Miles Watts and Tony Hipwell are two of the nicest evil geniuses I know. And I know more than you might think. Miles and I went to University together, some time in the Triassic period, and he, like me, was one of the few people in our year who washed up in York and stayed there. I went off down the yellow brick (And bagged, boarded and slabbed) road of comics retail and journalism whilst Miles dived headlong into film making. He and Tony started working together in short order, combining a profound level of geek fu with a fantastically deadpan sense of humor. Their work has, to date, included the fantastic York-set superhero movie Crimefighters, the consistently brilliant web series Zomblogalypse and two new movies; Whoops! and Amber. I talk to Miles about all this and more, beneath the trailers for Amber and their show reel:
What led you to film making?
I’ve always been obsessed with it but it wasn’t until the turn of the Century – which sounds odd – that technology had caught up to where I could really make films. I knew some people at college in the 90s who made some short movies on film but it was expensive and I couldn’t really get cracking til a friend asked me to edit his first feature on his computer in 2000. Then I was off, and writing scripts and making plans. Also I hated doing just about everything else, so it was a calling rather than a choice.
What was your first project?
Aside from films I made growing up, on Super 8 and VHS, my first project was The BandWagons, my first feature, in 2006. Lots of talented people were involved, such as the luminous Hayley Hutchinson and The Mighty Boosh’s Robots In Disguise, and it got a good reaction at the (one) cinema it screened at, but I feel now that it served mostly as a learning experience. That’s no reflection on anyone but me. I was impatient to make it and cut a lot of corners. I was going for a kind of This Is Spinal Tap vibe which I didn’t really hit until later films. Now the film feels uncomfortably like growing up in public. I’ve since learned how important proper lighting is, for example!
What would you change about The BandWagons if you could go back and start again?
I’d have spent more time on the script and done more tests and rehearsals. While we were shooting I learned to let the actors make the lines work rather than trying to make a line I’d written fit the actor. I’d also have done loads more pre-production to arrange locations and extras way before shooting. Sometimes we’d be sorting stuff on the day. Finally I wouldn’t produce, direct and act in anything again. Zomblog is different because the three of us direct that; it’s less stress and more fun.
You’re best known for the splendid Zomblogalypse. How did that come about?
It came from wanting to make something straight after The BandWagons, now that I felt I knew a few things about filmmaking. I wanted to make two projects: one really deliberately scrappy and bloggy, and at the same time a more upmarket, well-made feature film. The latter ended up being CrimeFighters and the blog thing became Zomblogalypse. Between myself, Hannah Bungard and my partner in film crime Tony Hipwell, we started recording ‘I’m bored’ kind of vlogs, outside of which there happened to be a zombie apocalypse taking place because we love the zombie genre. It was a good challenge to take something as well-worn as zombies and make it original and entertaining.
The thing I’ve always loved about Zomblogalypse, aside from the fact it’s great, is how willing you are to use the environment. Are there any places in York you’d like to use but haven’t been able to yet?
Thank you for that, the people who watch it always tell us they LOVE Zomblog which is what keeps us going. We have the best fans. York is amazing for filmmaking and we still haven’t covered every square inch of it, even with CrimeFighters. In prep for the movie though, we’re pillaging every location we haven’t already used. We wanted to film in the Minster for the series but we ended up doing that in CrimeFighters. The Zomblog movie is very York-heavy, we wanted to make sure we based it very firmly in the universe of the series.
The slight irritation the characters feel at the undead rising is one of my favorite parts of the series. I love the gag in an early episode where you go to the supermarket and come back to find the zombie in the car. You mentioned they were at least partially improvised. Has your scripting process changed over the course of the show?
We never scripted the show, just wrote the plot out then chatted about what we might do in the scene, then run through it. We’re big fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the actors know where the scene begins and ends and what lines to hit, then just wing it.
Which do you prefer; the improvised nature of zomblog or the scripting of the movie?
Improvising always yields more hilarity as far as Zomblog is concerned but we have loved collaborating on the script. We know when we come to film it that the script will change and evolve to be funnier than anything we could probably write; that’s the nature of the shoots. We’re often in absolute hysterics and have to do about 17 takes, which sounds crazy but then we have so many choices in the edit and often even better jokes than we sat down to write originally. That anarchy only helps proceedings.
