CELEBRITY INTERVIEW: Director of Portal to the Abyss, James McCann
Just recently I announced the upcoming movie, PORTAL TO THE ABYSS. This is one film that I am really looking forward to seeing and the director, James McCann, was nice enough to take some time to be interviewed. Welcome, James McCann.
BASEMENT: Growing up, what kinds of movies did you watch?
JAMES: Mel Brooks. It started with Robin Hood: Men in Tights, the following day I saw Spaceballs. I didn’t realise until then that you could be an actor, and the writer, and the director, and the producer. For some reason I’d taken in the info as being you had to stick to one thing, find your lane and stick to it. Pick your genre in life and stay there. Brooks clearly didn’t get that memo. If one person can dop something, then we all can.
I mainly grew up with comedy and action films, which I think allows me to understand how to write/direct the rhythm of action (it’s not about how to do a gunfight or an explosion, it’s about WHY we do it WHEN we do it). The exact same is with horror.
Young Frankenstein is a masterful piece of art. Comedy and horror go very well together and the genre should be more respected. Horror actually really scared me and made me uncomfortable. I think horror from the 1980s is in a lot of ways more enjoyable and superior to today’s horror. Horror today is either all-gore or overly dependent on jump-scares. Gore and jump-scares are great, when used properly. I think, seriously, a lot of modern horror filmmakers couldn’t tell you about the psychology behind any of it. WHY is this happening? WHY is it happening now? WHY is it happening to the person it’s happening to? What have you done in the first thirty minutes of the film to make me care about these people? If I don’t care about them, I don’t care what happens to them. At that point there’s no horror, there’s no danger. There’s nothing at stake.
Every time I watch any Kane Hodder film I’m cheering for him. Get those dumb-ass teens who are caricatures of real people.
Don’t, I mean do NOT, even get me started on CGI. Practical FX over CGI every day of the week. We’ve got a micro-short planned for later in the year which involves a lot of gore from a slit-throat, we’ll be releasing a Making-Of short documentary going over only how we do that stunt (spoiler; it involves a length of plastic tubing, some masking tape, a gallon of fake blood, and a bike pump).
BASEMENT: When you were growing up, what did you want to be as an adult?
From seven-to-ten I wanted to be an actor. From ten-to-seventeen I was going to be a pro-wrestler (I’m still Bret Hart in my mind), and then from seventeen I wanted to be a script writer. The issue is that when a producer or director gets hold of your work, they start tweaking it and putting their own spin on it. Sometimes it works, but it’s still not the story you wanted to tell. Other times it doesn’t work, and a script that was psychological play, exploring mental health and bringing it to the front, becomes just another series of jump-scares that everyone can see coming a mile away.
I’m a control freak, in that I think I can tell this story (whatever this story might be) better than anyone else. In order to have control, you’ve got to become the producer/director. If you want to get acknowledged, then you also have to be seen. It’s easier to get your film financed if you have a face/name. So, you put yourself in the film.
BASEMENT: Were your family and friends supportive of you becoming a filmmaker?
JAMES: Some were, some weren’t. The trick is being able to figure-out as quickly as possible who in your circle thinks like you do. The instant anyone in your circle starts with, “People like us don’t…” then that person needs to be removed from your life. You should have no room for pessimism, do not allow negativity in your vicinity. There is a difference between pointing out actual problems and just being a defeatist.
If you want to start your own business, read books by-and-about people who have run (successfully and unsuccessfully) their own businesses. Watch documentaries. Read interviews. Listen to podcasts. Do NOT ask your mate Dave who has worked a minimum-wage job for someone else for the past thirty years. No offence to Dave, but what the Hell does he know about running his business?
If you want to be a filmmaker, find the people you’re a fan of and become an expert on them. Know all about their history, what problems did they run into, etc.? Whatever problem you run into, someone else will have already been there, so rather than wasting six-months trying to figure it out, read their story and they’ll tell you the answer.
