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An Interview with Owen Tooth, Director of Devil's Tower

by Mike Haberfelner

January 2015

Films directed by Owen Tooth on (re)Search my Trash


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Your new movie Devil's Tower - in a few words, what is it about?


Devil's Tower is about a girl getting thrown out of the frying pan into the fire! She escapes a brutal life at home, but ends up in a haunted flat block where people are being killed and controlled by a malevolent spirit.


How did the project fall together in the first place?


I’d worked with Adam J. Marsh (writer) on several short films and we decided it was time to work on a feature. We were inspired by recent news stories about people dying in their apartments in heavily populated buildings, but remaining undiscovered for years, sat in front of their TV sets. Adam had been wanting to explore the idea of a haunting in a modern setting rather than a gothic mansion and it just grew quite organically from there.

Once we’d got the script together, Adam and the producer of the film, Dominic Burns were drinking together (read: off their faces) and Dom suggested he produce one of Adam’s scripts. He saw several of my shorts written by Adam at a festival, and the rest is history.


What can you tell us about your Devil's Tower's writer Adam J. Marsh, and what was your collaboration like?


Adam’s a great writer to work with. He’s full of ideas and was as excited about the film as I was. We both came to the script with bags of thoughts and suggestions and spent a long time seeing which ideas worked and which didn’t, where the film’s moral compass was, how to get exposition across and so on. Adam was definitely the writer – I don’t take a co-writer credit – my input would be after each draft was completed. I’d love some elements and tear others apart, we’d argue lots and then talk about how to fix the problems. Rinse and repeat.


What can you tell us about your directorial approach to your story at hand? And since this is your first feature - how does compare directing a feature length movie to making shorts?


I thought directing a feature would be about eight times the effort of making a ten minute short. That adds up, right? But I couldn’t have been more wrong, the time, heartache and drive needed was exponentially more than any short film I’ve ever worked on. There were times when the pressure felt strong enough to break me!

There were other big differences too: when I direct a short film, I can do whatever I want – I’m just aiming for festivals. But with a feature, you’re using other people’s money and suddenly you need to make a film that works not for festival audiences, but the wider public.

It means that you have to fight a lot harder for any risky or experimental elements you want in the film. With a short, I’d direct it, edit it and submit it to festivals. With a feature, there’s so much riding on getting a distributor attached: if it doesn’t sell, it means it’s a failure. I had to learn about the process of selling a movie and take it to Cannes with Dom the producer to show it to distributors and sales agents. It’s a complex world to learn about.

The film’s audience pay the same ticket price to see a tiny independent next-to-no-budget horror as they do to see the latest in the Bond franchise with more than 2,000 times the budget (no exaggeration). It meant I had to think very differently about how to make the film interesting and enjoyable to people who are used to seeing a lot more money go into a film.

My approach to directing was to keep a keen eye on the flow of the story, making each scene bring a new emotion and a new goal for the cast.


With Roxanne Pallett and Jason Mewes, Devil's Tower has two pretty high profile leads - so what was it like to work with them, and how did you get them even?


Jason was surprisingly easy to get actually. I’d never tried casting a name actor before. When we approached his agent, Jason said he was interested, we negotiated a deal and suddenly we had him attached to the film! I love Kevin Smith’s films and Jay is so full of energy on screen, we knew he’d be great and we wanted to see him in a different role to ‘Jay’.

He was fantastic fun on set, too – limitless energy, always excited to try different things out and really focussed on the part. I think he’s a great actor and he could take on far more roles than comedy if he wanted to – although comedy is one hell of a challenge.

Roxanne we auditioned for a smaller part but we were so impressed that we offered her the lead role. She was utterly committed to the character from start to finish, always going the extra mile and taking a beating in the process. Sarah is a complex part to play and Roxanne was just a perfect fit.


What can you tell us about the rest of your key cast, and why exactly these people?


We auditioned all the roles and saw so many faces. Eddie Webber was perfect for the caretaker and I defy anyone to deliver ‘bugger off’ in a more caring way than he does in the movie!

Jessica Jane Stafford was an important role to cast as she really has to lift the film’s sadder moments: her character is just so airy and funny and we needed someone who could totally let go and throw herself into the part. Jessica’s a great actress and I can’t wait to see what she does next in her career.

Frances Ruffelle turned up to the first audition just to tell us she didn’t have time to audition for the part of Sarah’s mother and then left! It was such a shock to hear that in an audition that Dom was intrigued and we asked her back for the next round, where she was amazing. Frankie is just a wonderful person and immensely talented – she’s a fantastic singer, too.


I think one of the key assets of Devil's Tower is its location - so how did you find it, and what were the advantages and challenges filming there?


The key location was something that nearly destroyed the movie! We started the shoot in the perfect location, which was a bank’s headquarters which had an unused wing that looked seriously creepy. They also had some houses on site we could shoot in, a rooftop and a load of other spaces. We built sets in there and kept our camera gear inside overnight because it was so secure.

On day 4, we arrived and found that we were locked out. It transpired that a member of crew (quite an important one – soon to be fired) had conned security into giving him a security card to gain access into the rest of the building and had stolen a car load of computer kit! They wouldn’t let us back in to finish the film, or even get our kit back. Eventually – and Jason Mewes was in an aeroplane heading toward us at this moment – we convinced them to let us in for long enough to grab our kit, props, costumes and some of the sets.

It was an 18 day shoot, so we had to scramble to find a new location to shoot in and managed to convince a warehouse owner to let us use his space to build a set which we had to do overnight. Some of the scenes we had to shoot facing in one direction down the corridor only because the other side hadn’t been built yet!

