Michael J. Bassett admits that he left it a little
late to become a director. Originally he wanted to become
a vet but ended up doing a host of different media related
jobs including working as a wildlife photographer and working
as a TV presenter with Gaz Top and Charlotte Hindle on the
Children's weekend TV show Get Fresh. Darren Rea caught
up with Michael as Deathwatch, the first movie he has
written and directed, was about to be released on DVD and
Rea: How did you get involved as a writer/director?
never been to film school so the only way I've learned is
to watch movies and read magazines to see what film makers
said about their work.
sounds a bit bizarre, but it was a quote from Martin Scorsese
[pictured left] that gave me as much information about directing
as I've ever needed. I read in a magazine that while he was
shooting Cape Fear there was a day when they were pushed
for time and they are shooting a scene where Nick Nolte and
Jessica Lange are leaving the house. The director of photography
(DOP) said: "We've got them all framed coming out of
the house." And Scorsese said: "No I don't want
Nick Nolte in the frame". And the DOP said: "But
they are coming out of the house together...". To which
Scorsese replied: "No. At this point of the movie I don't
want them in the same frame any more because of their relationship.
I can use the frame in the edit to show how they are at odds
with each other." So
that was like a film lesson for me in one little moment.
a writer/director, clearly you're arrogant and clearly you
have a large ego otherwise you wouldn't be involved in the
first place. So obviously you want to bring your vision to
the screen. But I was surrounded by producers, financiers
and other people who had made loads of movies and they were
giving me a chance. You have a conflict there because I'm
obviously saying: "I wrote this script I think it should
be done this way". While a bunch of people are telling
me: "That's fine but you don't know what the hell you
are doing... yet."
never make a movie the way I did Deathwatch. The next
time around it will be "This is the way I want to do
it". That way the mistakes will be my mistakes.
As the movie was shot on Super-35mm did that mean you had
to compromise on other things to ensure the money stretched?
Oh yes, sure. But I had to decide what that sacrifice was
worth to me. We'd storyboard sequences that would then have
to be cut because they would have been too expensive to shoot.
The film was supposed to have been bigger at the end. But
it was a case of "Nah! Get rid off all that. You can't
afford it." It forces you to think very carefully about
what the really story of the film is. What are you trying
Deathwatch, the story is about Shakespeare, a young
man realising what the right thing to do is. There are a lot
of horror elements that ended up on the cutting room floor.
You can now see these on the DVD release and make your own
mind up as to whether we should have left them in or out.
Would you write/direct again and if you could only do one
which career path would you follow?
interviewing David Belemy on the Saturday morning kid's
show Get Fresh.
Directing, definitely. It's a power thing. The writer has
very little power. My medium for story telling is film. There
are a few things I want to do. I'm currently developing a
sci-fi project. The script isn't ready yet but it's a good
idea and is a great opportunity to make a low budget, British
sci-fi movie. I'm going to rewrite that. I'm not saying "no"
to anything at the moment.
worked with Alan Moore years ago and I'd like to work on a
comic adaptation. I'd love to do Judge Dredd right...
I think that a lot of fans were surprised that Dredd took
his helmet off for most of the movie. The whole point of a
character like Dredd is that you don't see his face.
Yeah and Stallone should have been smart enough to know that
he didn't need to take his helmet off. You know it's Stallone
under there... it should have been Clint Eastwood anyway.
like my fantasy to hurt a little. I don't want to go down
the road of Lucas' world - what is all that about. The new
Star Wars movies are horrible. There supposed to be
kids films... so what the hell is all this trade federation
stuff? Kids don't get that! That's why I passionately feel
that sci-fi is up for grabs right now. Effects are cheap now,
relatively speaking. We could afford some digital effects
in Deathwatch and we had no money.
I understand that your Grandfather had a part to play in the
story for Deathwatch.
Deathwatch came into existence for two reasons really.
I wanted to make a low budget horror movie, really because
it's a good way to start because the genre has a good core
audience. What sort of horror is good? Haunted house movie
is great because it is a contained environment. But I wanted
to find another contained environment and I had this book
that my Grandfather gave me called Covenants of Death which
contained photographs of the trenches in the First World War.
This is an antiwar book so you see dead guys, people blown
apart, soldiers eating their breakfasts next to their dead
comrades and not caring.
was told not to look at this and so, at eight years old, I
climbed up and pulled it down. It was pretty much my first
encounter with real death. So I thought that the trenches
would provide a great backdrop for a haunted house horror
movie. But I didn't want to make a movie that was dismissive
of the the horrors that really went on. The war was horrific
enough, I wanted to expand on the nature of the horrors that
the men thought they were going through. I'd read a lot of
interviews with survivors of the war and it was the environment
that they were scared of.
wanted to give the viewer, not just the horror element, but
something else. It would be very nice if you could think about
it at the end, and it would be nice if the audience could
think about it at the end, and it would be nice if they disagreed
about it. What was going on? What did it mean? These are good
things to have in a movie. It shows that you are not dismissive
of the audiences intelligence.
are some film makers out there that say: "Let's do an
action movie where people get the shit kicked out of them"
because they think that's enough. And it's not. That's why
The Matrix was so profound - it has something to say.
