Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Something Like a Phenomenon: The Jonathan Chance Interview

Jonathan Chance

Jonathan Chance is someone you’ve probably run across but you never realized it. When I was introduced to him I realized he had a face that looked familiar but I couldn’t place. It wasn’t until I heard him speak that I realized that I had heard his voice in any number of commercials. However John is much more than an actor, he’s a writer, director, producer, composer, and… the list goes on. This very talented transplanted Englishman is much more than the hallowed entertainment triple threat.

I was introduced to John after I had been told about his nominated Shriekfest Best Screeenplay called Something Like a Phenomenon. The script tells the story of Borley Rectory in England. It was believed to be the most haunted place in the world. The hauntings were investigated by Harry Price who, with the aid of a small army of assistants investigated the hauntings in the late 1920’s. What I had been told about the project intrigued me, the story wasn’t one I had really come across except tangentially. I knew the name of the rectory and investigator Price, but I never knew the details, and the story of the haunting had never been committed to film as far as I knew except as mentioned in the odd documentary on ghosts. John had grown up about ten miles from the ruins of the Rectory (it burned down in the 1940’s) and was fluent in the stories surrounding the weird happenings.

Intrigued by what I was being told I reached out to John and asked for an interview. John graciously agreed and after boning up on the haunting and the project I sent off a list of questions.

Because I did a bit of research on the Borely Rectory hauntings and spoke with John a little bit prior to and outside of the interview I’d like to explain a couple of things

First, you’ll notice that I don’t go too deeply into the plot and production detail regarding the film, and that is largely intentional since John is in the middle of finalizing his cast and crew, with effects master Michele Mulkey recently signing on. Because things were in a state of flux I didn’t want to talk about things that weren’t set. I also didn’t want to do the film any disservice by talking about things which change because of last minute adjustments- a fact made clear by John’s final answer concerning casting.

I should explain the central figure of John’s script is a man by the name of Harry Price. Price was man with a deep interest in the paranormal. He is, in many ways the first real paranormal investigator. He waded into weird happenings to try and figure out what exactly was going on. The trouble was that he frequently butted heads with people over what and how he was doing things. In many corners he’s viewed as fraud because he was a stage magician, which instantly makes him suspect.

For those younger than a certain age or not fancier of thrillers or occult fiction, Dennis Wheatley was a prolific British writer of thrillers, many with an occult tinge. He was for decades one of the bestselling authors in the world. However I know that when I was growing up in the United States that unless you were a fan of genres he wrote in his name wasn’t well known. One of his books was turned into one of Hammer’s best films, The Devil Rides Out.

Borley Recrtory as it once stood

Since I think most people are not going to be familiar with the tale could you briefly relate the story of the haunting of Borley Rectory?

The Haunting of Borley Rectory is a British ghost story and local legend shrouded in mystery. I’d say the story goes back to 1667 with a tale of tragedy. There was once a young couple; a Nun and a Priest in love about to elope to be married. This riled up the locals, word spread of this sinful deed and they were murdered, each in cruel sadistic ways. Where they died and the church opposite over the centuries stories emerged; sightings of the Nun, and poltergeist activity etc., not just from the locals but from lawmen, people of power and even local clergy themselves. 1800’s Borley Rectory is built on the spot by Rev. Henry Bull for his growing family. They have their own experiences of phenomena; kids eventually grow up, and move out until finally the house is empty. No one owns it. 1937, Harry Price; first parapsychologist if there ever was one, is drooling to get his teeth into Borley Rectory. He succeeds in leasing the house for a one whole year to run possibly one of the scariest, unsung ghost experiments in modern history. This is where the story will begin.

How is that covered in the film? How close is the script sticking to the actual events?

