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Interview with Jeremy Wooding, director of Burning Men

Written by Simon Ramshaw.

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We had a chance to speak to Jeremy Wooding (Peep Show series 1, 'Blood Moon') about his new horror road-movie, Burning Men. Although in a similar spirit to many British folk-horrors before it, it is the first ‘multiple point-of-view’ feature film, in which the camera acts as many different characters throughout.

“When young musicians Ray (Ed Hayter) and Don (Aki Omoshaybi) are evicted from their South London squat, they decide to sell their preciouss vinyl collection and fly to Memphis in search of their destiny. Frustrated by the short fall in funds, they steal an ‘uber-rare’ Black Metal record at a Camden record fair and head out of town to sell it. As they drive north in their beaten-up Volvo Amazon, picking up hitchhiker Susie (Elinor Crawley) en route, they find themselves stalked by dark forces apparently unleashed by the ‘devil disc’ they have stolen.”

Simon Ramshaw: My first question is quite a simple one: how did the idea come about?

Jeremy Wooding: First of all, the idea for the story had been swimming around in my head for some years, simply because I used to run a vinyl record and CD store in Camden Market, and I got to know quite a few of the record dealers, and got to know what they were doing except just dealing in vinyl, which was mostly part-time. There were a couple of guys who were financing their life as wannabee musicians while also doing the record fairs and trying to sell vinyl. I thought they were interesting characters and that maybe there was a script in that. What was also interesting when chatting to ‘vinylists’ was that everyone was always looking for the ‘Jimi Hendrix’ that was worth -£5,000 or the white label that nobody else had got, so that also paid into the idea to do a film that was originally called Vinyl Junkies. It was about a couple of ‘vinylists’ who dealt vinyl and wanted to be musicians, which I co-wrote with Neil Spencer; we’d written shorts together and another feature film before this one. So we were walking across Hampstead Heath talking about this idea, and gradually, we wove together a story about these guys who steal a rare record and take to the road to sell it.

SR: So when you were talking about the story there, you didn’t say anything about this film’s visual style, so I was wanting to ask if that was something that came later, maybe after directing the first series of Peep Show?

JW: It did come later, and was informed by my experience working on Peep Show. It was always going to be shot in a handheld, guerilla style, because I knew if I was going to get this financed, it needed to be very low-budget, and we’d need to be pretty lean and mean on the road with a small cast and crew. It was going to be handheld in a more vert documentary style; I’m very influenced by and I’m a big fan of the French New Wave directors like Truffaut, and in the late 50s and early 60s, you didn’t have to go to film school, and you didn’t need a tripod. You just picked up the camera and you wrote a movie with the camera: caméra-stylo, as it was called then. So I was always fascinated by that DIY, ‘can-do’ approach, and that’s sort of where I come from in filmmaking. So the ‘POV’ visual approach came later, after a couple of attempts to get the film financed. Somebody in the industry said to me: “You’ve got to make this script stand out. You’re a great visual stylist of whatever you’ve done: can you give it a little something different that nobody else would do?” That sat with me for a little while, and I thought I’d always wanted to make a POV movie; maybe if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it!

SR: Good for you for taking the plunge!

JW: It definitely did feed into that idea of doing it cheaply and not having an awful lot of equipment. As it turns out, this is the first of its kind; nobody else has done a ‘multiple point-of-view’ movie. The only people who have done it otherwise have been the creators of Peep Show on TV. So in that spirit of French New Wave and of doing something different, I took the plunge and, for better or worse, we’re now starting to get audience reactions. Some people really go for it, other people don’t get it; it’s a bit of a Marmite movie. Generation-wise, younger audiences seem to understand it far more, and I wonder if that’s something to do with ‘POV’ as a visual language being far more current for them than it is for an older generation. The actual ‘POV’ angle first began when I was working on Peep Show, where I was researching the silent era and was researching when the first ‘POV’ shots happened, and it was pretty damn early; in 1901 and 1903, people were using point-of-view shots, often through a keyhole or down a telescope. It was quite innovative at the time, but they’d always have a side-shot to show what that person was doing.

SR: The thing is, that’s not even the type of thing that you get much nowadays, where something fully commits to ‘POV’. There’s only a couple of movies off the top of my head that completely take place within that visual space.

JW: Yeah, there’s a couple of recent examples of ‘single POV’, like Maniac (2012), which is through the eyes of a serial killer. And of course Hardcore Henry (2015), and gosh, that’s an action movie and a half! The beginning of Enter the Void (2009) is really interesting too.

SR: Ah yes, where his spirit rises out of his body?

JW: Yeah, that sort of ‘bird’s-eye-view’, out-of-body experience happens in Burning Men as well, although that didn’t come from Enter the Void, it came from Rumble Fish (1983) from the scene where Matt Dillon leaves his own body. A friend of mine also had an out-of-body experience at a football match after being knocked over, and that just seemed like a great framework for the narrative of the film.