If, however, one or two people putting you down, telling you that you can’t do it, or that people like us don’t do things like that, is all it takes to derail you, then you probably never wanted it anyway.
YOU live YOUR life. There’s no one else like YOU, so it is up to YOU to be the one and only YOU! Yes, things are significantly easier with the full support of family and friends, but it doesn’t make something impossible just because no one around you believes in you or your dream. If you find yourself in the situation where no one seems supportive, and they can’t give valid reasons (if you’re an arthritic, out-of-shape 75-year-old responsible for looking after your grandchildren, then travelling the world to learn from masters to become a World MMA champion isn’t the right course for you) for their negativity, then leave them. Get a new circle.
Thanks to the internet, you can find your new circle anywhere around the world, and they’re right there on the screen at your fingertips. An example is I love Judo and Boxing. Both Ronda Rousey (Olympic Bronze in Judo), and Tony Jeffries (Olympic Bronze in Boxing) have YouTube channels on which they give tutorials for free. If I can access Olympic-level, World-class training, for free, online, then you can certainly find a group or two of positive people wanting to pursue the same thing as you.
I don’t mind people having excuses as long as they are actively trying to find a solution and overcome those problems.
If the lovely fans out there want to be supportive (and I hope they do), they can support us right now on our Kick Starter page (Portal to the Abyss by James McCann — Kickstarter) which offers many wonderful rewards.
BASEMENT: Can you tell us a bit about your past projects?
JAMES: No 🙂
Myself and Tina (along with Rupesh Savani) have recently completed a short (20 mins) drama about gambling addiction that we will be getting out there in the next few months. When Tina and myself wrote the script, we understood that addiction in all forms (no matter what it is you’re addicted to) is a very serious subject, and not the type of thing you want to just make-up as you go along (like the Mitchel and Webb TV writers sketch), so we consulted with NHS specialists on the subject to make sure we got everything exactly as it should be.
There was also a Christmas-themed film I made in a German hotel room with Japanese businessmen, but looking back I’m not sure how legit that was. I mean, I think it was Christmas themed. They made me dress like Santa and one guy was dressed as Rudolph, well, he was in a harness and his nose was glowing…
BASEMENT: What can you tell us about Portal to the Abyss?
JAMES: Portal to the Abyss is the heart-stopping, jaw-dropping, history-making, record-breaking, booty-shaking, story-telling, cow-belling, short film about a couple whose apartment happens to have been built around a gateway to nowhere, or a PORTAL TO THE ABYSS, if you like.
Lucy (Tina Sharma) is a house-proud lady who, as she works from home is eager to make friends with the new neighbors. Unfortunately for Lucy, she’s married to Ed (played by James McCann, I love that guy, he’s so talented), who has a job he hates and just wants to relax when he’s home, and really, he just loves Lucy and doesn’t feel the need or want to speak to anyone but her.
Amele (Dani Thompson) and Jasper (Owen Storey, the walking encyclopedia of horror) are the new neighbors who have come over for an hour in the afternoon to get acquainted. With the new blood in the home, the portal (it’s a Portal to the Abyss, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that) opens up, hungry for fresh souls…
I can also announce that this is a teaser for the feature version we’ll be raising finance for to film later in the year. The feature will have the same four characters returning, with slight changes after the events of the short, but we’ll also be adding one or two new characters to be played by some familiar faces depending on what you like to watch.
BASEMENT: What do you like to do outside of filmmaking?
JAMES: I run through the park chasing muggers, and when I catch them, I suplex those jabronis on their neck and make them humble.
I write a lot, I read a lot, I run a self-defense club, Reality Based Urban Defense (rbud.co.uk), I was recently published in Black Belt Magazine about real self-defense.
The vast majority of my time is spent writing and drafting (all good writing is drafting, and then some more drafting. Then a final go-over to be safe, but not more than that or you’ll never get the damned script out of the house) and trying to put together crews to film.
BASEMENT: What can you tell us about Dani Thompson and Tina Sharma, for those of us who may not know of them?