What’s the current state of play with the Zomblogalypse movie?
We’ve spent the last year working on the script to ensure it’s true to the web series but also commercial and feature-length, not just an extended episode. Also something people who’ve never heard of us (which is the entire world) will want to go and see. The web series will act as the expanded universe to the eventual movie(s). It’s weird though; Zomblog the series is improvised but you can’t hope to get the kind of budget we need without a script; we’re not Mike Leigh after all.
Thankfully we have a superb Producer on board, who joined us after he’d been impressed by CrimeFighters. He’s already been to Cannes (and will be returning this year) and gauged interest in the film, which is a first for us since we usually focus solely on getting the film made and then worry about screening it to people. But we’ve learned so much about the film market while working with Steve (Piper, the Producer) and we’re drawing up some hefty plans.
Hefty plans, huh? Anything you can talk about?
We’d like to do more than one film and we have some interest in that plan, but we shall see how the first one goes. Also in tandem with the movie we have some plans for developing the film scene in York in various ways.
Interesting that you mention Mike Leigh. I got a real Leigh/Linklater feel from the Amber trailer. It’s interesting as well that you mention the documentary style of The Office and Parks and Recreation. Why do you think that style has found such traction on TV where found footage movies are becoming increasingly derided?
With TV it’s funny and frantic and appeals to a casual audience but I think with found footage movie it’s like zombies; everyone’s doing it and people get frazzled by the format. I mean, with Zomblog we’re essentially pitching a found footage zombie movie. You can almost hear the groans of inevitability but there is interest and Zomblog is both an established thing and an original concept that gets by on the strength of the characters and their eye-rolling boredom in the face of the apocalypse. It feels new and zombies are still big business in the film market with lots of high profile zombie films and shows currently doing well.
Let’s talk about Crimefighters for a minute. One of the most striking things about that is how great it looks in black and white. Was that the plan from the get go?
It was. Early chats with the DP, Paul Richardson, just made sense when we set the film in black and white. Although Kim Newman said something interesting in his Sight & Sound review; that it was unusual we’d gone for widescreen rather than a squarer picture, since comic book panels aren’t rectangular! But the ‘comic book’ aspect is mostly in tone rather than vision; it’s less Sin City, more Manhattan. Paul did an amazing job of planning and shooting the movie with me. The look of the film was one thing that didn’t receive any criticism! It took us beyond the scrappiness of Zomblog and showed what we were capable of. Thankfully some major film festivals agreed.
With Kick-Ass 2 and Kill All Superheroes both hitting similar beats, have you got any plans for something more in the Crimefighters universe?
I’d only go back into that universe if I had something else to say and tons more money than the £7K it took to make CrimeFighters. The idea for the story was that no matter where you live, when people get together to create something or unite against something, they can. Even if it’s fighting the apathy of small town life and living down the pub.
If I did go back into that world I’d want to have some huge choreographed set pieces with the fighting and so forth but I think for the tiny amount of money and time we had, we couldn’t have made a better movie. In early drafts of the script we wanted to do a boat chase, a fight in the rain on fire escapes, a rooftop fight and a ton of other things but we just couldn’t do it, we were stretched as it was.
Amber looks to be something of a stylistic departure for you, far more of a ‘straight’ piece than genre-based. Was this a conscious choice?
Yeah it’s not genre, it’s more the kind of film I’d wanted to make for years, a character-based rather than story-based film. It wasn’t so much a conscious desire to do the opposite of CrimeFighters but I did want to make something colourful and unscripted like we do with Zomblog.
I wanted to make something that was its own film but in between larger projects. The larger project after Amber ended up being our £60K serial killer movie Whoops! which is the most, I would say professional film we’ve made in terms of scale and execution. I wanted to work with the cast of CrimeFighters again but not encumber them with a script. So Amber is entirely improvised and the cast really shone, they’re brilliant at it.
Tell us a little about the story. What led to Amber?
