David Black interviews the master of genre movies, Stuart Simpson
David Black – Hi everyone. Tonight, I am going to be chatting with Stuart Simpson, who is known for some very stylised, off the wall films, such as The Demons Amongst Us, Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla and El Monstro Del Mar. But Stewart’s history goes back way further. In fact, way back to 1999 to working on tv shows such as Recovery, The Micallef Program, Welcher & Welcher, Spicks and Specks, and others.
Hi Stuart. Your film work, since at least 2006, has been crazy, genre films. Often with bucket loads of blood and slimy monsters. Some of it looks very guerrilla in the locations that you shot at too. Yet your start seems to have been in very secure, conservative tv studios. I gotta ask, what prompted you to go from a fairly safe, regularly paid existence to dive right into the crazy world of b grade, shlock movies?
Stuart Simpson – Well, I’ve been a freelancer at ABC for 20 years now! I began as a camera assistant on Recovery which was far from conservative. It was an amazing experience and was surrounded by inspiring young people of the same age all doing really cool stuff. Around that time I started making short films and video clips which naturally lead to my first feature Demons Among Us. Being a freelancer allowed me to still have the time to pursue my passion for film but I still had to make stuff within my means which was basically no budget productions! And look I love all cinema from Trash to High Art, it’s all relevant to me but in saying that, most of my dvd/vhs collection is b-grade genre stuff. It’s fun.
DB – You wrote, directed, filmed and edited The Demons Amongst Us in 2006. I take it that this was a side project while you were still working for the tv studios?
Stuart Simpson – Yeah Demons was a tough one. It was my first attempt at something long form and since we could only shoot on weekends it ended up taking 2 years to shoot. Too many characters and locations!
DB – I noticed that it came out on Troma. That has to be the dream of many a local indie horror movie maker. Can you tell me a bit about how that came about?
Stuart Simpson – Yeah being massive fans of Toxic Avenger, Surf Nazis Must Die, etc, we were all pretty happy about that. Llyod Kaufman had seen the film at Perth’s Rev Film Festival in person but I had flown over there the week after so just missed meeting him. It was actually one of the festivals volunteers that told me he saw it and loved it. She even gave me his contact email! So yeah I contacted Lloyd and he was awesome and it ended up on Troma.
DB – The Demons Amongst Us (2006) is highly stylised. The opening scenes have a Sergio Leone style but in a more Aussie suburban setting. There is also a bit of a Hitchcock feel in the mounting tension and some of the framing of shots. I can even pick elements straight out of Will Eisner’s book, “Comics and Sequential Art.” After that, there are just so many different types happening in the movie that I lost count. I felt that they all worked and helped keep the viewer off balance as it was impossible to find a comfort zone amongst it all. I am curious as to how that all came about. What are your influences, and were you experimenting here to see what directions you would take in the future?
Stuart Simpson – Thank you. My main reason for the different styles was to help get the audience into the chaotic mindset of the protagonist and his decent into madness. The last time I watched it years ago, I thought, “man I went a bit overboard with this”, haha, but yeah I was definitely experimenting and trying out different approaches to mood and atmosphere. My influences change from project to project. Depending on the themes explored I usually research the hell out of it in both film and art/books etc. I think it’s important not to just take influences from cinema otherwise you run the risk of repeating someone else’s style or vision.
DB – El Monstro Del Mar (2010) seems to be more settled in style. It still has the Sergio Leone feel with the B&W and washed out colours, but this time brings in a bit of Tarantino. The first thing that stood out to me was that you had Norman Yemm in this. Usually, indie movie makers have lots of new or unknown names, but Norman was a well-established actor and his performance in the movie is just amazing. How did you meet him and how did he come to be in El Monstro.
Stuart Simpson – Norman was fantastic to work with. Even though it was again a very low budget film, he treated everyone and the film like a complete professional. I was having a lot of trouble trying to find someone to play the role of Joseph. It was harder than I thought casting an older role like that and spoke about it to Richard Wolstencroft (MUFF director and film maker) who had a small acting role in the film. He had only just finished up shooting with Norman on his own film, “The Beautiful and Damned” and suggested him. In this context I thought yeah ok, if he is up for working on low budget genre films like Richards’ then he might be up for being in a giant sea monster film! I called him and he was really approachable with a great sense of humour and was totally up for it. After all he had made a low budget horror film back in the 70s, “Night Of Fear”, so he knew what he was in for.
DB – The biggest thing that struck me in El Monstro is the monster itself. From the earlier scenes with lots of tentacles to the mega huge thing at the end with a vagina détente type mouth that wreaks destruction and leaves goo everywhere. How did you manage to make such an amazing creature in a low budget movie?