JAMES: I can’t tell you anything about Thompson and Sharma that you can’t find out by reading the court transcripts. Plus, there’s the gag-order to be careful of. That bus full of nuns never knew what hit them….
Dani Thompson (Dani Thompson | Actress, Model, Presenter, Blogger (dani-thompson.com) is a UK Scream Queen, a B-Movie Horror Icon that by all-rights should be much, much bigger than she is. She should really be up there with the greats. Had she been American she would be an international cultural icon right now. Roger Corman would have given his right arm for a Dani Thompson (well, he’d say his right arm, then he’d negotiate you down to his right hand and three toes). She’s been involved in acting and performance art for years, and we’re really lucky to have her. It’s rare that someone can have a deep understanding of what makes horror good, what makes horror work and yet still understand where the humor lies in it. She recently had an exhibition at one of the smaller horror conventions in the south of England of her Horror Icon Origami. She’s a multi-talented woman!
Tina Sharma (TINA SHARMA – Actor, Model, Presenter), the British-Indian Sensation Sweeping the Nation (I don’t know what nation it is, nor why she feels the need to sweep it, but I’m not going to question a woman’s motives). Tina and I have written a few scripts together, mostly drama, that will be going into production toward the end of the year. It’s good that I’m working with her now, because at the moment she’s the best-kept secret in acting. As soon as she’s in one project that gets a wide release, that’s it: to the moon! I’m not sure if she knows it yet, but she’s definitely going to be a director in the future, she can see the scenes too clearly in her head to not get behind the camera (nothing to do with her wanting to be in charge and boss people about, honest). She also holds a level-5 in nunchucks.
BASEMENT: When do you hope to have Portal to the Abyss completed and available for the public?
JAMES: By the end of March, or the beginning of April. I don’t see the point in having a great piece of work just sitting there and not sharing it with the world.
I get why some people don’t release things (other than if some major incident has just occurred that is the theme of the film), they’re worried. What if someone poo-poos the film? What if they don’t like it? What if the criticize it? What if they write negative things about it?
Well, so what?
What if Brian Blessed offers to take you to the zoo and he ends-up chinning a gorilla?
What if Marina Diamandis pulls-up outside your house and offers to take you to a Greek island where you’ll live the rest of your days as her love-slave?
What if the roof falls in on you as you read this?
Things happen, some we look at as good, some we look at as bad. If you don’t release the work for fear of someone, somewhere, maybe not liking it then just quit now. Stay home. Never leave your bedroom ever again.
I hope no one does do that though. I hope everyone says, in a booming Brian Blessed voice, “OH BOLLOCKS YOUR ARSE, MAN!” to the nay-sayers, to the negative people, to the haters, the pessimists, all of whom are without a doubt just projecting. They are afraid to step into the light, so when anyone else is brave enough to do so they have to attack them. They’re not strong enough to build themselves up so they find it easier to pull others down.
To anyone reading this who might be doubtful, or worried, please don’t be. Bill Hicks said it best, “It’s all just a ride.” You only get one go around, enjoy it, do what makes you happy, follow your dream, go after your goal. Don’t let someone else piss on the flame of your ambition.
BASEMENT: Do you have any advice for others that want to get into filmmaking?
JAMES: Make a plan, sacrifice to stick to that plan. Work at it everyday. When it comes to filming, storyboarding is your friend. My own storyboards are literally squares filled with stick figures (it worries me when I see bigger budget film spending twenty-grand on graphic novel-level artwork that Frank Frazetta would be envious of; you get the same idea from stick figures, and the money can be spent, you know, on the actual crew who are doing all the work).
Feed your cast and crew, appreciate them. Be sure to give them a thanks as you go. A simple, “Thanks for that, buddy,” but not sarcastically, can do wonders for morale. Feed them, lavish them with praise (it’s free!), and before you start filming, in the weeks leading up to the shoot, email them, stay in contact with them, ask them at that stage if they have any ideas. Let them know that up until a few days before the shoot all ideas are welcome, there are no bad suggestions, but once we get on set, everyone has to do what we’ve agreed to (assuming you’re on a tight schedule with a strict budget).
