INTERVIEW: CRUEL SUMMER director Phillip Escott & star Natalie Martins
– By Chris Barnes
Phillip Escott and Craig Newman’s low budget indie festival hit Cruel Summer didn’t cross The Slaughtered Bird’s path until late 2016, but instantly left its mark on us as one of the year’s best independent features. After gracing FrightFest no less, the young cast and crew deserve all the acclaim coming their way and I was honoured to be joined by two of them last week – co-director Phillip Escott and lead actress Natalie Martins – to discuss production, future plans, and how to win major roles by bludgeoning small creatures with your legs.
We absolutely loved Cruel Summer (reviewed HERE) at The Slaughtered Bird, and it seems we’re not alone; it’s been greatly received nationwide. How’s life changed since the plaudits started flooding in?
Phil – It certainly came as a pleasant surprise when the reviews came in and people didn’t hate it! Due to the positive reaction I think industry people are more willing to hear from us now, which is always a tough hurdle to get over when you’re just starting out.
Natalie – I’m totally biased but after seeing it for the first time I was quietly confident people would enjoy it, I was certainly blown away by it. Visually it’s beautiful; the sound design and score really took the film up a notch, and I’m still in complete awe of the performances that were delivered by my fellow cast members! I hoped Cruel Summer would leave the same impression on others and, so far, the film seems to be having a lasting affect on viewers and that’s so exciting!
It is still early days for me so life hasn’t changed dramatically but I’m feeling very blessed at the moment. We’ve been attending some really amazing festivals and I’ve worked on a couple of film jobs as a result of my work on Cruel Summer so, for me personally, it’s exciting to know that its release could potentially be a great calling card.
How was the whole FrightFest experience?
Phil – It was great. Craig [Newman, co-director] and I had always been fans of the festival and would hunt down every film that played there each year. So having something of ours play there truly was a dream come true. I attended the festival in Glasgow back in 2011 and sat behind a very nervous-looking Jason Eisener during the showing of Hobo with a Shotgun. Being where he was this time around I fully understand what the poor guy was going through now!
Natalie – I was a FrightFest newbie and had two films screening at the festival last year. It was SO cool; I’d definitely love to attend it again in the future. It was amazing to have Cruel Summer screened in front of so many dedicated horror fans because they were going to be our biggest critics so, as scary as it was, who better to have shared it with. The audience response was incredibly positive so I think it’s safe to say the team breathed a sigh of relief afterwards. I also signed my first autographs there (…that felt weird!)!
For those not lucky enough to have seen CS yet, it’s a tragic tale of a young Autism sufferer who has a poignant lone camping trip destroyed by 3 somewhat misguided teenagers. It’s powerful stuff on many levels. How did you go about casting?
Phil – We put out casting calls across all major sites because we couldn’t afford a casting director. Of the candidates that we liked we asked them to send in an audition tape, which is where Natalie really shone. She went the extra mile in her audition for sure in regards to costume and locations, but there seemed to be a real grasp of the character and the world Julia comes from that made her stand out.
Reece was the first actor to sign-on and he’s friends with Danny and suggested him for the role, as we were having trouble finding someone that could carry the role in the way we envisioned. Richard was the only person we considered for the role of Danny Evans as he was so perfect.
I’m an out and proud Emmerdale nerd so I’ve long been a fan of the brilliant Danny Miller. What was it like working with him? And indeed Reece Douglas of Waterloo Road fame.
Phil – I have to admit it, I had no idea who Danny Miller was. When we saw his picture though, and it was a ‘hallelujah’ moment for sure, it was of him with a crew cut and dressed in a tracksuit; he looked pretty aggressive and it was a perfect image of how Nicholas was on the page during writing. We viewed some clips of him and he was able to convey so much emotion, it was perfect. Both Reece and Danny are consummate professionals, they are young but they have a lot of experience between them – more so than everyone else on the film combined! – so having them onset was a blessing in many ways and their performances speak for themselves.
