The director that brought us The Devil’s Business is taking his craft to the stage as Sean Hogan directs The Halloween Sessions for the 13th Hour Horror Festival. Here he tells us all about the show its amazing writers and cast and his own personal routine come Halloween time.
How did you get into directing?
Sean Hogan: Initially I sort of stumbled into it, really. I wasn’t brought up in that kind of environment, and certainly the thought of making films in the UK was a fairly impossible dream during the 1980s. But I randomly made some stuff on video at art college which I enjoyed doing, and then ended up on a theatre and film course subsequently to that, which really sealed the deal. After that I basically didn’t want to do anything else. So I did a film degree, and then spent years writing scripts and making shorts until myself and a friend finally raised some money and went and shot my first feature. Making independent films is tough in the UK, but having done one, you’ve at least shown the capability to handle the job, which is a major factor in getting things financed. So that eventually led to other things, and some vague semblance of a career…
The Devil’s Business is an amazing horror movie which deservedly gained you a lot of attention, what was it like finally having your wok so well acknowledged?
Sean Hogan: Thank you – obviously I’m not complaining! The great thing about that film was that it was entirely independent and made as a total labour of love. It’s actually the smallest thing I’ve done, and the reason for that is because of some unhappy film experiences myself and the producer had suffered through in the past. So essentially we decided that we were going to raise a small amount of money and make the film ourselves, keeping answerable to no one. And I really had no expectations of anyone ever even seeing it. So it was extremely gratifying that it was received so well, and a real testament to everyone’s hard work.
Have you always loved horror and what got you into it?
Sean Hogan: Yeah, pretty much. I’ve really no idea why I first gravitated towards it as a kid, but I remember being obsessed by King Kong pretty early on, and eventually getting my hands on some of those old coffee table books about horror films – I used to pour over the photos for hours, and imagine what the films must be like. From there the next logical step was to start looking at the Universal and Hammer stuff on TV, plus reading Stephen King at about 10 years old, and it was a pretty steady spiral down into horror and depravity from there. I think my mother would have you believe there was just something seriously wrong with me from a young age. Some of the actors I work with still accuse me of that, actually.
How did you get involved with The Halloween Sessions and the 13th Hour Horror Festival?
Sean Hogan: It was initially an idea cooked up between myself and the producer, Josh Saco from Cigarette Burns. He was already planning on doing a film screening as part of the 13th Hour festival, and my immediate thought was ‘it’s a theatre, why don’t we pitch them a horror play as well?’ The theatre seemed to like the idea, so our next port of call was Kim Newman – I knew he was interested in the idea of doing some theatre, so we approached him and he agreed to take part. He then proceeded to bring the rest of the writers onboard. I think everyone just thought it sounded like a fun thing to do – and better yet it was definitely going to happen, unlike when you sit around for months waiting to see if a film is going to get off the ground or not.
What can you tell us about the show and what should the audience expect?
Sean Hogan: Well, it’s an Amicus-style anthology show, so it has a wraparound narrative involving five mental patients telling the story of how they came to be committed to an asylum, and then each of their stories is dramatized in different ways, with the other patients taking on different roles in each segment. But as always with these kind of things, the wraparound story itself has a creepy payoff. I’d certainly hope that the audience can expect some good scares, although there’s a nice vein of black comedy running through the play as well, so laughs will also be on the agenda. What they can also expect are some excellent performances – it’s been a delight to work with Sarah Douglas, and I think the audience will have a lot of fun with her character. And then there are some great people I’ve worked on films with in the past, such as Billy Clarke (from The Devil’s Business), Dan Brocklebank and Holly Lucas, all of whom have some very choice parts to play in the various tales.
What are the challenges for you switching between directing film and now theatre?
Sean Hogan: The great thing about directing theatre is that there’s less stuff getting in the way of working with the actors – with film you’re always fighting the clock, and there’s so much technical stuff to worry about as well. Whereas with theatre you get plenty of time to rehearse and discuss and work through the text, which is fun to do. But the main challenge is to create a proper visual experience without having such tools as cinematography or editing at your disposal. And there’s also the issue of space – in film you can manipulate your staging with the use of camera movement and editing, whereas in theatre you have one fixed area to work with, and that’s it. Which can be tricky, especially in an intimate setting.
Plays like The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories have proven that horror works so well on stage, why do you think there aren’t more horror plays and what is the difference between crafting scares on screen and on stage?
Sean Hogan: That’s a good question, and is actually one of the reasons why we chose to do this. Both those shows have obviously been really successful, and I couldn’t really understand why more like them hadn’t been attempted. I think horror can work really well in a live environment – maybe the feeling of being present in the room adds an extra sense of threat to it – but there are also a lot of tricks you can use in film that aren’t achievable onstage, so maybe that puts some people off. Time will tell whether we actually manage to scare people or not, but whilst there are some good old-fashioned creepy moments in there, I’d also like to think that my basic prerequisites for something being scary are also present in the play; basically, you need good writing and good acting in order for the audience to give a damn. Because if you do maintain their interest in the characters, they’re likely to be that much more frightened.
