Horror story from Adland: Behind the scenes of Bil Bungay's film When the Lights Went Out
Adman Bil Bungay has co-produced a horror movie, written and directed by his former creative partner Pat Holden, and based on the ‘true’ story of the haunting of Holden’s aunt Jean’s Pontefract council house in the 70s. So, as Halloween approaches, we catch up with Bungay to find out what happens when ad men turn their hands to the movies.
How did you find time to make ‘When the Lights Went Out’ when you have a busy day job?
I have had to do a little juggling at times, and my days are busier as a result of wearing two hats, but the producer’s role is very much on and off. Loads of phone calls, especially to the US after hours (my co-producer Deepak Nayar, of Bend It Like Beckham fame, lives in Hollywood) and a few trips to a film set/edit suite/sound mix. Lots of little things to take care of, so finding the balance hasn’t been quite as tough as you’d think. A bit of stamina has helped at times though. Also, a producer’s role doesn’t end with the production. It very much carries on to theatrical release, DVD release and I suspect well beyond that. Ironically, promoting the movie has been the toughest bit!
So this is a Hollywood production?
I suppose it is in part. The financing is local and we filmed in Huddersfield with a local crew, so it is a British movie in reality, but the Hollywood connection is cool I suppose. One thing’s for sure, there’s no way I could have made it without Deepak. He is a class act. A proper producer! There’s nothing that man doesn’t know about film-making and I had the privilege of being his annoying student intern.
Describe movie making.
Creativity’s extreme sport. Unless you include Stromberg’s ‘bullet art’. I honestly don’t think it gets much tougher than making a movie. And I started an agency, remember! It is fraught with extremes. Massive ups and catastrophic downs. Like a passing train of consecutive carriages of hot girls and cold vomit. You get the finance approved – UP. You discover it isn’t nearly enough to do what you need to do – DOWN. You miraculously shoot 100 pages in six weeks – UP DOWN UP DOWN UP DOWN UP DOWN DOWN DOWN, REALLY DOWN, SOMEONE KILL ME... UP. Then you see the first edit and it sucks – CRASH BURN. BUT!
You somehow reshoot the ending and by some miracle finish the movie and, my god, it works! – BIG UP!! But then you can’t cut a decent distribution deal – DOWN, DEAD. BUT suddenly you nail a theatrical release – UP!!! And you get a release date and a premiere! – UPDIDDLYUP. Then you see the poster they want to run...
But didn’t you design the poster? We had it in a previous issue of The Drum?
Yes, Dan Forde and I designed it. Rankin shot it. It’s dark and awesome. But here’s the funny thing, in this process I was suddenly the client! It’s the distribution company that has the responsibility of promoting the movie, not me. So they decide the release date, the marketing plan, the poster... it was tough letting go, I can tell you. But really interesting being put in the client’s shoes for a change; being a client is a lot tougher than you’d think.
So what have you learnt about being a client?
Loads. But the biggest lesson is the client’s seat is a very scary seat indeed. Fundamentally, they employ the services of a marketing company that are specialists in their particular field of creative selling and more often than not, the client knows nothing of creativity’s mysterious ways; which actually explains why so many clients are bothersome to their agencies – because often the only tools they have to defend themselves against our dark art is data. That’s why clients are obsessed with research. It appears to numerically assess the efficacy of an idea, which in turn seems to justify the concept.
Of course the reality is that it is impossible to numerically assess a creative concept (this one equals 63?) so it’s best to leave that crutch at home. That said, there I am in the client’s seat for a change, and there I was quietly wishing I had the time to play the research card in order to convince the ‘agency’ to change tact dammit...
How does movie making compare to making ads?
The production processes are much the same for sure. In fact, I have a deep admiration for TV producers that have to set up new productions constantly, because at least for filmmakers they only have to set up a production once, maybe twice a year. Director, casting, locations, costume, studio hire, set builds, storyboards, editor, post deals, etc, over and over again. It is more or less exactly the same process that film- makers follow, just for a few days instead of weeks.
But though budgets are diminishing, the price per second for commercials is still much higher than movies for sure. And there are a few good reasons for that, such as – the performers tend to charge an appearance fee as opposed to an hourly rate, that looks reasonable over a 6-8 week shoot whereas on a commercial it’s ‘ouch’. You can cut a much better rate over 6-8 weeks with the crew too, but the main reason for the difference is (as much as I love them) clients again! On my film shoot Pat Holden the director took the proverbial bull by the horns (and we are talking the biggest, baddest muvver of a bovine that God had the temerity to create) and got on with it. No play back, no comment, nothing – I was a spectator and a good thing too.
Whereas on commercial shoots – clients, and agency of course, are allowed a monitor and a say; that more or less means approvals of every shot (a bit like approving the carpet first, then the wallpaper, then the sofa with no eye on the finished effect) by people that are unlikely to know about the intricacies of storytelling in 30 seconds – and that takes time. Loads of time. Three takes max on a film shoot, on a commercials shoot the director’s patience is the limit...
What advice would you give ad folk who have the ideas, but are struggling to produce decent commercials?
Make sure that the client fully understands the idea, choose a brilliant storyteller (director), cast actors and NOT models (performance first, appearance second always), rehearse then go shoot without the client or with a very brave and trusting one! And if you are shooting dialogue, block it out if possible; meaning shoot a well-rehearsed story from several angles and not shot after shot. You will get a much more fluid story told convincingly this way. The other way, including 300 approvals will give you a commercial, which the consumer certainly doesn’t want to see.
