While many of his fellow peers were enjoying St. Patrick’s Day by celebrating Irish culture with pints of green beer, director Phil Hu and his crew were trudging through the mud at Sifton Bog during their last day of shooting of Hu’s film, The Bog Witch.
Hu is one of many students participating in the Fanshawe College First Take Film Festival, which returns April 21 to Wolf Performance Hall. The festival, which is organized by students of the Advanced Filmmaking program and featuring selected student films, is the culmination of years of hard work and a lifetime of passion for cinema.
With a notable title nod to 1999’s groundbreaking The Blair Witch Project, Hu tackled the horror genre looking for a challenge.
“It’s about the transformation of a character that starts off as a victim in prey,” Hu explained about his work. “And the transformation of her becoming the hunter.”
One of the challenges any horror director faces is elevating the genre beyond schlock. Often overlooked and underappreciated by critics, the horror genre can be used to address some of humanities most taboo subjects. In the case of The Bog Witch, Hu tried to focus less on genre boundaries, and use story as a means to zero in on issues such as mental health.
“I’m trying to add a different layer to horror instead of just being a slasher flick, or cheap scares, or jump scares,” He added. “I just feel that it’s more believable and more realistic to be able to have a character that people are able to identify with, or rather empathize with.”
Mind over matter
Mental illness, while not always handled carefully enough in the genre, can result in some phenomenal horror films. Both Roman Polanski’s 1965 thriller Repulsion and the lesser known Let’s Scare Jessica to Death in 1971 are prime examples of unsettling portraits of people struggling with illness. With the topic of mental health a more widely discussed issue in 2018, Hu was able to attract more talent to his project.
Alisa Erlikh, who has previously done sound for film and more recently tried her hands at acting, was drawn to the production because of its themes.
“This film deals with mental health, and the border between the supernatural and real,” Erlikh explained. “So it’s something that’s relevant to today and something that’s close to my heart.”
Costarring with Erlikh is Tabitha Carter, a former Theatre Arts student at Fanshawe who has been involved with multiple student projects ranging from theatre to short films. After scrambling to replace an actress at the last minute, Hu was able to cast Carter for the role.
Weather takes a toll
Sunny skies and nicer weather on the last day of shooting may have been easier on the scream queens, but the previous day told another story.
“I came into filming yesterday evening – very freezing – I was not out near as long as the rest of the crew.” Carter recalled.
It’s worth mentioning that roles in low budget horror films can often be very grueling on the cast. One notable example is the 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Between the long days under the Texas sun (with a variety of horrendous odors) and nearly every cast member obtaining injuries during filming (from cuts and burns to hammer blows and falling from windows), director Tobe Hooper once claimed that everyone hated him by the end of production.
Fortunately for the cast and crew of The Bog Witch, the shoot was organized well and the discomforts of the outdoor scenes were minimized according to Erlikh.
“The actual acting did require a lot of running and tripping and falling,” she stated. “The snow… you know, it’s cold and wet but it’s bearable. The adrenaline got me through.”
The problems that can arise during outdoor shooting were something that Hu wanted to conquer.
“I wanted to do something challenging as a student film,” he explained. “I think I’m the only production in my class that did totally outside.”
Using natural light may not have left Hu’s gaffer grip, Justin Smith, with much to do on set of The Bog Witch but he’s still gained enough experiences from the Advanced Filmmaking program while working on other student films. Besides gaffer grip, Smith has also been second AD, script supervisor, and assistant camera.
A fan of b-movie creature features such as Gremlins and Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, Smith become an avid movie lover while working at a video rental store. Staying true to his influences, he directed his own short film, My Freaky Story, a documentary on the 1990’s YTV animated show Freaky Stories about a cockroach and a maggot in a greasy diner telling urban legends. 90’s kids will probably remember the shows catchphrase “This is a true story, it happened to a friend of a friend of mine”.
There’s an old belief about film school that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. The Tisch School of the Arts in New York has given the cinematic world some of its most famous talent, including Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, and John Waters. The USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles is equally as impressive with notable alumni such as George Lucas, John Milius, and Sam Peckinpah.
Schools in Europe, such as the Łódź Film School in Poland (Andrzej Munk, Andrzej Wadja, and Krzysztof Kieślowski were all students) and the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow (student Andrei Tarkovsky is often considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and film montage pioneer Sergei Eisenstein also lectured at the school) can have a certain appeal to aspiring filmmakers who want to be included among some of the most celebrated artists of the medium.
So where does London’s own film school stand?
For both Hu and Smith, the Fanshawe program was a worthwhile investment and they see no need to pursue the glory associated with the more famous schools. Costs of international schools aside, Hu claims it just needs the right kind of attitude and outlook.
“It’s a skills program, and you’re learning the skills,” he said. “It’s great.”
Interestingly enough, the Advanced Filmmaking program is far from being the Forest City’s first contribution to the world of cinema. Experimental filmmaker Jack Chambers was born in London, and his 1970 film The Hart of London is listed as one of the 1000 Greatest Films by website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? L
ondoners Al and Charles Christie were key players in the founding of Hollywood’s first studio in the early 1900’s. Perhaps the most notable Londoner was Jack Warner, a founding member of the Warner Brothers film empire.
Previous films made for the Advanced Filmmaking program can be found online on the program’s website. Some of the films included are last year’s nightmarish The XIX Key by Zachary Zubilewich, and Karson Pilote’s The Heart of the Blackhawks which also played at the 2017 Forest City Film Festival.
Old school/new school
For those who still prefer the grainy goodness of shooting on film, students have the option of learning 16mm if they can provide the film.
However, director Hu still prefers digital over film.
“I like the flexibility of digital,” he explained. “You have much more control over how it’s edited and how it looks.”
Of course, the aesthetic of film and digital can’t take priority over the most important aspect of the film: the story. Big budget effects may razzle audiences, but a good story will still be the heart of a film.
“If you have an idea that catches your interest, you just follow it and see where it leads,” Hu added. “It might not lead to anything… but what other option do you have?”