Death Walks: An interview with Spencer Hawken

We first introduced this film on Halloween 2013 with the release of the trailer and since then our excitement has only grown, so much so that it’s now noticeable when we sit down.

Death Walks actionShot in The Mercury Mall in Romford the film has the rough almost cryptic synopsis of a shopping centre receiving an unexpected visitor one night, and what begins as an act of kindness quickly turns into a night of horror. Being a zombie film we think we can guess about the visitor but there is still plenty of time to suprise us as the trailer keeps things pretty close to its chest and it will be very interesting to see how this film pans out. 2013/14 is promising to be another very positive season for British zombie filmmakers and we are lucky enough to have been able to speak to the writer / director Spencer Hawken about the film and discover his love for Fulci.

So Spencer, please introduce yourself and the film.

SH: Hello my name is Spencer Hawken, I’m a first time film-maker. My first feature is Death Walks a horror movie with a fairly out there series of twists.

Death Walks has been introduced as a psychological zombie horror, does this mean it’s going to be more serious than the usual British comedy zombie films? Is this what you hope will differentiate the film from other releases?

SH: While there is a little humour in Death Walks, it was very important that not only did we not throw in too much spoof, that we moved things on a little. Our humour is in the subtle one liners you might have every day with friends. But the story is very much a horror movie, and hopefully most of the chuckles are out of the way by the end of the first half. 

And why zombies?

SH: There are so many zombie movies out there, for me though they are all the same, just a change of circumstance. When 28 Days Later came out some years ago it was the first time (with the exception of Return Of The Living Dead) that anyone had done anything different with zombies. I loved the zombie films of Fulci, but not an awful lot else other than the two movies I named above. If I was going to tackle the same ground about 350 other film-makers were going to tackle in 2013 it was important that I did something different. I think zombie films have been done a miss-service while my movie might not rectify that, it might encourage people to think out of the box.

The film takes place in a shopping centre, and invites inevitable Dawn of the Dead comparisons at least superficially and location wise, how conscious were you that these comparisons might be made before people see the film and did it affect the writing or directing process?

Death Walks zombiesSH: Everyone says “it’s like Dawn Of The Dead” or that I’m channelling Romero. You just need to look at the trailer we have out to realise this is not the case. If you are going to put zombies in a shopping centre you do something different with them, so what we’ve done here is create some sort of weird hybrid of John Carpenters The Fog and Eden Lake. From the offset there was always going to be that comparison, but I think anyone who gets ten minutes in the film will break that comparison fairly quickly. We have one tribute to Romero in there, just for the sake of it, because people will be looking for it. Beyond that it’s all me and Fulci! 

Was it difficult to obtain permission to film in the location and what restrictions were put on your use? As I imagine blood smeared across Anne Summers wouldn’t go down so well.

SH: There were three retailers in the centre that never wanted to be in the film. They want to remain nameless, but what I will say is while they never let us shoot in their locations they certainly supported us. Two of the other retailers went above and beyond the call of duty in helping us. We shot after 7pm and before 7am other than the retailers that said they never wanted involvement, that was our only restriction. The centre (The Mercury (Romford)) is very up for embracing new ideas, not only did they let me shoot there, I got to use a lot of staff two, when they were off duty.

Often what’s planned or scripted doesn’t make it to the final cut or even filming, how intact was the initial filming script to the final film?

SH: I’m a sod for going off the page, and my DOP would role his eyes at me every now and again “where’s this in the script!” The reality is some bits just don’t work when it comes to the eleventh hour. Others work but you can add a bit. 98% of the original script remains, just a short couple of scenes got scrapped. There was then about an additional 20% that got added, the additions really help the movie though, while reminding today’s public that not too long ago many of these movies would have been banned.

Always a contentious subject for genre fans, but what can they expect regarding the zombies in the film – stumbling flesh eaters or fast, athletic murders? And what drove you to write this way? Necessity or preference?

