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An Interview with Ray Wilkes, Director of Molly Crows

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2013

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Your upcoming film Molly Crows - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Good question. It's primarily about revenge and how the sins of our fathers can come back to haunt us. But I focused on other issues like bullying and alcoholism too in the movie. The lead protagonist is bullied and her mother is an alcoholic desperately trying to cope with being a single parent. When I was young I was bullied and I have lived with an alcoholic so I used my personal experiences to full effect in the movie. This makes it hard hitting and gives it a sense of realism. Molly Crows isn't just about ghosts - it's about real life and how people in everyday life can become our demons.

 

Molly Crows sounds like quite an ambitious movie - so how did the project come into being to begin with?

 

The advice given to first-time feature directors is to keep it simple Ė one or two locations and a handful of actors. This is good advice. I didnít take it! We ended up with 30+ locations and a cast of 80. Then thereís that old chestnut ďNever work with children and animalsĒ Ė I cast a seven year old girl as the lead and we had about 20 children and enormous live crows flying around. To say I was punching above my weight is an understatement. But that was the film I wanted to make. The story inspired me, and nothing else was as satisfying as attempting this. But it was madness. I hit brick walls with it, got burned out at times, fell into pits of despair at times, you name it. But we did it, and we did it well I think.

However, attempting something this ambitious isnít as mad as it sounds on paper. The script was carefully researched and written, and the fact that the events and scenes HAD to unfold and appear in a particular way made it impossible to just junk an idea if it was proving difficult. In the absence of any funds whatsoever, we had to find creative solutions to problems and one way or another, make the film happen.

One thing Iím really glad I did was to write the script and then send it to horror fans all over the world for feedback. Horror fans donít have a reputation for being intelligent or articulate, but in my experience they are smart and cultured people. They can pick apart and analyse a film and tell you what they like, and more importantly, whatís wrong with it. People treat horror like a cheap thrill. The hardcore horror fans told me that wasnít what they wanted.

The feedback was that they were sick of gore films, and wanted a compelling story with a solid plot, good acting and, wait for it, GOOD DICTION! They wanted the characters to speak clearly and not mumble their lines. In short, they wanted all the attention and respect paid to a Ďseriousí film, but with horror and the supernatural as the main focus of the movie. I took all of this on board and adjusted the script accordingly. It would have been a very different movie without this fantastic feedback, and that is one of the things that kept me going when things seemed impossible.

 

Molly Crows is based on a true story from the 17th century, right? So what did you find so compelling about the story, how easy was it to transfer the story to modern times, and did you take many liberties with your source material?

 

Yes it is. It's a true story about a young woman bullied because of her deformities in the 18th century. Molly Leigh was a loner and she was different. In those days being different made you a target of suspicion and bullying. We take up this theme of bullying in the present-day part of the film.

There isnít a lot of source material on Molly Liegh, because she was a poor peasant woman from a small town, at a time when not a lot was written down. We know that she was branded a witch by the villagers, and we can understand why. She befriended a crow, and the local parson thought this was satanic and branded her a witch. After she died, things that went wrong in the town were blamed on her spirit. The villagers got sick and were vomiting, and they thought that Molly was taking revenge on them for treating her so badly.

What happened next was very strange Ė the clergy had her body exhumed and re-buried cross-wise in the middle of the night, North to South instead of East to West. They caught her crow companion and buried it alive inside her coffin.

In terms of passion for the story, I really felt for her and how badly she was treated, so I wanted to give her a voice. I took no liberties with the original story out of respect for the dead, and I knew that people would google it and check. Horror fans pay attention to such things. So the story is that her unquiet spirit comes back to both protect and to punish, as she was unable to do these things in her lifetime.

 

Besides the true story, what were your sources of inspiration when writing Molly Crows?

 

Inspiration for films has to come from a lot of sources, otherwise youíre just parroting whatís already been done. I get inspiration from everywhere - music, history, art, photography & real life as well as films.

When I came to make Molly Crows I knew that I needed structure for the ideas I was having. I chose several films to help me structure the script. One film I found helpful structure-wise was the movie Dead Man's Shoes by Shane Meadows. Itís a revenge film that is set in the midlands, and it contains flashbacks to past events. Watching this film and understanding how the flashback sequences connected a traumatic set of events in the past, to a present day situation, helped me to connect events hundreds of years ago with the present day. Another aspect of structure I found helpful in this movie was simply showing the plot unfolding vs using dialogue to present the plot. Good movies use both. Great movies like Dead Manís Shoes use both effortlessly. A mistake some first time directors make is to assume that this is easy, or to not think about them as two halves of the same thing. So watching this and other movies gave me the inspiration & motivation to structure the script properly. Weíve all felt inspired by a piece of art at one time or another, but to sit there and break it down and learn from it, and then do your own thing Ė I think thatís an honest way to hone your craft.

