British director Julian Richards has a number of successful micro-budget horror features under his belt, including 1996’s Darklands and 2003’s The Last Horror Movie. His latest, the adolescent thriller Summer Scars, has enjoyed a successful festival run internationally and now returns here for a screening as part of the New British Cinema strand at the ICA, to be followed by a DVD release from Soda Pictures. The film follows six Welsh teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks as they encounter a much older stranger while up to no good in the woods. What starts as a marginally uncomfortable situation soon escalates into a fight for survival.
James Merchant caught up with the director to discuss the benefits of filming in the woods, working with 14-year-olds, and his unconventional approach to selling the film.
James Merchant: Summer Scars clearly pays great attention to the representation of its teen characters. Did you draw on your own youth when making the film?
Julian Richards: The whole thing started off with a few childhood experiences rolled into one; the most notable being an event where myself and a friend were held hostage in the woods by a guy with an air rifle. Unsurprisingly, the experience stuck with me, and as I developed as a storyteller and a filmmaker I always wanted to find a way to turn that into a film. I had been approached by a writer in 1998. He was from Barrie in South Wales, a roofer who had jacked in his job and pursued a dream as a screenwriter. He had written a full-length script that I was impressed with. I thought he had a good eye for observing people and their behaviour, particularly the way they speak. So I approached him with my ideas for Summer Scars and he wrote it as a short 30-minute script to begin with. We put in an application to the Welsh Film Council to get Lottery finance, but we weren’t successful. At the same time, I was offered Silent Cry to direct, and soon after that did The Last Horror Movie. It took around five or six years for me to get back to the project, but when I phoned the writer back he had already rewritten it as a feature script. We put in another application with the Film Agency for Wales and this time we were successful.
JM: Did you find that by setting the film primarily in the woods you escaped some of the constraints of micro-budget filmmaking? The location also seemed to work well, considering the type of narrative you were working with, in that the woods provide an escape into a make-believe world.
JR: Very much so, plus the fact that it’s all set during the day and focuses on six characters held hostage in one single location. Even though the tradition says you should never work with kids, it was very manageable and achievable. I didn’t feel that my resources were being stretched at any point on set. You’re also right about the escapist qualities, as the run-down urban environment the kids live in, as seen in the opening few minutes of the film, is a stark contrast to the woods. The woods for me evoke memories of childhood, playing war games and such as kids, something innocent but with the potential to turn dangerous.
JM: The film is really built on the performances of the youths. Did the cast members have much acting experience prior to working on the film?
JR: I knew that the biggest obstacle was going to be getting the casting right, especially when you’re dealing with six 14-year-olds who are acting with each other rather than acting with adults, so I spent a lot of time casting. The first place I went to was an agent and actor’s workshop for children in Cardiff. They meet every Thursday to train in acting. A lot of these kids are from underprivileged backgrounds, the scheme set up in part to give them something constructive to work on. This was perfect for us as we’d found that many actors of that age are more stage school types who find it difficult to play the working-class kids the film depicts. I didn’t want acting, I wanted the real thing. I found all six of my actors from that one school, so they all knew each other outside of the film. This obviously had its benefits as much of the on-screen chemistry was genuine.
JM: How do you feel the film differentiates itself from the similarly themed Eden Lake, which was made after your film but got a theatrical release prior to Summer Scars? You are careful to avoid holding any moral judgment on these children in spite of their anti-social behaviour, whereas Eden Lake seems to place much of its focus on the stereotyped attributes of the working-class youth.
JR: I have discussed the film very thoroughly with (Eden Lake director) James Watkins. Even though there are a lot of similarities in the film they are very different. Eden Lake is essentially a classic backwoods story that we commonly see in the US, a type of urban myth story that demonises a certain class. It just happened to tap into the fears of youth crime of the zeitgeist. In Summer Scars, the writer and myself were out to portray the sort of childhood we had. You don’t often see those types of characters as most films are made by filmmakers from a certain background. I suppose there’s a Famous Five element to the film, though crucially they’re a gang of hoodies rather than well-spoken middle-class kids, so it was always a challenge to make these characters sympathetic. One of the arcs of the story is that you are presented with characters who aren’t likeable, but when they’re put in this situation, seeing how they react to it, you see they are vulnerable like the rest of us.
JM: Can you talk me through the character of the drifter, Peter, who is also a complex character and alternately elicits both empathy and hatred?
JR: From the beginning, we didn’t want to nail down that character’s backstory, as I often find in narratives that filmmakers try to justify why people are as they are. We looked at Peter and thought that he’s probably had some military background, but then realised that it would be better if he’s more of a fantasist in that he’d wanted to be a soldier and never followed through with it, but wears the uniform nonetheless. It was an element I had liked in films such as Taxi Driver and I found it worked well within this context. We also wanted to suggest that he was a product of a cycle of abuse. That said, he’s not the archetypal bad guy, and there are things about him that the audience can empathise with.
JM: You run your own sales agency (Jinga Films). How has this progressed since its inception?
JR: I founded Jinga Films through a frustration with the distribution of my first two films, where sales agents were effectively liquidating or were in the process of closing down. I decided that I would be better off selling the films myself, and my girlfriend and I set up the company to sell The Last Horror Movie, then began picking up third-party films. We’ve now been going three years and have built up a library of 28 films, all British, with a specialty in the horror genre, which is where my expertise lies.
JM: In recent years, we’re seeing more films being self-distributed theatrically, on the model used by Ed Blum with Scenes of a Sexual Nature, where everything up until the DVD release was handled in-house before selling the rights for the final home release. Do you find this model works for you?
JR: Yes, since we completed the film just over a year ago we’ve sold it to TLA in North America, and a few other territories like Germany, Spain, Yugoslavia and Thailand. We always find with UK films that the home territory is the hardest market to crack. About six months ago we closed the deal with Soda Pictures for a DVD release but felt that it needed a bit of theatrical exposure before this, so we’re screening at the ICA and we’re also booking it into 10 or 11 cinemas around the UK. We’re only just beginning to explore distribution. What we’ve found with a lot of the films we’re representing is that they’re lucky to go straight to DVD as there’s no theatrical window for them at all, so by doing this with Summer Scars we’re finding that there are possibilities to get the films out there.
Interview by James Merchant
Summer Scars will show at the ICA (London) from June 6 to 10. The screening on June 8 will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. The film is released on DVD on August 24.