Messing with the mind: An Interview with Beckoning the Butcher director, Dale Trott
Dale Trott knows how to shape a moment; how to subtly bring a scare. It’s what makes his film, Beckoning the Butcher, such a gratifying horror experience. With Butcher, the RMIT graduate has managed something quite remarkable: he’s taken the well-worn concept of the found-footage horror film and given it creepy, face-scratching new life. A host of found-footage devices appear within the film’s tight 70 minutes, but Trott’s refined direction, his attention to detail, and his awareness of how fear manifests in the mind rather than before the eyes separates his film from the glut of Paranormal Activity-wannabes vying for DVD and VOD attention.
Beckoning the Butcher centres on Chris, a YouTube star building an audience by uploading videos of himself and his friends performing ghostly “rituals” in the hope of capturing apparitions on camera. Despite his success, Chris desires something headier. Enter his older brother who digs into the dark corners of the Interwebz to bring him “beckoning the butcher”, a ritual involving the conjuring of a vengeful spirit who can be kept at bay with the use of Saxa salt and a candle. Chris grabs four friends, and, in the interest of ethereal authenticity, sets off to an old farmhouse in country Victoria to solidify his online-ghost-video fame.
Chris’s eagerness and naiveté regarding the spirit world become clear when one of his female friends becomes faint, seemingly without reason. A trek to find her help results in the group discovering they just might be stuck with the noises, the upturned chairs, and the poorly friend who’s since decided to scratch her own face off. Candles and salt, the group discovers, are no match for the Butcher.
Trott’s film is simple, it’s effective; its characters are [shock!] likable and real. It premiered on Australian screens late last year, and will be released on DVD in August. MONSTER spoke to Dale Trott about his film, the found-footage genre, and how viewing his own dailies gave him the goosebumps.
MONSTER: When you saw the finished film, were your expectations fulfilled? Because, let me tell ya, it’s pretty effective.
DALE: I’m really glad you enjoyed it. It definitely went above and beyond my expectations. With found-footage, there’s always a risk that something in the writing, or acting, or production won’t come together. There’s a risk that the illusion of it being reality will be lost, and the whole thing will lose that atmosphere. But I feel that with this, everything came together really well.
MONSTER: Can you pinpoint your favourite moments, where you felt you were really achieving something, versus the times you were less confident?
DALE: The process was a lot of fun. For the found-footage shoot, it was just myself with the actors hanging out everyday and filming every night. I think only having the six of us alone out in the middle of nowhere in that creepy house with no electricity also brought a lot of real fear into the performances. I wasn’t too concerned about much because, during the day, I could cut what we did the night before and could see the flow of scenes. There were one or two times we had to re-shoot a scene because we thought we could do better. And we had the time and freedom to do that.
The interview scenes were a bit different. We had a camera and sound crew with those scenes, and the shots were a lot more time-intensive to set up. We filmed them over a weekend and my biggest concern was running out of time to get all the performances, and enough cutaways. Our awesome crew stuck it out, and we ended up finishing our cutaways at about 3am on a Sunday night. Packing up camera gear at 3am in an abandoned house with no light or electricity is just as fun as it sounds, trust me.
MONSTER: How did your experience with this film differ from your first film?
DALE: The process for both films was wildly different. We shot Killervision over two months. it had a large cast, multiple locations, and a bigger crew. It was an amazing experience, I learned a lot and I had a lot of fun, but by the end I was exhausted. The bulk of Butcher was in one location, over two and a half weeks with only eight actors, so it was a bit more chilled.
MONSTER: What have you found to be the pros and cons of the found-footage style of shooting?
DALE: The pros of found-footage are that it’s cheap, and the fact that it’s based on ‘reality’ adds an extra element of fear. It was also a lot quicker to set up a shot. We didn’t have any lights or use any sound equipment apart from the on-board camera light and mic. I wanted it to look as raw as possible. And, because there were no light stands or boom mics to dodge, the camera had a lot more freedom to move.
The cons are that although the camera is free flowing and can move, it brings a lot of other challenges. How can we get the camera to capture the scary bits without cutting? Is the free-flowing camera going to capture the mattress and rope set up for the special effects? Is the audience going to get motion sickness? Also, I find that because found footage is so cheap, anybody with any kind of camera can slap one together. There has been a massive influx of found-footage films after Paranormal Activity. Now that the trend is fading, there’s a certain [negative] stigma attached to found-footage movies that I hope Butcher can overcome.
