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The Hoodoo That You Do:
Religious As Hell In London Voodoo

Robert Pratten
interviewed by Paul Higson

The new British film industry can take so many forms, from digital guerrilla to installation piece, but there is still one thing that goes unchanged, and that is that if you are determined to make a feature-length movie on film then it is going to cost money and those entering such a venture must be committed.
Robert Pratten
Some might add that should be committal at mental institution level. That half of a million has got to come from somewhere and it has to be put back eventually. Robert and Helen Pratten are certainly believers. Director and producer respectively, they have brought us London Voodoo, an unabashedly proud British horror film that I first chanced upon mention of... as if by magic... when looking for another film via Google. If I had not learned of London Voodoo that week, then I probably would have the next. The reason for this because the Robert and Helen have mapped out every stage of the movie from pre-production through to the final push on the finished product, making the most effective use of resources, people and time. Their technique, were it to be fully made known, could be future textbook material in the art of promotion. Their commitment cannot be underestimated, hullabaloo and drive, are, at the end of the day, everything. The distributors, markets, audiences, both specialist and in general, must be reached, must have the basic information on your product, a title and artwork at best. It is non-sensible, therefore, that one would spend on a movie and not have a website up and running to accompany it, yet many filmmakers move onto the next film, the exciting part over, ready to move onto the next exciting job leaving the film to sit idly. Robert and Helen won't be making that mistake, have covered every angle and are pursuing them.

London Voodoo was given a test screening on 13 September 2003 at the Curzon Soho cinema. From there it took the test audience reaction and conducted the hinted editing. From there the finished film went to America to drum up a more positive reaction. On 6 May 2004 London Voodoo came to the Manchester AMC for a UK final-cut premiere screening as part of the Commonwealth Film Festival. It was a return of sorts for the couple as Helen is originally from the borough and Robert studied at the City at Salford University. They are an infectious pair and deserve a hit with London Voodoo. Robert Pratten is dedicated to making horror films. Films we have made here in abundance and in the genre, but personalities we are short of, not necessarily because they are not there, but because in a world awash with promotions, it takes an especial determination to get your face out there and recognised. If the British horror film is going to recover it is going to need someone like Robert Pratten. The latest on the film is the taking of the award for 'best film' at The Boston International Film Festival. All seems to be going to plan. The interview was conducted earlier in May 2004 at The Britannia Hotel. I had not seen London Voodoo at that stage. It seemed a good idea to return to that notorious preview screening...

So we were talking about the film as it stood at the preview...

We transferred the cut from the computer, upgraded, tweaked it a little and from there it went onto DVD and that was then digitally projected. It wasn't the best quality image or the best quality sound. And the whole purpose of it was that we could get feedback on the things we could fix. It served its purpose. From that feedback we looked at the film and re-edited bits, took about seven minutes out of the film, mainly from the office scene, then in January this year we made it available on 35mm. From there we cut a neg, obviously just the bits we needed, it was scanned at hi-def, professionally graded, printed to 35mm, now of course, yeah, we're getting much better comments... even 'outstanding.'

So when you went into the test screening you realised that what you were looking for was comment on the narrative format and content rather than any actual quality at that stage?

Yes, exactly, to be honest, I didn't expect that people would say... I think it was someone wrote... "Oh, I'm tired of these DV films!" or something like that. Well, it's not shot on DV and it won't look like a DV film later. So, you know, thanks for that comment, at least I know to avoid that confusion in future, but that's not something that I'm unduly worried about. So, yeah, exactly, things like the pacing� what was at fault with their favourite scenes? A lot of people... because it was a film about voodoo... they didn't like the fact that we had so many office scenes, so we went back and shortened them a bit just to get a flavour of it, then we could get back to the house where all the voodoo is happening. Some people didn't like the fact that Americans were in it, well I can't do anything about that... the story is a 'fish out of water'. That's an important theme. My previous job was as a marketing consultant in the telephone industry and I went all around the world. As a result I think that London and New York have got quite a good tie-up in terms of the financial district and this was a film about the evils of working hard. Here was a character that thought that throwing money at stuff would fix all his problems. It seemed like a good idea to have a New York analyst coming over...

So in all honesty it was cast as an American primarily because of this fish-out-of-water theme rather than the commercial aspect of appealing to an American audience?