Natalie – I too was unfamiliar with their work but it didn’t take long for me to find out that they were two very experienced actors. Honestly, Danny and Reece are insanely talented! I never saw a mediocre performance from either of them – they brought energy and commitment to every single take. I still feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work alongside them. It was nerve-wracking, obviously, but they were so much fun to hang out with and I learnt heaps from them in such a short space of time that I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. The same goes for Richard Pawulski because, despite this being his debut feature film, his performance and dedication to the role was second to none.
Natalie, considering the plot and huge part you play, how did you approach your audition? You must’ve had to strangle a cat or kick a puppy to death, surely?
Natalie – Ha! No animals were harmed in the making of my self-tape.
Auditions are the scariest part of the industry for me. You have five minutes to sell yourself and your interpretation of a character whilst trying to silently fight off nerves and speak through a completely dry mouth. So when I got offered the chance to send in a self-tape I had the opportunity to really experiment with the character without those additional pressures. I tried to make the most of the freedom that you don’t always get in a standard audition room, for example, I wouldn’t have been able to smoke and I wouldn’t have wanted to wear huge earrings and a tracksuit but I was able to do that in a tape and these were all elements that helped me get into character.
I’ve come across many people like Julia in the past so as soon as I read my sides I had a good idea of how I wanted to portray her characteristically. Looking back now, she is a lot rougher in my tape than I eventually played her in the end film. I found an underlying vulnerability in her through the development process that I didn’t give her in my audition.
Phil – Natalie is a devout Satanist who demanded an animal sacrifice at the end of each working day.
I know your original idea came from an amalgamation of news stories covering brutal, bizarre crimes from across Britain, but what made you think a film should be made about them?
Phil – For me it was trying to take a look at the senselessness of crime. If we could look at it as honestly as possible, then maybe we can help sway some young people from falling into the trappings of situations like this. Peer pressure played a huge part in all of the crimes that inspired the story, so by showing how ugly it can all get, along with the consequences of these actions, then hopefully some people may stop and think before going ahead with pack-minded decisions that often result in tragedy. Just look what happened in Chicago recently, those youths tormented and abused an autistic person live on Facebook. There appears to be a full-on disconnect between people and consequence that I continue to find frightening.
We know very little of the characters’ backgrounds throughout CS, other than the potential infidelity plot which drives the narrative. Was it your intention to leave these as an ambiguity to create questions in the audience’s mind after the fact?
Phil – Yeah, it was always intended to be ambiguous. We didn’t want to lay blame on any given thing in a heavy-handed manner. We wanted to throw in all the media-favourites, like drugs, alcohol and violent video games/films just to show that they aren’t the real cause of people’s violent behaviour: People are ultimately responsible for their actions. Yet the media and others in a position of power continue to scapegoat a deeper issue with these mindless assumptions that these are the real evils in our society that corrupt and make people do things they wouldn’t otherwise do – which, in my opinion, is bullshit.
The other big factor we wanted to hint at is parenting. Nicholas and Julia are the main causes of the violence in the film, and you’ll see that there is no parental figures for these two, no guidance at all. Calvin however, who is the least violent of the trio, we see he does have some guidance and family structure, however fractured it may be – it’s out of focus and a little blurred, but it’s present and helps keep him inline. Then you have Danny, who has a loving family and wouldn’t harm a living creature. So I guess you can read into the nature/nurture debate pretty heavily there.
SPOILER ALERT! Reece’s character is the obvious fall guy of the trio, while Natalie’s Julia is the catalyst for the unfolding tragedy, yet I couldn’t help but feel a touch of sorrow for her too (DAMN ME TO HELLLLL!); this was possibly the most horrific thing I took from the film as a whole. Phil, how did you guys create her journey, and Natalie, how did you prepare to play it?
Phil – To be fair to Natalie, a lot of Julia is her creation. In the script she was much more malicious and Natalie brought a softer side to the character that really elevated her role and the film. So the credit is totally hers.