It is set around the one year lease and the story unfolds almost like an investigation that uncovers other cases. There is so much truth behind the story of Borley Rectory, by observers and the stories of Harry Price. But, people didn’t know what to believe, because it was also tangled in mystery, deception, fear. I touched on that a lot. So, there is a lot of truth involved in the screenplay and other actual local stories that will make the audience get absorbed in the true spirit of the time. The rest I tried to make compelling, and realistic to show what people really did witness in their field of work; from mediums and scientists to normal everyday people dealing with something bigger than them. To me, fact and fiction in this story entwines, so it made for an interesting story to make. Today, when people see a the horror film – where what looks like fifty to a hundred CGI insects crawl out of a girl’s mouth and BASED ON A TRUE STORY comes up - I don’t believe that. But, people do, and I get that films now have to try even harder to scare the audience. Difference is - there are better realistic ways of doing it. That’s what I want to do. In reality if that happened maybe only three to five insects flew out of her mouth – and I’d believe ‘real’ looking ones by a makeup artist rather than a computer.

I know that for the most part the story has never been committed to film outside of documentaries, why do you think that is? Do you think that the size of the investigation, which had over 40 people doing a variety of things, is the reason? How are you planning on handling such a potentially big cast?
It certainly is an undertaking! Well, luckily, the Forty to Fifty applicants were picked to stay in various intervals throughout the year, cut into groups. It makes for an interesting progression and I touched on points of the year and specific characters. I think the legend, legacy, covers such a long period of time and only by careful planning can it be done right. I am happy it hasn’t been done just yet. It gives me an opportunity to tell the tale the way I think it should be told, warts n’ all. Not over the top, very grounded, even though a lot of the real-life characters are larger than life. Some things I definitely feel would have been overlooked if the film is made too ‘big’ or not quite ‘big enough’. That’s why today possibly we go through bouts without a real modern classic horror film go-to. We end up looking to the past. A lot of true event horror movies miss the point of where the human side is in people, what makes them tick, and we ourselves can be our own worst enemies and demons as well.

When did you start to write the script? How has it changed? Did you always have it focused the way you did or has focus on the story shifted in the writing and rewriting?

I started in 2008, my short film work and another script took importance over it at the time due to their being something I could actually afford to do. Something Like a Phenomenon was going to be the film I did after (and if) I made some money from other films - it would be the ‘big one’ to make. Coming from a guerrilla film making background anything with a budget to me is big. Throughout the years I meandered on it and eventually put my head down to give it the attention it deserved. Things changed here and there – the idea was always set, it’s scarier than it first started out as. My main determination was; I have to write this screenplay and make it before someone else makes this and possibly ruins a potentially great film! So often a film can get altered, changed or set in modern day time to be relatable for kids for instance. Well, why can’t it be a great story set in another time and show although it’s a different time – people and kids especially - are still the same. Also, I want to apply to the demographic that gets overlooked – for people like myself the 25 – 45 range that want to be scared again. They’ve seen hundreds of horror movies and they’re sick of CGI driven horror in place of substance. They really want to be scared they want a classic horror film that will stand the test of time.
A ghost at Borley Rectory

Are you planning on directing the film yourself? Which role is yours?

Yes, I would really like to. I feel I have experience working on a budget – or lack thereof. That’s the touch I want, something with an Indie budget, maybe a large indie budget. I’ve seen people with less experience go straight to work for a studio directing a film – so what’s better than someone who wrote the story, has the vision and was a local from the area?

I saw the short promotional film on line, did you direct that? How and why did that come together?

Yes, I made that in few hours and edited it one afternoon. I was in a semi-finals for ‘Best Horror Screenplay’ and that was a promotional spec trailer for the script solely to grab the attention of Shriekfest participants. I wanted to have something up. Something I could show to give an idea about the story. Everyone involved were so great! I would recommend them all to anyone looking for some wonderful actors and people to work with. I really appreciated the generous time they gave to me to make it happen and Lisa from the Howe-Waffle House was so gracious in her time for letting me use such a beautiful Victorian home (not an easy or cheap thing to find in L.A!) and I would love to work with them again.

What is the time frame you estimate for completion of the film?

That’s a toughie. We are currently looking for investors, producers or a studio to get behind this. I want to get this made in 2013 – but we’ll see how things go. Already I am hopeful; I have a secret weapon in Michele Mulkey – a fantastic, wonderful SFX makeup artist who has worked on so many big films and TV shows including; Firefly, CSI’s, The Last Samurai – and many more, you’d recognise her work on shows you watch. I’m so lucky to have an industry talent involved in the project!