I can't say that it was lost on me, I'm not that completely na�ve that... America's a big country, I wasn't ignoring that, but I chose an American rather than... I could have had a Japanese or South Korean. In this story it works. It's not like another film where, for example the shopkeeper turns out to be American or someone falls in love with a girl who just happens to be an American. The fact that they are American is essential to the story. I think, in a way, that it's a little bit of either British pride or bigotry really. I mean, why is there a problem having a couple of Americans coming to London. Of the American audience to which it was show, one guy said to me, "What's nice is that it reminds me of how exotic England and London is." I can understand why people might have a problem with Americans in the film, but Americans don't think "Well, I'm only going to see a film with Americans in it!" Well, at least not the ones that have seen London Voodoo. They think it's nice because they put themselves in London and, "Bloody hell, this reminded me that I'd like to go" or, "It reminds me of the last time I went there." It's quite different.

That's an American audience and they don't differentiate but the distributors do they still differentiate?

The distributors are only interested in celebrities, so whether they are American or British they couldn't give a toss. If I had Ewan McGregor or some other really big English actor, as long as he's known in America, they'd be interested. It's easy to think that having Americans in the film is going to get it sold, but it's not. It's celebs. If you have a big name you'll sell it even if it's terrible film.

Perhaps British horror film fans and British film fans have been pushed a bit further into rejection or complaint by the fact that it is called London Voodoo. It's a great title. It establishes two things, that it is British and that it's a horror film. And you don't get that too often in horror films these days, their titles are very obscure, almost shy of their category.

Yeah, in fact, someone did say to us you've got to think twice about calling it London Voodoo because maybe people in Manchester won't like it.

Maybe you could address that with the sequel, 'Manchester Macumba'.

Yeah, just go around all the cities and capitals.

It's a terrific title. Of course, the fact that it is saying this is British and this is a horror film, of course, the British horror film fans are saying, 'It had better be a British horror film then.'

Tell you what, these are our cards that we've been handing out in America [he produces a promotional postcard for the film] and we've got the union jack on it. So even though we've got a couple of Americans in the film we're selling it to Americans as a British film. We're not selling it along the lines of, 'Come and see another couple of Americans'. I can't give you a very clear answer as to what you asked before. I can only talk regarding the feeling I've got about it, about the American audience. They like it because of its Britishness not for the fact that there are two Americans in it.

The initial concept began with a 'Ferryman' operating the Thames (who dragged out the corpses of the drowned as a sideline). Is that prior to the discovery of the body of the Nigerian child (dubbed 'Adam' by Scotland yard, determined by an investigation to have been killed in a ju-ju ritual) whose torso was fished from the Thames and did that murder influence you in the theme you took?

You know what, I don't know that it was before then... if it was or it wasn't. I'm not, like, a big history buff but we're into travel, my wife and I, and its quite nice to find out a bit of the local history when we go somewhere so when we moved to the Surrey Quays, which is on the Thames, I became receptive to stories about the Thames, of how the Thames was used as a shipping lane. I can't say for sure if the body had been discovered in the Thames before I started thinking about the ferryman idea or vice versa but certainly within a year of that thought everything had come together.

Particularly when details of magic started to come in. It was handy for research purposes because you didn't have to go out there, it was actually coming to you.

I started thinking it would be nice to have this ferryman and he drags bodies out of the Thames to keep shipping lanes free. That was historically correct. Then I thought what if he rifled pockets and there was a cursed talisman. So at that stage I think I was going down the line that other voodoo films had with voodoo being the bad guy and then with these murders and so on I started researching the voodoo and I thought well, here's a religion that brings a lot of comfort to a lot of people and I think it's a bit mean to denigrate someone's religion. So why not wrong foot the audience, why not put London Voodoo as the title then they immediately think, 'Well, the voodoo are going to be the bad guys'. Then play with people's expectations as the film goes on and throw in a few surprises for them. I don't want to say too much.

There have been a few recent takes on the urban voodoo theme, the most recent and the one that might most have worried you was Sea Of Souls, a two-part story transmitted by the BBC. It didn't concern you?

No, I didn't even see it. I don't even know about it.

I thought it might have preyed on. It was a voodoo theme in which the practitioners and wrongdoers were white and that aspect was kept secret until late in the second episode. So, no feedback on that at all, even?

No, the only film that people raised with me was a black and white one... [Naked Evil, 1966] and that's voodoo set in London. It was on the British Horror Film website and someone said, "I've never seen voodoo in London before," and someone else told him "Then you need to see this one." And I went out and bought it. You know, to be honest, though I wasn't familiar with those particular examples beforehand you do worry once you've written a script, 'Oh, I hope someone doesn't come out before me with something similar.' One guy said to me, "Awe, I don't like it, it's exactly the same as The Possession of Joel Delaney." It's this film from 1972 and I look at the film and I think, 'Well my film's nothing like that!' I can understand why he might say, I've seen that, what you're doing, I've seen it before... but our story is completely different. I'm in that position... does that mean you, the audience, have seen it all before, everything?

