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Answering the Call

An Interview with Sean Branney, Producer/Screenwriter of The Call of Cthulhu (with a brief appearance by director Andrew Leman)

The Call of Cthulhu (US-2005, directed by Andrew Leman)

The Call of Cthulhu -- based on one of H.P. Lovecraft's most iconic stories and produced under the auspices of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society -- is a remarkable film not simply in capturing much of the tone and atmosphere of Lovecraft's fictional universe, but in taking a rather left-field approach to its conceptualisation. The film is made in the manner of a 1920s silent film; this is reflected in production design, acting styles and narrative technique -- so effectively that it would be easy to believe that it had actually been made back then.

I asked producer and screenwriter Sean Branney about the project.

RH: What is the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society? Does it have a history beyond filmmaking? And if so, how did the HPLHS get into show business?

SB: The HPLHS was originally formed as a group surrounding our live action gaming activities back in the 1980s. We published a small fanzine for a few years and then formed a website. Andrew [Leman] and I are both theatre guys and eventually we produced a mockumentary film, A Shoggoth on the Roof. That led to several audio projects and eventually The Call of Cthulhu.

RH: Why choose The Call of Cthulhu to film? It's not an easy one! Was it your first film effort?

SB: It's very seminal to Lovecraft's body of writing, it's one of the more cinematic Lovecraft stories and it's never been adapted to the screen before. It seemed like a good challenge. We'd made a couple of other short films, but nothing approaching this scale and complexity.

RH: Why did you decide to film The Call of Cthulhu the way you did? It's a very unusual approach to take. How did that come about?

SB: One of the key elements of Lovecraft's work is the sense of atmosphere he creates. We wanted to keep that atmosphere and try and tell the story without adding a lot of superfluous elements (e.g. car chases, girlfriends, dogs, etc...). We thought if we adapted the story the way it might have been adapted back when Lovecraft was writing, we might be able to keep the atmosphere of the piece in our movie.

RH: Lovecraft -- in the purest sense anyway -- hasn't fared all that well on film in the past. Re-Animator is a deserved classic, of course, but not overly Lovecraftian in feel. There are others -- such as Die, Monster, Die, the 1970s The Dunwich Horror and the deceptively titled Edgar Allen Poe's The Haunted Palace -- that I enjoy as films, but again aren't very faithful to their source material. Stuart Gordon's more recent Dagon got fairly close, I thought, though not based on a single work. Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness was very Lovecraftian, but not based on a Lovecraft story. Your film is probably the closest thing to an accurate translation of a Lovecraft story to film. What are your thoughts on Lovecraft in the cinema? Why is Lovecraft so hard to capture on film?

SB: HPL is a very literary writer. He writes about ideas and atmosphere more than characters and plot. Some of the adaptations haven't succeeded because they've remained so close to the source material that they don't satisfy us dramatically in the way we've come to expect from movies. Others overcompensate by bringing so many of the trappings of Hollywood that they leave HPL and what made the story good out of the picture.

RH: Do any of those involved in The Call of Cthulhu have a background in cinema production?

SB: Oh sure. Most of the actors are professional actors here in Los Angeles. Leman and I both have Masters degrees in theatre and have worked on many movie projects. David Robertson, our director of photography and editor went to film school and works in television here in LA all the time.

RH: What problems did you face in producing the film? How did you overcome them?

SB: We had a lot of challenges, the biggest of which is that we were just two guys in a garage with very limited resources trying to make a fairly large movie. We leaned on the skills and good will of many friends to help us get everything done. We learned that finding a 1908 paddywagon is tricky, even in Los Angeles. But we got one. Mostly we overcame problems through a mix of creativity and stubbornness.

RH: Andrew, what artistic problems did you face in bringing the story to the screen? Any interesting anecdotes about the process? What were your personal aims?

AL: The main artistic problem was being true to the spirit and atmosphere of the original story while at the same time making an entertaining film. Lovecraft's stories lack or de-emphasise many of the elements (like plot, dialogue, character relationships) that movies need. By doing the film in the style of a 1920s silent picture, we believed we could bridge that gap. Another major problem was doing all this with the very limited resources we had at our disposal. The scope of the story is immense: numerous international locations, dozens of characters, fantastical underwater cities, hundreds of naked cultists in a swamp, boats and monsters, dreams and nightmares, the passage of decades of time. How to realise all this in an oversize garage in the suburbs of Los Angeles? My personal aim was to create a film adaptation that was as true to Lovecraft's story as possible, and to create a film that was as authentically 1920s as we could make it.

