INTERVIEW: Simeon Halligan
– By James Pemberton
I sat down with director and Grimmfest festival head honcho Simeon Halligan for a chat about his latest film (HABIT) and directing in Manchester, before its UK premiere at the festival on 5th October 2017…
Tonight is the big premiere of your third feature. You’ve already done two other features, SPLINTERED and WHITE SETTLERS. Have you grown in confidence whilst directing HABIT and has it been another learning curve?
Yes, I think every film you make is a learning curve. It (HABIT) is quite a different feature from the last two films. It’s much more performance based and it’s a bigger cast. My last film, WHITE SETTLERS, was essentially a two hander with two characters being terrorised in their house in one night, whereas this piece is much broader, there is a whole bunch of different characters, and a bigger cast to work with, which was a challenge but a really interesting challenge. I really, really enjoyed it. I got some great actors in the film and they really brought so much to the script because they really liked it. The characters have got a lot going for them because there’s a lot of interest in the story and the character arcs. I have to be honest, it’s not really a conventional horror, it’s more…. I’ve been kind of describing it as a coming of age story.
From the trailer I kind of got the impression that it was not going to be straightforward, that it also seems to have a bit of grit, especially with the setting, and from what I gathered from the trailer it’s the side of the Northern Quarter (the area HABIT is set in) that’s not the trendy bars and restaurants. It’s more of the back alley side.
Exactly. I think because it’s based on a novel by Stephen McGeagh I always felt that when I read his novel it felt like Manchester from 10 or 15 years ago, and that it was the Northern Quarter from what I remember, where it was a bit grotty around the edges and you can still find that vibe there. Like you were saying you can go down those side streets with that atmosphere, with fire escapes and Victorian buildings, which we wanted to use.
Can I ask how you got around to making this novel into a film. Unfortunately I’ve not read the novel myself, but when did it come out?
Someone just informed me it was 2012. I can’t actually remember the original publishing date.
Once you read it were you certain that this should be made into a film?
Yeah, I just remember reading the book and thinking this is really good and speaking to a few other colleagues who also read it, and they where also like “yeah it’s good, but do you think this would work as a film?” Because it’s all done in a first person style so you see everything through the lead character, Michael. You see everything, little details. A lot of the story in the book is incidental stuff, it doesn’t necessarily move the plot forward but it’s beautiful in giving you that atmosphere of Manchester. It’s about this character who is down on his luck, signing on the dole, scraping a living and just managing to survive. I was a student in Manchester and I have an idea of how it is not to have any money in a city and get by. Manchester was a pretty rough city 20 or 30 years ago, it’s changed a lot recently and that was the world that the book kind of portrayed and I recognised it and would love to portray that a little bit. But you know it was a challenge to adapt a book into a film, so that was quite tricky. All that incidental stuff I could not include, it was lovely stuff but if I included it into a film it would be 20 hours long. Essentially I had to cut a lot of stuff out so that I could get to the core plot and story of the film, and then we had to add and change things in the film because some things that work in the book wont work in the film.
As a whole would you like to see more films shot in Manchester? Because we don’t really have many films that have been based here, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, which was over 15 years ago, LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (the opening of that film) and HELL IS A CITY.
Isn’t it amazing that so few films have used Manchester as a kind of character, as a backdrop?
Yeah, because to me there’s a certain aspect of the city that has a combination of the old and the new through its layout, which is so relevant when you walk around, that can make it more filmic than London in some respects. Would you like HABIT to sort of broaden Manchester as a filmic city?
Yeah, I quite like that idea this is the first horror film shot in Manchester for decades. I did a bit of research and there’s LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE, and there was Cliff Twemlow, who made some action/exploitation films back in the 80’s which I haven’t seen, but were pretty obscure. It is quite amazing that there has not been a horror film set in this city. After making my last two films, which where both set in the wilderness, I was thinking why hasn’t anyone used this city we live in as a backdrop for a film. I’ve got another idea for a film set in Manchester that is not really horror, more contemporary film noir, very dark.
I was gonna ask you about that because one of the feelings I got from watching the trailer for HABIT was that it had a slight noir-esque approach to some of the style. Does the film have a noir approach to it? I know you said before that it wasn’t a straightforward horror film, was this one of the aspects you wanted to incorporate?
Yeah, we wanted to give it an atmosphere. As I said before, the film kind of takes a right hand turn. It starts off as a bit of a gritty drama, visually and story wise like a realist drama. But as our character is introduced to this bizarre underworld, Lee enters into his life and leads him into it, something he hasn’t been in before. As he enters and becomes part of it, the style of the film changes and the lighting changes, using a bit more coloured light, and we wanted to make it look more stylised and give it a more film noir feel, as the latter part of the film takes part in the night and it just felt right to take that slightly heightened version of the night. We took those backstreets and lit them and put some fake smoke effect into them to give them a bit more atmosphere. But it’s there, really, as those streets are pretty atmospheric already.
Another thing I want to touch upon is the film looks like it focuses on an underworld community, and at the same time in real life Manchester we have such a visible homeless community around the city which is essentially an underworld in itself. Is that the kind of similar feeling you wanted to create in HABIT?
There is an implication that what they get up to in this film is not confined to this one club and that there’s a room down below where very dark things happen. And like the character, Michael, you soon start to discover that it’s happening at other places as well in the city and as he is introduced to this world this could be happening everywhere and this secret could be expansive. I like the fact that this could be real and this could be really happening and everyone is so oblivious these days as they are walking around with there faces in there mobiles, not aware.
One final question. What for HABIT next – are there plans for distribution?
We’re working with a company called CONTENT, quite a big sales company, but we’re not yet sure what’s gonna happen with the release in the UK. We hope it’s going to get one early next year, fingers crossed. It’s doing a lot of film festival screenings, a lot of genre film festivals in October and November this year. This today is its UK premiere, we just screened it over in Sweden this past weekend. We’re just doing a mini tour with it and then who knows. We don’t know what kind of release it’s going to get. I’d like it to as big as it can be, I would like it to get some cinema, but you know how hard it is to get a small film released nowadays.
It’s a tough market now.
It is. It’s very, very tough but we’ll see.
If you’re in the Yorkshire area HABIT is screening at the Leeds International Film Festival on 15th and 16th November 2017, with a Q and A with Simeon on the 15th.
Thanks to Fi Gales at Sundae Communications for arranging this interview.