Natalie – As Phil said, Julia was much more malicious on paper. I don’t think in the original draft she has much of a conscience really and she seemed to mirror Nicholas’ behavior a lot. In rehearsals, Craig [co-director] and I worked closely to make some amendments to the script and that helped us develop Julia into a much more three-dimensional character. We offered up a different perspective to Nicholas and Calvin’s which really helped to define each of their individual agendas.
One of my favourite things about reading the script for the first time is you learn new things about your character that you wouldn’t have found from just reading a set of audition sides. Once I had the whole script I was able to understand her relationship with the other characters and establish her inner and outer motivations in each scene. I found that Julia’s motivation throughout the film was ultimately to be accepted by Nicholas and potentially even loved by him. How she behaves in the story is unfortunately a tragic consequence of that. Julia had tunnel vision and all she could imagine was an end goal with Nicholas. She doesn’t set out to hurt anyone in the same way that Nicholas does so that’s where the characters really differed. Yes, she’s a little rough around the edges but ultimately she’s a confused and misguided youth with a real desire for love and acceptance. This is something that is relatable to a lot of young people so, for me, it was important to show that naivety and vulnerability in her.
I noticed most of the actors kept their own accents and there was no mention in the script of where this all actually took place. Am I right to assume this was a conscious decision so as not to potentially discredit one particular area and stay within that ambiguity?
Phil – Hundred percent. It tied in with the notion that senseless crime is truly that, senseless, and as a result it can happen anywhere and to anyone. Which is what makes it so terrifying. However, Natalie offered to put on a Manchester accent and we got lucky that she mastered it so quickly, as it helped bind Julia, Danny and Reece on a subconscious level for the viewer. Every other character has a different accent to them to muddy the waters as it were.
Natalie – I’m from the Croydon (Surrey) area so my own accent is actually very different to Julia’s. A week before the shoot our producer, Sean Langton, asked me to try a Northern dialect so I chose to work on an accent that was from Manchester, where Danny Miller and Reece Douglas were from. The accent was there to help blend the trio together as opposed to being suggestive of a particular part of the country. We knew that the actual location of the film was never going to be disclosed, as Phil and Craig wanted to leave it ambiguous.
As brilliant as the script and performances are, your choice of backdrops and establishing shots are stunning and really capture the contrast between character intentions. Tell us a bit about how you chose the locations?
Phil – We got lucky with a lot of the locations. Cardiff Council was very helpful and allowed us to film on one of the busiest streets for a very reasonable figure. The biggest challenge we had was finding an arcade and a swing set that could seat more than two people! MTV’s The Valleys had upset the majority of arcade owners prior to us filming, so some of the bigger, better arcades were no longer permitting film crews onto their properties. We managed to persuade one landowner to let us film there; promising not to show underage gambling… which we ultimately ended up doing, even though the actor was 18 he looks younger (Ooops!).
The campsite and woodland locations were all shot in one location, which is a popular wedding destination here in Cardiff. It’s a beautiful place, which is why it works so well in the film. It’s the contrast of a beautiful location marred by such violent acts that gives the film a lot of its power. It was built up in the edit, we intended the beauty of the area to play a big part during the script, but during editing it took on a whole new form. It’s interesting to see how images can take on a different message. They start off beautiful and inviting, but as the story progresses they become darker, more claustrophobic, then ultimately nightmarish.
The same qualities can be applied to Josef Prygodzicz’s score. Did you give him free rein or have specifics in mind?
Phil – Josef is a brilliant musician and we asked for two opposing sounds, one would reflect the sound of the teenagers and the other for Danny. Danny’s sound is more traditional, strings and piano, while the teens have a synth sound, and as they grow closer the two sounds mash into one. Anyone who likes his music should also check out his band, Winter Villains, which is further example to his incredible talents.
How on EARTH did you manage all this in 10 days?! Was it pretty much guerilla style?