Have a plan locked down for the day. Make sure everyone else knows what they’ll be doing on the day. If you can arrange a group read-through (Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, etc.) for a read-through of the script a week or so out from the shoot.
Understand that everyone is different, so if someone has specific dietary needs, or someone needs a minute before each take to use their asthma inhaler, whatever it might be, roll with it. Don’t sigh, roll your eyes and cop an attitude.
I would also, again, highly recommend reading and watching and devouring as much as you can about your favorite filmmakers (or whatever area of life it is you want to get into; if you want to be a Judoka, read books about Olympic Judo medal winners, if you want to be a prolific author find out about how Stephen King writes, if you want to be a producer read Roger Corman’s book and watch documentaries about how he did what he did. The information is out there, mostly for free, it just costs you time to find it).
Geoff Thompson has a great line, “You don’t get professional results from recreational hours.” It’s true. If you want to be a professional writer, Stephen King advises read and write at least six hours a day. You’re not going to become a great writer if you just dabble once in a blue moon. If you want to be an Olympic sprinter, you’re not going to make that happen by going for a light jog once a week. You have to spend hours every day, without fail, on the track, pushing yourself further and further.
The biggest thing is just get out there and do it. You, yes you reading this right now, probably have video capabilities on your phone. You more-than-likely can upload what you film to a video-sharing site of your choice (YouTube, Daily Motion, etc.). There’s a good chance you know people, be they friends or work colleagues who either think they could be a film star (they probably can’t act) or, as most people do, they believe themselves to be very funny (they most-probably won’t be). In the case of work colleagues, I would be shocked if you don’t know someone whose niece or daughter or something wants to be an actor or singer who “would be perfect for what you’re doing.”
However, armed with this, you can write a 5-minute script, or, if you have non-actors who can’t remember lines, just have the scene, the characters and bullet-point what each person has to get across and let them make it up as they go. At this stage, you’re just showing that you can create the concept, organize people getting together, and showing off your directing chops with the funky angles (should they be needed).
I’d also suggest studying people. Learn about body language and statement analysis. It will help the characters be more realistic, and it will help your actors be more truthful in their performance. For myself, I have a Diploma in Psychology, a Level 3 in Criminal Psychology, and am about to start a distance study course for my L3 in Educational Psychology. It all helps to know why people behave the way they do. For writing characters that’s an immense help.
Believe in Yourself. Work Hard. Don’t be Afraid to Fail.
BASEMENT: How would you describe yourself in 5 words?
JAMES: Very bad at math.
Ambitious, witty, confident, single, and deluded.
BASEMENT: What makes you smile and what scares you the most?
JAMES: Make me smile; Pretty Brunettes.
Scares me; see above.
BASEMENT: What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
JAMES: Strengths would include being smart enough to recognise what areas I’m weak in. It might be cliche, but understanding that you don’t know it all is imperative. I know less-than-zero about lenses, but, I don’t need to know about lenses. I need to know what I want the film to look like. My strength has to be in being able to describe the vision as clearly as possible to my camera operator, and then trust them to pick the right lens. If I can show them a scene from someone else’s film and say, “Make it look like this,” and then leave them to it, that’s the best. If I know everything about the camera, and about the lighting, and the sound, then why the Hell am I hiring anyone else? You have to be smart enough to walk away from something and let the actual experts on the scene get on with it.
Would you stay awake during surgery to tell the surgeon how to do the operation?
I tell mY camera operator before the shooting begins what I want it to look like, so that when it comes time to film I can leave them to it and put out all the other fires (“Why does she get her own carton of skimmed milk?”, “Why is he going into makeup first?”, “God help you if I find a brown M&M in this bowl!”).
Don’t be that director/producer who is only in the job because everything else in your life is going to Hell, but this is the one place where you’re in charge. You shouldn’t be doing this just to tell people what to do, you should be here because you want to facilitate the making of some art.
