“I’ve always loved horror! It’s a genre that people will make an effort to go and watch in a dark room with a bunch of strangers on a big screen,” says Danny Morgan, screenwriter and lead actor of Double Date. “There’s something about that atmosphere, especially with horror, where you feel you are all in it together, where you are all just trying to survive this horrific ordeal.” This unifying ordeal Morgan cites can be coupled with a humorous edge, and here Double Date (2017) seeks to merge the visceral reactions of laughter with the shock of what the film’s director Benjamin Barfoot describes as a “violent and brutal” breed of horror.
Terrified of girls, Jim (Danny Morgan) is on a reluctant quest with best friend Alex (Michael Socha), who has promised to help him lose his virginity before he turns 30. When they meet the alluring sisters Kitty (Kelly Wenham) and Lulu (Georgia Groome), lustful and murderous desires collide, as unbeknownst to Jim and Alex these femme fatales have a deadly agenda.
In their joint feature debut, Morgan and Barfoot look to follow in the footsteps of notable films that have struck a masterful balance between comedy and horror, from John Landis’ violent body horror An American Werewolf in London (1981), to the recent near perfect mix of suspense and humour in Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound (2014). However, with an opportunity to turn itself on its head and counter audience expectation, the filmmakers revealed their passivity, lacking the bold courage of such a manoeuvre. This may be attributable to their joint commitment to craft a film that simply entertains, yet Double Date is best described as a film that is enjoyable if taken for what it is. A film should express its soul and matter, and not just be an object to be passively accepted, which is what Morgan and Barfoot’s feature debut is, alongside a continuation of male filmmakers treating female characters with an adolescence.
Ahead of the European Premiere at Horror Channel FrightFest, Morgan and Barfoot discuss with PopMatters the experience of realising their feature filmmaking ambitions, and the perspective of then to now. They also speak about the evolution of the tonal identity of the film, crafting Double Date for an audience and the strange relationship they now feel towards the film.
How do you both compare the expectations versus the realities of the experience of your feature debut?
Danny Morgan (DM): Writing a film was something that I had always wanted to try. Ben and I had worked on a few little short films together, but it was us mucking about and sticking those videos up on YouTube — showing them to people and not really getting anywhere. So I knew I wanted to have a go at writing something longer, but I didn’t really have any expectations.
I had the very basic idea of the two guys and the two girls over one night, and just the worst date of all time. I had the other basic premise of the guy that is nervous about talking to women, and the night that he conquers his fear just so happens to be the night he should have stayed at home because these girls are actually trying to kill him. I liked that idea and so I thought, Okay, I’ve got a premise there I think is quite good, and a few very simple characters — I think I can handle this.
I didn’t know how to write screenplays and so I just wrote a rough draft, and not expecting anything to come of it, showed it to some people. But luckily I found Matt Wilkinson the producer, who saw some potential. Matt was originally a writer who then fell into producing, and so he’s very good at the creative side. He spent about a year honing it with me, teaching me about structure, and basically giving me a crash course in writing, which was amazing [laughs].
So yeah, it was a long slow process and I never felt there was any pressure because I genuinely didn’t think it was going to go anywhere. Any time you did get slightly further, it took so long coming that it was hard to feel any pressure.
Benjamin Barfoot (BB): I don’t want to use the word ‘easier’, but it was smoother or more straightforward than I thought it was going to be. I’m a self-taught filmmaker and so everything prior to making a feature was all pretty much theoretical. I had shot and always edited everything myself. I was a one man band filmmaker with a lot of ideas of what it must feel like to work with a crew, how stressful it might be, how much you would have producers and people looking over your shoulder, and how much freedom you might have. Also, how difficult it might be to convey your ideas to people that were going to take them on from you, rather than being a person who, if I have an idea, then we’d just implement it straight away because it was just me on my own.
But it seemed to be more successful and smoother than I realised, and I didn’t have too much trouble collaborating or handing over my ideas to people, and letting them run with it. Or offering guidance when I felt it was needed, and the same with the actors. I don’t want to use the word that this was ‘easier’ than I thought it was going to be, but I surprised myself that I felt as in control, because I thought I’d be more stressed out.
I can’t recall who told me this during an interview, but it was the idea that storytelling is the process of answering questions. Would you agree?
DM: Yeah, absolutely! It took me a long time to realise that the writing process never ends until the film is locked — until it exists. Even up until the editing you are writing, and once I realised that it’s an ongoing process, that there’s never really an end until it’s done, then I started to relax and to enjoy the process a bit more.