Lots of weird things happened while making the movie, strange coincidences and so on. It was particularly uncanny that one of the actors from Dead Manís Shoes also ended up in Molly Crows: George Newton - he contacted me and asked if he could be in it. It was perfect timing as we were just filming the flashback scenes. George turned up and I cast him as Lead Witchfinder. We had fantastic people and costumes in that scene, that all turned up out of the blue as we were in production. George provided the icing on the cake for that scene and for the movie as a whole.

 

How would you describe the look and feel of your movie?

 

The Sunday People film critic saw the trailer and wrote that it looked like it cost thirty million dollars, so I was happy with that. Itís visually very rich, with urban landscapes and rural vignettes and everything in between. Itís a character-based drama, and the faces of the actors are really the stars of the show, set against this broken, urban background and lonely rural landscape. We didnít need to do the obvious thing and show long, drawn-out shots of empty factories or spooky hills. Itís all there behind the characters, and that helps give the film a subtle high-production value look.

In terms of the feel of the film Ė itís tense. Every single scene is going somewhere. The tension doesnít let up.

I was also trying to reflect the lonely, sometimes hostile atmosphere that you sometimes get in small towns, particularly if youíre an outsider.

And finally, itís scary. Thereís a feeling of paranoia and looking over your shoulder that you start to share with the townspeople as you are watching the film. I wanted it to feel real and immediate, as if it could be anyoneís town. So we keep things raw and real as much as possible, whether itís a party scene or a scummy back alley or a childís bedroom. Things that are familiar can also be the most creepy.

 

With Molly Crows being a horror movie, how would you describe your approach to the genre (as in atmosphere vs all-out gore, sudden shocks vs subtle suspense)? And is horror a genre at all dear to you, and why (not)?

 

My primary aim with film making is to ENTERTAIN people. When I asked horror fans what they wanted from the movie it was plainly obvious. Yes they wanted to be scared, but for that to happen they needed a good story, good plot etc. So my approach primarily is to get the story right, create drama, take them on a journey THEN scare the hell out of them. So in many ways my approach is the opposite to somebody that makes an all-out gore-fest. Itís a different kind of journey.

There is a danger that too much atmosphere, or too much tension and build-up without a payoff can be boring and people will switch off from the story. We can all think of beautiful films that just go on and on and on with the tension, and then when something scary does happen, itís an anti-climax. I wanted a balance between atmosphere and a good old-fashioned scare. Horror fans want to be played with Ė they donít mind being led down blind alleys and made to think hard about the story and figure things out by themselves. But they resent cheap plot tricks and they resent being made to wait too long for the pay-off. Itís a difficult balance, I listened to a lot of opinions on this!

As for the look yes I do prefer atmosphere or psychological fear over gore. It is harder to pull off and takes longer but I like the process. I even like the gore, but I donít want to dismember the entire cast in the first ten minutes.

 

Do talk about your key cast and crew for a bit, and why exactly these people?

 

I originally wrote the part of Jess for a much older girl. Mercy Gaigerís mother put her forward. She was seven at the time, and much too young. Or so I thought. Sheís outstanding. Not just a great actress, not just a genuine horror fan, but a very together and determined little girl with supportive parents. I couldnít not cast her, and her presence just adds so much to the film.

As I have mentioned George Newton added a new depth to the witchfinders, but he was also supported by actors who specialise in playing medieval parts, and have all their own costumes that are 100% accurate. By the time we came to film we had a full cast of actors playing puritans, including a parson and team of evil witchfinders.

Another unexpected turn of events casting-wise was Samira Mohammed Ali. The actress that I originally cast for this role had to drop out at the last minute. When Samira put herself forwards, my first thoughts were that she was too glamorous for the role. Sheís a beauty with an exotic heritage, and I just didnít know whether she would fit easily into the role of an alcoholic single mother in a grim town of pasty-faced northerners! But she toned down the glamour and nailed it.

 

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

 

Well it took us about a year to film and I insanely started it without a crew. Luckily my actor/model friend that has worked on a number of projects with me - Layla Randle-Conde [Layla Randle-Conde interview - click here] suggested I meet with her cousin Phil Sykes early on. We hit it off immediately and he ended up working on the entire movie. It was only when people started to hear about the movie and the story that a crew formed organically around me. People heard about the movie and saw stills, and thought it was a big budget film. They would arrive on set find me and a sound guy. The crew I ended up with were jacks of all trades, and made me whatever I needed from exploding blood bags to dollies, rigs etc. I was very lucky to have them and I miss them very much. My main crew member on set was Phil Sykes, who was there pretty much from the start, and I owe him a lot for his assistance in making the movie.

 

The $64-question of course: When and where will the film be released?