I know that in Hollywood there is always the drive to continue with a hit with a series, have you gotten any pressure or do you anticipate you might get pressure to change things so that the film could be somehow open ended?

It could happen. The story could be, I guess there’s always a way! Whether or not it’s worth doing is a different story. There would have to be a point, something left out, I hate sequels just for the case of money. As long as it’s not just a modern day setting and shot like every found footage film around today.

In the promotional material there is talk of Hammer Films. Are you aiming to do something in the style of Hammer ala The Devil Rides Out or are you aiming for something more modern say the recent Woman in Black? Or is your hope to do something completely stylistically different?

I love Hammer film. I grew up on them, and I’ve actually said in interviews before the first film I ever saw was Horror of Dracula. The script screams Hammer. Just by its very setting, characters, etc. We’re still looking Hammer – so call me! But what it comes down to is whoever is willing to take on the challenge.

The Devil Rides out was a great movie and so was The Woman in Black. This is its own film and should not adhere to a trend like I said earlier the found footage thing – as much as it could easily go that way being the subject - I feel over time that won’t hold up if everyone is filming the same way. It should be a film that people can get excited about like the old hammer movies and sensibilities but in the style of a modern day film – it should fit snug between the old hammer films from yesteryear and the modern audience of today. This is an iconic story that was almost forgotten, I want people to know about its importance.
Dennis Wheatley
Only because it's not explained in the promotional material I've read, how does Dennis Wheatley and Peter Cushing figure into all of this? Are there direct connections to Wheatley's novels? I could guess at Devil Rides Out, but do you know of others? (Not having read your script and it being years since I've read any Wheatley it's hard for me to make connections)

It’s very interesting indeed! I want that to be part of the fun when people go to see it. These people were actually involved in Harry Price’s ‘Ghost Club’ which fascinates me. They knew Harry Price so I incorporated it into the story – that’s where the feel of say an old Hammer or Amicus film is felt but what’s more, literally with one of its greatest actors from the silver screen jumps from the page! That, you can’t make up.

Its inferred that there are additional famous people involved, would you care to say who?

Another famous writer. Just in a mention. It’s someone whom we think so highly of today and in his many incarnations is all over the screen. Price actually showed him up, there was rivalry there. Others are Famous in the ghost community, people will see the references when they get to watch it, and winks to Dennis Wheatley and Peter Cushing.

You said that you grew up ten miles away from Borley Rectory. How much time did you spend there?

Around ten – twenty miles, very local. As kids, we went there then later on a lot in my teens and early twenties. We’d go to the area of the site and the church opposite which still stands where people say the hauntings continued. Took a lot of photos, video footage, EVP’s sometimes nothing but, a couple of times - I’m not kidding we got some very strange things!

Here on Long Island we didn't have an actual haunted house, but we did have stories that caught our imagination when we were growing up. One was about a girl in a tomb in a glass coffin, another was a supposed tomb that was set up like a small child who died that was located in a maze like cemetery (That latter story is mostly real by the way). The mythic locations were always things that we always tried to find so that we could either prove we were brave or so that the smart asses in the group of friends could get a laugh in scaring the frightened further. Was Borley like that when you were growing up?

It sounds like you have some really scary stories of your own! Oh yes! Daring each other to go deep into the woods nearby by yourself or on Halloween - things like that. But what remains of the area of Borley - honest to God, before the idea of making a story about this was an idea in my mind – we caught strange footage of a weird pattern on the video camera when I went back to it later that night. And, of course it happened when we least expected, off guard.

 Do you think that the rectory was haunted?

I do, there has always been a mix of truth, lies and possibly people just imaging things, but, essentially if we go back to before it became such a ‘name’ – those sightings and claims were still made. With so many claims you deny them all, you have to start asking yourself, it can’t all be BS. It all goes back to some truth.

Harry Price
How do you feel about claims that Harry Price was a charlatan?

