Kiwi horror story with a happy ending

By Helen Frances

Helen Frances meets a young film-maker with a bright future

Paul Campion says he enjoyed the research that went into the making of his first feature film, The Devil's Rock. Photo / Supplied
Paul Campion says he enjoyed the research that went into the making of his first feature film, The Devil's Rock. Photo / Supplied

Inside a damp concrete bunker, all hell has been let loose. Body parts litter the floor around an altar draped with a swastika flag. Out of the shadows crawls a woman smeared with blood.

The Devil's Rock, funded by the New Zealand Film Commission and showing on 14 screens nationwide, is director/scriptwriter Paul Campion's first full-length feature. By the time this scene was shot, he was well over first-day nerves.

"I remember standing on set, I'd been prepping it for months and it had been building up and building up," Campion says.

"Then here we are - first day. The actors are there, the director of photography is there, the camera operators and make-up artists, everyone is kind of milling around, and the first assistant director who runs the set turned to me and said, 'OK how do you want to block the scene?"'

Campion (no relation to Jane) had been working towards this moment for as long as he can remember. The expat Brit, now living in New Zealand, grew up on Doctor Who, The Base (1999), Blake's 7 and Star Wars.

"[Then] I wanted to work in special effects, perhaps because I was 6 years old."

Working as a freelance illustrator when computers and Photoshop superseded the airbrush illustration he was doing, Campion returned to university and gained a masters degree in computer animation. Within six months of leaving college he landed his first feature film job, on Lord of the Rings.

He says there is a huge difference between visual special effects (VSFX) and directing.

In VSFX, "you are just a very small cog in a very big wheel, working to someone else's ideas and direction. With directing, you have creative control over pretty much everything."

Campion gained experience making low-budget music videos - basically pointing a miniDV camera at a band then editing - and several short films. During his involvement with the 48-Hour Film Festival, he met the co-writers for his short film Night of the Hell Hamsters, an award-winning 15-minute horror-comedy.

His three-minute movie Eel Girl, in which a fishy-looking female specimen engulfs an obsessed scientist, also won awards. He carries them on his cellphone as a kind of mobile CV.

Night of the Hell Hamsters was his first time working with actors and a proper crew.

"I think half of directing is people management. You've got a big team and you have to get them all working on the same page creating your vision, and contributing as well."

He says directing is very fluid.

"It's one thing when you've got it in your head and another when you walk on set. You can plan and plan it, but it's different when you are standing on set. Maybe the lighting has changed slightly, or they can't put the camera there because you can't move that bit of set.

"Suddenly you have to adapt on the fly. That's when it becomes quite stressful and you've got people standing around waiting for you to make that decision."

The director may make the final decision, but he has others - such as the director of photography and camera operators - helping the process.

"They are trying to work out how to shoot it as well and looking to you to see how you want to shoot it. When everyone else on that set was far more experienced than me, it was quite nerve-racking."

Campion has found directing requires an all-round set of skills to deal with the different aspects of film-making - from finance and getting the money together to deciding how to spend it and then selling the film around the world.

On the technical side, keeping up with the changing techniques of digital filming is essential.

Then there is the creative aspect of film-making, which encompasses every art form - story-telling and writing, acting, photography, costume design, make-up and music.

"I think that is one of the joys of directing - you have a finger in all of these different creative areas."

And he is grateful for the support he has found in New Zealand.

"When I first went to see Richard Taylor at Weta Workshop about doing the make-up for The Devil's Rock, he straight away said 'yes, we'll help you'."

Campion particularly enjoys the research side of directing.

On the Channel Islands, he says, he delved into history and the black arts as part of research for The Devil's Rock, reading five 250-year-old books locked in a vault (he can't say where).

Written in old French and Latin, the "Bad Books" include recipes from folklore - "things to make your crops grow and how to heal cuts by putting moss on them".

"Then they start going a little bit darker - how to make your neighbour's milk turn sour or how to make the girl next door fall in love with you, or give warts to the person who sold you a lame cow ... all the way through to instructions on summoning demons."

Campion used his artistic skills to make his own esoteric version of a Bad Book for the film.

He enjoys creating a roller-coaster ride for audiences. For a first-time director, a horror film is "good to cut your teeth on".

Campion has more scripts on the way, a manager in the US dealing with some of his projects, and he is talking to producer Leanne Saunders about a sequel to The Devil's Rock.

- NZ Herald

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