I've had enough of those arguments myself. They really take a film to its most basic form. I tried to explain The Brood to someone as an example of a unique premise and they said, "Oh, it's like "Rosemary's Baby." The most conceptual film ever made, so singular that if another tried to do it they might even be successfully sued, and she says, it's Rosemary's Baby, and then the third person said, it's The Exorcist. I just give up, turn my heels on them.

You do get worried though, because you've not seen that one. Then, when seen, to me it's a bit weak [the link] so you think, 'Oh god, thank Christ for that!'

Budget! It's very difficult to find details of the budget of films and breakdowns. Is there a reason for this?

The thing is, it's so misleading, as in what gets included. For example, our crew worked for minimum wage. They've got a percentage of the profits. If London Voodoo does well, then they'll get some money back. If the people that count then give face, say, that we paid all the top rates and, say, we made this film for �12 million or �6 million depending on what suits their marketing angle... it all depends how they try to position the film at the end of the day. I can think of one other film, and I'm not going to give the title, where they're saying, "This is an ultra low budget film," and I've seen varying accounts, you know, from �50,000 up to one million and it all depends on how that film wants to be positioned and so purposed of mind.

Because Helen has a financial background did that allay a greater part of the worry?

The most important thing for me was to make a film and I didn't want to sit around for ages waiting for more and more money. There is actually a lot of money around and one of the reasons the public don't spend is the lack of good scripts. If someone said to us, "We'll give you two million pound to make this film," what you have to do is sign the rights over to them and you have to put the production back into their hands... and I didn't want to do that because I could have got kicked off my own film and I think this is a really original idea, something I feel strongly about. I might only get one chance in life to get an undiluted vision while it is our money or our friend's money. So we decided, sod it! We'll make it with the money we can get. We max'ed out all of our cards, re-mortgaged our house. We had other friends or people we know who could club together to help us out. We said, well, this is how much money that we've got, what kind of film can we make with this. When I was writing the script you do what you can with the money, but there are certain choices that you can make as to where you're spieling, who you're spieling. So we knew with that money we couldn't get any stars and all these stories about all these people around who want to help you out because their settled in their career, you can't reach them because of their agents. If the agents aren't making any money, they aren't going to let you through.

That sounds like the David Warbeck story. He would provide his grand home and his acting services free to young filmmakers. Sadly, he is no longer with us.

Well, there are other stories... about Anthony Hopkins. He's given away 10 or 50 grand to someone to go away and make their film. So if you can get through to the actor... There was that story of Susan George that was total bollocks because she was a lovely, lovely woman and there are all sorts of other reasons why she didn't do the film (London Voodoo). It's really hurtful. Because her agent was one of the few who was really kind to us and she was really nice and now the whole story has been twisted 180 degrees to say that she is really mean, and it's like, "Nah, nah, hah, that's not on!" But there were other actors we tried to approach and their agents didn't want to know. To give them their due I'm an unknown filmmaker and there are a lot of fly-by-nights... so you can understand that the agents are a little bit leery about people they have never heard of who say, 'Yeah, we can definitely finance it', and then nothing comes of it. So to get back to the question we had this much money and we knew we weren't going to get any stars, but there are loads of actors out there, like Doug (Cockle, who plays Lincoln) and Sara (Stewart, who plays wife Sarah), and Vonda (Barnes, who plays Kelly, the nanny, and a budding British answer to Fairuza Balk) we discovered, really good actors, they don't often get a good break at a lead part because they can't carry the budget. If I had a budget of �2 million I would have to get some sort of star. It wouldn't be Brad Pitt but each actor has a name status that is correspondent to a particular budget. So Doug and Sara, they both liked the script and it was an opportunity for them to show that they can be lead characters in a movie. That's the reason it was such a fulfilling experience to make the film because for everyone on it this was the big break for each. The soul of the film is the teamwork; that everyone pulled together, there was nobody on set just jobbing for the money who couldn't give a toss if it was a success or not. That's a humbling thing... and that was a result of the money as well. Maybe if I'd had a higher budget I would have hired in the expertise and finished with an even better looking film with loads of special effects but that was not my ambition.

I read that the film was funded by private investment, so that was basically, you and your friends, and Helen's background is in private investment.

Yes, she's a chartered accountant. For the chartered accountancy firm she works for, she specialises in mergers and acquisitions so that's the venture capital side. What's worked well is that she's been on gardening leave and that's been exactly the right period for the film festivals and the promotion of the film.

Because of the digital age now we have directors who are quite happy to work in their genre of choice. Is that what you are going to do, or are you going to do what directors were doing ten years ago and say, "OK. I've made a horror film and that went well! Let's now skip to another genre, comedy, social realism etc, to be on the safe side. Something to fall back on if my work isn't appreciated in this genre."

