Odd Little Films
an interview with Grant McPhee
Grant McPhee’s third feature is Far from the Apple Tree (UK, Grant McPhee, 2019): a dazzling film with shades of the occult and folk horror, praised as ‘exquisitely detailed’ , which he describes as a ‘Pop-Art fairytale’ .
In a script by Ben Soper, Judith (Sorcha Groundsell) moves in with her hero, the renowned avant-gardist Roberta Roslyn (Victoria Liddelle), to catalogue her old art films. Many of these feature Roberta’s own daughter, Maddy, who is the spitting image of Judith. As the story unfolds, Judith is entranced by her doppelgänger and starts to copy her mannerisms. Roberta – sometimes maternal and sometimes more barbed – pours fuel on the fire of her mounting obsession.
We really enjoyed the film and reviewed it here. We also took the opportunity to speak to Grant about his work and the industry.
Ellis: What horror films made the biggest impression on you? Are there any overlooked gems that our readers might not have seen?
Grant: I saw a lot of films in the very early days of video. Despite being later quite schooled in traditional art/classic cinema I seem to always come back to some of the quirkier ones I saw. When I was a teenager, Redemption re-released a lot of these. They’re not purposely trying to be cult films like Troma or whatever, just naturally odd and for some reason, despite many of them not being especially well made they appeal to me. Maybe it’s the atmosphere. I’d recommend films like Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Czechoslovakia, Jaromil Jireš, 1970) and anything by Jean Rollin; Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (UK, Freddie Francis, 1970); Blood on Satan’s Claw (UK, Piers Haggard, 1971); Tombs of the Blind Dead (Spain/Portugal, Amando de Ossorio, 1972); Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (USA, John Hancock, 1971); The Abominable Dr Phibes (UK, Robert Fuest, 1971); and mostly films that are not really horror but have supernatural/occult/trippy elements – Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland (UK, BBC, 1966), Zardoz (Ireland/USA, John Boorman, 1974), BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas and so on…
E: More than once, you’ve talked about the liberating aspect of low-budget filmmaking – i.e., taking the opportunity to make something that wouldn’t be allowed if you had more funding. Why wouldn’t the industry want to fund a movie like Far from the Apple Tree? Is there something wrong with how films get financed?
G: The industry is changing at quite an alarming pace and I don’t think what I’d previously said about funding is entirely true now. For a long time, Netflix has led the industry and currently, a large percentage still responds to its next moves, regardless of size. Traditionally film, especially low-budget film was until very recently about making quick profit on video sales/download. Even pre-Covid there was still a big collectors’ market for physical product in the horror community, and surprisingly there was even a little room in cinemas too, just last year it felt you either had $300b Marvel films or tiny micro-budgets (whose overheads were so low they could turn a profit). Covid lockdowns have badly hit physical media but I think it was something that was already trending this way really. It’s going to be tough to get back to that old model – shops, manufacturers, distributors were all small cogs of a big machine that’s starting to come undone.
Film is now less about making a profit and more about hitting quotas and generating curated IP for streaming services and I think movies – or product – is valued in a very different way and it’s important to recognise this.
A lot of the independent or micro-budget sector still operate in the old world. Amazon will offer streaming revenue in an almost traditional form but it is so tiny that it really seems impossible to turn a profit on a movie, even one with a tiny budget that would have been simple a couple of years ago. This model is where I think it is difficult to find investors willing to pay into a movie that is not going to be commercial or might not appeal to critics. And it’s where I see a trap for filmmakers still trying to make a film that will either be appealing to investors or as a calling card for a studio to pick them up for a larger movie, as happened in the 1990s. Things have moved on.
There are different risks now. I think the days of someone making an El Mariachi (USA, Robert Rodriguez, 1992) or Evil Dead (USA, Sam Raimi, 1981) are long gone. Netflix takes the risk – they pay for a movie and if it flops they take the hit, if it is a major success (as defined now less by profit but by press coverage) they take the glory. The moviemaker gets the same fee regardless and this model seems to be slowly permeating the industry. People – as in the general public – pay for overall streaming services rather than individual films. I think it’s healthy actually, filmmakers can take more creative risks, streaming services can take risks and films will find audiences – by being paid for or picked up by a suitable streaming service. Every streaming service seems to have its own style and that’s what will attract like-minded audiences. Everything is cyclical, it’s like going back to the early days of cinema. You just have to have something that fits in and adds to an overall IP, not necessarily something that has to sell a lot of copies.
I’m comfortable and quite happy that I know Apple Tree will never achieve a wide audience or critical appeal. I’m happy that I’m able to make odd little films that eventually find a small and appreciative audience. I’d mentioned Redemption earlier and Apple Tree feels like it fits in with their style and they have a pre-existing audience who will understand where it comes from. When discussing horror films many people think to antagonise or make a statement you need to have extreme body horror or do something shocking but I think you can be as antagonistic by being gentle and quiet. Having a woman walk around a house in slow motion and talking to other women seems to wind up some horror fans.