The story is so simple; six friends getting ready to go out but they don’t get to go out due to events conspiring. The first spark of the idea came from chatting with Emma Keaveney as she did her makeup before a night out, and that’s exactly how the film starts. I’d just heard that CrimeFighters had got into the Edinburgh Film Festival and my immediate reaction was one of encouragement, to say the least. I said, ‘EMMA WE HAVE TO MAKE ANOTHER FILM!’ But we had no money so it had to be virtually budget-less.
I was inspired by the films of Lukas Moodysson, particularly Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love) and Dogme-style films in general, as well as comedy shows like Parks & Recreation and The Office, where the camera seems to wander around catching little moments. Low budget and scrappy to offset the more polished films I was making either side of it.
I notice a lot of familiar faces in that case. Do you find you have to work with the same people in a city as small as York or do you have a semi-official Milestone Repertory Company now?
Whoops! represents a departure from casting our mates – even though most of them are professional actors – as we felt we needed to start throwing the net wider, but Emma Keaveney is definitely a muse! We’ve cast her in several films (including a bit part in Whoops!) because she’s stunning looking and versatile. We also cast Debbie Hard and Harry Humberstone as totally opposite characters from who they played in CrimeFighters; Debbie is less nice in Amber and Harry is a complete dick of a rock star. We gave Charlotte Gee and Tony similarly opposite roles from who they play in Zomblog and it worked great.
What’s the release plan for Amber?
Our Zomblog producer is going to see if any festivals are interested in screening it. Whether or not that happens, we’ll go for a limited cinema release like we did with CrimeFighters, then try for distribution and DVD release.
What’s next after Amber?
The plan for the future is to make a film of the scale of Amber in between every larger budget film. We’re polishing off Whoops! and taking that to Cannes along with the prepped Zomblog movie. We have big plans for that one and also plans to make an Amber sized road movie this year. We’ve been working with Dominic Brunt on several projects and we hope to work with him and director Marc Price some more; two horror directors we greatly admire.
General plans are to develop York’s filmmaking scene to be more sustainable and ensure that our and other filmmakers’ future movies thrive.
You mentioned developing the York movie scene. What sort of stuff do you have in mind?
We got to the point while developing Whoops! where we were a little tired of reinventing the wheel every time we wanted to make a new movie in York; gathering props and costumes, finding crew and so forth. We’ve never wanted for support and well wishers but we want to establish something more permanent, with jobs and financing options for filmmakers throughout the year over several projects, not just one film being made every now and then, and none of the elitism that can mar small filmmaking communities. In the last year we’ve made some huge strides in terms of casting, sourcing kit, set dressing and other elements and we’re making plans to build that into a lasting resource.
We want to work alongside other ace filmmakers to develop Yorkshire into a viable centre for film production; something lasting, because it has earned that longevity over the last decade. Personally I’d like to see this new generation of dedicated filmmakers staying passionate but also well informed about how the film market works, so that they can make films knowledgeably as well as creatively, and then have those films go on to be in festivals and find distribution. I hate the ‘there is no British film industry’ attitude some have; it’s an excuse for apathy. I know people who were saying that twenty years ago and things have changed. There is no excuse now not to make films in this country. Positive action and knowledge sharing will evolve the indie film industry, and that includes York.
What’s your dream project?
At the moment, the Zomblogalypse movie! It’s the kind of film we all got into filmmaking for. It’s our baby and so much fun to do, and represents the coming together of a lot of hard work over the last few years. I mean, comedy, gore, action, thrills… it’s kind of a dream to be making it. If we get to make more Zomblog movies, doing them on a larger and larger scale will be an exciting challenge.
As the future rolls toward us we’re seeking the freedom to be able to make even bigger movies: fantasy adventure, sci-fi, action but also smaller films with great characters, some more improvised films and even TV shows. We and many other filmmakers in York have a whole raft of stuff we want to make. Ultimately, as long as we get to make a variety of films over the years with the stories and actors we wish to work with, the future is limitless.
Miles, Tony and the team are some of the hardest working people I know and if you haven’t seen Zomblog yet, you need to, the links are below. Their work is shot through with tremendous human observation, a deep-seated sense of play, frequent pure geek joy, Northern laconic and, frequently, Zombies. What’s not to love? Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Miles.