11th Dec2017

Horror-on-Sea 2018 Interview: Writer/director Pat Higgins

by Philip Rogers

With over a decade of experience as a horror writer and director, Pat Higgins will be Horror-on-Sea Film Festival on Saturday 20th January with his latest Master Class: Fear and Film. I got chance to ask Pat a few questions about what we can expect from the talk, some of his influences in horror and the various incarnations of his film The House on the Witchpit.


What can we expect from the Master Class: Fear and Film?

We try to have a mix of useful tips and tricks for people making independent horror movies, along with unseen video clips and (hopefully) entertaining stories! There are a couple of live shows from previous years over at http://pathiggins.me.uk/appearances/ for the curious. This year’s show is very much focused on fear itself, and the relationship between fear and movies. I’ll be sharing the movies that scared the crap out of me as a kid, and hopefully some of the audience will do the same.

You have done several Master Classes at Horror-on-Sea, how did the idea first come about?

We’ve been running masterclasses at Horror-on-Sea ever since the festival started in 2013, and every year I look forward to it. It evolved from a series of smaller, non-horror events that I’d delivered as part of the Southend Film Festival, which is organised by many of the same team and has the same brilliant mind behind it in the form of Paul Cotgrove. Paul has made Horror-on-Sea one of my favourite festivals in the world.

Prior to getting into the film industry, I spent a couple of years around the turn of the millennium doing stand-up comedy. Once you’ve done stand-up, it never really leaves you even once you’ve left it. Live shows and masterclasses do scratch that itch somewhat: all the fun of stand-up without the pressure to actually be funny every 15 seconds. I did my first TEDx talk last month, and had fantastic fun with that too. Basically, I just really love talking to people.

What makes an effective horror movie?

Characters you care about. Get them right, and the rest of it falls into place. If you’re terrified for the characters’ well-being, you don’t need a crass jump-scare every ten seconds. I’m also tempted to say, ‘having some intelligence’, because all of my recent favourites have been fiercely smart movies. The Babadook (2014), Get Out (2017), The Witch (2016)… These movies all have their fair share of brains. Mind you, I dearly love some epically dumb movies too, so maybe it’s just the extremes that I find appealing!

What’s your favourite scary movies?

My all-time favourite scary movies from an artistic point of view are The Shining (1980) and The Exorcist (1973), with Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) right up there too. From a pure entertainment point of view, the stuff that chimes closest to my heart is a little more fun and freewheeling: Night of the Creeps (1986), Warlock (1989), Waxwork (1988). Stuff like that.

The film I’ve seen most times (which isn’t strictly speaking a horror movie) is Gremlins (1984). As a kid, something about that movie just struck a chord in me and I became a little obsessed with it. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s well over 80. Gremlins blends sweetness and darkness, kindness and cruelty, fun and scares. I just love it. We made an anthology movie called Battlefield Death Tales (2012) a few years back (which got released as Angry Nazi Zombies in the US, and Nazi Zombie Death Tales in the UK), and my chapter of that goes deeply into Gremlins territory with a bunch of rubber puppets spurting green blood. I had to get it out of my system at some point.

When did you know you wanted to make movies and did you always intend to make horror movies?

I fell in love with cinema when I was about three. I was taken to see both the original release of Star Wars and the rerelease of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) at an impressionable age. Between the Death Star and the squid fight, I was sold. Hooked. From that point on, I endlessly nagged my poor long-suffering Mum to take me to just about every vaguely child-appropriate film that got released.
Horror came a bit later. I was very, very wary of the genre while I was growing up. I was a kid with a fertile imagination, and I always thought that whatever terrors the genre could present me with would be terrifying beyond my imagination. Turned out I was wrong: when I finally started watching horrors (after catching a TV screening of Alien (1979) at about 14) I realised that none of them seemed as scary as the stuff I had bubbling around in my mind anyway. I played catch-up, and watched everything I could get my hands on.

Who are you influences as a filmmaker?

Ooh, that depends on my mood! When I’m in ‘sophisticated’ mode, I look at complex narrative structures like Memento (2000) and The Usual Suspects (1995) and see what tricks I can incorporate into screenplays and features (resulting in flicks like The Devil’s Music (2008), which is still probably the movie I’m happiest with). When I’m in ‘trashy’ mode, I hoover up all the fun influences from the kind of midnight movies and cult classics I mentioned earlier (particularly 80s straight-to-video stuff) and pour the resulting stuff into scripts. Sometimes, good intentions don’t really make it into the final product. The movie Strippers vs Werewolves (2012) (which started out as one of my scripts) still makes me a bit sad.

Can you tell us a little bit about the various incarnations of The House on the Witch Pit which has a limited showing before the current version is destroyed?

The script for The House on the Witchpit was knocking around in my ‘development’ pile for so many years that some of the versions were unrecognisable as being the same movie as each other. Some versions were trashy fun, some were bleak and serious, some were fake documentaries, some were straightforward cinematic narratives. The film kept nearly getting funding, then falling through and going back to the drawing board.

Sometime in 2015, I just decided that I’d shoot it using whatever tiny amount of cash was in the company bank account. The latest version of the script duly went in front of the cameras, but then something clicked, and I realised that I still had the opportunity to have some fun with it. So, we premiered the movie in January 2016, and I smashed up the master copy onstage after the film had screened. We did it for real, too: that version genuinely doesn’t exist anymore. The raw footage did, of course, so we went back and shot some more footage and re-edited what we had and created something very different.

We made that available to rent for one night, then trashed that one too. We’ve still never released an official synopsis, or trailer, or any images. The IMDB page for it is more or less blank except for Paul Cousins’ incredibly cool teaser poster – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6880600/

I love the idea of things not being permanent or easily available. In this digital age, we’ve got too much damn choice. I like the idea of a film being fleeting, purely because that never happens nowadays. One day, I’ll stop messing around with the movie. But not yet. We’ll probably film some more stuff in 2018, which will then be well over two years since the public premiere.

Do you have any other projects which you are working on at the moment?

There’s a script called Your Lying Eyes, which is the best thing I’ve ever written. One of my favourite directors is attached to the movie out in LA, which is incredibly cool. We’re waiting for the last pieces of the puzzle to fall into place, and then that’s going to absolutely rock.

I’m heavily involved with a new organisation called Sun Rocket Films, (http://sunrocketfilms.com/) which is just setting up. They work closely with universities and colleges, providing really cool work experience placements in feature film production for students on relevant courses. So, you get new talent working alongside industry veterans. They’ll be producing a movie from my script Killer Apps, and I can’t wait to see how that comes together.

Oh, and I’ve written a book about how to write a killer horror screenplay in 30 days. That should be out by the end of 2018.

What advice would you give to someone looking to direct their own film?

Make all the contacts you can, and treat everyone like gold. Surround yourself with people who are good at the things you’re crap at. Never put a script in front of the camera until it’s absolutely goddamn brilliant. ‘Good enough’ isn’t good enough. Cast Cy Henty in it, because he’s great. Oh, and put yourself out of your comfort zone. Unplug from social media, and make some damn phone calls.


Pat Higgins will be at the Horror-on-Sea Festival on Saturday 20th January at 3pm for the Master Class: Fear and Film.

For more information on the event and to purchase tickets for the Horror-on-Sea please see the website for details: https://www.horror-on-sea.com


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