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The making of Dark Horse
Born in 1952, I started making films in 1970. For twenty years I entered the Ten Best competition and got a Gold Star a couple of times but never quite made it into the top ten. After a fifteen year gap I returned to filmmaking in 2005 and I've been entering films for BIAFF since 2008, usually gaining 3 and 4 star awards. At last this year I hit the heights with a 5-star award for Dark Horse. Thrillers have always been my favourite genre, having been enthralled by the films of Alfred Hitchcock from an early age, and Dark Horse is a 25-minute suspense thriller inspired by true events.
In the 1980s there was a widely reported murder case in Worcestershire, involving a woman who stabbed her fiancÚ to death and then claimed there had been a road rage attack. I read up about this case on the internet and discovered some interesting information about what happened after she was released from prison fourteen years later. For Dark Horse I changed all the names of the people involved and invented scenes involving a police officer tipping off the woman's new boyfriend about her violent past.
Having worked out the storyline scene by scene, I decided to write the script with my old friend Vaughan Williams (not the composer!) who has acted in several of my films (including Too Bad, a 3-star film at this year's BIAFF). I've given Vaughan the sole credit for the script as my name appears too many times in the credits already.
Once the script was written it was time to sort out the casting. The main characters are 'Tricky Vicky' aka Sadie (the killer), Joey (the murder victim), Phil (a married man who has an affair with Sadie after she's been released from prison), Sarah (Phil's wife), and two unnamed police officers.
I invited a group of actors for a read-through of the script. I'd already come across a highly talented writer/actor/director Mark Anthony Games in 2013, and he appeared briefly in the speed-dating scene of last year's 4-star film Face/Book. (Mark was also a BIAFF judge this year.) He's a great, natural actor and I wanted him to play Phil, with his real-life partner Kirsty Baxter (an experienced actress) playing his wife Sarah. Both Mark and Kirsty are on the website Star Now (www.starnow.com) which is a wonderful resource for finding actors who usually either work for nothing or just for travelling expenses. For the leading female part of Tricky Vicky/Sadie, I'd provisionally chosen a very good am-dram player whom I'd spotted at a local theatre. An actor named Simon Hawkins had played alongside her in the play I saw, and I invited him to play Joey the murder victim. Simon has registered on the website Casting Call Pro (www.castingcallpro.com/uk)and has had a wealth of experience in plays and films. The cast would be completed with Stuart Wishart and a regular actor in my films, Martin Salter, playing police officers. Both Stuart and Martin are members of the Blakedown Amateur Dramatics company known as Theatre 282 (www.theatre282.com) and Stuart teaches acting as a profession.
The read-through seemed to go very well, but it ended with a bombshell. The actress who had read the part of Tricky Vicky aka Sadie turned the part down flat, as it involved swearing and a sex scene. Her decision to decline the role was understandable, as she's a schoolteacher - I hadn't known that in advance - and it wouldn't have done her teaching career any good if any of her pupils or colleagues had seen the completed film! Once she'd made her departure, Kirsty volunteered to take over the role of Tricky Vicky, and I recast the role of wife Sarah with Vaughan's niece Ruth Williams. She's tried and trusted, having given really good performances in three previous films including last year's I'll Scream.
I decided for the first time to use the 2.40:1 format to give Dark Horse a more cinematic look. I filmed in the usual 16:9 format, but in the editing I masked off 13% of the picture area at the top and bottom. Then, for every shot, I made sure that the framing was as good as it could be, moving the image area up or down within the 2.40:1 space as appropriate. I saw a film recently where such adjustments hadn't been done and there were frequent shots with the top half of the actors' heads missing.
The film starts with my usual logo of me puffing away at a cigar, with my initials H-S appearing in the corner. Some people might think this is a sign of an ego-trip or conceit, and perhaps even a nod to a certain Master of Suspense, but the fact is that I like to put my 'signature' at the start in this way whatever anybody thinks of it.