SH: Again no point in covering the same ground as those that have been before. So our zombies are neither. They are neither fast or slow, they are thinking, creative, stealthy killers. I really think in a year like 2013 (year of the zombie) you need to be much, much more creative! 

You managed to persuade Francesca Ciardi (Cannibal Holocaust) out of retirement, how did this come about?

SH: I asked! You know if you do not ask the question you never know the answer. Francesca and I started a conversation, I was flattered she was giving me the time of day, she was flattered I wanted her in my film. The day Francesca arrived on set it was like someone had dropped off Julia Roberts, our cast were in awe, and when she started acting, oh my God, Francesca really, really brings something to this party.

Death WalksAfter shooting we discussed two other projects and she was very receptive of these.

There are an awful lot of good actors out there, that were once big players in the business, they go through dry spells, when this happens many change direction, but would gladly return to acting given the chance. This is true of everyone who used to work frequently but now who does  not that I asked to be involved in any one if our films. I have some amazing coups coming up in No Reasons and Road Rage.

She is also set to feature in another of your films, Godfathers of London along with Lucina Rhodes-Flaherty from this film, how important as a filmmaker is it to have that connection with the actors?

SH: Fairly early on Lucinda and I realised that we have our flaws, she knows half, I know half, between the two of us we are the bigger picture, so fairly early on we decided that we could make movies together. So Death Walks and Revisited both in post, were the first two, No Reasons is next on the slate.

As for connections beyond this, some people come to set and bring magic, those people you would be foolish not to work with again. You’ll see some of the same faces popping up time and time again in our films, with some brand new additions, as well as some legends making a return.

As mentioned the film also stars Lucinda Rhodes-Flaherty (Dream Team, Dead Cert, Death Do Us Apart) as well as ex-kids TV star Jessie Williams (Tracey Beaker series), all recognisable faces to viewers, do you think having them on board will help sell the film to potential viewers?

SH: Yes, in a nutshell. We are fortunate to have female legends from three eras the 40+ group will all know Francesca, the 20+ group Lucinda, and for our new range of horror fans we have Jess who will be for many part of the first horror experience a lot of her fanbase will see. All fanbases are very excited to see there legend do something a little different. 

As the writer and director were there ever situations in which you could not bring to life what you had written or was it because you had written it you had already visualised the practicalities of the shots?

SH: Every shot to a degree I got, even the most complicated which involved a sudden arrival in a 36O degree spin. I spent a lot of time studying the practicalities, but much less on the other scenes, so I was very much on the hoof with the less exciting shots.

Is there any advice you would give to aspiring filmmakers or writers regarding the making of a zombie or indeed any film as I believe this was your first feature length film?

ElevatorSH: Everyone says I don’t have the money, or I can’t get the funding. Forget that, make a movie you can afford. Death Walks cost nothing, I asked the questions, and the people came! To 90% of the people you ask the film industry is a glamorous place! As a result many will help you in return  for a thanks in the end credits, or a part front or back of camera. Ok so your idea, your dream idea might be too big, then create a smaller dream, use this to show your skill, then create your dream second time round.

When can we expect to see the film out and through which channels (VOD, DVD, cinema, festival)?

SH: The truth is I really do not know, the plan is to finish editing in January then hit the festival circuit. Then it’s up to the gods! 

You also have an upcoming segment in the ABC’s of Death 2, is there anything you can tell us about what your section is about?

SH: Nothing at all…. Yet!

 Ok, final question; you have decided to flee the impending zombie apocalypse and somehow end up on a desert island with a portable DVD player and three zombie DVDs…which ones?

I’m going to offend some people now. The Beyond it’s my Fulci favourite, so much blood and gore, it’s like a tour de force of everything you could ever do nasty in a horror movie. Dawn Of The Dead but maybe the remake not the original, simple reason the original I have seen so many times. Finally Return Of The Living Dead which was my first ever zombie movie, and to be completely honest nothing has ever beat this movie for me in the zombie world, it’s funny, scary and has a great storyline.

Thanks for your time and we look forward to the movie.

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