Interview - Kevin Gates, Director of Paranormal Diaries: Clophill

Chris Welsh managed to get hold Kevin Gates, the British Writer/Director or 2006's "The Zombie Diaries" and FrightFest exclusive "Paranormal Diaries: Clophill", for a chat about movie making in the UK, how to get started and what he's got coming up next. 

Paranormal Diaries: Clophill is released on October 14th across the UK.

How would you describe Paranormal Diaries: Clophill in your own words?

A fresh spin on the found footage horror sub-genre. The film follows an investigation into a ruined church in Bedfordshire that has a disturbing history of occult and supernatural activity and is a mixture of fact and fiction - with an emphasis on fact. 90% of what you see in The Paranormal Diaries is totally genuine and I hope the audience has some fun working out what is real and what isn't. If I was asked to describe what the film was like, I'd say a crossover of GHOST WATCH and LAKE MUNGO with real witnesses, real situations and a real legend.

Being a writer/director and actor seems like a lot of work! What are the benefits/drawbacks?

I didn't plan on being in the film, but it was just the way the project evolved. On a low budget film, you've really got to know a lot about every aspect of film-making, as you're often on your own - especially during post production. The benefit is the film is totally your vision. The drawback of course is if things don't go so well, there's only one person to point the finger! It can be difficult to concentrate on everything at once, but the scale of this film was so small that this wasn't a problem and a lot of planning and research had been done prior to shooting. Often it was just me out at night with one of the cast and a bunch of extras. It was hard work, but a lot of fun.

Which do you prefer most? Writing, directing or starring?

Writing, directing and starring in that order - with starring way down the list! My biggest strength is actually as an editor and I had to think outside of the box to shape the film into what you'll see on release. I had the footage from the weekend investigation at Clophill including the documentary team's journey, the interviews and what happened - but there was no set plan on how it would be cut together. It really did evolve during a very long post production period and I amassed hours of footage that had to be cut down. The original cut was well over two hours and I had to be brutal and keep chipping away to get it down to a more reasonable and pretty tight 88 minutes.

What is your writing process like?

A starting point is always the films and books that exist in the same sort of world as the film I'm writing. For this film an obscure book called DEVIL WORSHIP IN BRITAIN by Peter Haining and Arthur Sellwood was incredibly important as it really captured the atmosphere of witchcraft in the 1960s that was the setting for the Clophill legend. From there it was documentaries on cases like THE ENFIELD POLTERGEIST and THE HIGHGATE VAMPIRE, occult/paranormal based films such as THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, RACE WITH THE DEVIL, LAKE MUNGO and finally the BBC's classic show GHOST WATCH. Once I've got a feeling for the sort of world and atmosphere I want to create, I then sit down and start writing with a suitable background score bubbling away in the background. I keep coming back to THE HOLY BIBLE by the Manic Street Preachers - one of the most horrific and dark albums ever recorded. Just my kind of thing…

How different is Paranormal Diaries: Clophill to 2006's Zombie Diaries?

It's quite different from the violent world of THE ZOMBIE DIARIES as the film is much more a low-key creeper that builds subtly to a very unsettling climax. Although the film flirts with found footage, it's much more based in the documentary genre. However it would be incorrect to describe it as a faux documentary, as most of the film is completely real. The world of the occult and paranormal in which the film is set I found extremely interesting, as although it feels fantastical, it is far closer to reality than an apocalyptic zombie-infested world.

Some recent films (such as 'A Field In England' and 'Lords of Salem') have been released on a number of platforms simultaneously - Cinema, DVD, VOD, Netflix etc - any similar plans for your work?

I loved A FIELD IN ENGLAND! That scene where the character comes out of the tent in slow-motion with the incredible score was one of the creepiest things I've seen and was perfectly realised. I'm so glad there are film-makers like Ben Wheatley who are trying something different and not getting sucked into the artistically worthless output that Hollywood offers us these days. Second Sight Films who are releasing THE PARANORMAL DIARIES in the UK have put a great deal of care and effort into the release, which is a film-makers dream. Although we can't quite compete with what A Field In England did, we'll be out on DVD, VOD and selected theatres on October 14th.

How did you get your start? Did you study film-making or did you just pick up a camera and get started?

After A-levels I studied painting at art college where they also ran a film-making course. I enrolled on that without hesitation and my training in composition quickly made me a pretty good camera operator. I also rapidly became a decent editor. I completed a degree and master's in experimental film, but really wanted to pursue my own ideas. I think the old methods of climbing the ladder in the industry are just that and it wasn't for me. I remember years back walking out of a Soho post production house as they were just exploiting me for free labour without even paying travel expenses. The idea of living like that for a few years in the vague hope I'd get noticed was ridiculous. I had to put my own money into my films to get started, but the gamble eventually paid off. I do believe you have to pay your dues and learn your craft. The digital age has created a lot of great filmmakers, but it's also created a lot of lazy film-makers who believe they don't have to spend the time learning their craft and can just get something made via a crowd-funding site, or expect people to lend them a hand for free when they can't be bothered to put real effort in themselves.

Any tips for aspiring film-makers?

I know it sounds obvious, but actors and script are the two most important things in any film. A film is only as good as its weakest actor, so spend time getting your casting right. Also, send your script around to your most brutal friends and get them to tell you what they really think. It's only the naive who are hurt by honest criticism and feedback and you cannot be too precious over your script. Remember, your film could eventually be seen by thousands of people, so don't think you're some kind of screenwriting genius just because you have a good idea. Shaping that idea into something that really works over 90 minutes is a tough assignment. 

Don't try and make a Hollywood film if you don't have the money. Use the low budget to your advantage and find a way of embracing that approach. If you are putting your own money in - make sure it is money you can afford to lose. There are too many unsavoury distributors and agents just waiting to make money from you but giving you nothing in return. THE ZOMBIE DIARIES was successful mainly for it being the right film at the right time. There was a huge amount of passion and hard work that went into the film, but it 

was just pure chance that George Romero announced DIARY OF THE DEAD just as we premiered our film at Letchworth Garden City's Broadway Cinema. The film was snapped up by The Weinstein Company and we rode the wave of found footage films that followed, including REC, CLOVERFIELD and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.

Finally, if you're not passionate about a project as a director, no-one else is going to be - so make sure you're ready for the long haul. I'd be interested to know how many evenings I spent late into the night chipping away at the edit of THE PARANORMAL DIARIES to get it into a decent shape. I'd sometimes drive up to Clophill at midnight just to get a few cutaway shots I needed. Be prepared for those late nights and make sure you're willing to get your hands dirty.

I notice a listing for Paranormal Diaries: Mothman on your IMDB - What can you tell us about that?

We are embarking on another Paranormal Diaries adventure and there may even end up being a whole series of them. There's a link at Clophill to an isolated wood in Bedfordshire that I discovered has something of an occult history. When I researched further I stumbled upon a story of a terrifying Mothman encounter from 1979 witnessed by an entire family at the same location. There were also a grisly event of animal mutilation and even a black shuck encounter - all at this wood over a short space of time. These events were documented briefly in the press at the time, but it's something of an unexplored case, so we're going to spend another long weekend investigating to see what we can find out.

Interview by Chris Welsh

Chris Welsh is a writer from the UK. You can find his stuff,  mostly horror shorts and novels, by searching his name on Amazon Kindle or Smashwords. Or read his free, online comic at www.wartcomic.com