At first, I remember getting frustrated at the amount of times I had to write and rewrite, as well as the notes, because I’m not naturally a very patient person. My background is acting where it’s all very immediate — you go in, get the job, do the job and then you’re onto the next thing. This was a much longer process and so yeah, it was very much fixing problems, and as you say, ‘questions and answers’. Once you’ve answered one question, suddenly that will change the whole thing, and you have to go back and fix everything else that changes.
So it is this living organism with a life of its own that you are working on. It comes to life towards the shooting process, and then you are running behind it trying to fix little bits when they fall off. It was a strange process to get my head around, but it was my first feature, and so it was just learning all those lessons.
BB: There are certainly questions, especially with humour, or questions as to whether anyone is going to find this funny. Is this going to work? That comes up a lot. There were questions of balancing horror and comedy together, and I certainly had strong ideas of how I saw the horror, which was more violent and brutal. It was playing that quite straight at times, but also knowing that at any moment I’ll be quite silly with Danny, and so I’m flipping between those two things.
To be perfectly honest, it’s interesting what I told myself from the very beginning of this process — that I was not going to second-guess myself too much. I felt that going into it, the only way that I was going to be able to protect myself was by going on gut instinct and feeling. I have a lot of theories about this, which is that gut instinct is your subconscious talking to you — it’s the way it communicates. Sometimes you cannot work out exactly why, but if you go with your gut then you’re much faster at making decisions, and trusting that gut instinct is everything. So there are certainly a lot of questions, but I’m leaving it to just the feeling of, No, I’m going to go with what feels right, and to not question this too much.
Danny Morgan and Georgia Groome in Double Date (Courtesy of Pinpoint)
Is the process of learning to make films structured around honing one’s instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively?
BB: I have all sorts of ideas about it. I used to watch a lot of friends play music and I was very jealous that when they were on stage, they would perform all of this brilliant stuff that they almost couldn’t do at home. But when they were in the moment with their eyes shut, brilliance was just happening.
As a filmmaker, I’m trying to put myself as close as I can to losing myself in the film. I want to let go even though I can’t because it’s a very cerebral and delicate process. But I’m still trying at all times to feel my way through it, as I have a feeling that’s where my best work is going to come from.
I prepare heavily. I storyboard the film from start to finish, and I would storyboard sequences and then do an animatic film — a rough version of it. I prep to the point that it’s locked down tight and then when I get on set it allows me to let go. It’s the opposite way round because I have such a massive fallback that it’s okay to be daring, and to feel my way through it because I know that very basic core is written for me.
Filmmaking is a strange contradiction.
BB: It definitely is, but I think once you get the system down, then hopefully the plan to a certain degree is full proof. It’s going to work because you’ve prepped the basics, and at least you know you can do the basics, and everything else is a win win situation. At least that’s the rough idea.
Picking up on an earlier point about the balancing of the horror and the comedy, how did you strike that harmony, and what were the challenges? Also, there’s a final act action scene, which adds a third tonal consideration. Unlike in the Marvel films that descend into prolonged action in the final third, during which my interest wanes, the action scene in Double Date was engaging, and a perfect compliment of action, comedy and horror.
DM: Across the whole process the balance between the comedy and the horror was the main thing that we kept going back to. There were incarnations of the script that were a lot more horror, and in fact, when it started out I wanted it to be a horror film that just had some jokes in it. But the further down the line we got we realised it was turning into a comedy, so let’s just embrace that and say, this is a comedy with horror aspects. In the end, we settled on 75 percent comedy, 25 percent horror, and then it was just a case of knowing when to sprinkle in those scary moments.
A huge part of that was Ben, who as well as being a great director, he’s an amazing editor — that’s his day job. When we got into the editing suite you could just see that he knew the balancing thing that you are talking about — when to start ramping up the tension and when to bring it down, almost like mixing a song. It was quite cool to watch and so it was very important that we got that balance right.
… [We] wanted the whole thing to be quite fast-paced, like a ride that you’ve been on for an hour and a half that is thrilling, and it ramps up at the end and builds to a big crescendo where you should feel battered, bruised and exhausted. So yeah, a huge part of that was getting the script as balanced as we could, but then getting that balance right was in the editing process.
BB: I would love to say that I knew how everything was going to work, but I do think it’s a chemistry set. You are taking Danny’s silliness and fun, and I have elements of that background — I used to make little comedy films — but I have a very serious background and love for film. If I’m going to do a fight, you’re going to really know about it.
I feel the same about the Marvel films. After a while, there have been so many explosions and then someone pulls out a gun, and it sounds like a pea shooter because you’re just numbed. There’s no gravity to what’s going on with the characters. You know who’s going to win, you know who’s going to lose, or maybe someone’s going to lose in this fight and win later. What I want to do is try to get rid of expectation. I want people to feel: Well, I’m not too sure how this might end here and if someone is going to punch someone, I’m not going to do it slap-sticky because there’s nothing in that. There are no stakes, there’s nothing, and it’s not particularly funny. In a way, you’ve got Danny doing his fun and silly stuff, and then you’ve got me attacking it with a sort of brutal action fight, a bit of thriller-drama.
