The Horror Channel Movie Of The Month is Drew Cullingham‘s bloody brilliant Umbrage: The First Vampire, which is broadcast on Friday 22 June. The film stars legendary British actor Doug Bradley and concerns an unscrupulous antique dealer’s ancient mirror that serves as a portal for shadowy beings to be unleashed into the night with a thirst for blood.
Drew talked with us about his outstanding directorial debut and his plans for the future.
Q: How did you start in the movie business?
Drew Cullingham: Slowly! There was a time when all the things I take for granted now, all the people (actors and crew) and all the facilities and so on, were a faraway dream. I worked a little in TV, mostly filming food related VTs for live shows, and I cut my teeth bit by bit on a few short films.
Of course even then I was begging, borrowing and stealing in terms of kit and so on. Well, not stealing, obviously! It was a useful testing ground though, as both in the TV jobs and in the short films I was almost doing the directing by default, because I was doing everything else!
I believe a director should know one end of a camera from the other, and understand how sound works, how long make-up can take to do, basic editing etc. Of course I would say that, because I’ve worked most aspects of filming! The biggest step was to become a proper producer, and to actually decide to helm a feature. That was scary, because it meant going out looking for real money, and actually employing a full crew. It was pretty much a leap of faith really. I scraped together a little budget for Umbrage, and the rest just followed on, sometimes easily and sometimes not!
Q: Have you always been a big fan of horror movies?
Drew Cullingham: Absolutely. Not just movies either. I was a voracious reader when I was younger, and my parents were actually quite strict in terms of how much TV I could watch, so I used to hide beneath the covers at night with a torch and a pilfered James Herbert novel or something similar. Before long I was an avid fan of Clive Barker and Edgar Allen Poe. I also was ‘of age’ in the mid 1980s. When I say ‘of age’ I mean that age when you are very impressionable and watch things you are far too young to watch!
And as we all know, the 80s were chock full of what are now absolute classic horror films. Freddie Krueger, Jason, Mike Myers, Chucky, Pinhead (of course) – the list goes on of the nasties that stalked my boyhood dreams. Jaws was for me, as for so many people, a seminal work too. Fear has always fascinated me, as a potent force, not even just in terms of horror movies, but generally as a governor of our lives. A lot of horror movies just plug straight into that primal emotion, which is something I think should be faced and conquered.
Q: Where did the idea for Umbrage: The First Vampire come from? Were you inspired by any other vampire movies?
Drew Cullingham: I’ve always been a vampire fanatic. At one point I think there were hardly any vampire films I hadn’t seen, until Twilight probably! One of my other great teenage romances was with Hammer films, and the vampire ones were always the best. Granted, there may have been an adolescent yearning for those heaving bosoms and a teenage boy’s desire to have the same command over them as Christopher Lee’s Dracula. But it’s no secret – there is something unashamedly sexy about vampires. The main birth of Umbrage though, was the cowboy-vampire figure, Phelan. I had for some time been carrying this character around in my head.
We’re like big kids, us filmmakers, really: it’s like I had these two favourite toys, horror and western, and I just wanted to mash them together. It’s not completely original, I know, but I just wanted to cross a cowboy with a vampire. Vampires can sometimes be a little effete, but add a gruff cowboy veneer to that and you have a whole different kettle of fish.
Of course when you have an (anti)hero like that – you need some kind of adversary. I kind of stumbled across the whole Lilith thing through a number of sources, and always like the idea of strong females in stories, so the rest just fell into place. And while you’re being playful like that, what more obvious scenario to have as a backdrop than a dysfunctional family in the middle of nowhere?!
Oddly enough though, despite my love of vampire films and mythology, I kind of ignore a lot of conventions in this film. The word ‘vampire’ is never used, though it comes playfully close at one point. There are no crosses, no garlic, no bats, and no traditional way of killing them.
Q: Doug Bradley has won rave reviews for his role in the movie, how did you go about casting him?
Drew Cullingham: Doug was such an obvious choice to top the wish-list really. In terms of horror icons, he and Robert Englund are the only people to have played the same character eight times! As a homegrown talent, that makes Doug the UK’s most iconic horror actor. Add to that my own love of Clive Barker’s work, and it became a no brainer really. Pinhead was, to me, one of the most genuinely fearsome creations ever to walk the screen. There was just something so damn relentless about Hellraiser. It was true horror. As to how he ended up being cast… mercifully it was fairly straightforward.
