One of the gems of last year’s FrightFest horror festival was the low-budget zombie comedy Stalled – a horror comedy set entirely within a toilet cubicle. Not only was it successful with the critics, but demand for tickets was so high, extra screenings had to be scheduled. On the eve of its release on home video, Ed Boff catches up with the creators, director Christian James and the writer Dan Palmer, who also stars …
So how did Stalled come about?
Dan: Christian and I had a film set up at a production company at Pinewood Studios, for a much bigger film than Stalled (well, you can’t get much smaller than Stalled I suppose). It was a tongue in cheek monster movie, a sort-of love letter to Joe Dante, we both wrote with Christian directing and me in a supporting part. It was ready to go; storyboarded, cast, location scouted, but at the eleventh hour it all collapsed. A bit of a gut punch. It was quite traumatic, especially when you have to go back to a temp job, thinking “wow, at this exact moment in time, I’m meant to be shooting a movie”. So maybe in answer to that, I went and wrote Stalled, sort of the opposite of that film. One location, very intimate, very small cast. It ended up on Richard Kerrigan‘s lap, who was the producer of the one that fell apart, and him and the executive producer, Dan Pickering, said “look, let’s just get this done. This is a great script, and we if can’t film something set entirely in a toilet, we should just retire now”.
Christian: Richard and Dan Pickering read the script, loved it. This was in August 2011 and were like “OK, we’re going to shoot this in November”. Dan and I said “yeah, alright”, because you’ve got to be enthusiastic, but we’ve been [down that road] a few times before. Still, Rich put money down, sat down with me, we storyboarded it, props were being purchased, crew were being interviewed, things seemed to be happening. I remember we got to about October, and I said to Dan “****, I think we’re actually going to film this one!” Then in November, lo and behold, we were in a toilet, in the middle of nowhere shooting this thing!
Any particular reason for the film’s Christmas time setting?
Dan: I was thinking about this the other day. Of all the interviews we’ve done, hardly anyone has asked about the Christmas, which I take as a compliment, because I like the kind of Christmas movies that you can watch in June, like Gremlins, Die Hard, Trading Places… I think the Christmas thing came about because I wanted there to be a party, an influx of people, but I wanted them to be before the outbreak not fully cognisant; so drunk. A party made sense, but what kind of party? Then I thought Christmas, and then the thing of an everyday guy stuck in a place of work, like Die Hard, came into it. If it’s just a regular office day, there will be workers, secretaries, people in suits … [but] if we had it at Christmas, we could have guys as Santa, girls as sexy Mrs. Claus, a Christmas Pudding played by the grumpiest stand-up comedian ever [Dave Fulton]. It gave us room to have fun with the zombies’ looks and costumes.
Was it a challenge to film? It must have been hard trying to find more things to do in such a small space to work with.
Christian: Yeah, it was difficult. Luckily we filmed chronologically, that was for many reasons. We didn’t really have the money to strike the set and rebuild it, so we went as chronologically as we could… One of the first shots you see, of Dan’s character entering the bathroom, is the first scene we shot… It was difficult because after three or four days of going back to the same set, you have to keep yourself in check. Me and Sashi Kissoon, our DoP would have to be careful just to say “oh, let’s just put in a Dutch angle, let’s have a dolly shot”. We had a lot of kit there, ready to be used, but we had to sit on ourselves, not break it out yet, because the film’s going to break out later. By week two, we thought that we’d shot the cubicle every which way, but there was still lots to do. You had to pace yourself carefully
Dan, is it difficult writing for a character you play. Do you find yourself second-guessing the choices?
Dan: Yeah, but I often write in my voice. I’m often surprised there aren’t more actor/writers. There are a few like Simon Pegg, but it’s surprising since if you’re writing in your voice, surely you’re the best person who’s in tune with those lines? Sometimes when you see the writer/actor, they can be very good. I was hoping [on this film it] would be me, but it wasn’t certain. I did say to the producers “if it would help with the funding, I would step down and let them hire, say, Noel Clarke“, but it never got to that. What most writers do is to imagine actors, or even friends or family playing it, and though none of those people play it, you’ve got that voice. The cast in my head is often bizarre, it could by Humphrey Bogart, Cameron Diaz, and Uncle Jeff.
Did the use of the prosthetics and make up effects provide any challenges? Were you already set on the look and style of the zombies?
Christian: Yeah, Dan and I are fans of similar zombie films, so we were kind of in sync on that when we sat down and talked about how they’d operate, how they’d look, we were both on the same page. Regarding filming – that was a challenge – because of very little budget we had to work with. We met Peter Stanley-Ward, who’s a good friend of ours and also a director and he suggested an effects guy … An effects hobbyist really, but very good. We met in a pub and he had this face-peeling effect on to show us. We thought “If he could do that to himself, imagine what else he could do”, so we gave him the job there and then. However, he didn’t realise he was the head artist, so he was a little bit out of his depth. He did a great job, bless him, but the problem was he hadn’t had much practice doing stuff in front of the camera. Most effects artist rehearse. Put water through first before blood and such. So we’d get on set, he’d have ready this contraption, attach it to someone, I’d call “action” and then nothing, or maybe a little dribble of blood, and it would eat up so much time, which we didn’t have much of. (The whole film was done in fifteen days). A lot of stuff didn’t work, or would half work so the practical effects had to be enhanced with CG. However, bar one or two shots, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find where those enhancements are. There’s actually 120 visual effects shots in Stalled, which for a micro-budget film does surprise most people.
Dan: I’m one of them.
What have you made of the film’s reception in the reviews and at the festivals?
Dan: It’s been amazing. Frightfest was obviously the first time we realised “wow, OK, we made something that isn’t awful”. Prior to that we had the BAFTA screening, which went really well, but the majority of the audience were cast, crew, family and friends. A lot of those family and friends were civilians and they loved, so we had an inkling. Frightfest though is like the hardest crowd possible; the tried and tested goreheads paying to see it in a Leicester Square cinema. The reaction was just amazing. We couldn’t believe it, to such an extent that when we came out of the screening, there was this crowd of people in front of me, and I was like “why are all these ****ers in my way?” Then I looked down and saw pens and paper and was like “oh, they want our autographs!” That was very strange, and then we were there another 45 minutes, shaking hands and signing stuff. It was amazing that Alan Jones, Kim Newman and all these respected critics really loved the film. That was even more impressive because they hated Freak Out, so it was like we were vindicated.
Christian: We felt like abused wives. Every time Alan raised his hand it was like “we’re going to get slapped!” but it didn’t happen. He just stroked our hair instead, which was beautiful. With our previous film, which we still stand beside, we’re so used to getting bitch-slapped by the horror community [that] we felt Stalled would probably go the same way. But no, quite the opposite. We were embraced!
So, any plans for the future? Perhaps getting that project you mentioned at the start another go?
Dan: The monster movie? Maybe, since it would be pretty big budget, and looking back now it’s like “what were we thinking” now we’re a little more jaded. I’d be a bit wary to try and get that back on the ground. When you’ve gotten a project that’s gone through that process, you sort of feel like it’s been done, and you want to move on.
Christian: We had so many endless meetings about it, discussing every element of the film, and then to not have it happen, it feels very hard to stoke that fire back up again. I’m sure if that the right person came along, we got the right budget, the right crew, that could get it going again. At the moment, we’ve got a lot of new projects ready we’re excited about, going off in new directions, some very exciting stuff we’re kicking around.
Stalled will be out in special features packed DVD and Blu Ray editions in the UK on the 17th of February.