There are more anecdotes about the making of the film than would fill a book, but I'll tell you a couple that have to do with Australia. In his efforts to track down the fate of the crew of the Emma, the Man (played by Matt Foyer) travels first to Wellington, NZ and then to Sydney. We needed some period exterior shots to set the scene of his travels, so I went looking for stock footage featuring Sydney from the 1920s. It was extremely difficult, but I did eventually track down a General Motors promotional film from 1927 which included shots of Melbourne and Canberra. There weren't any images from Sydney, however, and the Australian cities that were included didn't look quite right for our purposes, so the vintage shot of the museum exterior you see in the film is actually from Brussels, and the Sydney government building is really in Stockholm, both from that 1927 GM movie.

There is a very important Australian prop in the film: a copy of the Sydney Bulletin. In doing my research I learned that there really was a publication called The Bulletin published in Sydney in the 1920s, which lives on as the glossy magazine of today. It may or may not be the same publication that Lovecraft was thinking of: he might have been referring to a daily Sydney newspaper, rather than the weekly magazine, but back in the 1920s the magazine was published in the form of a newspaper. Finding 80-year-old back issues of an Australian magazine in the United States was impossible, but I wanted to make our prop version of the publication as authentic as possible. So I sent some email to the reference librarians at the State Library of Queensland explaining the situation, and they very obligingly looked up old issues on microfilm and sent me photocopies. The prop you see in the movie is a detailed replica of the actual Bulletin as published in Sydney in 1927. We have a PDF of it on the DVD, and if you print it up you can read actual articles and advertisements from the real thing. You'll see that the Queensland reference librarians get a thank-you in the closing credits of the movie.

RH: What about the actors? Where did they come from? What was it like being an actor working in a rather unique setting?

SB: My wife and I run a small theatre in Los Angeles and many of the actors in The Call of Cthulhu are actors we've worked with in the theatre company. We also held open auditions and had hundreds of people submit their resumés for even some of the very small roles. Most actors actually found it pleasant to work on a set where the director can talk to them during the take. It lets you work a little more efficiently than you can on a set which has to be silent.

RH: What do you (all or anyone) think about the film, now that it's entered the world and has been introduced to the public? What kind of response has it received?

SB: We made the movie for ourselves and we were pretty naïve about the life it would have after we were done shooting. The Call of Cthulhu has been shown at major film festivals all over the world; it's won a number of awards and we've sold far more copies of it than we ever imagined possible. Lovecraft fans have really taken to it and on the whole seem happy to see a Lovecraft movie which really embraces the qualities that make HPL an extraordinary writer.

RH: What sort of role do you see for independent film production in today's climate? Is it merely a stepping stone to bigger and better things or does it have a value of its own?

SB: I think the indies have demonstrated that they are here to stay. People are making independent films that the major studios (and even their "independent" sub-labels) wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. As the technology has become more affordable, idiots in garages just like us all over the world can shoot their movies and actually find an audience for them without involving The Man. It's incredibly liberating. Some filmmakers will want to use their projects as stepping-stones to lead them to careers in the mainstream, but I think there are a lot of filmmakers who will also be very content to make their own pictures without pursuing a career that involves The Man.

RH: Tell us about your radio production of "At the Mountains of Madness" [mentioned on the website].

SB: "At the Mountains of Madness" is a terrific story, but to tell it well as a movie, we would need a whole lot more money than we have. So, we thought once again we'd turn to the technologies of Lovecraft's age. Part of what works so well with the novella is the spectacular images which you imagine as you read it. In a radio drama, we could provide sound effects and music that would be evocative, but the listener would still have the experience of conjuring these powerful images in their imaginations. We've been very gratified that so many of our customers who never listened to old radio shows have found ATMOM (and radio drama) to be a very exciting way to experience a story.

RH: What's next for your company?

SB: We're currently in pre-production for another motion picture. This time we're taking Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness" and adapting it as a feature-length early 30s talkie. Sound is an important element in the story, so we didn't want to go silent with this one. We're scheduled to start shooting this fall.


Check out the The Call of Cthulhu website

copyright©Robert Hood 2007

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