Interview: ‘Third Contact’ director Simon Horrocks


Third Contact poster

Made on a micro-budget, Third Contact is a psychological thriller which received critical acclaim when it screened at Internationale Hofer Filmtage last year. Now its director Simon Horrocks is using crowdfunding to try and get the film into UK cinemas. He joined us to talk about making the film and the importance of getting it onto the big screen.

For anyone who hasn’t yet heard of Third Contact, how would you describe the film?

It’s about a psychotherapist. Two of his patients die in mysterious circumstances and there’s a mysterious link between the two and he gets drawn into this obsessive investigation into finding out what is responsible. There’s something weird going on and it becomes increasingly weird.

You probably can’t get much more micro-budget than this production. It’s all shot on a camcorder and it was done for about £4000. We managed to get it into a pretty high profile festival in Germany called the Hofer Filmtage which is the equivalent of the Edinburgh Film Festival in Germany. So we were there with films like Berberian Sound Studio and a lot other million Euro budget films.

You had been writing a number of screenplays before. At what point did you decide to make a film on your own?

It was a mixture of things. It was just really getting the belief that I could do it. I made this short film, it was part of a project called ‘Film in the Make’. I was working at this cinema and everyone got this anonymous email from this organisation asking everyone to participate in little projects. The final project turned up to be something based on my script – a three or four page script.  I ended up directing this short with everyone just joining in with my project.   There was about fifteen of us so we just made this thing with no money and I just thought okay, we can do this and just starting doing it.

I wrote this feature film with the intention that I was going to make it myself. I scaled everything down in the script so it was possible. Locations would be flats in London. There’s always a friend who will let you shoot in their flat for a couple of days. I just made sure that everything was doable.

Is it tough to stick to a tight budget like that?

Well, I didn’t have any money. I was literally working in a cinema four or five shifts a week, selling people popcorn. I still am doing that. There was no possible question of splashing out thousands of pounds on anything like hiring equipment, or hiring locations, or paying a professional crew. It just wasn’t a possibility. I basically broke it all down into little bits. I would shoot it one location at a time. The first shoot, I put all the scenes that were in the psychotherapist’s office. I think a quarter of of the film was set in his office. A friend of mine said I could use his living room which looked really nice actually. It had a really big window with these white curtains. We shot that over about four days and that was it. Then we stopped shooting for a couple of weeks and I would find the next location and then I’d give the actors a call and say ‘Can you make Tuesday night?’ Then we’d get together and shoot the next bit. Then that would be it for a couple of days maybe or another week or so – however long it took me to get everything together to shoot the next location. It took us probably just under a year to do the whole script. That’s how I kept to budget to an absolute minimum.

Is there a lot of goodwill required from your collaborators for a project like this?

Everybody wants to work. Actors want to work and they want to be in something that looks good and that has a good script. It was great to get some really good actors and also getting friends to fill in to certain rolls. If I felt that I couldn’t get an actor who was right for the part, quite often I would find a friend who fitted it, who I felt that they would work for the character just through knowing them. Or even cast from people I met during filming. One of the characters, quite a big part, is played by the girl who did the make-up, Virginia. That happened just because Tim, who plays the lead character of David, was doing a phone conversation and I needed someone to speak the other half of the conversation just to give him something to work with and to space it out. So I asked Virginia to do it and as I was listening to it later, I thought, this is going to work, this is quite interesting so let’s try it. It created something that wasn’t really in my mind when I wrote the script or it wasn’t really how I was imagining it. It took it in a slightly different direction. Those kind of things can work out really well.

I had a good friend who did sound for the first six months and he’d never recorded sound before. He chipped in and did very well. When he couldn’t do it anymore, my girlfriend did the next few months and even Virginia chipped in with some sound. You just work out how you’re going to do it the best the best way possible with improvisation and goodwill.

You mentioned Tim Scott-Walker playing the lead role of Dr. David Wright. Just tell us a little about his performance.

I started to believe that we wouldn’t find someone. The script was really a character study – it was very much dependent on the lead actor really being able to do it. I had quite a few suggestions and looked at quite a few showreels. It’s quite a tough way to shoot a film, there’s no glamour involved. We’re all just mucking in really so to find someone like Tim was incredible. We were just really, really lucky.

If we can just talk about the look of the film, which has a definite Film noir feel. Was that black and white, shaky cam aesthetic a choice or simply through necessity of budget?

