Robots, Aliens, Monsters, and Surreal Trips:

An Interview with Terry Cooper

We talk to Terry Cooper about his forthcoming horror comedy, Bloody Students, which is now in development...

For my money, shoestring indie productions are the backbone of British horror cinema. It’s exciting when something like Saint Maud or His House makes a big splash, but if those were the only films we had to watch, we’d be waiting a long time between movie nights.

For that reason, I’m eternally grateful for the smaller productions that keep appearing on Amazon Prime, which are often good and sometimes even excellent. Finding a low-budget gem is doubly rewarding; you have the enjoyment of watching the film, as usual, but also the satisfaction of making a genuine discovery. If you’re a have-a-go filmmaker, getting your work on a festival screen or streaming platform is a huge achievement, and it must be wonderful when it connects with people and finds an audience. For that reason, I always try to keep abreast of the full spectrum of productions, and I can honestly say that some of my favourite films have been made for absolute peanuts. Done well, microbudget filmmaking takes a huge amount of skill, and I always marvel at the talented auteurs who can conjure a complete, functioning movie out of almost nothing.

Budding filmmaker Terry Cooper is no stranger to small budgets. His first feature, a hard sci-fi called Offworld – currently in post production – was made off the back of a £10,000 Kickstarter. He’s already developing his next film: a horror comedy called Bloody Students – ‘a gang of students take on a group of revived Egyptian Mummies in a locked museum overnight’ – to be filmed on his doorstep in South Wales.

As a Horrified writer, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing several writers and directors, but always about their finished work. This is something of a departure for me; I’m speaking to Terry now, as he starts his journey on Bloody Students. He describes it as ‘a kind of homage to my childhood experiences of ghost trains, fun houses, Scooby Doo and in later years, Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy.’ If that sounds like your sort of thing – and shame on you if it doesn’t! – then read on to learn more…

Ellis: You cite childhood experiences of ghost trains, fun houses and Scooby Doo as inspirations for Bloody Students. Writing as an adult, did anything in particular bring these to mind? What was the genesis for the idea?

Terry: For a kid growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, a ghost train or a fun house was a sort of virtual reality experience. For a few minutes, you’re immersed in another dimension, cut off from your parents and in the case of ghost trains, thrown into darkness, listening to scary noises and seeing scary things. Now, I know that sounds silly, knowing what we all know of gaudily painted mechanical props and bad quality recordings of screams, but back then it was a sensory assault that really stays with you. There aren’t many left, and the rides have modernised with better technology, and I think that’s a shame in a way. Scooby Doo is a perennial favourite. Like many properties that have had countless reboots and remakes, your mind hangs onto the version that you had in your formative years. For millions of people, it might have been a first experience of horror, albeit relatively tame, but certainly it opened up my mind to the realisation that it’s not all brightly coloured superheroes à la Adam West, or surreal fun like The Magic Roundabout – here were a gang of kids experiencing ghosts, monsters and all manner of weird goings-on in a cartoon show. All these early experiences are what we ultimately store away and draw upon when we write. And in the case of my writing Bloody Students, I think it’s plain to see – a gang of people in their late teens/early twenties, investigating a strange place where something otherworldly is going on. It’s a formula – to a certain extent – but not necessarily a bad thing.

E: Do you already have scenes that you’re looking forward to filming, and can you – if spoilers allow! – whet our appetites with a teaser or two?

T: Well, I’m only about three quarters of the way through the first draft, but that’s based on a very detailed 100 page ‘scriptment’ which I spent a lot of time on, to craft the story. I do love writing characters and dialogue, but the kid in me craves the scenes that involve the monsters, effects and performers in costume and makeup. I once saw a photo of John Landis surrounded by the zombies in the ‘Thriller’ video, and it chilled me to the bone – even though I knew these were actors and dancers in (incredible Rick Baker) make-up, I think it would freak me out to be surrounded by these monsters. I’m sure it’ll happen when we get into filming. Part of me can’t wait to recreate that photo.

E: Bloody Students will be filmed on your own doorstep in South Wales. Do you already have locations in mind or is it too early for that?

T: When I start on a project, I can’t help but think of every possible aspect of the film in advance. Some people can focus on the job at hand, but I have such an excitement for every part of the process, I begin considering music, actors, special effects and of course locations. The primary setting for the film is a museum, and that might be a difficult thing to obtain – I can’t imagine many museums liking the sound of a cast of about ten people running around in their building. Places like Cardiff National Museum charge a minimum of £150 per hour, so it’s only big budget movies and TV that can afford to shoot there. However, it didn’t take me long to find a very modern building in Newport that isn’t a museum, but can be dressed up to look like one quite convincingly. And again, though it’s very early days, I got in touch and visited them to take a first-hand look. They gave me the full tour and said they were excited about the prospect of a feature film shooting there. It’ has everything I need, and I’m picturing scenes taking place in its many different areas, inside and out. At the time of this interview, they are still having meetings about whether to let me film there, so I’m checking my email every morning in hope. I’ll be gutted if it’s a ‘no’, but I also realise there’s a certain amount of rejection involved in this process. I’ll keep looking if that’s the case. But I do have a good feeling about this location.