Stuart Simpson – Well that was due to the inventiveness of Nick Kocsis, my long-time collaborator and FX maestro of NK FX, having to create something from nothing basically. There were many different parts to creating the overall impression of the monster. We had the tentacle ends with gnashing mouths which were basically long ladies evening gloves Nick got from an op shop an covered in liquid latex and painted and added teeth and then puppeteered (both in and out of the water). We had longer ones that did open and close on those cheap foam pool noodles for more action shots where we needed a bunch of them in the final scene. And then we had the Monster itself which Nick made from Latex as well so it could be submerged in a pool and shot under water. The model itself is only about 40cm long but under water looked massive. We stuck it onto the end of a mob handle and pulled it away from camera and then reversed the footage so the action of the tentacles looked like the creature was leading with them. The hand puppets in the ocean were puppeteered by our producer, Fabian Pasani, in a diving outfit weighted just right so he was buoyed just under the surface of the water. So yeah I had some good guys working on it to help pull it all together.
DB – I’ve discussed Chocolate, Strawberry, Vanilla a couple of weeks back with the writer Addison Heath, so I will skip that and go straight to another one of your amazing monster films. In your segment for ABC’s of Death 2.5, M is for Mutant/ Baby did a bat thing – again we see amazing creatures. Instead of one giant one, we see a horde of winged beasties ripping the crap out of people. Can you tell me a bit about how you made these creatures and managed to bring them to life?
Stuart Simpson – Again Nick Kocsis created a single bat based on some rough designs I gave him out of silicon with a wire skeleton that could be posed and articulated into different positions. I then mounted it against a green screen and animated it from several different angles with different movements to give the appearance that it could be a different bat. And then I composited them into the footage, often having to cut out the actors as a separate layer so the bats could pas behind them. It was a very time consuming practice and the first time I’d really done stop animation to that extent but I’m very happy with the way it turned out.
DB – It’s going to be impossible to cover all of the amazing things you have been involved with film wise here from the shorts, to music videos, to promo videos for Monster Pictures to the features, so I am going to throw this one out to you to discuss the highlights of your movie career, any interesting stories.
Stuart Simpson – Ah that’s a tough one, every project has its stories both up and down. I’ll never forget when shooting El Monstro out in the bay with two boats, one that I was shooting from and the other that featured the actors. The actor navigating the boat saw that we were veering closer for the shot and decided to slow down but not being an experienced boater speed up instead and ended up mounted their boat on top of ours momentarily. That was pretty hairy, no was hurt thank god. And I have to say it was a highlight getting Glenn Maynard to walk butt-naked, shaved head to to toe, in public for Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla. We really just sort of blocked off the street ourselves with walkie talkies and pretending to be council workers with hi-viz vests and all that. Most of my shoots have an element of guerrilla film making so often I’m just hoping the cops don’t rock up and shut it down.
DB – With your future plans. I did notice that Dragon Force is one of the current projects and the ten minute short at Trasharama totally blew me away with the Asian cinema stylisations. There seems to be a current trend locally to explore the Asian genre with Nathan Hill’s “Revenge of the Gweilo” and Addison Heath’s “Mondo Yakuza”. Can you tell me a bit about Dragon Force and why you chose this genre?
Stuart Simpson – Dragon Force X as you say started as a short film. Its played really well at Monsterfest last year and won audience award in the short film category. I’m currently in pre-production for a 12 ep webseries in that 80s action/supernatural/horror/adventure genre. My reason for the genre came out of travelling around Vietnam last year. I was there for a holiday with my partner, Raphaelle, and I was shooting footage with the new iPhone 7. I was amazed at the quality and inspired by the awesome locations I just had to shoot something that I could edit with when I got home. I thought what can I shoot here without sound and with bad acting i.e. me. I instantly thought of the great supernatural/psychedelic/martial arts films shot in South East Asia like the Boxer’s Omen, Mystics in Bal, Raw Force, etc. So I wrote and shot and sort of making it up as we went along but after awhile it all came together and then when we got home I shot a bunch of green screen fx and overdubbed the whole film (including American actor Walker Hare for my voice over) with an awesome and very authentic sounding 80s sound design by Dan Macdonald and original synth score by Jesse Breckon-Thomas. It was a heap of fun for everyone involved so I’m looking forward to expanding this story and characters. Only this time its been amped up to 11 with multiple countries and crazy story lines. Keep an eye out for Dragon Force X!
Thanks for chatting to me today Stuart. Any links you need added go here …..
DRAGON FORCE X: www.facebook.com/DragonForceX