Welcome to the Trash-house: An interview for Halloween

BY Dean Newman

Pat Higgins, course leader for BTEC Extended Diploma in Creative Media Production (TV & Film), teaches students at the Thurrock Learning Campus in Grays, but by night he robs graves and is a bit of a demon with a chainsaw, all in the name of art obviously as he is a successful low budget horror filmmaker.

His films have been released on DVD all over the world and even been released theatrically in Europe.

It may seem odd that he divides his time writing and behind the lens and then teaching but he is following the trail already set by the horror alumnus of Stephen King and Nightmare on Elm Street Director, Wes Craven, who both juggled teaching and slashing jugulars.

Pat teaches 20 students and with knowing the ins and out of micro-budgeting and being a jack of all trades on his films is the perfect person to pass on real wisdom and indispensible know how in making films and programming, no matter what genre it is in.

And with the recent low budget success of Paranormal Activity (now in its third big screen outing) and Colin (a zombie move made for £45), low budget horror is currently the in thing.

Dean Newman, South Essex College’s Press and Communications Coordinator, caught up with him about some of his influences and an insight into Pat Higgins’ world of horror and low budget filmmaking.

DN: Who are your influences?

PH: It’s mainly filmmakers that went out and just did it regardless of any obstacles that may have been in their path, so very much people like Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriquez, and Kevin Smith. People who had no money and little professional experience but just decided right I’m going to put together a screenplay, put together the best package that I can and just go out and actually make it.

In terms of tone I’d definitely also add Joe Dante to that list, if there is anyone I owe a huge debt to with comedy horror hybrids then it his him in particular. I vividly remember seeing Gremlins when I was about 11 and it just had this huge impact on me. And not forgetting Fred Dekker as well, with Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad, again very 80s but it’s just a nice fusion of comedy and horror.

DN: What horror movies do you hold in high regard?

PH: I’ve got a lot of love for The Shining, which I think is perhaps the greatest horror movie ever made, the original Robert Wise version of The Haunting and The Exorcist. I think The Shining is pretty much the perfect horror movie as its just got images that drill into your head and just stay there.

Stephen King was not a huge fan and called it a beautiful car without an engine, but I don’t actually think he is right, there is an engine there and is revving really fast but it is so beautifully made that you can’t hear the engine, it doesn’t leave the traces you might usually get.

The Exorcist is smart, is not afraid of its subject matter in a way that a lot of movies dealing with that sort of thing might be and is willing to credit its audience with some intelligence. And The Haunting is just a beautiful, crisp, perfect movie. I love it, a lot, but do have a huge amount of hatred for the remake. Although I think the greatest scare shot of all time for me has to be in the much butchered The Exorcist III.

DN: Like many filmmakers were you bitten by the film bug at an early age.

PH: Film was what I’d always wanted to do; I’ve still got Super-8 footage that I filmed when I was little, unleashing stop-motion monsters on Essex, then life got in the way but the love of film never went away.

I worked in video shops, cinemas, anything to be near film. I then found myself stuck in a call centre during the dot-com boom, literally writing screenplays between calls.

I bought stock in it when it floated on the stock-market, borrowing cash from family and friends, watched the company rocket and then sold it off. I paid back everyone that very week, but more importantly had enough money for a broadcast quality camera and an edit suite. With that we made our first film, TrashHouse, which won the Best Screenplay award at the 2005 Tromafling Festival in Edinburgh, and was also runner-up for Best UK Feature.

DN: Obviously you are working with low budgets, what are the advantages and disadvantages?

PH: The idea of losing the writing freedom at the scripting stage is something I would find almost impossible to let go of and move up the budgetary scale. The worst limitation however is that if there is something you really want to do you can just find that you just don’t have the resources to realise it, which is something we certainly came across in TrashHouse.

In terms of KillerKiller we had this wonderful location, the former Warley Hospital near Brentwood (now largely converted into luxury flats) and we couldn’t shoot in it for nearly as long as we needed as it just cost too much, so it’s those kind of brick walls that you keep running into really that make you think, damn it, if only I had an extra few thousand pounds in the bank.

It is a very different creative process though not being able to just hose things with money and make them go away or appear. I’m very used to that way of thinking now and I just love the freedom that comes with it.

Working with low budgets you get to have the final say on absolutely everything from the script, casting, editing, to even the promotional campaign. We’ve occasionally tweaked things to make them that little bit more commercial but that has been our decision. Ultimately I’m answerable only to me and others in the company, me and my wife.

DN: What advice would you give to any budding filmmakers or writers?

PH: The first thing I would say is don’t record important scenes onto a head-cleaning cassette, which is the voice of bitter experience (laughs). Other than that I’d say learning to shoot with what you’ve got rather than with what you’d like to have.

It’s solid advice from Robert Rodriquez and I wished I’d listened to it more on my first film where I thought I’m going to do this and that and in the end don’t think I took the full advantage of all the good things that I did have for free and was trying to overreach on other stuff.

In terms of writing though it is still the one place where we can really beat Hollywood and really can do stuff that they can’t do. They are always going to kick our arse in terms of special effects but in a way that can make it all the more creative.

The low budget gift and the ones who have really made the most of the medium are the ones who have made sure the script is perfect, we care about it and it comes from the heart before it goes in front of the camera. They’ve really taken that to heart and been a success as a result.

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