While awaiting the release of the new Australian horror film Crawlspace, I was lucky enough to score an interview with the film’s writer, director, producer, special effects make-up designer and story artist Justin Dix.
GEORDIE: Hi Justin, first of all thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about your new feature, the Australian horror film Crawlspace.
JUSTIN DIX: No problem Geordie, it’s been a dream project of mine for over ten years, not specifically the film ‘Crawlspace’, but to make a feature film not only for fans of the genre, but for myself to create something that I can still enjoy watching again and again.
GEORDIE: I’d like to start by asking where the idea for Crawlspace started. Would it be fair to say that Crawlspace appears to draw its influences from classic claustrophobic horror films such as Alien and The Thing?
JUSTIN: Yes you could say that, films such as Alien and the Thing are possibly my greatest influences. Alien more for the production design. As I did the production design for Crawlspace myself (including many other roles like storyboarding and FX makeup designing), I was after a very specific look, and with the collaboration of my amazing DOP Simon Ozolins, we created a vision that we are both extremely proud of.
The influence of ‘the Thing’ was the story, not that our stories are similar in any way which they are not, but the feeling of isolation and the paranoia of the characters within confines of our world. John Carpenter is possibly the biggest influence as far as filmmakers I identify with. His early films were so eclectic and had such a diverse range, from ‘Big Trouble in Little China, ‘Halloween’,’The Thing’ and ‘Starman’. I was lucky enough to see a Q &A and meet him at Screamfest this year where ‘Crawlspace’ was playing, which is a huge geek out moment for me. Oh, I also had him sign my ‘Thing’ poster.
GEORDIE: Co-written with Adam Patrick Foster and Eddie Baroo, directed by yourself and I’d assume that you played a major hand in the production design and special effects. This would appear to be very much a Justin Dix film, how different, and difficult was it working on this to your previous work?
JUSTIN: Actually taking on multiple roles for Crawlspace felt very natural and was not a stress at all. I have done this before working on previous feature films for other directors such as Jamie (Urban Legend) Blanks on ‘Storm Warning’ where I Art Directed the film but also Special Effects makeup supervised. It may be a little bit of the control freak in me, but it’s generally more about a cohesive look to the project.
Crawlspace felt no different, and yes part of taking on so many roles was also a budget choice, but it also felt like I was across everything and knew what we had and what we didn’t. So taking on the roles of Director, Writer, Producer, Production Designer, Special Effects Makeup Designer and Storyboard artist meant that I knew the film inside and out. This is all part of what I believe makes a lower budget film run smoothly; planning, planning, planning, and it did, Crawlspace was one of the most enjoyable film shoots I’ve ever been on.
It was a pleasure to go to work everyday and the crew and cast were amazing and we all had such a good time. I’d learnt some things by working on some lower budget films, and I wanted to make sure we avoided any of the perils and pitfalls which can make a project fall behind or create animosity on set. A few of my learnings that I utilized for Crawlspace:
Five day weeks, I’ve done six day weeks and it makes the crew really tired and cranky.
No overtime, as much as crew members like OT pay rates – if you start doing overtime, you are cutting into your budget and working longer hours.
No location shooting – of course this can only work on specific movies, but it makes a huge difference shooting entirely in studio as you control the weather, the light, the sound and at the end of the day you can ‘Hollywood Wrap’, meaning you just turn the lights off and in the morning just turn them back on. Also there is no travel time, which again eats into shooting days.
Make sure the crew are fed really well. These are the basics and there are plenty more, but you would be surprised at how these will give you more shooting time, less stress and keep everyone really comfortable, making for a happy crew. Of course not all film can be done this way, but I wrote Crawlspace specifically to be done this way, knowing that it was my first feature film and wanting to eliminate any obstacles I could foresee prior to even getting into it. I would recommend anyone considering doing their first feature film, but has not written it, to do the same.
GEORDIE: The wide open spaces of the Australian outback have been used as horror backdrops for numerous films; you chose to set your film beneath it. What is it about claustrophobic settings that manage to instil paranoia and fear so effectively?
