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Q&A with Far From the Apple Tree director Grant McPhee

#DUNDEAD

26 April 2019

We're thrilled to be hosting a preview screening of Grant McPhee's new film Far From The Apple Tree as part of this year's DUNDEAD horror film festival.

We asked Grant about his work and he was more than happy to share insights about Far From The Apple Tree and filmmaking in general...

We're looking forward to our preview screening of Far From The Apple Tree at Dundead, can you tell us a bit about the film?

It's a story about a young and struggling visual artist who is given what appears to be a fantastic opportunity – a residency at the home of a renowned and very successful artist. Obviously it's revealed that there's more to this offer than meets the eye; the artist has a murky past, with a few hidden skeletons in her closet. 

I suppose it falls loosely into Folk Horror or 1970s occult thriller TV programs such as The Owl Service or The Stone Tape. We call it a Pop-Art fairytale.

The budget was tiny but we turned away from what most genre indie films usually do – to either create a calling card to show what we could do if given more money to make another film or to tempt mainstream interest towards this– we decided to use the opportunity to do something that exec producers and financiers would likely never fund. I don't think many people now actually use the fantastic opportunity and freedom offered by working independently to its full advantage– it just allows you to do what you want, when you want and to explore and experiment and just try and make something new.

"All that 70s/80s weirdness from your early childhood seeps into your work..."

I wanted something which looked cool, played around with structure and form and was a bit trippy. While not intentional it took on elements of all things I liked or grew up with - all that 70s/80s weirdness from early childhood seeps into your work and comes back to haunt others. Bagpuss, public information films, Armada ghost books all get mixed in with early home video releases. We had a V2000 video recorder growing up and the only films available seemed to be obscure Euro-Horror from the early 70s - and I watched them all. Part of my 90s later youth rekindled a lot of this early childhood viewing when I started collecting Redemption VHS's which all went on to became a major influence on Far From the Apple Tree.

Redemption were the first video label who collected and re-released these kind of films and curated /re-branded them as having a value as art rather than just pure trash though importantly blurred the lines of both together. Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, Valerie and Her Week of WondersWitchfinder General were all first collected by Redemption and it was a massive influence on our film. Both writer Ben Soper and myself are huge Redemption fans and were delighted that the film itself is getting a release on the label!

The film uses a mixture of digital, 16mm film and analogue video formats. Which is your favourite to shoot on?

They all have a purpose. We had a plan and formula for what each format was used for and why. Through my other films (and my background as a cinematographer) I'm interested in exploring how technology impacts on story and I wanted to bring these ideas into Far From The Apple Tree. I think format plays crucial roles in how a film impacts on an audience.

Cameras and lenses are tools like paintbrushes and allow different canvases for an audience to respond to. I think the recent Peter Jackson documentary about the First World War really demonstrated this perfectly. The audience for that film responded completely differently to the same footage presented in different ways.

"16mm has to be my favourite format ever though."

Part of what we've grown up with collectively has become a subconscious film language which we have certain associations with – 35mm at 24fps being the gold standard and Super 8 being associated with home movie memories. I wanted this to be central to the movie where each format would convey different moods and more importantly would bring in a conflict as to whether what they were watching was real, in the past, a memory or something else. To me it's like using different musical instruments rather than just an acoustic guitar. It's flavour.

16mm has to be my favourite format ever though. It has the perfect balance between the lushness of 35/65mm and the super grungy 8mm look but that's probably all to do with my preferred aesthetics and my age. In 20 years time people might be talking about iPhone footage in that same way.

Our screening of your documentary, Teenage Superstars, went down a treat in DCA cinema. How does the process differ making a documentary compared to a fiction film?

I loved the DCA screening. It was great to have its first proper cinema screening in its hometown (well, the closest city to where I grew up).

In general they are quite different and my documentary career seems to have little in common with my fiction one – they just seem to have completely different audiences and never the twain shall meet! But I'm fine with that, I'm happy if anyone watches anything.

"My fiction films are definitely influenced by my documentary background..."

I personally think the dramas and documentaries have a lot in common and music is a massive part of my fiction filmmaking. For purely low budget reasons, especially surrounding lack of time, my fiction films are definitely influenced by my documentary background and use many of the same techniques for speeding up the process – quick handheld coverage of a scene and understanding the need for providing many editorial options. We'd always planned Apple Tree to have a lot of freedom in its structure and the massive archive we needed allowed for this, and that process was incredibly close to putting together a documentary. Documentaries are always full of inspiration and dealing with change which is something I think our film needed so we allowed for that. Negatively, only having 9 days to shoot and incorporate the archive film took a considerable amount of organisation.