E: How did the collaboration with Ben Soper work in practice? Given how much of the film is about visuals and editing – was it very different to a normal writer/director dynamic?
G: I’ve known Ben for a long time and we share a lot in common with the films that we like. Ben was very gracious and knew that there would be a few changes to his script. Part of the reason for this was time constraints due to our short schedule but also, we’d also talked about allowing for improvising opportunities that would be essential to the overall feel of the film. Ben is great with solid structure and dialogue. We’ve purposely not talked about his thoughts on the final film but he did say in an interview, after seeing it for the first time, that it felt like somebody doing a cover of a song. We’re going to be working on more films later this year though, it’s a good relationship and as Ben is, in addition to being a writer, also a very talented director he lends a very visual approach to his scripts.
E: The film has shades of occult or folk horror, but it’s also an exploration of video formats and how they make us feel. It reminded me a little of Berberian Sound Studio (UK, Peter Strickland, 2012), which also explores a technical aspect of filmmaking. Are there any specific titles that influenced your film and make good ‘companion pieces’, or did your inspiration come from somewhere else?
G: Berberian Sound Studio was a film I was very aware of but one I’ve still not managed to see yet. From its description though, it was definitely an influence. I think bigger influences were Blow-Up (UK/Italy/USA, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) and to a lesser extent Blow-Out. I love the setting of Blow-Up (mid 60s London) and I love that there’s a mystery to be found within the photos and that it’s explored through technical manipulation. I’m fascinated with the technical aspects of filmmaking, something that’s often dismissed as getting in the way of telling a good story, and that’s something I strongly disagree with. The technical side of filmmaking is a hugely important part of storytelling – lens choice, filter choice, lighting choice, camera choice are all fundamental to creating the correct mood and framework to stage your story; otherwise everything would just look like Eastenders.
I purposely wanted the viewer to be aware they were watching a film and for it to be very distracting to them as soon as they started to feel they were becoming involved with any of the characters or too involved in the story. Any non-linear films or films which play with form and structure are important to me. I’d already made two strong, character/story-led narrative documentary films (Big Gold Dream and Teenage Superstars) and this was an opportunity to play with that.
Those influences beyond Blow-Up (and obviously, its own 60s London companion film, Performance (UK, Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg, 1970)) are all non-linear and less character-driven – Suspiria (Italy, Dario Argento, 1977), not for the horror/giallo aspect but the Escher-esque dreamlike state. Likewise with Mario Bava/Jean Rollin films from the early 70s to more standard film-school fare of Cocteau and Godard. These and most especially, any of those British/European 70s/80s occult themed TV programmes such as Children of the Stones (UK, HTV West, 1977), Nigel Kneale etc.
E: From what we see of Roberta’s archive, I felt like her films were conceptual art pieces rather than narrative cinema. I guessed they would be shown in art galleries, rather than played in theatres. How do you feel about the world of modern art? Is it something you have a particular interest or passion for, or was it picked to serve the story? And what was your process for making the clips of Roberta’s old art films?
G: It was initially to serve the story but like many things they outgrew their intended purpose. The limitations we had surrounding the schedule meant we had to shoot the archive in a certain practical way. We only had 9 days to shoot the movie so we had to create the archive at the same time which proved tricky to schedule, especially as it was to be shot on film and also that the archive had to appear physically within some scenes.
We ended up making a filmlab in a spare room. It was so guerilla that the archive film ended up with a look of its own that would be difficult to recreate digitally. It was the practicalities that led to the aesthetic. But by doing it this way meant we could shoot an archive component, send that to the lab to get developed then around an hour later begin shooting a scene for the main movie which would feature that archive component in practical form, e.g., a projected strip of 16mm film. It was pretty hectic to schedule, especially as some main scenes were shot on 35mm and had to be sent to a real film lab in London then sent back to us.
I later made an alternative version of the entire movie told purely through Roberta’s archive, shown chronologically from Maddy right through to Judith becoming involved which gives the viewer a whole different experience. At one point I’d intended to try and release Roberta’s films individually, at real festivals and have some online presence of her but I just never got around to it.
I read a lot about modern art and some of my thoughts on this appear in the film. To me, the process is as important, if not more so than the finished product. We’ve been at a stage for a long time where art is valued by a monetary cost which is just crazy. I personally think The KLF burning a million pounds was one of the 20th Century’s great art statements. I thought about a way to have one single print of the film that would be destroyed as it played but a) couldn’t think of a practical way to do it and b) never had a platform to be able to do it properly.
E: What was it like, directing Sorcha Groundsell in two very different roles?
G: It was very tough for Sorcha. For practical reasons, we could not shoot chronologically and as she was in almost every scene it meant the very subtle character transformations for each character were tricky to navigate. The changes are purposely subtle and I think she did a great job.
E: Finally: what’s next for you, and do you have any more horror films in the pipeline?
G: I’ve a few films coming up. One is almost finished – Lori and the Six Six Sixties which is slightly more experimental. I’ve a couple of more traditional horror films, well traditional to me anyway.
Many thanks to Grant McPhee for taking the time to answer our questions! You can read more about his work here.