Exclusive: Leslie Simpson Talks His New Short Film Grandpa, Directing Himself, New World Cinema, and More
Most genre fans will recall Leslie Simpson from the credits of film favourites Dog Soldiers and The Descent as, respectively, Pvt. Terry Milburn and a Crawler. Well, now he’s upped-stakes from England and is finding quite a bit of creativity Down Under.
For his first time as a director (and writer), Simpson has filmed the creepy short Grandpa, with himself also portraying the father to the terrorized young boy around which it centers. And this film IS frightening on many levels.
Dread Central recently did an email interview with Simpson to try to pin him down on what Grandpa is all about, but trying to pin this hilarious artist down is like trying to pin down a hungry Crawler.
Dread Central: First, let me thank you for taking time to do this interview with Dread Central. I can only imagine how busy your schedule is.
For starters, how did Grandpa come into being? Does it have any basis in reality – childhood nightmares, actual loss of a child or grandparent, etc.? And how did you, a horror genre veteran in the acting world, come to choose a horror film for your directorial debut?
Leslie Simpson: It was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t even know I’d acted in it until we watched the footage back, so it’s a complete surprise when I see my ugly mug on the screen and have a director credit.
About two years ago I was asked to write something about two old ladies who could walk upside down – that sounds like a joke but it’s true - and I was happy to do it. Originally that was the end of my involvement. Then the bloke who asked me to write it disappeared, so I let it go.
One day a fledgling producer, Tim Slawik, asked if I had any scripts he could read. I have a cupboard full (I’ve had a lot of spare time over the last few years and few friends), but for no good reason, I gave him Grandpa*.
[*Early in the writing process I’d jettisoned the old ladies in favour of a childhood memory – don’t fret, I may be taking the scenic route but we’ll get there.]
Tim liked it and wanted to make it. He could have gone with Film Grad Brad and his zero budget zombie schlock flick just as easily.
I put Tim in touch with a Director of Photography (DOP) and a director; but because of scheduling conflicts (the bane of no-budget filmmaking), the director and DOP never met. Not once. Ever. No, seriously. But I was meeting the pair of them individually, because, well, I had nowt better to do.
When the DOP, Karl Siemon, asked for visual and style cues, I had to make something up. So, without any technical knowledge whatsoever, and using language that may as well have been “It should look like a technicolor badger has invented a lopsided Brazil nut and contracted shingles. But in black and white,” I basically acted out every part for Karl over 3 nights, explaining from start to finish where I thought each shot should come from, and why. Apparently that’s what DOPs need to know.
Forget storyboards, I’ll take any opportunity to play dressy-ups in my lounge room. I highly recommend it.
Meanwhile the director couldn’t commit to the project because he wasn’t sure he’d be free, but at the same time didn’t want to walk away just in case he could. In the meantime he suggested I draw out the personal themes that I’d hinted at in the first draft of the script but didn’t wish to explore for, erm… well, yeah, personal reasons. His suggestions definitely made the film better*.
[*The original draft of my 15-minute short had a ninja sidekick, a chase scene with motorized lawnmowers, a sea shanty-singing assassin, a roundhouse kicking contest, and a big explosion on page 60.]
Anyway, to cut a long story short, the DOP was in a panic because he’d neither met nor heard from the director, the director was in a panic because he couldn’t commit to the schedule but didn’t want to drop out, and the producer was in a panic because he’d invested what little savings he had into the project, the caterer had already made the sandwiches, and no one was talking to anyone else. Except me.
So four days out from the start of the shoot, and because everything is usually my fault, I was ordered to direct it. Snap! Just like that.
When I woke up a week later, I was wearing a see-through plastic burkha and high heels, couldn’t remember my name or address, and had a Mexican passport with a photo of a Shitzu dog smoking a cigar and sporting a rather spiffing moustache.
Whether that means I had a good time or not is open to question.
Anyway, yes, as a kid I was a chronic bed wetter – even into adulthood – and was visited regularly by a grotesque old man who used to peer at me from behind the door. He’s never too far away even now.
I told you I’d get there in the end.
I still have no idea what happened to the bloke who asked me to write it. Perhaps it was a practical joke.
DC: Where did you film Grandpa?
LS: We filmed it in a house.
DC: Simpson, where did you film Grandpa?
LS: Okay, okay… too short? The house belonged to Frank and Sophia, the parents of our leading man, Francesco Basile, aged 7 and a half. Sophia was Tim the producer’s hairdresser.
We were having trouble casting the role of Milo, the son. At the same time Tim was looking for a suitable location, a house under construction. A good child actor is hard to find. Half a house is near to impossible.
Apparently Tim is one of those handsome blokes who likes to look nice for the ladies and makes the effort to be well kempt, unlike me, so getting his hair trimmed regularly is his form of male retail therapy. During one such trip to the salon, as he was about to regale Sophia with his meaty ‘confessions of a dandy location scout’ yarn, she mentioned that her young son was a budding actor, and that their house was in the midst of a major renovation.
You ever seen the Paul Newman film Somebody Up There Likes Me? Do I need to go on? You can already see where this is heading, right?
DC: What was it like directing yourself, and why did you want to wear both acting and directing hats for your directorial debut?
LS: I’m the worst actor I’ve ever worked with. He really got under his skin. I wouldn’t take direction from me, and he wouldn’t sit still long enough to let him give me notes. On reflection we could’ve swapped places. He would’ve been better as the actor, and he would’ve been better as the actor.
DC: Where can people see Grandpa right now?
LS: Creeping round your bedroom door when you’re asleep at night.
DC: How would you sum up Grandpa for those who have not seen it?