Following the credit sequence, the film opens with a blazing row between Tricky Vicky and her fiancÚ Joey in Joey's car. As this was a flashback to events from at least fifteen years ago, I was fortunate that Simon Hawkins who plays Joey had recently bought an old Porsche, which was perfect for the scene. I filmed the argument in the moving car four times in total, with different camera set-ups. Firstly I mounted both of my cameras (Canon Legria HFG10) onto the half-open passenger side window using clamp camera mounts, then the driver's side window; following that, I used sucker camera mounts to film from the dashboard and from the rear car window. I switched on the image stabiliser setting for all shots in this scene. Having used two cameras with four set-ups, I ended up with eight different viewpoints to play around with in the editing. This is the way I work - I never do storyboarding. In the whole process of making a film, the editing gives me the most satisfaction, assembling a scene instinctively from the wealth of material I've shot.
The next scene jumps forward to the present day where we see Phil and his work colleague Sadie (Tricky Vicky under a new name). We see them at their workplace tidying up in a lecture theatre, and we're immediately aware that they're flirting with each other. This was filmed at Worcester University where Mark and Kirsty are students studying film production. For the filming of this scene I had no assistant of any kind, which didn't cause me a problem as I do all my own photography and sound recording as well as directing the actors. I like to remain as much as possible a 'one-man-band' so that whatever the film turns out like, I can take the blame or the credit! For this scene I attempted some sideways tracking shots mounting the cameras onto a mobility scooter, but the shots were unusable as the carpet had ridges on it and the footage was far too bumpy. One day I must invest in a slider and/or some kind of dolly on tracks.
Sound and Location Issues
Sound recording throughout filming was done simply with camera-mounted RODE microphones, but many scenes were re-recorded in a way I'll describe later. I hope that most viewers can't detect which scenes use the original sound and which are re-recorded.
There are extensive scenes in a pub and the gents' toilet. Mark has frequently used a pub in Worcester called Coppertops for his own films, and I was fortunate enough to have the use of the lounge bar for filming for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, along with a toilet off the function room. The landlady was good enough to exclude regular customers from those areas, and all it cost me was the price of the drinks for the people involved. I recruited friends and family as extras, and if you don't blink you'll spot me very briefly as the barman. Logistically this scene was difficult to film, as in the scene we have Sadie and Phil at one end of the lounge bar, and two police officers at the other end. We must have filmed this bar scene from start to finish at least ten times from almost every conceivable angle, and for some set-ups my wide-angle 0.2x lens came in very handy to capture the whole scene, though I used these shots sparingly in the editing. With regard to lighting, I always use whatever light is available, which surprises many people. I don't own or use any lighting equipment. With regard to colour, in this scene I deliberately intensified the colour grading on shots of Sadie to give her make-up a more 'tarty' look which was intentional. Unfortunately this can lead to judges criticising problems with colour balance, as was the case here!
A scene takes place in the pub toilets, where one of the police officers tips off Phil (played by Mark) about the fact that his girlfriend served fourteen years in jail for murder. At the start of this scene, in a preview version of the film which I showed to the actors, Mark was seen standing at the urinal with a finger sticking out by his trousers to add 'realism'. I soon realised that it was a mistake to show this - at the preview I had to pause the film to wait for the uproarious laughter to die down. In the final cut, I zoomed in on the shot in question to eliminate the offending digit.
During this sequence we see flashbacks to the brutal murder which took place fifteen years previously. Tricky Vicky is seen repeatedly stabbing Joey to death with a screwdriver in a remote country lane. I drove around the local miles for over an hour trying to find a suitable location for filming, and we ended up doing it in a quiet lane which leads up to a farmhouse where friends of mine live. At least I thought it would be quiet, but on that Sunday afternoon in question, I couldn't believe how many passers-by went up that wretched lane, and we had to stop and start filming again and again. I learned later that many of these people would have been visiting their horses in the nearby fields (including at least one dark horse!) Anyway, we finally managed to wrap up the scene but it took twice as long as it should have done.
In the story, the policeman's warning to Phil has the opposite effect from that intended. Far from being fearful for his safety, Phil seems to get a kick out of being associated with the one-and-only 'Tricky Vicky'. I'm always pleased if the audience laughs at the line delivered by Phil to his wife Sarah, "Who'd have thought I'd be working with a celebrity?"
In the domestic sequences, I think that Mark and Ruth give really convincing performances as an unhappily married couple who have a spectacular lack of rapport. As in several of my previous films, I've used my own house as their home, which is obviously very convenient. In truth, Ruth isn't always as word-perfect as the other actors during filming, and consequently needs frequent prompting, but I film so much material that I'm able to cobble it all together in the editing to make her look like a great actress!
