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Watch If You Dare!

An Interview with Sam Voutas, Producer of Watch Me

Watch Me (Australia-2006, dir. Melanie Ansley)

Watch Me is a new Australian ghost movie, directed by Melanie Ansley and starring Frances Marrington, Sam Voutas and Tanya McHenry. It follows in the aesthetic tradition of films such as the Japanese Ring, Ju-On: the Grudge, Dark Water and Kairö. It tells the story of a film-school student caught up in a supernatural infection spread via email attachment, and involves a snuff video, a red-haired ghost and the deadly injunction to "Watch me!"

I spoke to producer (and co-star) Sam Voutas.

RH: What's your background in film, Sam? What led you to make Watch Me?

SV: I studied film at the Victorian College of the Arts, at their now defunct fusion school -- the SSCA. At that time we had a lot of classes on horror films, starting I guess with things like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: your typical film introduction courses. But I suppose I really started to get into it by joining the State film library and just taking out obscure titles from them every week. Nothing like the stuff you could get at your local video store. So horror began to sink its way deeper into my mind. I studied a lot of Freud at uni too, and when you look at film, its basic purpose is to get a reaction out of you, whether it's comedy, horror, tragedy, pornography -- you name it. It has to get that physical reaction. So that interested me about horror, making a film with the intent aim of evoking fear and unease.

RH: Some of the film's influences are fairly obvious, others less so. Elsewhere I've argued that it falls into the J-Horror school of ghostly cinema, which goes far beyond the Japanese Ring and Ju-on: The Grudge into Thai, Korean, even US films. Does the idea that Watch Me represents an Australian branch of an international J-Horror aesthetic movement sit well with you?

SV: I completely agree that we're talking about an international aesthetic now. It's by no means fixed to one country. Mainland China and Hong Kong films are coming out with J-horror style films, too. It makes sense really. Horror was getting a bit repetitive, self-reflexive as they say, then in came J-horror, which just felt completely different, so it's really added a lot of spice to the genre. Watch Me would be very happy to be added to that family. Even if it is only the tiny ugly cousin three times removed.

RH: What about the avowed influence of Argento [influential Italian horror film director]? Where does that fit in?

SV: I think Melanie really felt that in terms of the style of shooting, the vibe, an old-school Dario Argento look was needed. And I was a big fan, and was really keen on blending these Asian and Western ingredients and seeing what happened. First off, we found Jericho, Preuss and Huf, a Melbourne band that had done a lot of work with the Melbourne Fringe Festival. We had a few beers with them as we played them tracks from Goblin [musical collaborators with Argento -- RH]. Goblin add such an intense energy to Argento's films, so we all felt that, likewise, it was pivotal that the start of Watch Me had that type of creepy electric guitar oomph.

Also one thing you've got to say about a lot of Argento's stuff, especially the early stuff, is how much colour there is in the picture. It's really bright, not dark -- really brash art direction. Especially if you're watching it on old VHS tapes, as we were, and the red is just bleeding all over the place. So I know when Melanie was shooting, she always wanted more colour, more contrast. Also, this may just be me, but I really do feel Frances Marrington, who plays the leading lady, looks a lot like Jessica Harper in Suspiria! Uncanny really.

RH: Can you tell us something of the history of Watch Me? How did it came about?

SV: First, I wanted to produce a film that people would pick out at a video store! I mean, you've got thousands of titles; how do you choose? One way to do that is to have a title that just grabs you from the get-go. I'd made a documentary called "The Last Breadbox", and that was a film where when people heard the title, they just had a confused look on their faces. So, from a producer's standpoint, I was really pushing for a project that had a super marketable title, and was in a genre that would have a big audience. So I think we may have started with the concept of an internet virus, knew it had a great title that could work, and went from there.

RH: What problems were caused by low-budget independent production and how did you work to overcome them?

SV: On the shoot we had very few problems! People pretty much knew that this wasn't a big film and put their egos to the side. Indie film is really too small for egos. Of course, there were the usual technical or set problems, but doing things indie for the most part actually makes things easier. You do things your way, you have control. No need to take something to a higher authority and seek permission regarding content or style, as you have to do so painstakingly in TV.