There are some amazing writers behind each tale with Kim Newman, Stephen Volk, Anne Billson, Paul McAuley and Maura McHugh all involved, what has it been like working with them and what different elements has each writer brought to their specific story?
Sean Hogan: It’s been a lot of fun working with them. In the past I’ve always written my own stuff, so it’s been an interesting discipline collaborating with other writers. People like Kim and Steve have also written things that influenced me when I was younger, so it’s obviously a pleasure to work with them in that respect as well. I think it’s been pretty painless overall – everyone was given a rough brief detailing how many characters they could use and that sort of thing, but beyond that they were free to do what they liked. Kim had the hardest job in that he had to write the wraparound story, so all of the heavy lifting of having to weave together everyone else’s characters fell to him. But once that was done, there weren’t any major issues.
Our first readthrough ran way longer than expected, so we had to do some stringent cutting, but the essence of it never changed. Everyone brought different things to the table – some episodes, like those by Steve and Maura, are very dark and unsettling, whereas Paul’s is more playful. Anne’s is great fun to work on because of how it gradually amps up the tension, and Kim’s sections are a hoot because he gets to put all of these lunatics together and have them bounce off each other, and also has the great character of their sinister doctor involved as well. Mine is a bit of a balancing act between laughs and scares, so hopefully there will be a few of each in there.
As a writer yourself where you tempted to rewrite any parts or change any lines?
Sean Hogan: I might have to refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I might incriminate myself! But no, I wasn’t tempted to try and rewrite anything. I made certain suggestions about moments in the first draft if I thought they were going to be problematic to direct, and am continuing to adjust things in rehearsal if need be. But that’s just about getting things to play, not because I feel the obsessive need to rewrite or change other peoples’ stuff. Most of whom are more experienced than me, anyway! As the director, I’m just trying to best serve the play, really.
Can you tell us more about the cast you have gathered together for the play?
Sean Hogan: As I mentioned earlier, some of them I’ve worked with before on film projects. I enjoy using the same people, and quite frankly, if you find someone good it doesn’t hurt to hold onto them! So Billy Clarke and I had a great time working on The Devil’s Business, and anyone who’s seen that film knows how good he is in it. Which made it a no-brainer to cast him in this – I was definitely keen to continue that working relationship. Holly Lucas I cast in an earlier film called Little Deaths, and I think she’s a star waiting to happen. I keep expecting her to explode and to be entirely out of my price range, so I’ll always use her whilst I still can! Dan Brocklebank was also in that film, but not my section (it was another anthology project). However, I liked his work in it and ended up casting him in a short I made for Frightfest last year, and again, wanted to carry on the relationship.
Sarah Douglas is obviously a familiar name to a lot of people from films like Superman II – Kim suggested her for the role in this, and I knew someone that was friendly with her, so we took a chance and approached her. Luckily she liked the script and seemed to think we weren’t entirely crooked/incompetent, so came onboard. Gina Abolins and Joshua Mayes-Cooper are the two newest names in the cast – both came via recommendations from other people, and proved to be very talented, so I was delighted to cast them. I think it’s a great ensemble of actors, and everyone seems to work very well together. It’s always nice as a director to be surprised and entertained with what your actors do with their roles, and that’s definitely been the case with this so far.
The show revolves around a group of mental patients gathered for a therapy session with each recounting the terrifying events that caused them to lose their minds, what events have you experienced that truly terrified you?
Sean Hogan: Seeing what the present government are being allowed to get away with is pretty terrifying! Beyond that, I lead a fairly quiet life and don’t get exposed to genuinely horrifying events that often. I do remember being there when the Soho bombing happened some years back – at that time I worked just around the corner from the pub that got bombed, and had actually walked in front of it literally 2 minutes before the bomb went off. I got back into the office I worked in and seconds later, our whole building shook with the force of the blast. I saw some pretty grim stuff on the street that day and they actually ended up using our front office as a morgue as well. So whilst I wouldn’t say I was ever terrified that day, it certainly gave me pause, shall we say.
What is your usual routine come Halloween every year?
Sean Hogan: Basically, when you work in the genre, Halloween is usually a busy time. Quite often I find that I’m at a horror film festival or something like that – obviously there are a lot of them going on at this time of year! So it’ll make a change to actually be working on something. I am looking forward to Halloween though – it’ll be fun to perform the play on the night itself.
Apart from The Devil’s Business of course what is your favorite horror movie?
Sean Hogan: I normally try and dodge these kind of questions – there are too many to choose from – but I did hand in my top 10 horror films list for Time Out earlier this year, so I guess it’s on the record now. There are probably three main ones vying for the top spot – Carpenter’s The Thing, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Don’t Look Now. They’re films I keep on going back to. There are a lot more bubbling under though.
What’s next for you after this, more movies or more plays?
Sean Hogan: I hope more movies in the near future – a script I’ve been looking to do for a while might be close to happening. And I’m always working on other scripts – got to keep as many balls in the air as possible! There’s also the possibility of another play – we’re discussing that at the moment. And something else entirely might be in the pipeline as well, but it’s early days and I can’t say too much yet. But basically, I like to stay busy one way or another – it keeps me out of the pub…