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Michael Bartlett (Director) - Treehouse

Interview image

Michael Bartlett was born on 10 June 1976 in London, England. He is a director and writer, known for The Zombie Diaries (2006), Timeless (2016) and World of the Dead: The Zombie Diaries (2011). Darren Rea spoke with him as his latest movie, Treehouse, was released on DVD...

Darren Rea: What, other than the money, was it that attracted you to Treehouse?

Michael Bartlett: [Laughs] Well, actually I didn't direct this film for the money. This was an unusual film.

Zombie Diaries 2 was one of those projects that I didn't want to do, and I had to in the end because I needed the cash to keep me going. They always say "Don't ever do something just for the money, or you'll end up paying for it in the long run." Which is very, very true.

Interview imageWith Treehouse, it was the first film that I've actually produced. So I went out and raised the money and actually organised the film shoot. It came to me as a script that was produced by a guy named Alex Child and his friend, Miles Harrington. Alex pitched it to me in a pub back in England in around 2009/10.

Everybody pitches you a film. You meet someone for the first time and they're like: "I've got a film idea..." I'm used to being pitched projects and I think a lot of people think that us guys in the business start to zone out, but I listen and if there's something good there, if I think it can tell an interesting story, then I'll certainly put it on the list. It's just a question of finding the time to do it. And even though his story was very different back then - when he pitched it to me it was a 50 page script with different antagonist, although most of the first act was pretty much the same - what I loved about it was that as he was pitching it I could see the poster in my head and I could see the trailer. I immediately thought it was a great story, but it was also a really commercial film - and it has to be both if I'm going to work on it.

Interview imageI have to devote two years of my life on every film I make so I don't want to put that into something that a) I think is just going to make me money, because that's never guaranteed; or b) something that's just a great story, because what's the point if no one is ever going to see it and no one is going to distribute it?

It kind of had the right elements for me and that really is the key, I think, for any producer looking for a new film, I think what normally draws them is: "Is it something I can be passionate about, and put a lot of energy and my life into, and do I think it has a reasonable chance of success as well."

DR: Are you a director that prefers to be surrounded by people he can trust? Do you strive for a good set atmosphere, or is that not something that you're concerned about, as long as the film gets made ?

MB: No, I'm definitely the former. Typically I meet every person that I'm looking to hire, when I bring them onto a film set. The approach that I take is that when I first started moving into managing people on film sets, and I'd never done it before, I really didn't know what to do. What I did was I looked at my career in the IT business, because I work in computers as a day job and always have done throughout my career of making movies. And I thought to myself: "Maybe, if I just think about, as an employee, what I was unhappy with when I had managers, and I can figure it out from there and make sure I don't make the same mistakes that my mangers did." Also I had some managers that were very good, and I thought about the things that they did that really helped me.

Interview imageSo what I do is met every person, and I don't want any egos. The goal really is that we feel like a group of friends and we're just going out and making a movie together, kind of like how we did it with the first Zombie Diaries, where I knew every member of the crew really well, that's what I strived towards. Obviously you can't know everyone that well, but you can still make some character judgements and the more that you do this the better you become at it. The general attitude that I portray, when I'm with people, and when I explain what I'm looking to do you tend to find that the people who are going to be troublesome tend not to be interested anyway. I had one guy that literally made a snide remark to me when we were getting ready to shot this film, when we didn't know what are budget was going to be, because he thought it might be too low and he said: "I didn't sign up to go and make a movie with you and your friends in the woods". This immediately gave this guy away as some body who might be a problem.

Sometimes problems come up. I remember in Zombie Diaries 2 that there were rumours going around on set that this young girl was about to be fired. She was really upset and she had to come and talk to us about it. We found out that someone who was in a position underneath her was undermining her and I had to pull the two of them out and say: "I'm not interested in any drama. You're not going to be fired, you're doing a great job." And as for the other guy: "You need to cut this out now because I can't have this atmosphere, we all need to get along and if you can't do that then you're more than welcome to leave." And from that point onwards everything was fine.

Interview imageThere are some film sets that are like that and I've been on other film sets of other directors and there have been some really irritating crew members, but that rarely happens on my films.

DR: With it being an industry that so many people are desperate to work in, it always surprises me that there are so many arrogant people in the industry.

MB: I'll give you an example - I'm sure he won't mind me mentioning his film - I worked on a film called Umbrage by a very good friend of mine called Drew Cullingham, and he pulled this gaffer in for two days, and I remember Drew's exact words: "Well... He was the only guy who responded to the ad." 'Cos I guess it was a lower budget.

This guy, from the moment I arrived on set, to the moment I left, this guy was just... If I'd probably been a foot taller and maybe another 50lbs heavier, I'd have probably have knocked the guy out. Fortunately, I wasn't in a position to do that. He was angry about things and very unprofessional. When there was a scene being shot, he turned to the guy that owned the property and quietly said: "This is so unprofessional! I don't know what these guys are doing." One of the actors overheard him and was like: "What's he doing? He's undermining the whole production." He was getting angry because his breakfast hadn't arrived on time, it was shocking. I remember thinking: "Oh, my god. If this was my film set he would have been gone in a few minutes."

Film attracts two kinds of people, I think. This may sound a little pretentious, but I believe it: It attracts people who have film making running through their blood. They want to tell great stories and they're passionate about movies. And then it attracts the second group of people who are just a bunch of odd characters who have something to prove. Unfortunately, especially with actors, you see that a lot. As a producer you've just got to make the judgement calls and take care of the issues as they come up.