 

Hopefully in 6-8 months as it's just having its premier. But we are not that bothered about the more commercial festivals Ė itís a cool indie British film and underground festivals are fine with us. People like the idea of the movie and they like the trailer, and they want to see it when it comes out. Itís had around 30K genuine (as in, we didnít buy 30 thousand fake hits like some unscrupulous promoters do) hits on YouTube without any paid advertising already. Itís all been word of mouth and goodwill from horror fans. So my plan is to send it to festivals that are more underground and then find a distributor that understands how to market a film of this nature.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

I have just been location scouting abroad for my next feature, and am talking with the locals about their legends and beliefs. Iím in the middle of a script synopsis to present to funding agencies. I canít say exactly what the movie is at this point, but I can tell you what it definitely isnít Ė weíre avoiding all the overblown clichťs Ė so no zombies, vampires or Ďfound footageí. The final script will be reviewed by both horror fans and locals before we even start. The country that has inspired this story is a dark and beautiful place, and its residents have treated me like a son while I was there. So I would like to thank them by bringing some of their culture to life on the big screen.

 

What got you into filmmaking to begin with, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?

 

I had no formal training at all. I grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, not a place really known for its investment in the arts.

My mother got me intro photography when she took me travelling around Europe. This was to try and keep me out of trouble, as I was hyperactive all the time. Taking photos doesn't pay and I tried artistic stuff but it never really gave me the buzz I needed. I tried many jobs and did ok but it was sheer desparation and a friend observing my troubles asked me: "If you could do whatever job you wanted would you do? I said "A filmmaker" and that was it. I just needed someone to believe in me. Calling yourself a filmmaker for the first time did seem rather silly to be honest. But then I got shortlisted for "Best Director" at a film festival for a short I made for £30. Thatís when the dream became real.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Molly Crows?

 

I made a short called Taxi Driver featuring a voice over from a poet and yellow cab driver from NYC. That got shortlisted for Best Director. Aside from that I've done music videos, shorts and web commercials for PR companies. But this is my first feature.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

Passionate! What's the point of directing if you're not in love with the art? I work very closely with actors to get what I need from them. I have been fortunate especially with Molly Crows to have a great cast. Samira Mohammed Ali in particular was wonderful. We had to recast the original part of the mother and Samira was parachuted in. Samira's smart and picks things up extremely fast. Perfect for indie film making.

 

Filmmakers who inspire you?

 

Spielbergís early stuff, Luc Besson, Hitchock, Shane Meadows and Jon Glazer.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

Jaws! I love the interplay of the characters on the boat, the music, and the psychology of fear. Leon Ė ďNo women no kids.Ē The Godfather, Shawshank Redemption - go Stephen King! Predator Ė ďIf it breathes we can kill it.Ē Man Bites Dog - I like French cinema and have learnt a lot from the French. Sexy Beast - legendary film.

 

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

 

I don't really deplore other films I just switch off. But one that annoyed me recently was The Serbian Film - I understand it's important to expand and challenge our minds but sorry guys - they crossed the line.

 

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

 

Feeling lucky ?
Want to
search
any of my partnershops yourself
for more, better results ?

The links below
will take you
just there!!!

Find Ray Wilkes
at the amazons ...

USA  amazon.com

Great Britain (a.k.a. the United Kingdom)  amazon.co.uk

Germany (East AND West)  amazon.de

Looking for imports ?
Find Ray Wilkes here ...

Thailand  eThaiCD.com
Your shop for all things Thai

Something naughty ?
(Must be over 18 to go there !)

x-rated  find Ray Wilkes at adultvideouniverse.com

Just Facebook for now - https://www.facebook.com/pages/Molly-Crows-The-Movie/113795658686195 

 

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

 

Yes before filming I was asleep when I woke to see an old woman dressed in black sitting on my chest staring at me. I'm not lying about this and I donít believe in ghosts, and if anyone who tells me they do I usually think they're talking rubbish. But there she was and I couldnít move in my bed. She didnít move either - she just stared at me. The next morning I called a friend who's into witchcraft who I was working with on the script. I blatantly asked her what she'd done, whether she'd cast a silly spell or something - I was convinced I'd seen a ghost! I was scared and just talking about it now scares me. She had no idea what I was talking about and she explained what I'd experienced was sleep paralysis. Itís just of those things that I thought well do I tell you or not? So there it is. I'm going with the sleep paralysis version of events.

Finally a sincere thank you to all the horror fans that reviewed the script, the fans that are following the movie and my awesome cast and crew. By the time we'd finished we had an army of people who came together to make something they truly believed in. We've stayed in contact and we're all a bit depressed since filming has stopped. The film itself is merely the outcome of an amazing journey we all went on and will never forget.

SHOWTIME!

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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written by
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