The Devil’s Business follows two hitmen on an assignment in the dead of night. After hearing noises and telling ghost stories, one of them hears a noise and starts to panic. They come across a makeshift black magic altar and appear to disrupt whatever forces they have stumbled across. Throughout the night they confront demons from within and without, battling for their souls.
ESLF caught up with writer and director Sean Hogan to discuss his latest film.
You’ve been called ‘British cinema’s best-kept secret’ by The Independent. Did you expect that level of praise when you started on this project?
Well, I’m not sure who’s been responsible for keeping me a secret, but I’m glad their tongue has loosened a bit! This is actually the third feature I’ve either directed or co-directed, but a lot of people are calling it my debut, which says a lot about the sort of luck I’ve had with UK distribution in the past. But no, I certainly didn’t expect the sort of reactions we’ve been getting. In large part, the film was made as a palate-cleanser after a couple of pretty unpleasant experiences on previous productions, and the idea was to keep the budget low and maintain control, so to that end it was made very quickly and cheaply. And because it was so small, I really had no idea whether it would ever really be seen. So the fact that it’s become my first film to see a UK release is quite ironic, but nevertheless very pleasing.
You both wrote and directed The Devil’s Business. Which would you say was the more enjoyable or rewarding process?
The whole process was actually pretty much a joy this time out. In some respects I tend to see directing as just an extension of the writing process anyway – firstly you tell the story on paper, and then you have to go and make it live. So doing both jobs is actually a very organic process for me. But yeah, whilst there are always days when either one can be a chore – there are times when writing feels like digging ditches, just as there are days on set where everything that can go wrong will go wrong – they were relatively few and far between this time out. The script came very easily – it was one of those times where the characters just take over and write it for you – and directing it was a blast. Exhausting – we shot it in 9 days, largely at night – but I think that insane pace really energised everyone and so it was one of the best times I’ve ever had on a film set.
One of the main characters considers leaving his current job. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
As much as I love directing, the film I worked on prior to this was like having root canal work done for a year. But that’s what happens when you work with liars and idiots. Aside from that, I remember my days working as in post-production for people who apparently thought that because they’d been treated badly as runners, now it was their chance to get to do the same to whatever poor suckers ended up in their employ. But the only problem with treating people as serfs and glorified tea-boys is that various bodily fluids can somehow find their way into your morning cuppa. I suspect there’s a lesson in that somewhere.
I’m a massive fan of Tales of the Crypt and wondered if this or anything of that era had inspired the film?
The Amicus version? We get that sort of comparison a lot, although I’m not entirely sure why – it must be the slightly seedy English feel of it or something! I grew up on those films and am fond of them – so I suppose they’re probably in my creative DNA somewhere – but they’re not something that specifically inspires me. I tend to prefer the grittier, darker, more indie stuff.
During the screening, I couldn’t help but think that The Devil’s Business would translate brilliantly on stage. With its claustrophobic setting and small cast, would you consider moving this to theatre?
I suppose if someone was interested in mounting it, I would. I enjoy theatre – I’m actually co-writing (with a gang of esteemed UK genre writers such as Kim Newman and Stephen Volk, to name but two) and directing a play called The Hallowe’en Sessions at the moment – and it’s sometimes refreshing to strip away all of the apparatus and just work on a script with a few actors and a stage and nothing much else. But The Devil’s Business was always conceived of as a film. Some may disagree, but I personally think that a claustrophobic setting and performance-driven films can be very cinematic; it just depends on your definition of the term. I mean, you can’t do a close-up on an actor’s face in the theatre, for instance.
This film was reportedly shot on a low budget, but the level of suspense was almost unrivalled at points. Would you say that big-budget horrors are selling out with big marketing budgets over imagination?
I think the problem with bigger budgets is that they limit the amount of risks that can be taken. And whilst that’s understandable to an extent, the horror genre is something that thrives on risk, on taboos being broken, on making people uncomfortable. So there’s a good reason why a lot of the greatest horror movies are independent productions. (I truly have my doubts as to whether any horror film has ever been improved by an executive’s notes.) As far as we’re concerned, we took certain narrative risks in this film that I’m certain would have been a red rag to development execs had we tried to make it through official channels, and yet those moments are often people’s favourite scenes. So whilst I do look forward to working with bigger budgets, I think it’s often a tricky line to walk.
Are there any films out there that directly inspired you for The Devil’s Business?
Too many to list, I’m sure! One of the interesting things about making a film is that a lot of your influences are actually unconscious, and so when people point them out afterwards, it’s a bit of a revelation. I mean, Don’t Look Now is a seminal film for me but I never thought about it in relation to The Devil’s Business until people started mentioning it. Beyond that, Val Lewton’s films were a big inspiration – the way he created atmosphere through sheer suggestion, on very limited budgets. Early Polanski. Some non-horror films like The Hit and The Parallax View. Even Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace was an inspiration to some extent, in that they so clearly just wanted to make a film and so went and did it with whatever they had, which was kind of a punk attitude that I really respected.
Budgets aside, who would you cast as your first victim in a slasher movie?
I’d kind of enjoy watching Tom Cruise get killed off in the first five minutes.
There were some brilliant actors in this film. Who would you recommend as a rising star in the horror world?
Everyone I’ve worked with, of course. Seriously though, I think Billy Clarke and Jack Gordon really did some excellent work in The Devil’s Business, and I hope they get recognition for it. And they’ve both done other genre work – Jack was in Panic Button last year and Billy told me just the other day that he’s in Grabbers, which is showing at Frightfest this year. Beyond that, you have someone like Pollyanna McIntosh, who was fantastic in The Woman, and who (coincidentally enough), I’m also currently working with…
The Devil’s Business is in cinemas August 17.