No, I'd like to stay in this. I enjoy making horror movies. The thing is I want to make entertaining films with some kind of message, some sort of subversive tone. Horror films really allow you to do that, really allow you to set up certain situations, to deliver your view of the world and your view of how you would like the world to be, yet, not for it to be a preachy film�to let it be an entertaining film.

Two years ago it was going quite well for British horror in the box office with My Little Eye, Dog Soldiers, 28 Days Later, and Long Time Dead, ten British horror films released theatrically in that year. At what stage where you at that point with London Voodoo?

We were casting because I remember in my covering letter saying, look at 28 Days Later and this is why you ought to get involved because the horror things all picking up.

And you were probably thinking, woah, another year of this and we're ready... we're you aiming to release London Voodoo within another year or did you think that's not going to happen?

We were just going to release it when it was ready.

Were you surprised then when 2003 came and went and there were no British horror films of little or any impact?

I would have been disappointed just because there were no good films rather than... It's nice to think if there's a big market, there's a lot of enthusiasm because you can ride the coattails of it. I think people have short attention spans, so unless you are coming out in the last few months, then 28 Days Later is in the past. Let's say that the British Horror Films website, I don't know how many subscribers they've got, let's say there are 50 active members who are regularly contributing [330 members at time of interview], that means there are thousands of people from mainstream audiences who like horror films or like the occasional horror film. Though once 28 Days Later has been and gone you stop the average man in the street and ask him, he's never heard of it.

Do you think though, in that instance it might be a title? If it was called London Voodoo it might stick in the memory longer?

That would be nice, wouldn't it?

Many of these films, it's like they are embarrassed at being a horror film; don't wear their colours in the title.

We've had a lot of feedback on the title that people do like it. Our North American distributors say that it's going to help with the advertising in that they won't have to do so much. They say if you go through the listings and there it is... London Voodoo... it does exactly what it says on the tin. It's pretty much what you were saying.

What is the running time on the film now?

Ninety-eight minutes.

So it's shorter than before.

At least seven minutes shorter.

What is the Swedish connection with the film?

I worked for nine months in Sweden and my whole outlook on life changed during that period. I really wasn't focused and I had to work with these guys. I turned up the first day said, "Right, were going to do this, that and the other," and they said, right, it's 10 o'clock, we normally have a sandwich around now. Fucking hell, we've only been here for an hour. Calm down, this is Sweden. We do things differently, right. At first, it was very difficult to adjust to that, but by the end of that nine months I'd be, "10 o'clock, let's get a sandwich." What I found out was that they managed to getter better results without any of the aggravation.

And did you apply this method to the filmmaking?

I think that was the start of me thinking, "I'll have to do something different." It's a better life in Sweden... they're all out sailing in the Archipelago... When it came to the film...

It was only seven weeks you couldn't afford the leisurely...

That's where we say, "I've only got seven weeks to make it in but I've got a year to do the planning." To make a successful low-budget film you have got to plan everything into the finest detail and that's what we did. We had a full schedule, we knew exactly where the cameras were going to go. It was all coordinated around stuff that might take a long while, so we have got to shift the wall out of the set, then we either start with the wall out, so we take it out the night before, or we'd shoot that day and that would be the last thing we did. The logistics of making a film are so important. If you get things right you find they go smoothly.

Did you find it exciting or scary?

The biggest buzz for me is being on set and seeing the film come alive with real actors reading the lines from my script. That is the biggest excitement. Post-production, I am not too interested in, to be honest. Once it is in the can the best is over. It's only once you see a few cuts that the adrenalin comes back again. The last few weeks, watching it with an audience, well that was more nerve-wracking that making the film. I'm nervous beforehand, shooting at seven every morning, so I'm quite nervous in the approach to it. Going through my head is everything that could go wrong, stuff I need to take to the cast to approve but as soon as I get on the set then I feel very comfortable. To be honest there is not much time to worry. You just have to get on with it. I do all my worrying outside the shooting period and when I'm there and things go wrong I am pretty cool about it, "Let's get on with it!" and I think part of that is probably my consultancy training.

You're on a natural high. It's fake in a sense because you're surface calm...

Sleep for days! After it all finishes you sleep for days. On the short films we made we were just surviving, maybe shoot for a week, survive for a week without sleep on Red Bull and Pringles, but on this one we made sure we had regular breaks. So that was the Swedish connection, that's why I wanted the Swedish businessmen to be pivotal. So although their screen-time isn't very long it's a very important role in terms of the message I am delivering in the film and also the development of Lincoln and what he does later on.

Related item:
tZ  Britain Under The Spell - Voodoo in British Films and TV by Paul Higson

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