Interview: Grimmfest co-founder Simeon Halligan talks Habit and horror festivals
Ian Winterton | On 04, Oct 2018
Film director Simeon Halligan set up his Salford-based production company Not A Number with producer Rachel Richardson-Jones in 2008 and together they’ve put out three films – Splintered (2010), White Settlers (2014) and Habit (2017) – all helmed by Halligan. Initially conceived as a way to promote Splintered, the duo founded Grimmfest, dedicated to screening the best in the horror and fantasy genre.
Now, a decade on, the Manchester-based festival is a fixture on horror buffs’ calendar and this year sees 20 movies and countless short films screen at the event, with a vast array of filmmakers and actors in attendance including – for the whole four-day festival – Barbara Campton. The legendary star of Re-animator, which will be shown in a remastered form, will be on hand post-screening to answer audience questions for this and her two new films, Puppetmaster: The Littlest Reich and Dead Night.
With Grimmfest 2018 kicking off today (and running until 7th October – see the full line-up here), and Habit available to stream on Sky Cinema from 11th October, Halligan took time off from his hectic schedule to speak to us:
Congratulations on Grimmfest’s tenth anniversary – it really is a cracking festival, an integral part of the horror landscape like London’s FrightFest. As a film director, how did you come to launch a film festival?
It’s bonkers, really – we didn’t intend to run a film festival, but it just kind of happened. We made a film called Splintered – my first full-length feature as a director. We shot in in 2008 and then it was what kicked off Grimmfest the following year, kind of by accident. We wanted to give Splintered a premiere screening – preferably in Manchester – and we starting thinking how we could make it into more of an event? We thought we’d do it at Halloween, because it’s a horror film, and then we thought we’d ask other filmmakers if they had a genre film to show. That’s how it started off. We just asked people. And at the same time Rachel was trying to secure a distribution deal for Splintered so she was talking to a lot of distributors and they started saying, ‘I hear you’re doing a mini-festival in Manchester – we’ve got a bunch of films…’ The event just grew and grew and in that first year we screened well over 20 films. We didn’t set out to run an ongoing film festival into the future but here we are – 10 years on.
Prior to being a movie director and running Grimmfest, what was your background?
I started out as an art director and designer in film and TV. I studied at the Royal College of Art and then moved on to work in television. I did about 10 years working at Granada TV, working for the BBC and loads of other companies doing the sets for all sorts of TV shows. I still love art and design – it’s an area I’m still involved in and excited by – but I knew I had to focus on directing and step away from design if I was ever going to make it as a director. I had a few short films in festivals, won awards, stuff like that and I tried to get my first feature made which was quite tricky – I’d never done anything like that before. My short films I made for very little budget. Going into features was hard and I eventually partnered up with Rachel, who is also one of the festival directors at Grimmfest, but is also my partner and producer. She’d been working in in corporate and commercials and wanted to produce films, so it was a good match, really. Finally, after a lot of hard work and graft, we managed to get our first feature off the ground, which was Splintered.
How do you juggle the demands of running Grimmfest with your filmmaking?
It’s hard sometimes. Grimmfest is a massive undertaking for all of and none of us really get paid. It’s a labour of love and it takes so much time to prep the festival, so much effort, and it’s difficult because, as filmmakers, we’re torn between wanting to get on and make movies and wanting to do the best for Grimmfest. It’s a delicate balance really.
I imagine there are benefits to running a festival though – you have it as platform for talking to other people in the industry such as the all-important distributors and marketing companies.
Yes, absolutely. Sometimes I get frustrated because Grimmfest takes up an awful lot of my time and takes me away from my filmmaking, but good things come from the festival, they always do. My second feature, White Settlers, starred Pollyanna McIntosh and we met her because she came to the festival with another film and I pitched it to her as an idea and we ended up working together. She’s now, of course, famous for playing Jadis in The Walking Dead. Things like that come from the festival, which is great. We meet a lot of other filmmakers, communications people, distributors, sales people from all around the world, particularly those that focus on genre.
It must give you a good overview of what’s going on in the genre, too.
Absolutely. That’s the other thing that’s so great about running the festival. It gives you a good indication of what people are making, what’s in vogue, what’s fashionable. It also gives you a vibe of what audiences are in the mood for. It’s a broad church, horror, and a lot of the stuff we programme is at the fringes of the genre. A lot of my favourite films at the festival are those that might not be an obvious horror title, they might have a strong comedic element, say, or a strong dramatic element or whatever. My film, Habit, for instance, was very much a drama with horror elements.
Or, as with this year’s festival closer – Anna and the Apocalypse – a zombie apocalypse musical.
Exactly. It’s a great film, the kind of film that we suspect a broad audience, not just a horror fans, will like because it’s got horror elements to it but it’s also a kind of feel-good film. It will appeal to a broad audience.