I contacted his agent, he read the script, expressed an interest, and we met up. We went for a pint at Victoria station, and I had to get the whole fanboy thing out of the way quickly. After that we just got on. Whatever I said, it must have given him enough confidence in me that he agreed to do the film. And boy, was I thrilled.
Q: Was the rest of the movie easy to cast?
Drew Cullingham: Jonnie Hurn (Phelan) had been cast from an early stage. I pretty much knew he would play Phelan just from talking to him, which is odd, since he’s not Irish, nor a vampire or a cowboy. It was just one of those moments where you see something with complete clarity. I also met Grace Vallorani that same and was impressed with her, so she became a fairly obvious choice for Lauren. I already knew James Fisher and Scott Thomas, and they just kind of clicked with me as a double act.
Rita actually answered a casting call for Lilith, but when I’d spoken to her for a while I had to tell her I just didn’t see her as being right for that part, but would she be interested in auditioning for the lead, Rachel. That was the toughest part to cast, and I made poor Rita read three times I think. Rachel has a pretty nasty backstory that isn’t fully explored in the film, but I wanted it to be in the character. Rita nailed it too. Even when she was freezing cold (boy, was it cold – and her costume wasn-t the warmest!) she did a great job.
Q: Did you have much of a budget to play with?
Drew Cullingham: Not at all. And if it hadn’t been for the generosity of so many people, we would never have made what we made. For example, James Friend, the DOP, brought his own RED Camera and shot the film for free. We had to spend some money, obviously, on locations, lights, the 35mm camera that we used for a couple of days for the wild west stuff etc. But so much came for free or ridiculously cheap. Fuji did us seriously proud with film stock, all the cast and crew worked for little or nothing, even Movietech and Panalux gave us spectacular deals on grip and lighting kit.
Of course, it helped shooting in winter, but still – there’s a lot of people I will be grateful to for as long as I live! Not least the folks invested what budget we did have. The film was entirely funded by private investment, so do these folks a favour and go out and buy the DVD as well as watch it on the Horror Channel!
Q: The movie is the Horror Channel’s Film Of The Month, you must be pleased about that?
Drew Cullingham: Of course I am. I am thrilled to bits about it! Umbrage was my first full length feature film as a director, and any feature film is an ordeal to make, from the conception of the idea through the filming and the ardours of post-production. I am a cinephile, and a lover of horror films, so in any way being able to contribute to the canon is a thrill to me. And recognition from a channel dedicated to the genre is something that gives me great pleasure indeed.
Q: Who in your opinion was the greatest on-screen vampire?
Drew Cullingham: You’d think I’d have an answer to that one all ready… My background is as literary as it is filmic, so I’d have to rephrase the question and ask myself who is the greatest vampire. Then it becomes easier, because undoubtedly it is Stoker’s historically inspired creation, Dracula. I’m pretty certain that no horror character has been portrayed by more actors than Dracula, so that only narrows it down a little bit! Lugosi of course was great, and I really rate Gary Oldman (hard not to!) in Coppola’s film, but I really have to go back to my informative years and my Hammer adolescence and say the mighty Christopher Lee. Happy 90th Birthday, by the way!
Q: So, what other projects are you working on?
Drew Cullingham: I’ve got a few things at different stages actually. I shot a fairly experimental micro-budget containment thriller called Monk3ys last year, which I could describe as Big Brother meets Saw! It’s very much a riff on reality TV, reality in general, and the film industry, and I’m very proud that it picked up an award at last year’s Raindance Film Festival. I’m hoping to announce sales/distribution on that very soon.
Currently in post-production, I have a film called Black Smoke Rising which is another micro-budget tale, but very different to either Monk3ys or Umbrage. It is a poignant and personal portrayal of grief, told in gorgeous black and white! I’m also in the advanced stages of developing a WW2 psychological thriller about a pair of airmen stranded behind enemy lines. It’s kind of 127 Hours meets Buried meets Jacob’s Ladder. We’ve got some fantastic talent lined up for it, both in front of and behind the camera, so watch this space…
Drew Cullingham’s Umbrage: The First Vampire will be shown on Horror Channel on Friday 22 June as part of their ‘Evilution of Horror’ season. You can find out more infomation about the other stuff in the schedule right Here
The Horror Channel is on Sky 319 / Virgin 149 / Freesat 138
Check out www.horrorchannel.co.uk and twitter.com/horror_channel for more info.