E: Of your three projects so far, I think I’m right in saying that this is your first horror. Do you want to establish yourself as a horror filmmaker, or will you continue to explore different genres? What other film styles are on your personal bucket list?

T: Had I been asked this five years ago, I would’ve said that I just hope to establish myself as a filmmaker, period. But fantasy and high-concept films, especially sci-fi, will always be my choice. I wouldn’t want to categorise my self as a horror-only filmmaker, as I don’t live and breathe horror as much as other people. I’ll never make kitchen sink dramas or the kinds of ‘realistic’ films that don’t have a fantastical element to them. This one is, I think, one of a number of different genres that I would love to try. My first production The Black Room, was about the superhero genre, and Offworld was what I guess some would call hard sci-fi. This is two things – horror and comedy, so it scratches two particular itches. I was about to say I don’t know what I’d do after this one, but then I remembered that my PC has a folder of about 40 unmade projects and ideas that date back to 2007, and no two of them are the same. There aren’t any soaps, legal dramas or historical stories there – it’s all robots, aliens, monsters, superheroes and surreal trips.

E: Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy is a major influence on the film. What other horror-comedies really landed with you, and can you recommend any to our readers?

T: For my age group, An American Werewolf In London is the daddy of them all. When it came out in 1981, I was 11 years old and I was more terrified of it, but as you rewatch it over the years, you appreciate the dark comedy aspects. Perfectly balanced. I was never a fan of the Scream movies, as I felt that they were too heavy on the comedy, though I appreciate the impact of them at their time. Ghostbusters is a more successful one, as it’s primarily a comedy that uses horror elements, and I really love things like Bad Taste, Brain Dead, Tremors, Gremlins, The Evil Dead, Beetlejuice and of course Shaun Of The Dead. I’ve never seen any version of The Little Shop of Horrors – must remedy that – and I was left cold by Zombieland – not in a good way, though that was probably because of the cast more than the idea.

E: Bloody Students will be a low-budget feature. What have you learned about getting the most value from limited funds? And what advice would you give to other aspiring indie filmmakers?

T: From my last film which we shot in six days on under £10K, I learned a hell of a lot. Obvious things like meticulous preparation and contingency plans, but also the value of doing as much as humanly possible in camera. As soon as you start saying ‘ah, we’ll fix it in post,’ the time gets longer and the money begins to trickle away. I’m a lover of CGI, and post visual FX, but if you can do more in camera on the day, you’re saving yourself a lot of headaches down the line. Having a cast on board as early as possible so that they can rehearse and really know their lines, saved us. It’s the only way we were able to shoot ten to twelve scenes a day on the last film. This time, I’m aiming for a lot more shooting days, and a more ambitious budget – which will still be peanuts compared to your average low-budget film. But more money will make more things possible, and because I come from an art background, I have a lot of experience with costume, props and set building, and a lot of people I can call on to get these things made on a budget but still looking authentic and professional. I was browsing silicone masks from the US that would cost around $600-$700 to ship just one over here, but then I have a friend here in the UK who sculpts and casts his own silicone creature masks, so I’d rather pay a friend what he’s worth, and get more for my money. And finally – if it’s not seen up close in camera, fudge it. Save the money for the featured things, not the minutiae.

E: Lastly: how do you plan to get the film made, and what are your immediate next steps in the process?

T: After I get to a draft that I think is pretty much cast in stone, I’ll recruit my props team – many of which I’ve know for years – to start on all the museum dressing, props, and monster costumes et cetera. At the same time, I’ll start casting, to maximise their time with the script. This all gets thrown onto a large wall planner for 2022. I’ve used wall planners for over fifteen years and I find them invaluable, as I’m a visually orientated person, and like to see things like charts and plans right in front of me. I love browsing Instagram, where I can see and contact people who could help such as makeup artists, prosthetics artists and of course performers, who I can then contact and ask them if they’d be okay with the prospect of playing a horrifying monster under a mask or prosthetics for hours at a time! My immediate next steps as of today is to start getting the word out – the more people I can tell about this film, the more support I’ll get and the easier it will be to make the movie. I foresee myself visiting a lot of comicbook shops, conventions and similar events to spread the word, in an attempt to build up an interested following. I already have the butterflies in my stomach that I think all creative people feel at the start of an exciting project.

Many thanks to Terry for taking the time to answer our questions!

Picture of Ellis Reed

Ellis Reed

To pass the time during lockdown, I decided to write some English ghost stories, which you can read for free on my blog.

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