Late at night in the story, when Phil sends a sexy text to Sadie's phone, I use the now frequently-used technique of showing the text on screen. As Phil is supposed to be sleepy and finding it difficult to concentrate, I deliberately got him to make some spelling and grammatical mistakes in the text message to make it more realistic.
Phil visits Sadie the next morning at her own home on a pre-arranged visit. Phil reveals to Sadie that he knows about her past, and the scene progresses to a daringly explicit naked sex session. Mark and Kirsty were prepared to go the extra mile here, and it helped obviously that they are partners in real life. I was prompted to film this scene more realistically than is usual in an amateur film by the BIAFF judges' comments for my 4-star film from last year, CONCEPTION: they asked, "Why weren't the lovers naked? Their relationship was based purely on lust." One thing's for sure - that comment wasn't going to be made with regard to Dark Horse. But one judge did comment that there was some "over-exposure in more ways than one"! I promised the actors that I would show them the way I'd cut this scene for their approval, and they were both happy with my edit. There are no full-frontals, which none of us wanted!
Phil goes jogging to and from Sadie's place, and we spent about an hour filming the jogging in Worcester, mainly alongside the River Severn. I sell mobility scooters for a living, and the top-of-the-range Quingo Toura came in very handy for these sequences. While Kirsty stood on the scooter and operated it at speeds up to 8mph, I sat on the seat facing backwards doing the filming hand-held. I tend only to do hand-held camerawork when I need to, preferring most of the time to use tripods. I'm not a fan of extensive wobbly camerawork so prevalent in films such as the Bourne series.
In a small number of scenes it has to look as if Phil has been driving a car to and from home. The problem with that was that Mark can't drive! To get over this, I usually showed him simply having arrived at his destination and getting out of the car. Only in one sequence do we see him driving off, and (hopefully) nobody will ever be able to make out that it was actually me in the driving seat!
With regard to the soundtrack, while I used the original sound for selected scenes. more than half of the dialogue sequences were re-recorded and Foley effects created and added. This includes the whole of the pub and toilet sequence where the original sound couldn't possibly have been used. My way of doing the re-recorded dialogue is simple but effective and I feel I've perfected the technique. I break up the lines of dialogue into separate phrases unless the sentences are short already; I then prepare a DVD where we hear each phrase three times in succession, and then the actor has to repeat the phrase for re-recording with exactly the same rhythm. I have a good ear and can usually tell if the actor hasn't quite got it right, in which case he or she has another attempt. I also record about thirty seconds of silence to fill in the gaps between phrases and sentences with the same background ambience, so that you can't hear the joins. In the editing, when I'm synching up the newly recorded dialogue, if it turns out that an actor delivered his line too slowly or quickly, I can expand or contract the words very slightly without changing the pitch, and by trial and error I get it spot-on.
My editing software since 2005 has been Pinnacle Studio, and I used version 15 for editing Dark Horse. Pinnacle Studio does everything I want it to do, and I shall stick with it. I hope to upgrade to version 18 later this year which apparently has some extra useful features such as easy Blu-ray authoring and wide-angle barrel distortion correction.
In addition to the 5-star award I've also won one of the music sponsors' prizes, the EMI Music Award. As for several of my most recent films, to create my original music score I've used fantastic, amazing software called Magix Music Maker. There are many discs available in the Magix range and you don't have to be an expert musician to be able to use this technology. The discs contain hundreds of sound-bites and musical phrases from virtually all the musical instruments you can think of, and countless percussion beats in all kinds of musical styles. The sounds can be dragged and dropped and overlaid onto a series of parallel lines in virtually an unlimited number of ways. With patience and practice it's perfectly possible, as I've done in Dark Horse, to time each piece of music exactly to fit the scene in question. I can't recommend Magix Music Maker highly enough.
Production for Dark Horse started at the beginning of June 2014, and most filming took place on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons over a period of about 8 weeks. The actors gave their all, and I feel that technically this is as good a film as I'm capable of making with the equipment I currently have. I hope audiences will be entertained and gripped by the storyline right up to the last poignant and dramatic shot which is held as a freeze-frame over the end credits.
- by Howard-Smith AACI