Richard Waters explains his journey to making the found-footage horror In A Stranger’s House.
The dreaded sophomore effort. Uff… No matter how well prepared you are, you just can’t ever really be ready.
My journey started off strong in 2010, with the feature film I co-produced with Alison Scarff for director Michael McCudden, called Sodium Party. Just two years later, Alison and I were making the romcom The O’Briens with Sodium star Slaine Kelly, which was my debut as a feature film director (unless you count the terrible feature I made as a teenager). Released in 2013, that little film achieved far beyond its station.
Those first two features were ultra low-budget, and absolute challenges to make, but our entire team had the passion to make them, and nothing could stop that desire. When we were making Sodium Party, I thought ‘that’s it. After this, we won’t have to struggle to make our next feature’. Then on a very slightly higher budgeted The O’Briens, I thought ‘that’s it. This shows we aren’t a one-hit wonder. People will definitely help us make our next feature’.
Oh boy, was I wrong…
The following years were like a record stuck in a groove. We never had a look in with funding bodies. We found ourselves meeting with more and more people who swore up and down that they could definitely get this or that film made, only to go silent after months or years of time wasted working with them. I made a huge mistake of signing on to a ‘big budget’ crime feature that was ‘funded and ready to shoot in six months’, but of course had no money and no chance of shooting. Ever. But by the point I realised this was dead on arrival, the momentum from The O’Briens had slowed, and I was back in the cycle of trying to get scripts through application phases and meeting people who could “definitely” make the film happen. I never stopped chasing making my next feature, but the excitement of filmmaking became the drudgery of trying to be a salesman of my own ideas and failing miserably. I wouldn’t say I ever lost my passion, but my energy became redirected into my work as an editor for TV and trying to make a living, only peppering my cinematic passions with short films, music videos, the odd skit, and lots of writing that we could never get off the ground.
My lowest point though, was last year, in 2017, when Alison and I helped make a teaser episode of a TV show we were pitching with some friends, and I clashed quite dramatically – for me, at least – with one of the heads of departments. Feeling compromised beyond reason, the project ended up being disappointing for me, and the experience was a sour one that knocked my usually unwavering resolve and confidence. So I locked myself away from the film world to lick my wounds.
Or at least I tried to. With about a week’s notice, Alison and I were surprised with an invite to attend the inaugural New Blood pitch/workshop at the massively popular Frightfest in London – one of my all-time favourite festivals. The refreshingly candid conversations with passionate filmmakers spurred Alison and myself on to one of our most creative periods, in which we are still in to this day. We continued our conversations and pitches, all the while making secret plans of how to turn a budgetarily realistic idea into a film off our own backs. We could and would figure this out.
Not a month later, I found myself house-sitting in the family home. With the creative spark sizzling, I decided to try something… different. With Alison’s Canon 7D and a creepy porcelain doll I still have no clue why we have in the house, I filmed myself in a found footage-style sequence that involved some camera and editing trickery to bring the supernaturally-tinged scene to life. And it worked.
Definitely not spooky
Bolstered by this, I figured out an entire narrative and began doing research to help fill in the holes needed to make the story fulfilling for a viewer. Drawing inspiration from some of my favourite found footage films and a fascination with creepy internet videos, I went for a raw shooting style to try emulate that feeling of watching something real. The influences of the likes of the Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Creep are pretty clear, but it’s Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek and the 1963 version of The Haunting that I drew on most, to drive home the realism and bring a more palpable terror than just jump scares.
Surprisingly, shooting the film by myself with zero budget wasn’t all that cumbersome. Beyond some logistical planning for the more ghostly sequences, and editing as I went along to make sure the pace and story were on track, the biggest challenges were losing my camera knowledge to make the footage more amateur, and delivering lines in a less coherent yet more realistic way. Basically the antithesis of a typical film. Not one to usually consider myself an actor, my choice to step in front of – or primarily behind, I suppose – the camera became part of the thrill of the challenge for me.
I had to deliver as realistic a film by myself, starring myself, using techniques I had to pull off alone. And bar the involvement of a few actors for a few seconds of screen time, everything to do with In A Stranger’s House is me. I don’t say that to be boastful. I’d much prefer to be back in my team with Alison, Michael and Slaine, but after the disheartening experience the previous year, and before that, a long stretch of rejection, being able to get back on the horse, on my own terms, was empowering. The stakes felt low, and the rewards high. If I couldn’t pull it off, who else would really know? At the very least, I could look and tell myself I made something without compromise.
Beyond the production, I cut the film, made the music, did the sound design – I could write a whole essay on that nightmare – created the poster, transcribed and timed the subtitles, QCed the film, and I am reaching out to any and everyone I can to share what has proven to be a much bigger endeavour than I expected 14 months ago when I decided to try a little experiment.
I made a genuine passion film using all the skills I could, to try captivate and terrify the audience, and most importantly, not to bore them. The reactions so far have been so much more positive than I expected, with people connecting to the story and being able to tell that this film isn’t something that was rushed together in a weekend but born out of a genuine love for horror and creepy stories.
My ultimate lesson from this whole experience has to be that having money makes filmmaking easier, but in lieu of that, passion and a stubbornness not to quit definitely make up a lot of ground.
In A Stranger’s House is available via VOD to buy/rent from Amazon and irishhorrorfilm.com worldwide now.