Interview: Ouijageist writers Darrell Buxton and Steve Hardy

Set to premiere at Derby Film Festival as part of the opening Paracinema weekend Ouijageist is new British supernatural horror flick from writers Darrell Buxton and Steve Hardy. Storge editor Sarah Lay caught up with them about the enduring allure of giving ourselves a fright, how their writing partnership works, and what they’re looking forward to catching on the big screen at the Festival.

Ouijageist cover

I expect I’m not alone in having a tale from my formative years of a fascination with the paranormal, of ouija boards drawn out in exercise books, and the dare of asking it questions in dimly lit pre-teen bedrooms or in some place that ghosts may gather. The thrill of hands moving together with the pointer, the tipping point between fun and fear, the inevitable abandonment and the full-throttle dive into the solace of the living. While for many that tale might sit in that foreign past of teenage exploration the thrill of the unknown, the mystery of the paranormal and unexplained evil of some spirits is an enduring trope in the horror genre.

Ouijageist, the new film from director John R. Walker (Jack And The Giant Slayer, The Amityville Playhouse) and Derby-based writers Darrell Buxton and Steve Hardy, is the latest in exploring ill-advised dabbling with portals to the other side.  Buxton introduces the plot of the film, “Well it features a ouija board and a poltergeist! It’s a little bit more complex than that – a young single parent moves to a new home, begins playing with a ouija board found in a mysterious box at the property, and unleashes strange forces. The police, friends, relatives, and religious representatives become involved, at their peril…”

It follows on from a resurgence in paranormal horror films and Buxton says it was these which inspired director John R. Walker to approach them with the idea. Buxton explains, “John Walker suggested it to us in 2015 – Ouija had been a big cinema hit and the Poltergeist remake was just about to come out and I suspect he wanted to do a low-budget cash-in on those! By the time our film was completed, though, those movies were long forgotten. John was most insistent that we keep these key elements in the script – whenever we deviated or expanded the concept, we kept being asked to pare it down to basics again.”

Hardy picks up, “John gave me a very brief synopsis – from what I recall it didn’t even have an ending – but it wasn’t really workable as a story. There were a lot of illogicities in it. As Darrell said, Ouija was just out and the Poltergeist reboot was being heavily trailed and John wanted to hitch his wagon to all that by combining elements from both. Darrell and I sat down and tried to work out how we might do that. We had one idea which John rejected as being ‘too good’ (no, we’re not kidding!) so we streamlined the idea, resubmitted it and got the green light.”

For Buxton this is a first feature film writing credit (although he’s worked on shorts and with Derby’s Owen Tooth on The Opening), while Hardy notches up a second having written The Amityville Playhouse too. When it comes to writing horror the two have a different level of personal interest in the genre. Hardy said, “I’m not a huge horror fan per se, but it’s a pretty broad church, isn’t it? There are some horror sub-genres that I like more than others, bit it’s very much a casual interest with me. I’m not a pukka ‘enthusiast’ like Darrell is. I’m more a ‘gun for hire’. I write what I’m hired to write. I think that’s a good thing. I’m currently working on scripts for an animated TV series for kids. Versatility is the key.”

Buxton is more personally enthused about the genre, “I’ve been a horror nut since the early ’70s and have been writing about the genre since the UK fanzine boom of the mid-’80s. I started my own zine, The Imagination Explosion, and wrote for some of the legendary titles of the era like Samhain and Giallo Pages.”

With that heritage in the genre Buxton reels off a list of favourite horror stories, “James Whale‘s Frankenstein with Karloff is the big one for me, movie-wise. I also have a thing for truly bleak, genuinely unsettling and upsetting movies that get right to the cold core of fear – Tobe Hooper‘s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Gerald Kargl‘s Angst, Martin Scorsese‘s The King Of Comedy all scare and unnerve in ways that most filmmakers wouldn’t have a clue about. Prose-wise, I’ll always return to the stories of Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury – Bradbury’s The Emissary might just seem like a simple ‘boy and his dog’ tale to some but I find it so, so chilling.”

Hardy has his own list, “I like things that are unsettling. The things that get into your head and have a psychological dimension to them. The things that haunt your thoughts when you’re awake and populate your dreams when you’re asleep. In terms of film, George Sluizers The Vanishing (1988) is one of those. There’s no blood, gore or axe-wielding maniacs, but the ending is heart-stopping and the genuine stuff of nightmares. In print I’d go along with Darrell in naming Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury. Matheson’s I Am Legend is a great marriage of horror and science-fiction.”

The pull of horror – whether psychological, paranormal, or gore-fest – is perennial, with fans returning to face their particular fears over and over. But what do Buxton and Hardy think keeps a horror story spine-chilling rather than cliche. Buxton said, “Maybe I take a different view from many fans on this – if a writer or filmmaker can truly shake me, make me physically tremble, that’s my drug, that’s what I’m seeking. I like cosy fireside tales of spooks, hauntings, urban legends as much as any fan, but none of those truly satisfy my appetites.