I’m so chuffed how that fight with Alex and Kitty turned out. I storyboarded it and then I filmed it with two stunt actors to work out all the precise angles so I would get it bang on. But I didn’t know Michael Socha was going to act the way he did. So I’m trying to always lock things down very tight so that I know what I’m doing, but to also give the actors freedom and space for any kind of inspiration and magic to happen.
Again, my theory is people do their best stuff when they lose themselves. So I hold on really tight and then let go because that’s when an interesting chemistry starts to happen. I have a lot of faith in just getting it on camera, offering guidance and trying a few things out. You will be able to bottle all of that magic in the edit and figure your way through it, and find that balance between the horror and comedy. Just by changing the music or certain other elements you can change the feel of something. So there’s a lot of control in the edit suite.
While the writing and shoot are important processes, is it in the editing that the film is made?
BB: The edit suite to a certain degree is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal. I’m a professional cameraman, I shoot myself and I have also done visual effects. I write as well, and was involved in the writing process with Danny a bit. It’s difficult because everything is very powerful. If you get a good actor you’re sorted, or if you get a good cinematographer. But maybe they are slightly limited by the overall expanse of the film.
The two most powerful tools you have are your script, which is right at the front, and your edit suite, which is right at the end. Between those two, making a tiny change in the script will cause huge ripples across what everyone does in the film. And if you change something in the edit, that will have a huge effect on what the audience knows or doesn’t know, sees or anticipates. I’m a big fan of the writing and editing processes. They are very powerful and I know from experience they are world changing — you can change so much of the world with just the slightest touch.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience, by bringing themselves, their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film, is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
DM: It is interesting because I’m experiencing all of this stuff for the first time — being on this side of the camera and being with a project from beginning to end. It’s a fascinating thing to show it to big crowds of people, which we have been doing at festivals. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t as big a response as we’ve been getting. It has been quite overwhelming, and I think there is a truth to that. We made it for people and I always think that the best art is for people, not the artist. So I want people to grab it and own it, to take it in and to connect with it.
But it’s an odd feeling when you feel people connecting to the film. It’s exciting, but it’s also the feeling that it’s slipping away from us, and it’s becoming whatever it’s supposed to become. So if it turns out to be a little cult film that a few people see and enjoy, then that’s amazing because that’s all we set out to make. Whatever happens, happens.
So there’s a letting go thing that’s quite difficult and it’s now in the lap of the gods whether it can find an audience. There’s only so much we can do now. We’ve done our job and we are watching it drift away from us. But so far the reaction has been more than I could have ever dreamed of, so it has been very cool.
BB: Definitely, and that is always coming up. For Double Date the process was sitting in an edit suite for two months painting the whole picture of everything we did. I’m very free and I can paint whatever colour I want, and I can do whatever I want, but after that… look at it this way. The film came in at one hour 57 minutes when we finished it, and by the time we were done cutting it, it was one hour 27 minutes. In half an hour there were a lot of scenes, a lot of pathos, drama and horror, all different bits and pieces. That 30 minutes taken out is nearly a quarter of the film, and was purely for the audience, no one else. We took that quarter out, banking on the idea that we were improving it for the audience, wanting it to be as light and as fast as possible so they are taken away with it.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl, he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
DM: You are changing all the time, but when you do something like this, and this was a big thing… I’ve never worked on anything as hard as I’ve worked on this. It was a massive chunk of my life spent writing and shooting, and the whole process was so long. But I definitely feel that it has changed me. It has made me more confident in my writing and performing. It was my first lead role in a film and it has just made me believe in myself a bit more.
I’m actually quite a lazy bastard [laughs], so it’s almost a little bit annoying really. It’s like the world has gone: “See, if you put some effort in, some cool stuff happens.” I’m like: “Oh shit, I’m going to have to do this again now” [laughs]. So it has been nothing but positive, and I definitely think when you embark on a project like this, it can’t help but have changed you a little bit by the end.
BB: It’s a huge process to spend 25 years of your life working towards making a feature film, and then suddenly you’re a guy who has made a feature film. I suppose those two experiences are quite different. I don’t think I’ll ever understand how different that is. Probably the biggest thing is a bit of confidence at the moment, a bit of assurance that all of the work I did for 25 years seemed to pay off. But other than that I wouldn’t really know. Anything I’m going to know is what I probably put into my next film, and how I approach it if I get the chance to do one.
Horror Channel FrightFest hosted the English Premiere of Double Date.