What else have you learned from the experience?
You have to be madder than a pervert with a meat grinder fixation to want to make a movie. It’s difficult, it’s expensive, it’s stressful, it’s a huge gamble. But like advertising at it’s best, it can be great fun. I am proud to have made a movie and feel like the experience has made me grow as a creative. The last time I was exposed to a learning curve this vertical was when I started Beattie McGuinness Bungay back in 2005.
What advice do you have for anyone wanting to follow suit?
Don’t do it! Save your money, your sanity, your marriage etc! But where’s the fun in that? I am a total believer in taking risks in life. Ironically, I am never more comfortable than when I feel like I am sticking my neck out, when I cannot be sure of the outcome – BUT can have some influence over it.
I’ve never thought of this before, but perhaps I am not so different to the adrenaline junkies who throw themselves off buildings. I love the rush you get from taking a leap into the unknown. Cicero, an incredible Roman philosopher, lawyer and statesman that rose to the top of the Roman senate, had a simple philosophy: ‘You don’t know the solution to a problem until you create the problem’, this is definitely a philosophy that I identify with. Have the courage to declare your intention, then you have no choice but to work it out, and more often than not – you will.
The movie is based on true events that happened in a house in Pontefract, West Yorkshire right?
Yup. I’d say 70 per cent (for the clients reading) is based on fact and the rest embellishment. More or less all the events that we portray happened in some form, but we added a fairly spectacular ending because poltergeists just stop doing stuff, which is a little underwhelming.
Rumour has it you bought the house?
Erm, yes. It was for sale, so I bought it.
For heavens sake, why?!
I refer you to Cicero! There is a load of stuff I had no idea would happen now happening in and around the house, all with a view to promoting the movie, so as it stands, it was an excellent purchase. But I have also put it back on the market – for 2.5 million quid! Because if the price doesn’t scare you, maybe the poltergeist won’t either! It is also the most expensive ex council house in the UK.
Have you stayed there?
God no! There’s a kicking, screaming nut job of a poltergeist in there, and yes, he (it) is still there – and by all accounts is not best pleased with me for spoiling its tranquility. On the bright side, this landlord isn’t charging his polty tenant any rent, so it should be grateful.
It’s still there?
Yes. It is. The girl that plays Sally in the movie visited the house with a friend recently and swears the lamp swung on its own, the neighbour (a medium) was in there a month back and she was possessed by the thing for a few minutes. There’s bumps, scrapes, shadows... eeek.
Do you believe in ghosts?
If the question is ‘do I believe in an unexplained phenomena that results in the physical manifestations of formerly living things’ the answer is a firm yes! Not least as I have physically experienced, let’s call them ‘ghosts’ twice, and what I saw/heard is not in debate, with a third encounter in the balance. But what’s really incredible is that you would not believe how many people have come up to me whilst I’ve been working on the movie and volunteered their ghostly encounters. Easily as many as eight out of 10 folk have had some kind of paranormal experience, some quite extraordinary events experienced by very sane, grounded folk. People you work with right now.
But what ‘ghosts’ are, is a different debate altogether. What I find interesting is that you quickly get labelled a kook for an admission like mine, but if you talk about parallel universes, string theory, or there being eleven different dimensions – you get labeled a kook too! And they are well founded, incredibly advanced scientific theories!
My suspicion is that there is a perfectly sound, as yet undiscovered scientific reason for ‘ghosts’, and when solved is likely to be the most profound scientific discovery of our time. The kooks need to unite to figure it out in my opinion! Happy to host the discussion at my house!
So the poltergeist in your house?
I’d love to know what it is. Or indeed where it is from. The house is supposedly built on a ley line (I’ll get me coat...) and has underground water. It is on the land of a former monastery, there is plenty of supposition that religion buildings, including most of the ancient churches we use today, were built on ground that has a particular energy, so it could be that the house has a peculiar set of circumstances that lend themselves to the extraordinary phenomena that has without a doubt, occurred there. But for the time being, let me trade off the fact that it’s the things we don’t understand that scare us the most!
Nice segue back to the When the Lights Went Out. When can we see it?
It’s out at Halloween, midnight viewings nationally for a couple of weeks with the prospect of us rolling it out to more cinemas before Christmas, and it’s on Blue Ray/DVD early next year. Go and see it! Oh, and note that it’s the Rankin poster that is leading the way! Thanks to a little research. ;-) UP!
So what next?
Well, we’ll see. I am getting loads of screenplays sent to me which is cool, but a big responsibility as people put an awful lot of effort into a screenplay, so it troubles me knowing that in reality one in ten is a genuine good read and fewer will ever get made – but you never know, something may come of them.
The other thing that I am often banging on about is the advertising industry being firmly part of the entertainment industry now, based on the very simple truth that the more entertaining your ads are, the more engaging they are, the more effective they are likely to be. On that basis, the ultimate advert would be a movie, so there are some quite advanced plans afoot to marry my advertising world to my movie world. A very exciting prospect indeed, but boy am I going to need the bravest, most trusting, most forward thinking, most loaded of clients for this one! Know you of such a man?!