MONSTER: What were some of your favourite moments in the Butcher shoot?
DALE: Probably planning, testing, and filming the shot where Brent gets sucked down a hallway. For the majority of the shoot we could only film at night, so we had plenty of free time during the day to rehearse or plan out any technical shots. Working with the cast and crew to test this shot on the day, cut the test together, get really excited, then pull off the shot that night was an amazing process and the final product is my favourite shot of the film.
MONSTER: It’s a horrfying moment. I found the whole movie genuinely, annoyingly scary — doona-over-the-head scary. Was there a moment during filming that you just knew you were onto something, where you knew the fright scenes were working?
DALE: Probably after the first night of filming. Seeing the actors together performing their lines in that old house was great to watch. Then when I’d cut the scenes in between filming nights, I’d show Damien and we’d get goosebumps. A few months later, when I added in the interview scenes, the goosebumps happened again. When we’d watch the film with friends who had nothing to do with the production and they got visibly scared. It solidified for us that we had something special.
MONSTER: Absolutely. Are you a horror fan? Do your interests lie primarily in horror?
DALE: I love horror movies. When I write, direct or edit, I love to play with horrors, thrillers, supernatural films, sci-fi and action films. Whether creating or watching, I love being taken on an adventure. When horror movies are well written and well-put together, they can actually be a lot of fun. You can really be taken into some twisted and horrible places. When it comes to making horror, it’s awesome to write, and to invent, and use tools to make people feel uneasy and scared. At one of the first screenings for Butcher, we had people scream in their seats during a jump scare [where you see] a character with their face torn off. It’s a great feeling knowing something I made gave them that scare.
MONSTER: What are you enjoying on the current horror landscape? What’s scaring you?
DALE: I love contemporary horror. And seeing the new ways people are bringing their stories to the screen, and crafting scares, is awesome for me to watch and dissect. I find it most scary when the horror comes from something messing with a character’s mind. I don’t find a brute-force monster like a werewolf, a Captain Spalding, or a Jason too scary, especially when the pay-off is just gore. A demon that you can only see in your peripheral vision, though, that forces you to kill your own friends is something that I’d probably find a bit more haunting. So, I take what I enjoy and put it into my own work.
I watched The Conjuring a few months ago. I saw a couple of very loose similarities between it and Butcher, like the use of a doll at the start, and the psychic, which was pretty funny. The art direction, set design and lighting were all fantastic, and I enjoyed a lot of the haunting imagery James Wan used with the hanging tree and people from the past. Damn, that doll though. I heard that they’re giving it it’s own movie. I’m looking forward to seeing that.
Preparing for Butcher, I watched a lot of found-footage horror films to get a sense of the style. I looked at what made the scarier ones scary. Two standouts were The Poughkeepsie Tapes and The Tunnel. I love the way both movies had a unique style, and how the filmmakers used the tools they had within their budgets to bring the scares.
MONSTER: Found-footage is a relatively new phenomenon in horror. What about old-school stuff? Where does your mind go to get all horror-nostalgic?
DALE: I dig grabbing some popcorn and watching old-school slashers like the original Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. But I really I love classics that build a twisted, disturbing atmosphere like The Exorcist and The Shining. The atmosphere Kubrick created in The Shining is both clever and haunting, while the shots are spectacular.
MONSTER: What has surprised/influenced/shaped you as a filmmaker now that you’re in the middle of shaping a career in the field?
DALE: I just love to make films that I’d be interested in seeing. Making features like Killervision and Butcher has given me a wealth of experience in how to create a feature. Some directors prefer to head to set, work with the actors on the day, and plan the shots around them. For me, though, it’s all about coming into a shoot as long and as intense as a feature pre-prepared. On set I need to know the answer to any kind of question imaginable, as well as create a safe space for the actors to perform and the crew to work their magic.
One of the biggest things that’s starting to hit me is how hungry audiences are for something new and original. People want to be surprised and excited by cinema. I feel it’s time for me to step up. I need to focus on experimenting with different techniques to bring original concepts to life.