Peter Stead is an award winning screenwriter, filmmaker, author and podcaster. His most recent short ‘Believe’ is a zero budget horror film that was nominated Best Short at the British Horror Film Festival.
What or whom inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I’m a screenwriter who had had some early festival success with a Dutch short film, Bijltjesdag, but was struggling to get traction on further projects. I was feeling pretty frustrated, and this then got exacerbated by the pandemic. So, what inspired me was the desire to take control of my own destiny, and not wait for filmmaking relationships to develop which could carry my scripts forward.
I’d say a big influence in that regard was Jim Cummings, who produced and starred in his own short, Thunder Road, which won at Sundance and which he then developed into a feature, and whose career has been going from strength to strength. His whole creed is to take control of your own path and I hope I am beginning to do that.
What films have been most influential to you and your filmmaking?
Believe is a found footage film, so definitely Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project. Aside from being fantastic films, they showed what found footage can do for you in terms of focusing on story with simplicity. It’s also a very accessible approach for inexperienced directors like myself, who may have that reasonable grounding in story, but not so much in cinematography, for example.
How do you go about developing your ideas and how do you find the scriptwriting process?
As a Screenwriter, I usually work solo. I’m quite organised if I’m writing a genre piece. Generally, I’ll make notes, then write a step outline, then a treatment, then a scriptment, then a first draft and repeat part of that process for the redraft. Sometimes I even colour code different aspects of a script, such as the image system or character objective etc. With things like dramas and character comedy screenplays, I’ll focus more on character, writing character bios and so on, and then take a more experimental, instinctive approach.
As a filmmaker, however, I soon became more free-wheeling in my approach.
Your most recent short film ‘Believe’ is currently on the festival circuit. How did you find the process of developing and making the film?
Believe was my third effort as filmmaker. The first two I’m proud of, but they were not festival-standard. With ‘Believe’ I changed two things:
Firstly, I stopped using my phone as a camera and switched to a DSLR. Nothing wrong with using your phone, but I personally found the DSLR to be more user-friendly and gave me easier control, Aperture-wise.
Secondly, instead of being methodological, I opted for a much more improvisational approach. I drew more on my acting background, rather than purely scriptwriting and soon I found that the development process was, itself improvisational. I got a lot of good footage out of experimenting with things which I didn’t know would work at all, for example the flickering light scenes in the bathroom, which is what kicked off the whole film.
You star in the film alongside actress Hope Bloxham. How did you find the experience of being both actor and filmmaker?
I actually found the actor / filmmaker balance pretty tricky, technically. I ruined a lot of takes because it’s so hard to split yourself in two. It takes practice. The scene with Hope Bloxham was almost lost because the screen recording didn’t record any sound. Fortunately, I recorded a back up via the mic. It was faint, but Ruud Hermans, who also created the fantastic mysterious voice you hear elsewhere in the film, was able to rescue it.
In terms of working with Hope, it was a dream, because she was so natural and relaxed – she was perfect. I just would have hated to make her do another take. Thanks to Ruud, it wasn’t necessary.
Were there any horror/found footage films that influenced your approach?
I’ve previously mentioned Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, but I wanted to go into a bit more detail, here. What I think they did so well are two things:
Firstly, they found a way of making their small budgets part of the story, rather than simply doing a heroic job on nearly no money.
Secondly, they understood that, ultimately, what keeps audiences hooked is not the evil entity, it’s how human beings and relationships fragment and disintegrate under the intense pressure of fight or flight. So, they’re both quite potent films, for that reason. There’s some of that, I hope, in Believe, when Sean is forced to confront, almost in real time, his own disbelief in the paranormal and we see how he copes – and also how he doesn’t cope.
‘Believe’ was made on a budget of just £10. What were the pros and cons of working to a zero/low budget?
It may seem strange, but for me as a very inexperienced filmmaker, there were only pros. I didn’t have to risk my money or anyone else’s or spend time creating complex crowd funding campaigns. By using what I had to hand (“resource filmmaking”), I didn’t have to worry about production design – I could pretty much skip straight to the part that was most useful to my stage of development, which was doing it – learning the equipment, experimenting, filming, editing and so on.
Is there anything you’d change in the film industry?
Lots, but the number one change I would like to see is more access for filmmakers from lower socio-economic backgrounds from industry bodies. One in five people live in poverty in this country, which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic and there needs to be a much bigger focus, here.
I would love for there to be far fewer remakes and far more original stories.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out as a filmmaker?
Study storytelling first and foremost. Having done this and written seven original feature screenplays, this gave me the confidence to improvise and experiment with Believe and instinctively rely on the story. What I’m finding now is that I’m further deepening my experience of storytelling by dabbling in new formats. I just wrote a short horror story, Camera Anima Mea, which can be read for free here or listened to for free here. This is something I’m hoping to develop in the world of film or TV, but for now it’s interesting to see if I can hold people’s attention with just my voice and/or words.
I saw a little of how important it is to ‘find your audience’ – I got a lot of support from Facebook Groups like Found Footage Movie Group. When it played online as part of the British Horror Film Festival, it got over 200 views, which was probably mostly them.
It can never be overstated that you need good sound, which means good enough equipment and dampening reverb, echoes, unless it’s integral to the story.
What are you working on next?
I’m looking to develop Believe into a feature with a filmmaker in Sri Lanka, Akash Sunethkumara. He’s very talented and his channel is well worth checking out here. I’m further adding stories to my horror podcast, The Soul’s Revenge. I’m also working on a couple of projects with Jimmy Olsson, an emerging director in Sweden, whose short film ‘Alive’ was selected at Oscars-qualifying festivals, last year.
Profile photography via Alastair Searles Photography – https://www.alastairsearlesphotography.org