Interview imageDR: In Treehouse, there's quite a long scene inside the treehouse. Were you conscious of trying to make it visually appealing for the audience; were you worried about using too few camera angels because of the space limitation?

MB: I didn't worry too much about having the same angel for people, because I'm pretty sure if you kept the same angle, but the dialogue is interesting, then it's going to be more watchable than something that has lots of angles but is really not interesting. The general rule of thumb is that one page of script translates to one minute of film, so we knew some of those scenes were going to be longer, but we were also able to cut them down because there's limited movement in the scenes as well. It's definitely a fine balance, and we were aware that those scenes were long. In answer to the question, establishing an atmosphere and a mood is very important and it's okay to not move the story forward if you're using that, just as long, as you mentioned, you're not boring the audience.

DR: In the movie you have one of the characters mention that dreams are a way to converse with the dead. Where did that idea come from?

MB: I like having characters, who come from different backgrounds, interacting with one another. So if you were to analyse the two characters, Killian is most likely just an atheist. It's set here in Missouri and he may not even necessarily be a local from Missouri, but it's very clear that Elizabeth is a local, that she's very religious. This area, that I live in now in America, is still very much in the Bible belt.

Interview imageDR: Is suspense/horror a hard genre to work in today? Is it a struggle to constantly find new ways to blind side an audience that already knows all the cliches?

MB: Err... I don't know. Horror films have pulled out a little bit recently. There's a movie coming out called The Babadook and another called It Follows which sound like they're more interested in the atmosphere and the character development than just blood and guts. If more movies like that start coming out then I think horror might start to take on a slightly different direction and move towards the more supernatural and the more mysterious. Right now, I personally don't feel there's very much to stay ahead of, because a lot of the horror films that are coming out, I feel like I've seen them a million times.

Even though I think Treehouse is an original film, it still has a familiar feel and you can't divert too far away from that. Because when you go too far away from the familiar, you end up with a film that is so different that maybe nobody understands it or wants to distribute it. That's the hard part, I think, being a filmmaker in this day and age, is that you're not just trying to make a good movie but you're trying to make something that can be distributed and that people are going to see as well. I wouldn't even necessarily say that Treehouse is even a horror film. If this was the 1970's then yes, Treehouse is a horror film. But right now, in this day and age, I think it's important that people know it's more of a suspense mystery thriller. It's more like an episode of an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode.

DR: Is there ever enough time and money?

Interview imageMB: Really, when it comes down to doing anything, you've always got to weigh up options because you can't have everything. The sound recordist would always say to me: "Do you want this on your budget? You can either get it on your budget or you can have some of the other things and pay more." He'd say there's budget, time and quality. And he'd always say with those three items you only get to have two.

With Treehouse we ran our time, for sure. We had a bad illness sweep crew and we lost our lead actor for three days, so we weren't able to completely finish the film on principal photography, and then of course our actors go back to Los Angeles and every one else goes back to Atlanta. We had to schedule some reshoots and that made the budget go up slightly as well. Over all it was worth doing the reshoots and it was worth getting things right. The quality was the most important one of those for me. I wanted to make sure that I made a film that I was really happy with and that there weren't scenes in there were I thought: "If only we'd had the money or the time to do that differently." You're always working against time and money restraints that you obviously have to do that with the quality of the film in mind and that's a call that every producer has to make.

DR: Is there any aspect of Treehouse that truly frightens you?

Interview imageMB: Actually Treehouse was based on something that actually happened to me when I was younger. I still remember the fear to this day. What it was was I was a kid walking down the road and there was this other bigger kid who basically said: "Watch out! When school's over I'm gonna come and get you!" I was only about eight years old and he was about ten. I was walking down the road in Rochester in England and on one side of me, on my left hand side, there was just a house and on the right hand side of the pavement there was a big truck and as I got between the two of them he suddenly appeared in front of me and I hear all his buddies appear around me. And I kid you not, to this day I remember how it sounded. I know this isn't really how it sounded, but it sounded like an army with marching boots circling around me. I made the whole situation much bigger than it was because I was so scared, and I guess the thing that really scared me was that there were no adults. Who was going to stop them if it gets out of hand? At that age, when someone says they're going to beat you up, you think they're going to kill you.

Interview imageThat's why when I got the script from Alex and Miles - the original antagonist were mutant hillbillies that had been drinking radioactive water - and I said I wanted to change them to be kids, because other kids are probably the scariest thing when you're a kid, especially if they're bigger than you. I actually based the big one in Treehouse on a kid I met in Missouri who I thought was a grown man. I thought he was about 25 and I found out he was 16. That was the idea that a bigger kid who terrorizes you. Jamie Bulger comes to mind as well, kids that go so far that before they know it they've killed somebody and there's no higher power to stop it. That's a really horrible fear to have as a teenager. So that's my biggest fear, from a Treehouse point of view.

DR: If you were to wake up tomorrow and find yourself in the plot of a generic horror movie, what gruesome death would you not like to befall you?

MB: The one way I wouldn't want to die... is something I saw in a movie years ago. Terrible film, but a really horrible death that stuck in my mind. They rolled a guy in a carpet and dumped him in a lake. And that idea of drowning and not being able to struggle free, I think is horrible. And I guess there's that claustrophobia because the carpet is around you, so you're all closed. So that, for me, is probably the most horrible way that anybody could die.

Interview image
With thanks to Edwin Hayfron

Treehouse is released on DVD by Signature Entertainment on 20 October 2014

Click here to buy this on DVD -

This interview was conducted on 17 October 2014.

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