When you were filming did you have a problem with the location?
Didn't you have a problem getting the right sort of mud?
The film was shot on an old military base in the Czech Republic,
about 25 miles outside of Prague. When I shot the test film,
which you can see on the extras on the DVD, in Shropshire
I hit the water table and the trench kept getting flooded
all the time.
we were digging out the trenches in Prague the soil was a
wonderfully dry, red soil. But I wanted it to look dark and
muddy and crap. So the production designer made some phone
calls and discovered that they were dredging the local river
and there were hundreds of tons of this foul, black mud available.
So we got them to just dump it in our trench. It all smelt
of fish and half rotting vegetation, but once we started adding
the rain to it - we added 60 000 litres a day to the set -
it was a perfect environment.
shot between between November and December in the trenches
and it was freezing at night, so we'd have to go in with hammers
and pickaxes the next day to be able to use the set.
Did anybody get trench foot while you were filming?
I did! (Laughs). And I still have it. It's 18 months later
and I still have this bloody foot infection that I can't get
rid of that I got in the trenches. Everybody got injured in
some way. Lawrence [Fox] got bronchitis, a nearly blew up
Jamie when an explosion went off a little too early and Andy
Serkis hurt his arm.
How did you get them to agree to be involved? Surely they
would have run a mile if you'd told them what they were in
Ah, the thing about actors is that you get them in a nice,
comfy room and they do their read through and you say to them:
"This is going to be the hardest shoot you ever do."
And they all went: "Great!" I told them that, if
it worked, it would feel real. It would be oppressive and
difficult. And again they all went: "Great!" Then
you get them out there and they go: "Oh! Hang on a sec."
play to the guys. Once they were in it they realised that
it wasn't really an acting thing, more a reacting thing -
which is what they wanted. Once you are in there in the mud
and the rain you can really appreciate what it must have been
like to have been a soldier in WWI. None of them liked it
- they're not insane. But they bonded together as a group
They didn't stay in their trailers. They built a hut, which
they slept in. It was a very small percentage of what the
real soldiers whet through, but I think it really helped.
When you were filming did you have the DVD release at the
back of your mind? Were you thinking about what extras you
could include back then?
I'm a huge fan of DVDs. I think it is a brilliant format and
that it will rescue cinema - especially low budget cinema.
Screens are harder to get now that the multiplexes have got
everything. I still think you can make a living out of DVD
films. And eventually it will be self publishing as well.
I love the idea that I can shoot something on DVD, I can edit
it at home and I can press it too. Pretty soon you'll be able
to get subscription specialist movies. I really hope that
did try and keep a video diary during the filming of Deathwatch
and if you watch the DVD extras you'll see that. But you are
so damn busy as a director you can't go: "Sorry everybody,
I'm going to do my video diary now". Otherwise you look
like an idiot. There are some deleted scenes and other bits
and pieces on the DVD, but I would have liked to have done
a director's cut of the movie.
also had to trim a few of Lawrence's comments on the commentary
for legal reasons. He kept going on about this rat that he
thought had died during the filming. He kept going on about
it even though the rat didn't die.
at the end of the day you'll get people who don't want any
extras - they just want to watch the movie. But I do want
them to buy the DVD.
And the video?
Yes! And the video. Underline that please. I want a conservatory
The movie doesn't really have any heroes in the typical Hollywood
sense of the word. Even Shakespeare left his comrade to die
at the start of the movie. A lot of films are like that at
the moment. Why do you think this is?
You're right and I think it is a kick against the Hollywood
concept of what a hero should be. I think moral ambiguity
is the way of the world. And Jamie's character did start as
a coward. In a weird way, all the characters are facets of
my personality. While I'd love to think that I was one of
the guys who could deal with the situation, I'm pretty sure
that, as a young man, If you put me in the middle of a war
situation I would run away from it. I want to be a hero, but
I would have been a coward.
What about future projects? What are you up to at the moment?
I'm working on a UK financed, but US set, psychological thriller
called The Unblinking Eye. But then I'd like to climb
back into fantasy and the sci-fi genre after that. As I said
earlier, sci-fi is there for the taking.
Thank you for your time.
thanks to David Cox at DSA
is available to rent and buy on DVD (£17.99) and Video
(£12.99) from 16 June 2003 from Pathe Distribution.
up to date with Michael's future projects by visiting his