LS: I hope it’s creepy, I hope it’s unnerving, and I hope it’s provocative. That was the intention.
Entertainment is different for everyone. In my view, the aim is to set out to do something specific with a story – to move the audience, to provoke the audience, to unnerve the audience, to send chills through the audience, to puzzle the audience, to thrill, amuse, or excite… whatever .
Without a specific aim, entertainment is an empty word. “I want to be entertaining” just doesn’t cut it. Entertainment is the movie word du jour - but no one knows what it means, and most of the time ‘entertaining’ is the last thing I’d call the drivel being churned out.
The majority come away from Grandpa creeped out and unnerved. Job done.
Those that have seen it ask a lot of questions, which was also the intention, but Western audiences are no longer used to asking questions. Ever since the academic comedy duo Field & McKee rolled the stone over the door to Aladdin’s Cave, shutting down creativity for all eternity, and set off on their monumental 1984 world tour ‘No Effort Required,’ every question must be answered, every thread must be tied up, every turning point appear on approximately the same few pages (28-30 and 58-60, or thereabouts), every nod, wink, fart and burp of every character must fit the perfect 1980s model.
There’s simply no evolution, and Hollywood is stumped.
And so, as a consequence, while Hollywood’s needle is stuck fast to the Field & McKee 2-chord groove of ‘Entertainocalypse Now!’, churning out the same script, the same movie, over and over again, and audiences become increasingly vocal about the pitiful demise of this one-time celluloid giant, we see the inexorable rise of New World Cinema, having snuck past Security, rubbed the magic lamp, and re-opened the Cave for the next generation.
The only hope for Hollywood – and I wish for a re-invigorated Hollywood above all else – is to throw the academics and theorists from the high tower and let them learn to swim outside in the moat where they belong. Throw out the brittle and broken theories of Field & McKee and bring back creativity.
What came first: the film or the theory of the film? Everything is upside down.
Which brings us neatly back to summing up Grandpa…
DC: There is a lot of symbolism in Grandpa, particularly that of things being “unfinished” or “broken” – Milo’s stuffed toy, the house constantly under construction, the family itself. Would you care to elaborate on this perceived symbolism as well as advise viewers what else they should look for in the film?
LS: What’s interesting about your question is the suggestion that viewers should be ‘looking’ for something. I sense that’s exactly right. The very first line we hear in the film is “Look, look…” even though we can’t see anything. The opening credits are placed deliberately to lead the eye. The workman enters whistling Bowie’s “Sound and Vision.” The first thing we see is a blinding light. There are numerous other references to looking and seeing peppered throughout.
Yes, okay, I’m happy to admit the film is layered with symbolism and metaphor, but I would be doing the audience a disservice if I were to explain much more. Why create a puzzle and give the solution before you’ve used up your three guesses? It you’re satisfied with it being a simple story about a boy having night terrors, that’s perfectly fine with me because it is. On the other hand, nothing is as it seems at any point, not even the characters – from leads to supporting cast. But equally it’s nothing more than what you see.
I know the film is flawed. No one can criticise and imagine they’re telling me something I don’t already know. This is my virgin outing; I don’t want people to lose sight of that. My aim when I decided to take this on was very simple: As long as people didn’t think I was crap, then I’d consider having another stab at directing. So far I’ve received enough positive feedback to say, “Okay, what’s next?” If I do continue, hopefully I’ll master the balance between intelligence, craft, and dumbass entertainment eventually.
DC: You have said that several reviewers have compared your film to David Lynch’s "Twin Peaks," especially the “Bob” character. Would you like to comment on these comparisons?
LS: I’m not going to lie and say Killer Bob didn’t scare the pants off me when I watched "Twin Peaks," and I like many of David Lynch’s films, so it’s flattering to hear the comparison. You know how it is; any man would rather someone say they looked like Johnny Depp than Ron Perlman, but that doesn’t mean you go around dressing like Capt. Jack, right?
But no, he was not in any way an influence. If I were into making lists, Mr. Lynch wouldn’t register on my list of top 100 filmmakers. If people imagine I’m inspired by Lynch’s work, then my next li’l cinematic trick is going to bamboozle the heck out of everyone. Imitation is not innovation. Look around you; there’s enough imitating going on already in this business. It’s everywhere.
As I said in response to an earlier question, I don’t wish to be ‘deep and meaningful, man’. I’m happy attempting to tell intriguing and relevant stories in hopefully interesting ways.
I can’t really say that I got the visual style from anywhere other than recollections of my childhood.
DC: What do you hope people will take away from Grandpa?
Failing that, I’ll leave them to discover the film and its secrets for themselves. I don’t wish to be prescriptive.
DC: What is next from Leslie Simpson?
LS: From director Simpson, there’s been a suggestion I should develop Grandpa into a feature, but that’s not going to happen. It has served its purpose, and once it has a festival run, then it’s gone. It’s not negotiable, even though the team is prodding me to go for it.
I have another short to get stuck into – one I’m confident is far superior to this effort in every respect and can be developed into a feature. Then we’ll see.
Probably back to selling handmade tubs of ice cream for Suggett’s in Great Ayton. That’s secretly not my dream job.
As Grandpa gets picked for its festival run, we'll keep you posted; in the meantime follow Leslie Simpson on Twitter for updates.
Milo is a troubled kid. He's having night terrors, little accidents, and his only friend has lost an eye. Luke, his father, is blind to Milo's problems. He's overworked, underpaid, and up to his eyes in debt. They live in Grandpa's old house, not so much an inheritance as a millstone round their necks. But something is changing. And Grandpa keeps watch.
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