After an internationally successful career in photography and commercials directing, Andrew Douglas began filmmaking with musical odyssey Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003). Hollywood soon ame a-calling, and Douglas’ second feature was the genre remake The Amityville Horror (2005), blending (and undermining) its supposedly ‘true story’ with elements appropriated from The Shining (1980). His third feature uwantme2killhim?, about a series of increasingly incestuous relationships that evolve in chatrooms, is also ‘based on a true story’ and ripped straight from the headlines, bringing a twisty contemporary spin to a broader tragedy of adolescent angst and alienation. movieScope’s Anton Bitel caught up with him at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where uwantme2killhim? had its world premiere, and where lead actors Jamie Blackley and Toby Regbo won the award for Best Performance in a British Feature Film.
Was the transition from work in photography and commercials to making the feature-length documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus an easy one?
Photography and then cinematography were my natural habitat, so to some extent documentaries were a much easier transition that fiction, because they’re really about trying to find stories, trying to lift stones up and see what’s underneath, and I felt as though to varying degrees I’d done that most of my working life. So documentary in that sense really was an extension of that—and I’d already been shooting film, which meant that I was kind of comfortable with a movie camera.
I wasn’t looking for a documentary subject at the time, I was looking really for what can get me out of commercials. I loved Jim White’s music, but in his CD there was a very strange story about religion and growing up and taking drugs, and set in the South which was of course this fascinating landscape for a Brit. We went down to see this guy in Pensacola Florida, and everything that I thought was a fiction in his songs was really true, and so what started as a fiction idea became really a documentary idea. It was the title of his record [Wrong-Eyed Jesus!, 1997] that prompted the whole film. So really for a photographer the documentary form was a pretty natural format. It wasn’t a film that had a lot of dramatic tension to it, I had to learn that language elsewhere—but it was a film that took a look at a real world, admittedly an exotic world, and then tried to find a kind of story within that.
Was helming The Amityville Horror remake for a big studio a very different experience?
It was a very different experience for many reasons. I came out of a commercial world where you’re really the boss of the set—you’re not the overall boss because the agency is, but you’re kind of the boss of the day and you’re top of the call sheet. You go to a studio movie and, really you’re a hired gun, and the first thing that happens is phone calls are coming up from Hollywood, and the line producer is dancing around, and the producers are on your back, because you’re in this business of getting 10 shots before lunch. And the trick is they don’t even have to be different shots, they can be different lens lengths on a zoom lens, but I didn’t know any of this.
So you’re really thrown into the business of it, and you’re just a cog. I mean at that level, at my level. Chris Nolan’s level I think is something else, you’re as much an auteur as the studio system can bear. But at my level it’s really the business of making franchise movies and horror movies, and the reason so many of us commercial guys do that is ‘cos it looks like a foot in the door. I went on to believe it was a useful kind of bootcamp experience, but it wasn’t really the right place for me.
Does that explain why there’s been such a long hiatus between The Amityville Horror and your latest feature?
I was happy to have gone through the experience of doing a studio movie, and I was really happy that the movie did well at the box office, and there are parts of the movie I really like and that I’m still proud of and, thematically, things that are still interesting to me. But the film didn’t really feel like a personal expression in the way that you are used to, say, as a photographer. I was naïve enough to think that if you did a film that was successful you could kind of maybe pick something else that was much more to your taste, and that really wasn’t true in the business of Hollywood.
I was offered a film called The Priest, which was a comic book film which I worked on for about six months, and then realised that it was really just going to be again the same film, I had no more power in that, no more voice in that than I had in Amityville. So I dropped out of that, which wasn’t the most popular thing I’ve done in my life. The easiest route would have been to follow Zack Snyder and go from a remake of a horror to a comic book to another comic book to a big comic book; I really admire his choices, but I wasn’t feeling it. Although he and I both came out of commercials, he really embraced that kind of form which was popular in Hollywood, which was the comic book movie, and I didn’t have that interest—and still don’t—so it was more difficult for me to follow that. It felt like, at a level of personal expression, making commercials again
I fell back into commercials just to carry on making a living, and tried to kind of ease my way into an indie world. The films I was responding to from America and Europe were independent films so I really tried to do that. I’d seen the article that [the original] script was based on and, although it was connected to a studio, it was a very compelling story, and it felt like something I could really get invested in. And Bryan Singer seemed like a producer who would give me the space to work.
As it happened,that iteration of the film transformed, because that particular script went down the toilet when Warners Independent failed, so then Bad Hat Harry came back to me and asked me if I could develop my own take on the same material, and I did, with Steve Golan at Anonymous Content ponying up the money to find a writer [Mike Walden]. I had a commercial hat on as well as an artistic hat, I knew that I had to frame this story as a genre film, because I knew that was what the kind of commercial landscape needed even though it was an independent film.
The details of the true story behind uwantme2killhim?, which took place in Manchester in the early Noughties, have been kept out of the British press because of the Children and Young Persons Act—although they have been better reported abroad. Of course, today we’re a little less naïve about the Internet and social media than we were back in the pioneering days of 2003. There are twists and turns aplenty in your film—it is a genre film—but what’s your pitch for the viewer who is broadly ahead of the game?
This film isn’t entirely without precedent, the strategy of the film. I don’t want to get into this too much, because obviously there are people who will not know anything about the film and will just go along for the ride. I feel as though, even though it’s a genre film, and even though there is, let’s say, a device reminiscent of The Usual Suspects and A Beautiful Mind and even Fight Club to some extent, it’s first and foremost a suburban drama, and the location of the drama is the Internet, but it could in another generation be the drug world. So as a story of not getting what you need at home and finding that in fantasy and escape, that could be, for my generation, a story of drug addiction, for example. So I think there’s a core drama hiding inside there, and that’s the way I find myself able to use the word genre without feeling dismissive about it, because I think a genre is a vehicle that you use. The thriller genre is a place I can kind of put the things I’m interested in. The characters have such depth and reveal such damage, it becomes kind of an interesting story in its own right, as a dramatic story as well as a thriller. That’s true of the best thrillers, isn’t it? When the thrill is done, there’s still something that slightly resonates.
Did you have any meetings with the real ‘Mark’ and ‘John’ in preparation for the film?
Sadly I was never able to meet the characters because their anonymity is enshrined in law, even though they’re still in the world somewhere. I’m hoping that they will see the film because I felt as though I dealt with the characters very empathetically, which was intentional. I wanted to shoot a two-hander, and I felt as though at different times in the film I wanted to be rooting for both characters, because at some level I completely empathised with both characters. The easier version of this film makes John a kind of monster and Mark an idiot. I wasn’t really interested in that film because I felt there was a more interesting version of it.
I did take a look at the chatroom transcripts, and they’re vast. I’d already developed the script, and I think if I had taken a look at those before I would have pushed the obsessive nature of the story a bit stronger, because they really represent night after night, day after day of obsessive chatroom dialogue, in this kind of impenetrable language as well. So in a year’s time, when somebody makes a documentary about the same material, I think that would be the subject. The reason I say that is because a year ago somebody made an opera of the same material, called Two Boys. So I think the material is very compelling, and I think it’s one of those stories where different filmmakers or storytellers will take that material and shape it in different ways.
uwantmetokillhim? is released in UK cinemas on September 6, and you can watch the film’s trailer.