Michael J. Bassett

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 video...

Darren Rea: How did you get involved as a writer/director?

I've 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.

This 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.

As 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."

I'll 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.

DR: As the movie was shot on Super-35mm did that mean you had to compromise on other things to ensure the money stretched?

MJB: 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 to say?

With 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.

DR: Would you write/direct again and if you could only do one which career path would you follow?

Michael interviewing David Belemy on the Saturday morning kid's show Get Fresh.

MJB: 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.

I worked with Alan Moore years ago and I'd like to work on a comic adaptation. I'd love to do Judge Dredd right... (laughs).

DR: 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.

MJB: 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.

I 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.

DR: I understand that your Grandfather had a part to play in the story for Deathwatch.

MJB: 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.

I 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.

I 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.

There 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.

DR: When you were filming did you have a problem with the location? Didn't you have a problem getting the right sort of mud?

MJB: 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.

When 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.

We 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.

DR: Did anybody get trench foot while you were filming?

MJB: 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.

DR: 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 for.

MJB: 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." [laughs].

Fair 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 of actors.

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.

DR: 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?

MJB: 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 happens.

I 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.

We 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.

But 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.

DR: And the video?

MJB: Yes! And the video. Underline that please. I want a conservatory (laughs).

DR: 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?

MJB: 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.

DR: What about future projects? What are you up to at the moment?

MJB: 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.

DR: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to David Cox at DSA

Deathwatch is available to rent and buy on DVD (£17.99) and Video (£12.99) from 16 June 2003 from Pathe Distribution.

Keep up to date with Michael's future projects by visiting his site: http://www.michaelbassett.com

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