Phil – It was crazy and a testament to the cast and crew really. They all knuckled down and committed themselves fully. No days off, 12 – 14 hours a day and unfortunately we lost a large part of one day to rain – which was the day we scheduled the climatic chase scene (typical!). So it was more like 9 days. We were wise to plan two whole days of rehearsals before shooting though; this helped greatly when the camera started rolling. We kept everything above board too, as we couldn’t run the risk of being asked to leave a location!
Natalie – It still blows my mind how we actually completed it in less than ten days! Rehearsals really were a godsend; it meant we weren’t going into scenes completely blind. Things inevitably would change slightly on the day but it was useful to begin a scene having already left the starting blocks. It was a highly collaborative team effort all round so I guess if you surround yourself with a great team of people that are willing to put in the time and hard graft, anything is achievable.
Did you stick to budget?
Phil – We did. Ironically when you don’t have any money to spend it’s easier to stick to your budget!
What were your toughest obstacles?
Phil – For me it was the schedule. It was a complete mess to be honest. It was, like many aspects of the production, rushed. Which caused a fair few problems along the way as a result. We learnt the hard way, so I’m overly keen to never make that mistake again!
Natalie – Doing an accent was a big obstacle for me personally but a challenge I also welcomed. Due to the nature of the shoot the dialogue would sometimes be rewritten minutes before shooting a scene, which can be difficult when you’re still trying to get your head around a new accent. It definitely helped to have Reece and Danny there for guidance.
There were a lot of exterior scenes in the film so many of the obstacles we faced revolved around the weather. Rain would come and go which brought inevitable problems and even when the sun was out I got burnt on my forehead (thankfully our talented make-up artists were able to hide the evidence of that!). One day even the wind contributed… The marquee that was shielding our make up artists from any potential rain blew into the lake. Our director of photography, Lucas, and co-director, Craig, swam out to try and rescue it but despite their valiant efforts it sank. R.I.P Marquee.
Natalie, how does the experience working on a totally indie production compare to something like Into the Woods?
Natalie – I only worked one day on Into the Woods so it was an awesome experience but a very short one. On a production of that scale though they could afford to build a forest in a studio so they wouldn’t have had to battle with the elements like we did on Cruel Summer. Their crew was obviously much bigger too and they could afford to spend one full day filming one-minute worth of footage where as obviously we couldn’t have afforded that luxury. I guess the biggest difference on a set like that is it felt a lot less intimate. I mean, put it this way, due to the size of the set on Into the Woods, I was being directed by Rob Marshall by a microphone over a loud speaker. Also I was a stand-in so it wasn’t really an acting opportunity but more of a cool way to experience being on a big budget film set for the day.
Phil, we’ve recently covered your impending D’Amato and Fulci documentaries on The Slaughtered Bird, but I’ve also read a bit about Rehab – what can you tell us about that?
Phil – Thanks for the support man, it means a lot. I’m a huge admirer of Fulci and D’Amato, so being able to make a little something on them was a real honour for me. Rehab is shaping up nicely, Craig and I are working away on the script at the moment and have just got our budget completed so are about to start shipping it around. It tells the story of a experimental rehab centre that is established in an affluent area, which the locals aren’t enamoured by, and as situations arise and escalate it climaxes with a Straw Dogs-esque siege on the centre. It’s very much a big brother of Cruel Summer in that it focuses on a fraction of society that can be scapegoated easily and how bias and misconception can lead to tragedy. We’re very excited for it.
And Natalie, what’s in the pipeline for your good self? Is Anna Kendrick gonna be your stand-in anytime soon?
Natalie – I’m working on it! 😉
Aside from Cruel Summer, two other feature films I have worked on recently are hoping for a release this year, Get Gone [dir. Gurmit Samra] and London Infected [dir. Tudley James], so hopefully you’ll be able to catch them soon. Also The Corpse Series [dir. James Button], a comedy horror short that also screened at FrightFest last year, will hopefully be available to watch online soon. I’m always on the look out for new film projects so would love to hear from any filmmakers that would like to collaborate with me this year, so feel free to get in touch via www.nataliemartins.co.uk.