For non technical reasons I always make music a big part of my fiction. Rose McDowall did our soundtrack and music videos are clearly a big influence on the style. Independence and DIY are incredibly important to me and I take a massive amount of inspiration from the real life stories in both Big Gold Dream and Teenage Superstars and punk music in general. It forms a giant part of my ideology of filmmaking and I probably wouldn't be making films without having heard that music. I find many filmmakers quite guarded in trying anything new. That probably comes from the tradition of filmmaking being expensive and exclusive, something I'm very much against. I found it inspiring speaking to musicians who had very much a 'just go for it' attitude.

"In terms of the film's structure, music takes priority."

In terms of the film's structure, music takes priority. I remember seeing an interview with Frank Mazolla, the editor of Performance who said he approached cutting that film like Jazz! I found that mind-blowing and such a different way to think of structure. I love minimalist composers like Terry Riley and try and incorporate those techniques into my film structures. Basically, I love the idea that a film doesn't have to be like a simple classic pop song verse/chorus, verse/chorus, middle 8 and chorus but can have play around with this, just like music did in the 60s with longer solos and eventually more experimenting. A bit more prog rock than punk rock, ha.

"...I see Apple Tree being a bit like a cover of Sister Ray by Brian Eno or The Orb."

I also like bands who clearly got a new instrument and used it everywhere over albums. I know less is often more but being full on with effects and being very unsubtle allows you to add subtlety in other areas which go unnoticed. I'd say Apple Tree is quite extreme in its visuals, and that doesn't mean it needs to be visceral like Lars Von Trier. You can be extreme in other ways and I see Apple Tree being a bit like a cover of Sister Ray by Brian Eno or The Orb. Making a film that has moments where an audience subconsciously expect an edit in a certain place when it doesn't happen or having 3 acts which progressively get looser and looser in terms of story and structure can be as effective as a jump scare.

As part of Dundead, and DCA's 20th Birthday celebrations, we're showing three titles from 1999 (Ring, eXistenZ and The Blair Witch Project). Do you have any favourite horror films from this year or is there another year you think of as being particularly strong for horror?

I think the 90s was one of the most exciting times for filmmaking ever. In pure technical terms it was the end of the traditional photochemical filmmaking process which had lasted 100 years. Everyone had pushed film – the actual medium to an extent to where they led the technology and because of this they knew how to break its rules and create some fantastic looking films. I think some of our nicest looking films come from the 90s. When combined with US indie filmmaking going mainstream we got some amazing films in general in that period.

"Silence of the Lambs is pretty hard to beat but I do have a soft spot for The Ninth Gate."

The introduction of DV brought new tools that would soon evolve so quickly that the mastery was lost, but that initial wave brought some amazing creativity – Dogma and especially The Blair Witch ProjectBlair Witch pretty much took the El Mariachi 'I can do this too' idea and to another level, as well as creating its own genre (I doubt they'd have seen Cannibal Holocaust).

I think you've chosen three of the best examples from the 90s – all classics. I suppose for any others Silence of the Lambs is pretty hard to beat but I do have a soft spot for The Ninth Gate. Although not really a horror, Lost Highway is pretty unsettling.

What film has scared you the most?

"... I find those real life crime films on Netflix scary."

I don't really get scared watching horror films these days but I find those real life crime films on Netflix scary. The original Exorcist was scary when I first saw it but maybe that's because it was a bootleg and still felt a little dangerous.

For dramas I find psychological horror/thrillers the most frightening, especially the really well done ones like Diabolique and Night of the Demon. The original The Haunting and Legend of Hell House were scary when I first watched. Suspiria too.

Apart from your own film, what would be top of your watch list from this year's Dundead festival line-up?

The Dead Center looks really interesting as does Knife + Heart.

It will be great to see A Clockwork Orange in the cinema again too. It's a great line-up and I'm very grateful to have our film included.


Thank you so much for chatting to us, Grant!

Experience Far From The Apple Tree at DCA cinema Sat 4 May at 18:00, and don't forget to check out our other DUNDEAD screenings too! 

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