Well I’d seen a lot low budget productions where the aim was to try and replicate more expensive production values with lower budget equipment. For me that wasn’t what I was interested in. As a filmmaker I feel that you use what equipment you have and you use it for what it is. I didn’t want to try and hide what it was. It is a consumer camcorder but then I wanted to push it and see what I could do with it and create its own aesthetic. The production wasn’t pretending to be anything. It was in a way an adventure – an exploration. I didn’t know how it would turn out really. I was just trying things like a painter experimenting with paint and brushes or just putting his hands on his canvas to try things and see what happened.  I never used any tripods or dollies or any kind of equipment to move the camera. It was always in my hands. I was the eye of the film. I was the director and I had the camera in my hands. You can’t really get any more in control of how you’re seeing film than that really. So in that way it was a massive bonus. There was no machinery in the way of me as a director, getting what I wanted creatively with the camera.,

Do you think sometimes having a large crew can get in the way of making a film?

Absolutely.  It’s a huge machine. These machines are incredible and they do phenomenal things. I’m not against that way of filmmaking but for this project I didn’t see why we shouldn’t try something different. My experience from working with a crew is that you do spend some time managing a crew and not thinking about the creativity, not thinking about the story or how you want to shoot the scene or get the actor to do this or that. So this tiny, almost non-existent crew just means that you spend nearly all the time working on the actual story and I think that means you are much more efficient as a storyteller.

You’ve mentioned your screening at Hofer Filmtage and there was quite a positive response from that. Have you been surprised by the critical reaction?

It’s always been a really big surprise to me because when people like it, they seem to really like it. The reviews have been phenomenal. It just captures people’s imaginations somehow. It’s very difficult for me to watch this film and see it from other people’s point of view because I’ve worked on it for four years. I’ve written it, shot it, edited it, written the music for it, rewritten the music for it so I’ve seen it a thousand times. I never really expected to get this response but it’s fantastic.

Now you’ve taken to Kickstarter to try and get some limited distribution. Why are you going down that route at this stage?

It was last October that we showed it at the festival and I’d had a break from it and then from watching it with an audience, this was the first time I was able to watch it slightly more objectively. I just felt that it was too long and there was a bit too much music so I spent Christmas re-editing. I cut 10 minutes out of it and re-scored everything. I took a lot of the music out and reworked a lot of the music. I think it works a lot better now.

The whole reason that I made this film myself without funding was that, you send out scripts and people say they love the scripts but the market’s not right for this and nobody wants to take the risk and it just becomes this frustration that the script won’t get made into a film. This is another way of continuing that process. We don’t have to wait for the industry to decide they want to take a risk on something that’s quite unusual. We can take this film to a potential audience and say look, this is what we’ve done. If you like the look of it you can help get it into the cinema. Basically that’s how this film got made in the first place. Not by sending it out and waiting for industry people to say yes, we’re just taking it to the audience and hoping that they say yes.

There are obviously small screen platforms available for distribution but do you think it’s important for films to be seen on the big screen?

Yeah I do because that’s why I started making films because I went to the cinema – the whole occasion of it. I love watching films, streaming them or on DVD.  DVDs are great because quite often you get all the extras as well. You can watch all the documentaries or directors commentaries so that’s a different experience. I think most filmmakers, even now, will say that they were inspired to make films themselves because they went to the cinema when they were a kid and it was a mind-blowing experience and they just got sucked into the whole excitement of the event. You’re in a theatre with an audience and everyone is sharing this experience. That’s what inspires us to make more cinema so it’s really important that films get shown on the big screen and not just the big massive budget superhero films or whatever.

You’ve talked about working outside the industry but has making this film opened up many doors for you?

I’ve started to get quite a bit of interest from people. Some distributors are starting to say hi. But I just think maybe the industry will get interested more when this film has shown that there’s an audience for it and the only way to really do that is to get it in the cinemas because that is the way to expose your film to a bigger audience because we’ll get reviews from the major critics. It will put the film on the map and people will start to take you seriously. That’s why this Kickstarter is really important for the future of the film and, I guess, for the future of me as a filmmaker.

This has obviously been a hugely time consuming project. Would you go down this route again with your next project or would you hope for more backing?

It would be nice to be able to pay people something next time and also to make some money from this one to be able to pay the people that have worked on it because I still haven’t paid them and there is a promise that I will pay them at some point if I make any money out of this film. People worked very hard on it and I think if people watch the film and are entertained by it, then there’s no reason why the people that entertained them shouldn’t get a little bit of money to stay alive. So the next one I would say it would be nice to have a little bit more just so that we can stay alive just while we’re making it. And also make it a bit faster maybe because four years is quite a long time to be making one film.

Would you be tempted to use crowdfunding from the outset for your next project?

This could be a good way to develop the relationship between the artists and the audience, especially for small projects that are outside of the real mainstream which these days are finding it harder and harder to be supported by the industry. I do think crowdfunding is a definite way to go. It’s an interesting thing and I’m certainly excited about that because personally I prefer talking to the audience than I do to the industry. I see it as a very exciting thing and I’m excited to see how it develops.

If you’d like to help get Third Contact onto the big screen then you can help back the project on Kickstarter


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