JUSTIN: Again, this came down to making a film that could be filmed completely in a studio. We used Studio One at the Dockland Studios in Melbourne, by the way. I really loved the movie ‘The Descent’ as it really made me feel very claustrophobic watching it, and I always remembered this and thought it was a great and clever way to manage the paranoia but on a budget.
So you could say that it also influenced me when it came to making Crawlspace. A little bit of trivia by the way, ‘The Decent’ was originally called “Crawlspace’ but they changed the title during production. I actually found this out from Lesley Simpson who has been in all of Neil Marshall’s films including ‘Dog Soldiers’ ‘Doomsday’ and ‘The Descent’. Les now lives in Australia and we have became great friends, so I had to put him into my first film. He is one of the first people you see in the movie.
I figure he was a good luck charm for Neil, so now he’s mine.
GEORDIE: I’m a huge fan of The Loved Ones, on which you were Special Effects Make-up Supervisor, can you tell me what it was like working with directors such as Sean Byrne and Greg McClean (Wolf Creek), who is one of your producers on Crawlspace, what you took from those previous working experiences and applied to your own feature?
JUSTIN: I love working on film, period. Be it my own or someone else’s, and working with other directors gives me a real buzz as we are all working together to bring a vision to life. I have been fortunate enough to work with some real talent in the Australian film industry and can honestly say that we have become friends and supporters of each other’s careers and aspirations.
Apart from working with directors that I respect, but also helping them bring their visions to the screen, I found that I very quickly became friends with people like Sean Byrne, Greg Mclean, Jamie Blanks and Patrick Hughes, as we all share a common vision for the Australian film industry – and that is to take it more into the commercial world of cinema patronage, back to the glory days of ‘The Road Warrior’ ‘Patrick’ and even films like ‘Razorback’ which was Russell Mulcahy’s first feature film.
The Australian film industry has become a little to insular, concentrating on culturally significant films shot in the outback of Australia, or period dramas, or urban gangland crime stories like ‘Animal Kingdom’. I’m not bagging these films but it’s all we seem to produce, even though we know we are capable of so much more and competing in the world commercial market. Did I answer the question, probably not, I get a little passionate about this sometimes.
GEORDIE: Running your own very successful Special Effects Studio must have been quite handy when it comes to making your own horror film. What were some of the benefits that you were able to apply to Crawlspace?
JUSTIN: Having my own special effects studio, Wicked of Oz, and the background of running departments such as the props and miniatures on productions like ‘Charlotte’s Web’ helped enormously when it came to Crawlspace. In fact it really came into play way when writing the script, they say write within your means or what you know you can get your hands on.
Not that this should ever restrict your vision, but it helps with writing something viable that you know you can shoot. With myself, my background allowed my mind to go anywhere or do anything, the only restriction I put on myself was keeping it all practical if possible. In camera always looks the best and I’ve always felt that ‘Out of adversity, comes creativity’ I believe that CGI is not the be all and end all. if you can do it in camera, ‘You Should’ it will save you money at the back end. It’s so much more exciting seeing it on the split right in front of you and with CGI just because you can, does not always mean you should. Meaning that a CGI does not mean it’s going to look or be better, an example, and I’m not naming any film in particular but a CGI werewolf leaping from taxi to taxi then onto buildings does not mean it’s going to look better or give you that visceral feeling of a werewolf running through the streets of London snapping at the heels of pedestrians.
I’m a huge fan of the films of the 80’s for many reasons, but one in particular because they did all the effects in camera and to this day we still hold them up as the benchmarks of what we as film makers want to achieve, but I think new film makers are not given the choice of practical and have been brought up on a diet of Digital, hence the magic of some of those early films like ‘American Werewolf in London’ ‘The Thing’ and even ‘The Dark Crystal’ has been lost. I know that’s where my focus is, I want to be surrounded by this stuff on a film set, not have a wrap around green screen with a dude in green figure hugging spandex suits with pin pong taped to their heads, where’s the fun in that?