For the building’s stairs, we went to a pay & display car park and shot there, and for the exteriors of the tower we filmed an empty hospital building. The other locations were shot around Derby wherever we could find to shoot at zero notice. The lift was made from scratch by the production design team!

The bank had let us use the locations for free and suddenly we found ourselves having to pay for all the locations we needed, and having to buy materials to make the sets and so on, so besides wasting four days of the 18 day shoot with a lot of the footage having to be scrapped as it didn’t match the new location, it also cost our entire post production budget to resolve.

The fact the film was completed at all is a testament to the production team, who somehow managed to keep things moving while this was all going on.


What can you tell us about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?


The shoot, after being thrown out of the key location, was manic. A whirlwind. Because of the time lost with having to reshoot so much from the previous location, it went from an ambitious schedule to an insane one and the cast and crew all had to pull together to make it happen. The atmosphere on set was great fun, though. We all knew we were fighting against the clock to get the film completed and although it was utterly exhausting, we all laughed our way through it.


A few words about critical and audience reception of your movie so far?


It’s been great actually. It’s been brilliant for me to read reviews by people who love the film, and people who really get it – who can see where it’s coming from and what it’s aiming for. There have been people who hate it, which is fair enough – every film out there has someone who hates it – but the reaction has been hugely positive and I’ve seen it with audiences at several screenings now and felt incredibly proud because of their reactions.


Any future projects you'd like to share?


It’s too early to say anything specific, but I’ve two scripts I’m pushing at the moment. One is a fantastic horror comedy which I laugh my way through every time I read it. The other is a supernatural horror; I really want to nail that slow build of tension throughout a film and leave the audience petrified.


What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?


I saved up for a beaten up camcorder when I was around 11 and used to make loads of films and animations with my friends which I’d edit in-camera. When I went to university, it was to study photography and creative writing, but there was a mix-up (the course had been cancelled… but they forgot to tell anyone!) and I ended up on the film making degree instead, which I got a first class honours for. The degree was very much aimed at making people into film artists, who would get films shown in galleries instead of cinemas. Really I learned about the process of making films after University on set as a VT operator and camera assistant on feature films and adverts, and as a director of my own films or directing photography on other people’s shorts, which I still love to do.


What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Devil's Tower?


I started out as a film artist, making poetry film which was always somehow set in a gothic fantasy world which felt like horror but didn’t play out like a horror film. All my films so far have made it into film festivals and I’ve always travelled wherever I could to introduce them. Seeing my films with audiences, I started to want to make films that would have a wider appeal but still carry my ideas of beauty, or my cinematic voice. My films have always remained experimental, but have slowly become more and more accessible.


Going through your filmography, one can't help but notice you never stray too far from horror - a genre at all dear to you, and why (not)?


As an audience member, I’ve always loved watching horror. I love being scared and I love the massive range within the horror genre. When you mention horror to someone who’s put off by the idea, they probably think of slasher movies or torture porn as it’s had a lot of press and that’s about it. But the genre is absolutely massive and carries some real masterpieces. I also think that horror travels well: I love horror films from every continent and love learning about a country’s culture from the fears represented on screen.

As a filmmaker, the world of horror and dark fantasy is just the closest representation on screen I can make of my inner thoughts. I think we all live in a different world in our heads, and all my thoughts play out in the worlds I put on screen.


How would you describe yourself as a director?


The way I work changes with each film as I learn more. I prefer to work collaboratively with the cast and crew to get the best out of them and I run a pretty friendly set. Some people direct like a dictator and that’s cool if they get a good film out of it, but what I love about film is the whole being bigger than the sum of its parts, and for me that means creating an atmosphere where each person can really invest themselves in their role and feel free to suggest a way to make things better.


Filmmakers who inspire you?


Right now, any filmmaker who has managed to complete a feature film is inspiring. I never knew how hard it was and the energy and dedication needed to bring something of that scale to completion is phenomenal, so I applaud anyone who’s managed it and come out alive at the other end.


Your favourite movies?


This changes daily! There’s just so many! This week I’m enjoying Lotte Reiniger’s films, last week it was Shaun of the Dead, Christmas Evil and Alien. I love my modern and classic movies – 70’s and 80’s British horror and giallo, I’m a huge fan of Robert Wise’s The Haunting and I adore Todd Browning’s Freaks.

Ringu scared the shit out of me at a time when I thought horror films had lost their power to frighten me, so it will always hold a special place in my heart, and The Crow was one of the movies that made me want to direct.

The Conjuring was a really strong horror, brilliantly paced, and What We Do in the Shadows was a pitch perfect horror comedy.


... and of course, films you really deplore?


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Right now it’s just films that waste money for the sake of it. I can’t stand it when the camera flies through a city and across a lake in 3D, through a window and then just shows some people having a conversation. If there’s a reason to be flashy, that’s fine – I thought Edge of Tomorrow was great – but it really bugs me when I see the entire budget of Devil's Tower blown in a couple of seconds of pointless showing off. Maybe I’d feel differently if I had those kinds of budgets to work with instead, but I hope not.


Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?


I’m on Twitter - @owentooth - and Facebook. I’m actually setting up a YouTube channel at the moment so that should be up and running with some cool content in the near future.


Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?


Supporting independent film is easy and makes a tangible difference – buy an indie on Blu-ray or DVD, tell your friends about it and if you like it, write a good review on Amazon or IMDb and share the trailer on social networks!

A few good reviews can mean a lot for a film which is trying to compete with Hollywood tentpoles and doesn’t have a penny to spend on advertising.


Thanks for the interview!


© by Mike Haberfelner

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Thanks for watching !!!



Robots and rats,
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Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

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a collection of short stories and mini-plays
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Your Bones to

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On the same day
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A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
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directed by
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written by
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out now on DVD