It features some brilliant actors – Mark Benton, Paul Kaye and star-of-the future Ella Hunt.
Ella’s fantastic and, of course, received the Rising Star Award at FrightFest this year for her role in Anna and the Apocalypse. The film’s a lot of fun, and the music – by Rob Reilly – is great, too. It’s not just an afterthought – the songs are genuinely brilliant.
The trailer features a quote describing it as “Shaun of the Dead meets La La Land”.
The thing about critics saying those sort of things is they’re a double-edge sword. Someone described Habit as a Ken Loach meets Dario Argento. I kind of like that. Some people might hate that kind of comparison – you’ve just boiled it down too much – but personally I don’t mind at all being compared to those two great filmmakers. With Anna… “Shaun of the Dead meets La La Land” is a reasonably accurate description of what the movie is. It’s funny, it’s witty, it’s gory and it’s got great songs.
Before we move onto your line-up for this year’s Grimmfest, as the festival’s celebrating its 10th birthday what are your highlights of the past decade?
Christ – that’s a hard one. We’ve screened so many movies – hundreds – and we do a lot of screenings throughout the year, too, of remastered classics and stuff like that. There’s so much to choose from. I mean, obviously, for me it was great screening Habit last year. It had its world premiere at Lund Fantastic Film Festival in Sweden and then its UK premiere at Grimmfest. I was very lucky that it toured around the other genre festivals – that was a very interesting journey to take.
But what else? One thing that always sticks a lot in our minds is we had Goblin over one year to play live to a screening of Suspiria. We used to host a lot of events at the Dancehouse theatre in Manchester on Oxford Road but we can’t use them as much these days because almost all the films come in on DCP, so you need the DCP projector to run them. But it’s a great venue in terms of atmosphere and was ideal for Suspiria. The film’s set in a dance school and The Dancehouse is a dance school as well as a venue. The event sold out completely and was absolutely packed. And Goblin were on top form. That was a perfect night.
I remember your special screening of The Wicker Man with director Robin Hardy in attendance.
Yes, that was a brilliant night. Robin Hardy, sadly no longer with us, but he was such an amazing and generous guest. And when he arrived he told us it was actually his birthday so we made a fuss of him. Actually, though, it wasn’t his birthday at all – he just used to say that to everyone!
And why not? It’d get you a free bottle of bubbly at least.
Absolutely. And with Robin you wouldn’t mind anyway – it was just a bit of mischief. Such a lovely guy. A great memory. Another night that sticks in my mind is when we showed Stitches and Ross Noble, who’s in the film as the titular clown, came as our guest. It was our closing night film and Ross basically got on stage for the Q&A and, as you might imagine, took over completely and it became a one-man comedy show for about 40 minutes. So that was very memorable. Loads of things.
We had Ken Foree [best known as SWAT team officer Washington in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead] doing a live Q&A via Skype from the States. That was very interesting. And we managed to make it work, which was a relief – the connection stayed up most of the time. He just talked and talked and talked – brilliant. He was talking about all sorts of things and a few people were there to ask about Dawn of the Dead. He got round to it in the end – after about an hour!
This year then, among your brilliant line-up you’ve got Re-Animator legend Barbara Crampton in person for the whole festival.
Yes. As well as a remastered version of Re-Animator, we’re showing another two films Barbara’s in. We told her we’re not actually putting on a film of hers every night of the festival but we’re putting one on three days out of the four and would you mind doing a Q&A after every film and she said ‘Sure, whatever you like.’ We’re honoured.
Which version of Re-Animator is it you’re screening?
Like I said, it’s the remastered version, yes. Second Sight released it a year or so ago, so we’ve been working with them to screen that. There are three different versions of the film and we’re going for the uncut version, because we think it’s the best. There is an actually longer version but we think the version we’re showing is the better version. I mean all the fans have their own opinion… And whichever version they’ve seen, they’re unlikely to have seen it in cinema with Barbara Crampton in attendance. She’ll be doing a Q&A after the movie and I know she’s great with the fans – happy to sign autographs and all that.
And she’s also in Puppetmaster: The Littlest Reich…?
Yes. That’s a reboot. It’s interesting because it’s written by S. Craig Zahler, who wrote and directed Bone Tomahawk and also Brawl in Cell Block 99 and he’s got a Mel Gibson movie too [Dragged Across Concrete] that’s doing festivals at moment, so he’s a rising star. With Puppetmaster, he took the idea from the original franchise and has updated and changed them a little bit. His producer brought on board Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund who directed a film called Wither that we screened that a couple of years ago. Really talented filmmakers – we’re also showing one of their short films his year called MysteryBox. Littlest Reich is very funny and very gory but also edgy because its subject matter is subtly political. The idea is that the guy who’s creating the puppets is an ex-Nazi and has issues with Jews, gypsies and other minorities. So it’s got that political edge to it that’s kind of topical but it’s also a lot of fun. And it’s got Udo Keir in it – you can’t go wrong with Udo.
