Darrell Buxton and Steve Hardy, screenwriters of Ouijageist – Derby Film Festival interview

OUIJAGEIST

Ouija boards unleashing the powers of darkness with horrific effects is not a new idea in horror, but the British twist thrust on to this central concept by the makers of Ouijageist has created a fresh take on the cliché.

Exploring themes of loneliness and modern-day stress, the movie follows a young single mum, India, who moves into a new flat. She is being crushed under the pressures of making rent and finding employment when she and a friend dabble with a Ouija board found at the property. Of course, this unleashes evil powers and the deaths start to flow.

Ouijageist joins the run of cinematic strangeness at Derby Film Festival’s first ParaCinema season starting this week.

Before world premiere on Monday 7th May, Bloop caught up with screenwriters Steve Hardy and Darrell Buxton to quiz them about their new British shocker.

Where did the concept for Ouijageist come from?

Darrell Buxton: Director John Walker approached us with the idea in the summer of 2015 – Ouija had just been a big cinema hit and the Poltergiest remake with Sam Rockwell was imminent, so it seems John might have been seeking to do a quick low-budget cash-in for the DVD market.

Steve Hardy: I got a very brief synopsis from John Walker – it didn’t even have an ending – which had quite a few illogicities. I had a think about how it might be shaped into a workable screenplay and decided another perspective would be useful. Enter Darrell.

How did you get involved?

DB: Steve Hardy had written John’s previous movie Amityville Playhouse and when it unexpectedly secured a brief cinema release, he asked me along to see it and give an opinion. When Ouijageist came up, he was asked to pen the script for that too – he bumped into me one evening in the car park at Asda, clearly the place where everything happens in the world of local showbiz! Standing outside the supermarket, he told me there might be an opportunity to collaborate, plus a small fee, and I was in!

SH: I’d already written Amityville Playhouse for John Walker – that was a solo effort – and that had actually made it into the mainstream cinema circuit. John was pleased enough with it to ask me to write a second film for him. I told him that I wanted to get Darrell involved and he was okay with that, although it did mean I had to split my fee! Anyway, I was mulling-over how I would approach Darrell when I happened to run into him in the car park of the local ASDA on evening when I was doing the supermarket run. I asked him if he would be interested in co-writing a feature with me and he jumped at the chance.

Are you combining a few different horror genre tropes into one with this movie as the title suggests?

DB: At John’s insistence! Although our first draft of the script did go much further than the director’s basic ‘ouija board / poltergeist’ requirement – we included those elements but added in one of those old-fashioned ‘compendium of games’ boxes, featuring snakes & ladders, ludo, blow football etc., and did a sort of Jumanji meets The Omen thing where the games are reflected in the methods of the victims’ fates. John ditched this, saying that he wasn’t talented enough to film it (!) and insisting that we go back to the basics he’d originally suggested. I did include a Tarantino-style passage where a character goes on about his love of Poltergeist II: The Other Side (a dreadful sequel but one which our director loves!), and a surprise towards the climax that rips off a bit from Suspiria.

SH: Our initial idea built on the Ouija board and poltergeist elements and expanded on them but it was rejected by John as being ‘too good’ (no, we’re not kidding!) and beyond his abilities as a director. We streamlined the idea and we ended-up choosing the name almost as a spoof – think Sharknado – rather than as a serious suggestion, but John liked it and it stuck! There are a mix of genre types in the film. There’s some kitchen sink elements in there, too.

What is it about Ouija boards that maintains its fear factor and urban myth quality?

DB: It’s funny really – how many people do you know who have ever used a ouija board? Urban legend would have it that people are whipping out boards and planchettes every Friday night, and the films featuring them play on this supposed accessibility and ease of use. But I’m not sure they get a lot of attention in real life! But you’re right – in fiction at least, they have this aura of being a kind of everyday portal to another, usually evil, realm. And it’s that idea, true or not, that anyone can use one, and that you are taking a gamble in that you may inadvertently conjure up something nasty, which prevails.

SH: There’s something very ‘accessible’ about the idea of a Ouija board: people in their own homes ‘messing around with things beyond their understanding’, everyone sat around a table in semi-darkness and uncanny happenings in very recognisable surroundings. Then there’s the thought that whatever is supposed to be unleashed is invisible and that it might remain even after the session is over. All horror stereotypes of course, but with loads of potential. There’s lots there for writers and filmmakers to get their teeth into.

Do you think the urban myths about Ouija boards are less prevalent than in the past? In the 80s/90s when I was young there were a lot of stories/urban myths about them floating around?

DB: Again, you’re probably right. There has been a recent spate of movies featuring ouija, which has been a bit of a pisser for us because they’ve all come out while our film has been in production – but I’m not certain that the imagery or the use of the device has made as big an impact as people might have hoped. Oddly enough, I’ve just been involved in a ouija project dating way back to 1989 – the great Michael Armstrong (Haunted House of Horror, House of Long Shadows) is currently publishing all of his old movie screenplays in paperback book form and I was invited to write the foreword for his ultimately unfilmed script ‘Ouija-board’. Maybe the fact that it remained unmade indicates that ouija was passé as a subject even thirty years ago. Who knows, perhaps our film will be the one to successfully revive this major horror theme!

SH: As I said previously, there’s a lot of cliché and stereotype surrounding Ouija boards and the consequences of using them, so it’s not surprising that the vein soon got mined-out. For various reasons Ouijageist was a long time in post-production so we sort of missed the bus. On the other hand that distance might do us a bit of good. We could be considered to be the vanguard of the Ouija revival!

