An Interview with Julian Richards

In The Last Horror Movie Julian Richards has directed and produced one of the smartest British horror flicks in recent years. Not that surprising perhaps when you consider he made his first amateur horror film at the ripe old age of thirteen! With three movies already under his belt and more in the pipeline Richards is developing into a highly accomplished and sought-after film-maker. So what do you need to make it in the movies? Julian Richards gives us the inside track. This email interview was completed in August 2004.



You started making amateur horror movies as a teenager - why this early (and continued) obsession with the genre?

Julian Richards: As a child my family used to go abroad for an annual vacation and my father used to film our holidays with a super 8mm camera. I got very excited when the postman delivered the developed rolls to our home and became fascinated watching my father edit and project the finished films. I also had an uncle (Peter) who had a 16mm projector, and when we visited his home he used to put on his own 'creature feature' show (a short, silent version of The Creature From The Black Lagoon). Another uncle (Rex) had already moved to the US to find fame and fortune as an actor, so for a working class Welsh boy I did have a lot of extraordinary experiences and influences around me.
From around the age of about nine I became fascinated with war films and horror films and used to stay up late to watch the BBC horror double bills on a Friday or Saturday night. This is where I discovered the classic black and white Universal films with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff as well as the Hammer films in technicolor with Peter Cushing and Chrisotopher Lee. By the age of 13 I decided to use my fathers 8mm camera to shoot my own horror film The Curse Of Cormac, using school friends as actors and shooting over weekends. Two years later it was complete and there was no turning back, I had found my vocation.

Is it true one of your relatives played King Wongo in The Wild Women of Wongo (1958)?

Julian Richards: My uncle Rex played rugby for the Welsh international squad and was nicknamed Tarzan because of his athletic physique. In 1958 he went to the US to audition for the role of Tarzan in a colour re-make of the old Johnny Weismuller classic. He didn't get the part but his consolation prize was landing the role of King Wongo in The Wild Women Of Wongo, a notoriously bad independent film cast from the Tarzan rejects.

In Darklands (1997) you made Wales's first truly indigenous horror movie. For me it's one of the key texts (so to speak) of contemporary Welsh popular culture - can you tell us a bit about the film's Welsh themes?

Julian Richards: On the one hand Darklands is a film that uses cultural, political, social and economic issues in Wales to serve its agenda as a generic horror film dealing with conspiracy and paranoia. It's not meant to be an accurate, realistic portrayal of life in Wales or of Welsh nationalism, but more a piece of fantasy or metaphor that draws upon and exaggerates real ingredients to create a mythology. But where there is smoke there is fire and I think the subtext of Darklands is ultimately about Celtic cultural angst, depicted in a conflict between the happy to be anglicised Welsh and the nationlists.

Wales is not exactly reknowned for producing film directors but suddenly the likes of yourself, Marc Evans, Justin Kerrigan have appeared out of nowhere and started making interesting movies - can you explain this?

Julian Richards: Marc and I were given our first feature opportunity as a result of the advent of lottery funding and support from the Arts Council of Wales. Without this support we might still be struggling to get our first features off the ground and their continued support of our careers is vital if there is to be any progression and continuity in the Welsh film industry. Like myself, Justin served his apprenticship at film school making successful shorts and got his first feature made as a result of a long term collaboration with indie producer Alan Niblo. In the past we've had promising directors like Karl Francis and Endaf Emlyn but never any producers, but now that all looks to change with new comers like Suzanne Phillips, Nerys Lloyd and Neil Wagstaff. All we need now are some good writers...

You made excellent use of Wales's industrial landscapes in Darklands, particularly Port Talbot. As a locale, generally, do you think Wales has been underused in the horror genre?

Julian Richards: There is no doubt that Wales has plenty to offer in terms of landscapes and locations and the building of Dragon Studios in the Valleys compounds the attraction. The problem is we have no real fiscal incentive and in Hollywood (and London for that matter) its all about the deal; how much of a tax break will I get if I spend my budget in that country? How much regional 'soft' funding will I qualify for? How low will the crew's salary be and what is the exchange rate? At the moment Wales is losing out to countries like Romania, Luxembourg, The Isle Of Man, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand all of whom have rewarding fiscal incentives in place. But on a more positive note we do have a solid talent base of technicians and actors who practice their craft daily working for S4C, BBC Wales and HTV Wales.

It seems to me that the modern independent film-maker needs to have plenty of financial savvy - how good are your business skills?

Julian Richards: I've always been good at getting something for nothing, but in the past I've been rather naive about protecting my interests in such a competative, aggressive environment. However since producing The Last Horror Movie that has all changed and I'm getting quite savvy with deals and contracts etc. The problem I find is that most of my time is now spent negotiating contracts and working out budgets and accounts, so I get very little time to write a screenplay or do anything creative.

The Last Horror Movie came out in 2003 - it's your most sophisticated work to date. How do you think you have improved as a film-maker since Darklands?