I delve into that in the story. I feel he was someone who genuinely believed in the afterlife a true pioneer in every sense of the word. To want to discover the unknown before anyone had the desire and balls to he was a champion in my book. But, he was also flawed. Things get in the way; egos and opportunism, etc. That’s what made him so interesting, he’s not black and white he’s complex like everyone.
I know that the Rectory burned down in the 40's but do you know if the location is still haunted?

It is said to be, and that’s why I think people still to this day go to look for themselves. We are by nature curious; we seek the unknown every day, from something as little as reading your horoscope to the existence of ghosts or monsters. That’s why the horror genre to me is so interesting, the fear of the unknown; what part does it play on earth and how we can try to understand its meaning?
Borley Rectory not long after the fire

I should ask are you a believer in the supernatural or just good supernatural stories?

Ghost stories change from ear to ear to each person that is told. But, having said that, I’m a believer, but, I’m a sceptic first. You have to be open minded enough to open the door and enter (If people can’t be open minded to even try – I find that ignorant even egotistical to think they are all knowing in their point of view) so although I want to believe I’m not going to jump at every little thing, you have to be judgemental on everything.

Do you think supernatural films are better made by believers or unbelievers?

Probably someone very even balanced and down the middle. Like me – haha! The whole film and case is all about that very matter. You write about what you know, the subject, similar cases and stories. Some of the best films could be made by people with that very same instinct – they don’t know, but want to know more. If someone didn’t believe in it how do I know any of the facts or ideas have any value?

Once I heard the creator of X-files never believed in any of the things he wrote about. I cannot believe that. We have to be open minded to the world. We simply don’t know enough about the spirit world after we die, or for that matter the bottom of the ocean, the millions of planets, it goes on…

When you were growing up were you a fan of horror movies? Was that what drove you to be an actor? (I ask it because many people I know who got into film and TV seemed to get into it through a love of genre films)

I’ve always been a fan of horror movies. As I got older I wanted to know ‘how’ they make movies. I got into acting via making my own movies with my Brother by which we simply didn’t have enough people to play parts! Drama in school was like Art and English; always an interest of mine. To this day I love them all; acting, writing and directing. Expression is a powerful medium in its many forms, especially when passion rides the artistic process.

Where do your cinematic interests lie? What do you like to watch?

All kinds of films. Normally films with something below the surface not a usual run of the mill. Thinking films, something with grit, heart, a good story, characters and great cinematography. I aspire to make my own work and style (every artist should) but I admire filmmakers; Cronenberg, Mann and Carpenter to name a few. Also, I love the late Michael Reeves three and only films – if anyone could make great horror films on a small budget did it.

Because the website is called Unseen Films- what would your choice or choices be for a film that you really like but no one knows about or doesn't appreciate?

Incubus - starring William Shatner before he did Star Trek. He surprisingly speaks Esperanto in the film. It’s really underappreciated. I think it might be because, since the late sixties the original masters were considered lost. In recent years a copy of the film was found that was sent out to a film festival. Anyway, it’s a great creepy art-house horror film!

Jumping backwards- assuming you could cast anyone, what is your ideal casting?

I am open to new talent and specific name actors who’d be interested in our production getting involved – I don’t want to say, I know who - but I must remain tight lipped! Either way they could be actors from any country – doesn’t matter. In the end it will be whoever is the right person for the job.

Borley Rectory with some of the living

Based upon my discussion with John and what I’ve read ion the subject and the film this looks like it is going to be a super film and we at Unseen will be following it. John has agreed to send me updates on the film and there will be a second interview coming when the film is completely doneand we can really go into the details of the story and its production.

Further details on the film can be found here.

The short promo film which is mentioned in the interview can be found here.

For those of you who want more information on John's earlier film work try Chance Encounters  You can go to Voices by Chance which covers his voice over work He's also on Twitter @CarryOnJohn

If you want more information on the Borley Rectory haunting or Harry Price you should Google them. I’d attempt to recommend something but I’ve read so much over the last two weeks that I’m not sure which is the best site. I will say that there are several clips on the haunting which are quite good as well.

(A big thank you to Peter Gutierrez for setting this all in motion)

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