first serious short.  As I’ve been told I look like Kate Beckinsale multiple times in the past, even having a brief foray as a lookalike, I don’t think I’ll be able to break away from people making an Underworld association with Seize the Night.

What would you consider to be the biggest obstacles you overcame in the entire process and how did these obstacles change your  perception of filmmaking in general? As an audience member and as a director/actor?

The biggest obstacles for me were time and budget, both being interlinked and a lack of meaning two scene re-shoots.  I don’t see that as a negative, as I’ve said it was a highly complex first serious film and as such if it went smoothly from start to finish it probably wouldn’t have achieved the same end result.  

As an actor it’s about less being more, I’ve learned that and I don’t think I’ve done a bad job, but people will confirm that (or not) I’m sure when IMDb reviews are open to the public 🙂

As an audience member I struggle not to look for the technicalities in films now.  Whereas previously I might have simply sat back and enjoyed them now I find myself wondering how a particular shot or effect was achieved or how much budget or time a particular scene may have taken.

What’s next in the pipeline for you?

Primarily from a filmmaking perspective I need to focus on taking ‘Seize the Night’ around the festivals and promoting it, I do however have a short piece for an anthology lined up for later this year.  Next year let’s see, I’d love to take ‘Seize the Night’ further, that’s for sure, and I have some other ideas for shorts forming too.  As far as starring in projects go, that’s considerably less time intensive for me and I have a fair number of those lined up, including a segment for Richard Gladman’s ‘Fragments of Fear’, the leading role in ‘The Morning Star Preserves Company’ (a horror short by Kev Harte of Abandon Hope Films), playing a psychopath in Dan Brownlie’s daring short ‘Two Girls, One Victim’ alongside Jessica Ann Bonner and potentially a starring role in a currently secret horror project with a budget in excess of one million!  So I don’t think I’ll be stuck for anything to do over the next few months, that’s for certain!

How important would you rate the resourcefulness of online communities and video hosting sites (Youtube/Vimeo etc) for people’s bodies of work and when can people expect a release date for Seize the Night?

It’s variable, while filmmakers can easily showcase work on these platforms finding viewing figures in a sea of work is difficult.  There’s no easy option for a film going ‘viral’.  To self release you need to push your film out to as many eyes as possible, which means in the least getting a press release out to as many genre related film sites as you can and asking them to publish a link to your film or even better reviewing your film.  A little paid advertising will also help and trying for a Vimeo ‘staff pick’ will boost viewing figures considerably.  Beware of viewing platforms that offer distribution, you don’t want to be inadvertently selling your rights or restricting yourself and it’s unlikely you would make back the cost of your film unless striking up deals with the likes of Netflix.  That’s about as much useful information as I can provide without having gone down a distribution route yet. 

As far as a release of Seize the Night goes that’s complicated right now.  The film has to do its festival run first, which may take a year and I’m not yet sure how I will be releasing the film.  Some filmmakers run 24 hour previews after their initial festival run (many festivals will disqualify a film that runs on public view whilst submitted) so that may be an option for fans. I’d love to see it played on TV but let’s see!

What do you think of when you think of the impenetrable walls of the film industry? Some people would cower in fear and others would embrace the challenge, where on the spectrum do you think you would fall?

He who dares wins as they say (well at least Del Boy does), and if you don’t win what have you really lost?  That’s a philosophy I subscribe to and I’m pretty sure it’s a logical one.  I’ve already had to battle against some issues for being a female producer/director, with questions directed toward male members of my crew rather than me and finding myself simply dismissed as ‘the face’.  While I find that both incredibly annoying and insulting it’s not from many people and I’m not a feminist filmmaker, I don’t see any difference between males and females and treat everyone equally, as I would expect them to treat myself and others.  So that’s one issue that is perhaps particular to me and other female filmmakers.  That said there is a lot of support from the horror community to turn around behaviour like that right now with the public drive for women in horror this year, with events like February’s ‘Women in Horror Month’ and strong female creatives such as the Soska Sisters taking on more long term directorial placements for larger production companies.

Apart from that all I can say is barriers are there to be broken and I’d advise knocking on as many doors as possible and maintaining your strength of character.  No successful filmmaker has gotten as far as they have without knocking on doors, hard work, facing challenges and getting up after knock backs.  Commitment and passion are key.

Any final words for the readers?

I would simply say to follow your dreams, follow them and be prepared to work hard to achieve them.  Treat those around you well and maintain a community spirit.