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Far From the Apple Tree - DCA Q+A

DCA are screening our feature, Far From the Apple Tree as part of their DUNDEAD Festival. They interviewed the films director, Grant McPhee about the film and filmmaking in general.

26 April 2019

We're thrilled to be hosting a preview screening of Grant McPhee's new film Far From The Apple Tree as part of this year's DUNDEAD horror film festival.

1) We're looking forward to our preview screening of Far From The Apple Tree at Dundead, can you tell us a bit about the film. - Thank youy. Yes, it's story about a young and struggling visual artist who is given what appears to be a fantastic opportunity – a residency at the home of a renowned and very successful artist. Obviously it's revealed that there's more to this offer than meets they eye which we soon find out.... The artist has a murky past, with a few hidden skeletons in her closet including a missing daughter who looks very similar to our protagonist.

I suppose it falls loosely into Folk Horror or 1970s occult thriller TV programs such as The Owl Service or The Stone Tape. We call it a Pop-Art fairytale as it's not a traditional genre film as such but neither is it a heavy art-house film made for critics.

I wanted it to contain certain themes but not fully explore them, much like with the multiple camera formats we used they are intended to reflect different ideas, moods and canvases for an overall feel. The budget was tiny but we turned away from what most genre indie films usually do – to either create a calling card to show what we could do if given more money to make another film or to tempt mainstream interest towards this– we decided to use the opportunity to do something that exec producers and financiers would likely never fund. Financiers are just too careful to even try something different these days. Risk of failure is a modern curse. I don't think many people now actually use the fantastic opportunity and freedom offered by working independently to it's full advantage– it just allows you to do what you want, when you want and to explore and experiment and just try and make something new. You don't have to make something for a large audience and you shouldn't be afraid of it all going wrong and failing. The human imperfections were what I wanted rather than something made by committee.

I wanted something which looked cool, played around with structure and form and was a bit trippy. While not intentional it took on elements of all things I liked or grew up with, not in a Quentin Tarantino magpie style of putting together favourite shots or scenes from my video collection but in a more subconscious way, very much in line with what is now referred to as 'hauntology'. It seems to have coincided unintentionally with a few other films coming out that follow similar themes. I think this is really because filmmakers of my age, growing up with similar references are now being able to make their own films. All that 70s/80s weirdness from your early childhood seeps into your work and comes back to haunt others. Bagpuss, public information films, Armada ghost books all get mixed in with early home video releases before the majors realised they could make money from then. We had a V2000 video recorder growing up and the only films available seemed to be obscure Euro-Horror from the early 70s - and I watched them all. Part of my 90s later youth rekindled a lot of this early childhood viewing when I started collecting Redemption VHS's which all went on to became a major influence on Far From the Apple Tree.

Redemption were the first video label who collected and re-released these kind of films and curated /re-branded them as having a value as art rather than just pure trash though importantly blurred the lines of both together. Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Witchfinder General were all first collected by Redemption and it was a massive influence on our film (as well as to the many new labels who took their same template and made it very financially lucrative for themselves). Both writer Ben Soper and myself are huge Redemption fans and were delighted that the film itself is getting a release on the label! They were the only people we tried. I'm also massively influenced by the Cinema Du Look – films like Betty Blue, Diva and Subway where the style is as much a part of the substance.

2)The film uses a mixture of digital, 16mm film and analogue video formats. Which is your favourite to shoot on? -

They all have a purpose. We had a plan and formula for what each format was used for and why. I've never bought the suggestion that the camera choice bears little importance to the story. Obviously there are films shot on iPhones that rely heavily on story and performance, which is completely fine but through my other films (and my background as a cinematographer) I'm interested in exploring how technology impacts on story and I wanted to bring these ideas into Apple Tree. I think format plays crucial roles in how a film impacts on an audience. Cameras and lenses are tools like paintbrushes and allow different canvases for an audience to respond to. I think the recent Peter Jackson documentary about the first world war really demonstrated this perfectly. The audience for that film responded completely differently to the same footage presented in different ways. Although they were originally shot on the same cameras, after one had been cleaned up and colourised it impacted differently to viewers and I wanted each of our formats to give different responces.

Part of what we've grown up with collectively has become a subconscious film language which we have certain associations with – 35mm at 24fps being the gold standard and super8 being associated with home movie memories. I wanted this to be central to the movie where each format would convey different moods and more importantly would bring in a conflict of certainty/uncertainty as to whether what they were watching was real, in the past, a memory or something else. I definitely wanted the audience to be 100% aware that they were watching a film. To me it's like using different musical instruments rather than just an acoustic guitar. It's flavour.

16mm has to be my favourite format ever though. It has the perfect balance between the lushness of 35/65mm and the super grungy 8mm look but that's probably all to do with my preferred aesthetics and my age. In 20 years time people might be talking about iPhone footage in that same way. It's just so easy to convey feelings with formats which we have associations with. And within that gauge there are multiple variants – different filmstocks and ways to process them. We set up our own film lab to develop some unusual processes and got some pretty crazy effects.

3) Our screening of your documentary, Teenage Superstars, went down a treat in DCA cinema. How does the process differ making a documentary compared to a fiction film?