Is the loneliness of the young mother, living alone a big part of the horror here? The way the human brain creates fear when we are alone?

DB: We tried to write her as a fairly tough cookie, and she has family and friends to turn to – but that possibly all adds to her isolation once events get out of control. We’ve not gone for a conventional ‘frightened heroine battling evil – and her own inner demons – alone’ plot here, but that sort of thing often creeps in to horror anyway. It’s a genre where characters can feel lonely and doomed even if they do have people to turn to. Asking for help, especially in bizarre or freaky circumstances, isn’t always the obvious easy way out, often raising more issues than it solves – who can you trust, will they believe you, etc.

SH: Personally I came at the central character’s situation from the angle of wanting to create a recognisable set of circumstances – India is young, a single-parent and a jobseeker. A good rule-of-thumb in writing believable horror/fantasy/SF is to take one fantastic element and surround it with normality. It’s more unsettling if you have characters and situations that the audience can identify and you introduce something that is outside of established normality.

Darrell – this is your first completed writing credit – how does it feel to see your work on screen?

DB: It’s a real buzz. I’ve been around for a long time, writing about horror movies for well over thirty years and associating with filmmakers and performers at high and low levels in various capacities, so you might think I’d be a bit jaded by now. I thought I would be! But when John sent us the first edited excerpt from OUIJAGEIST a few months ago, I watched open-mouthed as I saw actors dressed as policemen speaking dialogue that I’d written. I was even more open-mouthed when I heard one of them deliver a fantastic punchline to the scene that didn’t come from me – it was either something John had added on location, or a brilliant, inspired ad-lib. I’m more than happy to take the credit for it though!

What inspirations did you draw on for creating this narrative?

DB: As mentioned, we were rather limited by the director’s insistence that we keep it simple. There are probably more evident inspirations in our unused/rejected early drafts than in the finished film, some of which I’ve already referred to. Steve and I have since written a short script called ‘The Coriolis Effect’, which John filmed about six months ago – that will be included in upcoming anthology movie Emojis of Horror, and ‘Coriolis’ gave us more chance to homage several of our favourites. It’s got a bit of a ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Doctor Who’ feel to it and is almost like a British spin on the Japanese horror movie Uzumaki.

SH: Our hands were rather tied with this. Whenever Darrell and I veered-off trying to explore other ideas, the director pulled us back onto the course he had in mind. We had carte blanche with the ending though as John didn’t have any idea of how to tie it all together. I had a very specific idea on the ending, but I can’t tell you what it is because if I mentioned the title of the film that inspired the idea you’d guess the ending straight away!

Did you have a visual style in mind when writing the script?

DB: Personally, no. I’ve spoken to enough directors and received enough advice over the years to know not to do that.

SH: It’s a bit of a fools-errand trying to visualise too much. You have to bear in mind that the screenwriter is the first person to finish their job on a film. Assuming the project isn’t riven with problems, by the time the camera roll on the first morning of the shoot, the screenwriter is (hopefully!) already working on the next project. There’s considerable distance between the writer’s idea and the thing that ends-up on the screen. The script is filtered through the director, the camera operator, the lighting person, the actors etc. The resultant film might be very, very different to your own imagined vision of things.

How well has John R. Walker realised your vision?

DB: Haven’t had a chance to see the entire movie yet but I have seen several short clips. From those, I’m rather impressed with what John has achieved on very limited resources. The scene I mentioned previously was written as a big action set-piece, with a policeman turning into some kind of hairy creature, smashing backwards through the window of a cafe, and being blown away by a sawn-off shotgun produced by the proprietor from under the counter as the customers scream in terror.  That’s been reduced to three actors in a car park pretending to be police officers. It’s a very good scene but it isn’t exactly the action-packed crowd pleaser that I intended! But I knew going in that the finished film would look very different to how I imagined it – that’s all part of the game when you’re working in the world of bargain-basement moviemaking.

SH: We haven’t seen it yet! John’s passed a few clip over to us to see what we think. There’s one scene which is pretty much just how I’d envisaged it, but that’s more luck than design. I think the first proper look we’ll get is when it premieres at QUAD!

What do you want audiences to take away from watching the movie?

DB: I’m expecting everyone to roll out of the cinema babbling about having just seen a masterpiece and carrying me and Steve shoulder-high down to the bar to ply us with drinks for the rest of the evening.

SH: I’m not quite sure. My relationship with the film is quite tangential really. It’s been so long since we wrote the screenplay that we’ve forgotten quite a lot of it and we’ll be watching it more-or-less from the same perspective as the rest of the audience! But, if as Darrell suggests, the audience feel so moved by the film that they to want to wine and dine us afterwards, then I won’t be putting-up a struggle.

Is there anything else on at Derby Film Festival that you recommend?

DB:  Toyah Willcox is appearing live, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have been assigned as her onstage interviewer, so I’m really looking forward to meeting Toyah and having a good chat with her. We’ll try to focus on her career in film and tv rather than on her music, so it might wind up as something of a different, unusual experience for Toyah too. I love the films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead so am really anticipating great things from their new one The Endless. And I see there’s a documentary film on about my current home town, Spondon, so I’łl be at the front of the queue for that one!

SH: I’m looking forward to Darrell interviewing Toyah. Be nice to just be able to sit back and watch for a change!

 

Ouijageist gets its world premiere at Derby Film Festival on Monday 7th May at  2:00pm


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