“The rise of what is being called ‘folk horror’ annoys me a little, as I sense that the followers of that scene don’t actually like or appreciate horror very much – they’re into faeries, hares, stone circles, Black Phillip and all that, but hit them with something that gets to the true heart of our fragile sensibilities the way Cannibal Holocaust does and they’ll turn their noses up.”

Ouijageist film

Hardy says for him it is subtlety more than scares, “Like I said previously, something that gets inside your head. Maniacs running around with chainsaws are scary, but they’re not frightening. Fright is something more subtle. It taps into the id and relies less on shock tactics. Achieving that is, at least in theory, fairly easy. You take one fantastic element and surround it with normality.

“In Ouijagest everything that surrounds the core of the story is normal and recognisable – moving house, looking for a job, meeting with friends – so it’s easier to identify with the characters. The chainsaw-wielding maniac has his place in cinema but he doesn’t really appeal to me as a writer.”

Despite being in the same circles and sharing common interests working on Ouijageist was the first time the pair had met, and its led to a writing partnership they describe as ‘a comfort’ that alleviates some of the pressure of writing. Buxton said, “Steve and me have existed in the same orbit for years – we’re both ex-punks from way back, and have mutual acquaintances, but it’s only been comparatively recently that we’ve become firm friends. Ouijageist is our first collaboration but we’ve already teamed up on a second (The Coriolis Effect, an episode of the James Plumb-produced anthology Emojis Of Horror) and I’d love to pair up again into the future.”

They fell into an easy pattern of writing – and a friendship – where the work comes out of the shared interests and cultural touchpoints. Describing the way they work together Buxton said, “Coffee and biscuits! We usually work to a given brief from a producer or director, and initially we have a meet and a long chat over a cuppa and a packet of Jammie Dodgers. We talk about punk rock and 1960s cult TV shows for a couple of hours and then somehow find that a two-page synopsis has appeared out of nowhere, fizzing with ideas!

“Once that outline is prepared, Steve usually takes it away and writes a big chunk of formatted script – he then sends that to me for consideration, I will suggest a few minor changes and also write a further lengthy section myself. We have another meeting, another few cups of coffee, chat about ‘the story so far’ and then work towards the finish.

“A director might then throw in some late ideas or tell us they’ve got access to a specific set or location for a day, and can we write something around it, so we roll our eyes, roll up our sleeves, and get on with it. We both seem able to churn material out at a speedy rate, which might be something to do with all those high-octane Ramones records we’ve both been listening to for the past 40 years.”

Both heavily involved in independent cinema and with QUAD this won’t be a first Film Festival for either of them when it kicks off next week. They’ve been working their way through the programme, Hardy said, “It all looks pretty good! I’ve not made any concrete plans though. I’m looking forward to seeing Toyah Wilcox and re-watching Derek Jarman‘s Jubilee. I haven’t seen it for years. I might pull the extreme horror all-nighter if I can manage it.”

Buxton is enthusiastic about the offering too, “The films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have been bloody brilliant so far – Spring was such a surprise, and I’ve never seen anything quite like Bonestorm, their amazing contribution to V/H/S: Viral, so I’m really pleased that QUAD have nabbed their new one The Endless for early preview screening. I’m also intending to stay awake for the ‘extreme horror’ all-nighter; and I’ve been selected as the on-stage interviewer for the appearance of Toyah Wilcox, so I can’t wait to have a good lively chat with Toyah!”

They both have solid advice for those looking to forge a path in writing and filmmaking, whatever the genre. Buxton said, “Go to a few specialist horror film festivals – there are plenty around the UK, some showing cheaply-made but innovative and entertaining new feature productions. You’ll get plenty of opportunity to gauge the current level of low-budget horror filmmaking, might pick up some story ideas or suggestions for locations, costumes, make-up FX etc, and you’ll be able to network in the bar with loads of actors, writers and directors all trying to do the same thing you want to do. Have a chat over a beer, find out what they’re working on, discuss your own ideas and ambitions – you might get invited on to a shoot, or asked to submit some of your own work, but even if that doesn’t happen, you should depart feeling inspired and knowing that you too can make movies, if you really want to.”

Hardy picks up, “Watch films! See the way they are put together. Read screenplays and see the way they are put together, too. Have a go at making your own films, even if it’s just using your smartphone. Make a thirty second film about someone making a cup of tea. Just get used to thinking in pictures. If you want to write, then write. Sit down and write a screenplay. Start small and work upwards. Make films with your friends in the back garden. It’s all good practice. Meet up with other filmmakers. Talk shop with them. Find others with similar interests. And finally… Stick. At. It.”

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The European premiere of Ouijageist will take place as part of Derby Film Festival on Monday 7 May 2018 at Derby QUAD as part of the Paracinema weekend. Tickets for the festival and details of the full programme are available on the website.

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