I also happen to be able to do the seventh-best Christopher Walken impression on the planet.
Weaknesses are definitely I get impatient if I’m not running things, I see a lot of time-wasting in all aspects of life. I absolutely cannot abide when a director spends more than two minutes trying to figure out where to put the camera. God damn it, how long have you had the script? You should know coming in where you want the camera, where you want the actors. If an actor keeps showing up not knowing their lines, they don’t get hired again, but a director can come in with no clue and we think they’re so creative and a perfectionist. It’s offensive, it’s insulting, and it’s disrespectful. Know what you’re doing before you show up. If it was the director’s own money, they wouldn’t go over-time and over-budget.
My main weakness though? Pretty brunettes?
BASEMENT: Describe the next 5 years of your life and your plans?
JAMES: Well, I’m 37 right now, so in 5 years I see myself being 42 (I’m better at math than I let on, it seems).
I don’t know, none of us are psychic. Though I’d be very open to making a show debunking psychics and their ilk. It’s odd, but a lot of horror fans (as well as magicians) that I’ve met are like me in that we don’t believe in the supernatural, we don’t believe in other worlds in that regard. It would be nice to get a show working with people claiming to have psychic ability.
I’d like to do a show with Dani Thompson, touring supposedly haunted locations. I think what’s missing from those types of shows is A) a sense of humor and fun, and B) a genuinely skeptic skeptic who has an understanding of science. Too many of these shows, the skeptic will sum-up with, “I can’t explain that” which then the show puts across as proof of ghosts.
I’m open to someone proving to me that the other side exists, I would love to meet someone who was really psychic, and I’d really love to meet those people on a TV show that I owned.
The plan at the moment is to release a micro-short each week (2-3 mins, using local cast and crew who are just starting out who need the chance to get their foot in the door), and then once every three or four months a longer-short film (8-20 minutes) using established cast and crew.
It’s a fine-line balancing act. You get people who can’t get hired because they don’t have the experience, but how are they supposed to gain the experience if no one will give them a try? The other thing is, rightly or wrongly, if I put up a great film starring myself and my doctor and the local traffic warden, how many people are going to click on that? If I do the same film starring some people with name value, I’ll got a lot more views, a lot more attention, a lot more traction.
I know a lot of people think money is a dirty word, but having money available makes it so much easier to get things done. If you can afford someone with name/face value (and hopefully a massive online following) to be in your film, even in just a single scene, you should try to make it work. We want to work with a lot of people who maybe don’t have a stellar acting career right now, but they don’t want to do a reality show to jump-start their career. Come work for us! We’re like Tarantino but with shorts and we won’t even film your feet (unless you specifically want us to, each to their own).
Think of it this way; If I have two horror films, one has no one you’ve ever heard of in it, but it’s won a handful of local, regional awards at festivals you’ve never heard of. The second stars Kane Hodder, Robert Englund, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tony Todd belts out an operatic number in the middle. Which of those two is going to get more views?
As uncomfortable as it might be for people, you have to be able to switch from Artist hat to Business hat, and you have to know when to do that.
The idea is to use Portal to the Abyss as a proof-of-concept teaser to raise money for the feature version (the script is already written, locations already scouted). We’ll then be using the longer shorts to do the same again. I’m going to keep making the shorts I want to make, and essentially milking them for all I can get out of them (that includes working with people I want to work with, stretching as a filmmaker and actor, tackling certain subjects that seem insurmountable right now, it’s not just about making money, but as I’ve already stated, making money is an important factor if you want to do something full-time).
And, if the fates and the universe are with me, I’ll get to that Greek island. 😉
People can find us at James McCann (@happybuzzent) • Instagram photos and videos and HappyBuzEnt (@happybuzzent) / Twitter.
We’re @happybuzzent everywhere that we officially are.
The Kick Starter Portal to the Abyss by James McCann — Kickstarter
I love how open and candid James is here, not only with the movie business but with life in general. I find him to be an inspiration.
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