Hailing from Kirkintilloch, Graham Hughes is a Scottish writer and film director with a body of critically acclaimed and award winning work. With a clear love of film from a young age, it’s no surprise that Hughes is creating waves in the movie scene in Scotland through his ability to provide thought provoking narratives and challenge audience perceptions. We caught up with Graham to chew the fat and discuss his latest film, Death of a Vlogger as part of the Into Scottish Creatives series.
Can you tell Into Scottish Creatives how your love of film developed and when you began to consider this as something you wanted to do with your life?
As a kid I had always wanted to do something creative, and went through a bunch of phases, most notably, and ridiculously: stuntman. I think when I was about 10 years old, I loved film, but had no notion of how they were made. Seeing behind the scenes shows on TV, stuntman was one of the more tangible jobs, plus action was my favourite genre growing up. It wasn’t until my late teens that I got more of a sense of the difference between director, writer and producer.
When I was about 15 or 16 I saw The Usual Suspects, which is now obviously problematic, but fucking hell, that film blew my tiny little mind. I remember sitting watching the credits roll, just flabbergasted. I had no idea that a film could make me feel that way, it was a real, tangible shock to the system, and completely cemented what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Your film Death Of A Vlogger is being released soon. Where can the general public watch it?
The film will be released in the UK on the 6th of July by 101 Films. It’ll be available on Amazon, Sky Store and iTunes. A North American release will be coming in autumn via Gravitas Ventures.
Can you tell us what the film is about and also comment on the gestation period from idea to completion?
Death of a Vlogger is about a fame-hungry vlogger who achieves viral success when one of his films contains an alleged haunting. It’s a ghost-story mixed with themes of the dark side of the internet, public shaming, fake news and social media addiction.
The gestation period for this one was particularly short. I came up with the idea towards the end of 2017, and by February 2019 the film was finished. It was made in a very non-traditional way. Normally you’ve got development, then pre-production, then production, then post production. Because the scale of this film was so small, and the moving parts were all manageable, pre, post and production all overlapped. I shot the film over 6 months in 2018, and during that time I was still writing and tweaking the script, and I was editing the film as well.
Because I had easy access to most of the tools needed (I starred, shot the film in my flat, and used equipment I own) scenes could be written, shot, re-written and tested within an edit very easily. It meant that there was an iterative approach, and it improved the quality overall. It’s a very specific way of doing things, and I don’t think it’s one I can easily emulate again…
There are strands running through the film around the manipulation of society through multi media channels, myth versus reality and challenging perception. All very relevant in the world we live in – what was your thinking to introduce this into the film rather than do as a straightforward horror film?
Well, my favourite kinds of films are ones that can both present a compelling narrative, and interesting themes, or at least have something to say. For example, you can watch No Country for Old Men as a straight cat and mouse Western, or you can dig into the themes of the cruelty of society, and how nostalgia shapes our perceptions.
The two best genres, in my opinion, for straddling this line are sci-fi and horror. Historically they’ve always been analogous to the world we live in and reflect the worries and concerns of society at the time. My goal is that you can watch Death of a Vlogger and get the escapist thrill ride of a terrifying ghost story, and if you want to, it’ll get you thinking about how the internet is affecting our daily lives.
The film appears to have been made literally in your bedroom with a minimal budget. In terms of competing against big budget filmmakers – how do you and other writers/ directors square this off in terms of your art and getting strong content out there for a wide audience?
A huge inspiration for this approach was a film called The Dirties. It’s a Canadian film that had a tiny budget, but instead of trying to compete with a Hollywood look, they wore their budget on their sleeves and turned it into their aesthetic.
Before I made Death of a Vlogger I was working on a film with a tiny budget, but I was aiming for something that punched above its weight in terms of production value. I ultimately bit off more than I could chew, and the film fell apart because of that. So with Death of a Vlogger, I wanted to make something that sat within, and exploited its means.
As well as that, horror is the perfect genre for a film like this. The horror fan base, generally speaking, aren’t drawn to production value in the same way as other genres. If it has an interesting idea, or it’s well executed, they’re there for it. It’s a beautiful thing.
In terms of support from the Scottish creative industry, what help do you get as a young Scottish writer and filmmaker and what more can be done in this regard to cultivate and promote Scottish talent?
This is a really contentious topic, and one that I’ll need to suppress my bitterness over. Essentially it’s a lottery, and one I’ve had sporadic luck with. There are a lot of schemes available, with Screen Scotland, BBC, Screen Skills, BAFTA and Edinburgh Film Festival all providing various types of (generally free) support. EIFF in particular have been very supportive of me.
I personally think that we could really do with more public funding. Even with the short film schemes available, the teams that get funding generally need to seek further finance from crowdfunding or similar in order to pay everyone accordingly, and even then the above-the-line crew are paid nothing, and everyone else is underpaid. It’s great that we have these schemes in the first place, but it’s extremely competitive and underfunded.
It can lead to a lot of filmmakers, who don’t fit into the check-boxes that these schemes impose, losing faith and giving up. This is a huge topic, and not one I’m particularly keen to put a lot down in writing! Let’s grab a pint and talk…
You’re involved with Tartan Features. Can you explain what Tartan Features is and how you became involved?
Tartan Features is an organisation aimed at encouraging and promoting grass-roots film-making in Scotland. It lives by the ethos that if you don’t want to subscribe to the aforementioned lotteries available, then there are other avenues to getting your work made and seen.
I became involved a few years ago, after I made my second feature, A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide. I admired the approach that Grant McPhee (founder of Tartan Features) was taking, and it really gelled with my work-ethic. He’s been a great inspiration for me, and in my darker days has encouraged me not to give up on film. Film-making is a punishing journey, filled with long days, unglamorous work and countless, countless rejections. So having a body like Tartan Features that wants you to succeed, without any sort of application for entry, or pre-conceived metrics of success (other than you make work), it’s an invaluable thing.
Looking to the future, what are you currently working on and what would you like to do in terms of your filmmaking?
I’m currently writing another micro-budget feature that is a step up in scale and ambition from Vlogger, and to be funded using the profits from Death of a Vlogger. All going well, the whole thing could be finished as soon as next summer, but I’ll just take it one day at a time. I have a history of being overzealous!
One dream is that I can forge a cottage industry of low-budget, but profitable films, and in turn help other Scottish film-makers to do the same. I’m thinking along the lines of the Blumhouse model, but maybe a fiftieth the size, if I’m lucky!
I’ve also applied to one of the aforementioned lotteries, which would be fantastic to get onto. They’re currently offering funding for a short that would be more than all my feature budgets combined.
Lastly, what’s the one film you always go back to and why?
So many! There’s a bunch of films I could just watch over and over again. Recently I saw one of those dilemma questions that was like “You’re paid £1million to watch one film over and over for 24 hours. Would you do it and which film?”
First, obviously yes, what a bargain. And the film I landed on was Akira. Because it was adapted from a 6 volume manga, it’s such a dense work and there’s always something new to be found when watching it. I feel it’s a perfect film, not a single wasted shot or moment, and all the emotional beats are nailed so fully, the awe of it, the scale and scope, the terror… I just love it.
Death of a Vlogger is released on 06 July 2020 by 101 Films.