RH: Any other production anecdotes that are worth hearing?

SV: If you're looking for the ultimate in a hellish horror filmmaking experience, you've got to check out "Demon Lover Diary" by Joel DeMott, about the making of a horror film in the late 70s. Much more exciting than anything that happened on our production! But poor Frances with her eyes taped open in the torture scene -- I really did feel sorry for her. We had to keep re-applying those bandaids. But she was a real trooper, she kept on asking if the screams were real enough, and if for some reason there was a problem, she was always the first to put her hand up for another take.

RH: What about the other crew members, particularly director Melanie Ansley and lead actor Frances Marrington? What's their story? How did they get involved?

SV: Melanie was getting funding for a documentary up at Hot Docs when she approached me about doing a horror. I think she was just fed up with how difficult the doco rat race was and wanted to do something completely different for a change. Something that would be lots of fun, but also have an audience when it was done. A bigger audience than documentaries anyway! Frances was just this really spunky, confident actress who we both knew immediately was right. She's got the maturity and the shoulders to carry a film. She really analyses the character, looking for motivations, backstory, asking loads of questions.

RH: You did some acting in the film yourself, as Taku, the freak boy. How was that experience?

SV: I loved the experience. As we were writing the script I could tell I was itching to play this guy, and it really was the highlight of the entire project for me. I originally got into film through my interest in acting, and Taku really is a very meaty part from an actor's standpoint. He's the most complex character in the film; he's the most multi-layered, and the hardest to pin down. Is he a good guy, a bad guy, a jerk? You're never really sure whether you like him or hate him. I think people also warm to him because he's quite a naughty boy!

RH: What sort of role do you see independent films playing in the current cinema scene? Do they serve a purpose beyond being a "calling-card" for larger studios to see what talent they can draw from?

SV: I think the chances for exposure are opening up for indie filmmakers. Less and less film revenue is coming from the cinema and more is coming from new medias. This provides a chance for the indies as it's so notoriously hard to get your film into a cinema. Take China for example; the majority of the box office goes to Hollywood films, and the remainder goes to two local master directors, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Even if an indie gets into the cinema, they're competing with other indies for some five per cent of the pie. But DVD, pay-per-view, TV, and now the net - in these realms the indie has more power. So it's a far cry from the 60s say, when there were only a few people who could even have access to the equipment needed to make a film, not to mention the money required.

RH: How has the film been received so far? Have you been happy with the way audiences have responded and the exposure it's managed to get?

SV: The critical reaction from the online horror community has been great. It's amazing how huge horror is on the net; it's just an endless spider web of gore and shock lovers. So most of our publicity has come from the online community, people putting up links, reviews, interviews, TV web spots. We're actually hoping to take Watch Me back to Asia for a special Halloween screening and Q&A, see how that goes. It would be cool to do Seoul; if that doesn't work, maybe China somewhere. Now Japan, that would be something.

RH: What about plans for the future? Is there hope for a "Watch Me 2" - maybe a studio version with a bigger budget, as happened with Raimi's Evil Dead 2?

SV: Yeah, we've often joked around about potential sequels, and what their titles might be. Though "Watch Me Again" has a bit of a corny sound to it. I guess the last one could be "Watch Me Over and Over and Over Again". You know, we get asked this question a lot. If the audience wants it, there'll be another one.

RH: Finally, is Watch Me going to be officially available on DVD any time soon?

SV: Yes! But I don't want to let the cat out of the bag just yet. The thing with indie distribution is, it takes time. Your film has a two-year festival shelf life, and all that while it's gaining word of mouth and buzz -- which are helping to build its market base. What I'm really hoping for is that we can find something in Australia. Typically it's much easier to get the film on DVD overseas, ironically! So a home-win for this one, just for sentimental reasons, would be the icing on the cake.

Check out the Watch Me website

My review of the film

copyright©Robert Hood 2007

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