So, your own movie Habit – a year on from its Grimmfest screening – is doing very well. It’s a brilliant Manchester movie. Very dark, horrific, creepy as hell. It was based on a novel by a Manchester-based writer, yes?
It was. I think it might have been another Mancunian novelist called Conrad Williams who first mentioned it to me. I read it and liked it and optioned it. A lot of people thought turning it into a film would be hard – but I could see it and knew it would work. I think Stephen [McGeagh, the author] was very surprised – this is his first book and he hasn’t finished his second one yet. It was his Masters project for his creative writing course at Manchester Uni. I think he thought we were taking the piss, to be honest. It was quite a small publication and I saw a lot of people on my Facebook saying they’d just read it and loved it, but it wasn’t a massive seller – it’s not the sort of thing you’re going to see on sale at Tesco, more’s the pity.
You wrote the screenplay – was it a challenge turning the book into a film?
I’d never adapted a book into a film before and it was interesting going through that process and finding out how you do it. In a film, obviously, you’ve only got picture and sound to convey what you’re trying to say. In a novel, you can go into what someone’s feeling or thinking but you can’t do that in film, unless you’re going to have some horrible voice over. You have to find ways to convey things that are internal in a visual way. We got there in the end. What was quite tricky was I had to take a lot of the book out because otherwise it would have been, like, a 20-hour film. A lot of that material was about Manchester – it really gives you a flavour of the city, stuff that the main character, Michael, sees and witnesses every day of his life. The way it’s written is very matter-of-fact and you really get a flavour of Manchester. I first came to Manchester 20 years ago when I was younger, didn’t have that much money and was hanging out in pubs and clubs. And I was a student here, too. That’s what the book reminded me of – those years – and, of course, when the film goes to a very dark place and we have this bizarre underworld then it takes you to another place again. I could imagine all that existing – especially in the Manchester I grew up in.
We can’t really give away what happens in the movie without ruining it for people.
It’s hard, though, isn’t it? We always have this problem when you come to making trailers or doing publicity or marketing. When you’re pitching to a certain crowd like horror fans, if you don’t say where it goes then maybe they’ll wonder if it’s for them. We could tell them but then that would spoil it. It’s just better that you find out when Michael does!
It’s a gritty and grimy film – I love all the beautiful graffiti. That’s all genuine, isn’t it? You didn’t have it sprayed on walls especially for the film?
No – we didn’t have the budget for that, apart from anything else. But Manchester is full of this amazing graffiti and murals – all over the place. Some amazing stuff. But the Manchester we show is definitely its seamier side, its underbelly. I don’t think the Manchester Tourist Board are going to use the film as an advert anytime soon.
You mentioned Habit being on the edge of the horror genre and I’d agree – it’s certainly horrific in places but it’s not necessarily a straight forward horror movie. It’s hard to pigeonhole.
The difficulty is, though, that makes it a harder sell. If something’s in a pigeon hole, then it’s easier to sell. We shall see what happens with Habit – it’s done ok… But it’s set in Manchester for a start – it’s very northern and gritty. One reviewer said it would have been better if it’d been set in London. He gave no reason why – but that resistance to the North is a problem. I’m very proud of Habit and think it’s the best film I’ve made, but I think it’s more difficult to sell internationally. We shall we. White Settlers, for instance, my second film, had a very simple premise and, actually, it’s done very well all round the world because it’s basically a simple home invasion story. There’s not a lot of dialogue and the story is easily understandable. Whereas with Habit, it’s more of a character-led piece and it’s very British. Some festivals really loved it and took it while others didn’t like it at all and turned it down.
As well as casting Pollyanna McIntosh before she hit the bigtime with The Walking Dead, you also snapped Jessica Barden up for Habit a few months before she gained widespread acclaim in TV’s The End of The F***ing World. She’s a marvellous young actor.
She is indeed. Great to work with. We were very lucky getting her, and the rest of the cast. William Ash [Waterloo Road] is a local lad and always gives a fantastic performance – it’s great to see him here, as well as his charming self, being sinister as hell. And our leading man, Elliot [James Langridge], was astounding. He has a lot of challenging scenes and just threw himself into them. With those three and a supporting cast which includes Sally Carman, Roxanne Pallett and the wonderful Louis Emerick, we were blessed. It was great fun traumatising them all!
Habit is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.
Where can I buy or rent Habit online in the UK?
Main image courtesy of Not A Number Productions.