SR: We’ve talked quite a lot about the visuals, but the film also has an interesting sound design. For example, I think I heard some bird song being remixed at one point? Would I be right in thinking that?

JW: You may have been right in that! The sound designer did some quite amazing things; reversing sounds, etc. The whole sound design uses lots of different things like music and car noises, but silence is the most important thing. I learned that from making Blood Moon (2014), which is a western set in a saloon. Lots of floorboards creaking, but the tension was silence. So when you get out in the country and you’re standing in a field with a scarecrow, you don’t hear any traffic, just crows.

SR: It’s so isolated even though it’s so open.

JW: Yes, indeed. And with that, juxtaposed to the city, all banging and fast cutting, and then suddenly, you’re out in the countryside and you’ve suddenly left your old life behind and you’re into, like you say, a more isolated experience.

SR: I know you were talking about Truffaut and the silent era earlier, but were there any particular movies that inspired you to make Burning Men? Any British folk-horror movies maybe?

JW: I loved what Ben Wheatley did with A Field in England (2013). It didn’t inspire me so much, but it kind of felt like a fellow traveler. The ones that Neil (Spencer, co-writer) and I connected with were Easy Rider (1969) and Y Tu Mamá También (2001) on the road movie side of things. On the supernatural horror front, it was Jacob’s Ladder (1990).

SR: Nice! I can definitely see that with the creature design of the ghosts in Burning Men, with their blurred faces.

JW: Within the demonic spectrum, faceless people come up a hell of a lot, right back to Victorian photography. So when we were choosing our demons, which are all within our lead Ray’s head, the faceless were almost there to just taunt him, saying “Don’t be faceless; be someone! Be a rock star!” But also, they were villains who were yet to emerge, like people who were threatening him who he didn’t recognise. The burning scarecrows? That’s Ray in Purgatory, or in Hell, in his head, along with burning crosses and that type of iconography as well.

SR: Good stuff. I just wanted to say that I am from Newcastle, and it was nice to see it on the big screen, and as a kid, I used to go to Lindisfarne every single year on holiday, so it was a nice reminder that I need to go back. Was it always the idea that the film would finish in the most northern place of England?

JW: Initially, it just finished in Newcastle, and when we rewrote the script after a couple of years, it felt like we needed to extend it because there was still stuff that needed to be worked out. There’s a really interesting stretch of land in between Newcastle and Lindisfarne going over the moors, and it has a real isolated, stark beauty. Ditto when you reach the causeway over to Lindisfarne. You probably went there with lots of tourists around, but sometimes, there’s not a lot of people around. It’s quite bleak, but also magical. Once we decided to extend it to Lindisfarne, we started researching the place, and we came across this pilgrimage across the causeway that happens at Easter where people carry large wooden crosses. That’s an actual thing that takes place, so it worked its way into the script as our trio’s cover to get across the causeway without Micky (the villain) seeing them. But going back to Newcastle, it was really fab shooting there and I’d love to do a whole movie there, because visually, it’s just stunning, with the bridges, the pubs. I mean, the Crown Posada? What a great pub!

SR: [laughs] Yes, it’s a little doorstop of a pub, isn’t it?

JW: Totally! And the people were great. We had such a great time there. The fact that you can actually shoot in the centre of town without being run over by mad lorry drivers like in London is great too. The way it changes from week to weekend is quite shocking, but also quite absorbing.

SR: Yes, the Bigg Market definitely undertakes some sort of monstrous transformation at night!

JW: We actually filmed down there, but it was an isolated sequence on its own where Ray gets lost in this sort of Shangri-La, Easy Rider-style scene, but it didn’t really belong, it was too stand-alone, so it hit the cutting room floor. We are going to be screening by the way in Whitley Bay. I didn’t know it existed, but since we’ve put the film out there, we’re going to be screening there for a week. People always go “Whitley Bay’s a great place, it’s really funky, and the new cinema’s great!” So I’m looking forward to that.

SR: One very simple final question: what is next?

JW: Maybe a return to the horror genre: a potential ghost story. It would be like getting stuck into a creature feature like Blood Moon, as you start becoming obsessed by what you could do with ghosts and creatures and tension and jump scares and things like that. It’s a lot harder than people think to do well. I’d like to nail it a bit more with that.

SR: Sounds good. Any other final points you’d like to make?

JW: Working with these young actors, these fairly unknown rising star actors, all in their 20s, was such a great experience, just being on the road with them, and passing the script through their filter and having them improvise a bit and make it their own was great. The script comes from a couple of old guys basically, and although we started writing it 10 years ago, it’s not a couple of people in their 20s writing it. So it was important that they did their own writing as well, and that was a real joy to see them do that.

Burning Men is released in select cinemas on 1st March, with a regional tour across the country. See here for more information.

This article was published on February 24, 2019.