Julian Richards: Darklands was the work of a fan boy and although I still think it has some unique ingredients, it's still somewhat immature and derivative (which maybe part of its charm). My second film Silent Cry is more professional, restrained and understated, if a little conventional. The Last Horror Movie came about as a reaction against some of the negative experiences I had directing Darklands and Silent Cry which in comparison to making my super 8 films and my 16mm shorts at film school, felt like being on a production line, like being a train on a track with no way to move forward but straight. With Last Horror I was the producer as well as the director, so I could take as many risks as I liked without fear of being put in a strait-jacket. I didn't have anybody telling me what actors I had to use because of their so called 'value in the market' or any cinematographer taking a disproportionate age to set up the lights or challenging my directorial know how mid-way during a night shoot. But I also knew that I had a great idea serviced with intelligent scriptwriting and an excellent cast which are the three key ingredients to making a good film.

Although disturbing (in the best possible way) The Last Horror Movie is also very playful: the false beginning; the video diary format; and the 'you're next' conceit at the end - how did you strike the right balance between creating a horror ambience and making a clever indy flick?

Julian Richards: The balance was struck as a result of a disagreement between myself and the writer. I wanted the film to be as convincingly real as possible, otherwise the whole 'you're next' conceit would not have its desired effect. James Handel, the writer wanted to make it more conceptual, satirical and to a degree farcical which I felt undermined its intent to work as a horror film. If you look at the deleted scenes in the DVD release you will be amazed at the degree of comedy in the very first cut. Having watched this version I immediately re-wrote some of the farcical scenes to make them more real and horrific and scheduled three extra days to re-shoot them. The final result is much more balanced and serves the idea that, although he's a psycho, Max has a sense of humour and plays with his audience like a cat plays with a mouse before killing it. .

I thought Kevin Howarth did a great job in the role of serial killer Max Parry - what characteristics were you looking for when you cast that role?

Julian Richards: James and I designed Max to be an unlikely serial killer. We avoided the working class, social misfit stereotype or the sexual subversive and instead went for a more charismatic charmer. James wanted to go the whole hog and make him public school boy - middle class, but I didn't want him to be too much of a toff for fear of alienating my audience, so I looked for somebody neutral, somebody who might have socially elevated himself, like Bruno Anthony from Strangers On A Train. I also wanted Max to have a strong physical presence to justify his ability to overpower so many victims (hence the scene in the gym that reveals Kevin's defined muscularity). In addition to suave sophistication, I wanted an irreverent sense of humour which Kevin has in abundance.

How has The Last Horror Movie been received Stateside?

Julian Richards: Plus points: our first theatrical distribution deal was with US distributor Fangoria Films who released Last Horror 'Unrated'. The MPAA refused to give an 'R' or even an 'NC 17' so inevitably that reduces the number of theaters interested in booking the film. At our US premiere in Austin, Texas we sold out the first two nights and we have since played in Montreal and Toronto to some very favourable reviews in Variety and Film Threat. The DVD release will be via Hart Sharp in November and that's when we will reach a wider audience.

What about screenwriting - do you enjoy that particular part of the creative process? 

Julian Richards: I do enjoy writing, but recently I find I have very little time to concentrate on it. Now I tend to work with other writers, helping them develop screenplays to a point where I can use my producer skills to get them financed and ultimately direct them. In the not to distant future I'm going to take a long holiday to Brazil to sit down and write the various ideas I've been thinking about since completing Darklands.

What personal qualities do you need to become a film director?

Julian Richards: Persistance, tenacity, thick skin and broad shoulders combined with intelligence, creativity and the ability to think laterally. Directing is not standing on set telling everybody what to do (that's the assistant director's job) instead it's setting the parameters and guiding various contributors along the way, getting the best out of their unique skills. John Ford used to say that if a director tells twelve actors what to do he will end up with twelve cardboard cut-outs of himself.

Which other directors do you most admire?

Julian Richards: In no particular order, John Cassavettes, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, John Carpenter (early years) David Cronenburg, Dario Argento, Steven Spielberg, Michael Apted.

Have you flirted with the idea of moving to Hollywood to pursue your film career?

Julian Richards: Having written a screenplay for Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment in 1994 I already have a Hollywood career and my agent and manager are both in LA. I've been back and forth between London and Los Angeles at least twenty times in the past ten years and I recently got interviewed by New Line to direct Freddy Vs Jason. Since Last Horror interest in my work has increased dramatically, but I won't move to LA until I get a solid offer.

Finally, what's in the pipeline?

Julian Richards: Right now I have several projects in development. Long Dark Hours is a Hitcher-esque psycho thriller set around Blaenavon; Love Bites is a Swingers-like romantic comedy set in London; Snowman is a supernatural thriller set in Canada; Monkey Farm is a psycho-thriller set in Alaska; and Deadmeat is an eco-disasater zombie film set in the UK.

Good luck with those Julian and thanks for a fascinating insight into independent film-making.

ŠAnthony Brockway 2004