I loved the DCA screening. It was great to have it's first proper cinema screening in it's hometown (well, the closest city to where I grew up). In general they are quite different and my documentary career seems to have little in common with my fiction one – they just seem to have completely different audiences and never the twain shall meet! But I'm fine with that, I'm happy if anyone watches anything.

I personally think the dramas and documentaries have a lot in common and music is a massive part of my fiction filmmaking. For purely low budget reasons, especially surrounding lack of time my fiction films are definitely influenced by my documentary background and use many of the same techniques for speeding up the process – quick handheld coverage of a scene and understanding the need for providing many editorial options. We'd always planned Apple Tree to have a lot of freedom in it's structure and the massive archive we needed allowed for this, and that process was incredibly close to putting together a documentary. Documentaries are always full of inspiration and dealing with change which is something I think our film needed so we allowed for that. Negatively, only having 9 days to shoot and incorporate the archive film to be visible within the final film took a considerable amount of organisation.

For non technical reasons I always make music a big part of my fiction. Rose McDowall did our soundtrack and music videos are clearly a big influence on the style. Independence and DIY are incredibly important to me and I take a massive amount of inspiration from the real life stories in both Big Gold Dream and Teenage Superstars and punk music in general. It forms a giant part of my ideology of filmmaking and I probably wouldn't be making films without having heard that music. I find many filmmakers quite guarded in trying anything new. That probably comes from the tradition of filmmaking being expensive and exclusive, something I'm very much against. I found it inspiring speaking to musicians who had very much a 'just go for it' attitude which is often lacking in the structured world of filmmaking and try to maintain that attitude.

In terms of the films structure, music takes priority. I remember seeing an interview with Frank Mazolla, the editor of Performance who said he approached cutting that film like Jazz! I found that mind-blowing and such a different way to think of structure which I always try to incorporate when making films. It gives a tremendous amount of creative freedom when pacing a film and playing with its form beyond what's expected. I love minimalist composers like Terry Riley and try and incorporate those techniques into my film structures. Repetition and not being constrained by formal structure. Basically, I love the idea that a film doesn't have to be like a simple classic pop song verse/chorus, verse/chorus, middle8 and chorus but can have play around with this, just like music did in the 60s with longer solos and eventually more experimenting. A bit more prog rock than punk rock, ha. Saying that, when presented along with genre conventions makes some folk very angry.

I also like bands who clearly got a new instrument and used it everywhere over albums. I know less is often more but being full on with effects and being very unsubtle allows you to add subtlety in other areas which go unnoticed. I'd say Apple Tree is quite extreme in its visuals, and that doesn't mean it needs to be visceral like Lars Von Trier. You can be extreme in other ways and I see Apple Tree being a bit like a cover of Sister Ray by Brian Eno or The Orb. Making a film that has moments where an audience subconsciously expect an edit in a certain place when it doesn't happen or having 3 acts which progressively get looser and looser in terms of story and structure can be as effective as a jump scare when trying to get a response from a viewer.

4) As part of Dundead, and DCA's 20th Birthday celebrations, we're showing three titles from 1999 (Ring, eXistenZ and The Blair Witch Project). Do you have any favourite horror films from this year or is there another year you think of as being particularly strong for horror?

I think the 90s was one of the most exciting times for filmmaking ever. In pure technical terms it was the end of the traditional photochemical filmmaking process which had lasted 100 years. Everyone had pushed film – the actual medium to an extent to where they led the technology and because of this they knew how to break its rules and create some fantastic looking films. I think some of our nicest looking films come from the 90s. When combined with US indie filmmaking going mainstream we got some amazing films in general in that period. The introduction of DV brought new tools that would soon evolve so quickly that the mastery was lost, but that initial wave brought some amazing creativity – Dogma and especially Blair Witch. Blair Witch pretty much took the El Mariachi 'I can do this too' idea and to another level, as well as creating its own genre (I doubt they'd have seen Cannibal Holocaust). Found footage is really clever as it looks easy – so low budget filmmakers use it but very few have managed to do it so well.

That being said about 90s quality, I don't think it was a great time for the horror mainstream. Maybe this is because a lot of filmmakers traditionally used horror to get their unusual ideas through - because it sells well - and there was less need for insurgency as distributors were more open to new ideas then.

I think you've chosen 3 of the best examples from the 90s – all classics. I suppose for any others Silence of the Lambs is pretty hard to beat but I do have a soft spot for The Ninth Gate. Although not really a horror, Lost Highway is pretty unsettling.

5) What film has scared you the most?

I don't really get scared watching horror films these days but I find those real life crime films on Netflix scary. The original Exorcist was scary when I first saw it but maybe that's because it was a bootleg and still felt a little dangerous. For dramas I find psychological horror/thrillers the most frightening, especially the really well done ones like Diabolique and Night of the Demon. The original The Haunting and Legend of Hell House were scary when I first watched. Suspiria too.

6) Apart from your own film, what would be top of your watch list from this year's Dundead festival line-up? (full line-up can be seen here:

The Dead Center looks really interesting as does Knife and heart. It will be great to see Clockwork Orange in the cinema again too. It's a great line-up and very grateful to have our film included.

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