Elliott Maguire is a Manchester-based filmmaker who has just completed “The Ferryman,” a horror feature shot on an iPhone 7. In the following interview, he tells what led him into the often-scary world of no-budget filmmaking.
MMM: How did you get into filmmaking?
MAGUIRE: I’d love to give the typical “shooting movies as a child with Super 8mm” answer, but for me it was a lot slower. I was always interested in films from a young age, but I’d say when I was about 7 or 8 a VHS making of Terminator/Terminator 2 really opened my eyes about what goes into the making of a movie. It fascinated me, the whole process. I wanted to be part of that team, working on something like that. It seemed like the best job in the world. But a few years later, I stumbled across a copy of the script for The Usual Suspects and that’s when I decided to seriously study the art of scriptwriting.
MMM: What was it about the script affected you so much?
MAGUIRE: I could read a script and enjoy it much more than a novel, it just suited my attention span more. So I’d say I’ve been writing scripts since I was 12 or 13. And I focused primarily on that, ignoring the actual filmmaking. In the past few years I’ve had so many scripts almost get made, so many directors promise the world and nothing coming of it, that I decided to take control and make a movie myself.
MMM: The logline of “The Ferryman” reads: “After a failed suicide attempt, troubled and lonely teen MARA finds herself stalked by a malevolent entity.” How did you come up with that idea?
MAGUIRE: It came from the image of the Ferryman in Greek myth. He’s a ready-made horror movie villain but as far as I know that’s never been explored. So I played around with the concept. The script started off as a more traditional “Nightmare on Elm Street” meets “Final Destination” type of thing, with the Ferryman picking off a group of teens who cheated death in increasingly gory ways. It was very commercial. But as I’ve grown up, my tastes have changed. I still love a fun horror picture, but it’s the serious, dramatic, almost arthouse that appeal to me more.
MMM: Can you give some examples?
MAGUIRE: Stuff like “Don’t Look Now,” “The Shining,” “Under The Skin,” “Kill List,” “The Witch,” “Pans Labyrinth,” I could go on forever.
MMM: And those films influenced your approach to the “Ferryman”?
MAGUIRE: Yes, my vision changed. I wanted to base this more around a complex and troubled character and explore how The Ferryman affected the other characters. That’s if it is The Ferryman, of course. It might not be.
MMM: Speaking of other characters, could you talk about Mara?
MAGUIRE: Mara is a character quite close to my heart, I wouldn’t say she’s based on me, but there’s elements of me there. I went through a pretty dark time at University, made some bad choices, and was quite lonely so I used that for Mara. By focusing much more on the drama of Mara’s life, and the horror kind of becoming secondary to that, the horror becomes much more affecting. The characters are real people, and I wanted real people to be placed into an almost nightmarish world.
MMM: Why did you use a phone to shoot your movie?
MAGUIRE: I have very little technical ability. Like I said, I’m a writer. And between my family and my work, I don’t have the time or money to teach myself how to use a DSLR or Red Dragon or whatever. But I had an iPhone. It was in my pocket. And then, after the success of “Tangerine,” I just knew it was something I wanted to explore.
MMM: Did you take production classes?
MAGUIRE: No. In my spare time I taught myself how to shoot with it, and I had Sean Baker as my inspiration. I wanted to just go out and make a movie with very, very, very little funds, so that I could have full creative control. It had to be the iPhone.
MMM: Were you sure it would work?
MAGUIRE: There have been a few other horror features made on the iPhone, for example, an excellent thriller called “Uneasy Lies The Mind” and a found footage one called “Hooked Up.” So I knew it could be done, especially thanks to the Filmic Pro camera app.
MMM: What would you say are the main advantages of shooting with the phone?
MAGUIRE: I was able to set up shots very quickly and shoot pretty much wherever I wanted to without drawing attention to the crew.
MMM: Any disadvantages?
MAGUIRE: Mainly battery and storage space. The storage space on the phone is limited, so I decided to export footage straight onto SD cards using an adapter. But I had to do that quite regularly, and it could take a while, which isn’t ideal on a set where you want to shoot fast. Also, shooting and exporting drain battery life. I had a back up of external batteries that I could charge the phone with, but then you worry about the phone overheating so you have to be cautious.
MMM: Can you say anything about the process of location scouting?
MAGUIRE: I’m very lucky with locations. I work security on the set of a very well known TV soap in Manchester, UK, and the production staff were extremely helpful, giving me free reign of the place. Other than that, it was my house, my parents house, a local community centre, whose staff were really helpful and even appear as extras in a few scenes. All of these places though involved making compromises and changes to the script on the fly, which I think brought the best out of the whole crew.
MMM: What about permits?
MAGUIRE: Never even considered them. This is guerilla filmmaking! Shoot first, apologise later.
MMM: Any thoughts on casting?
MAGUIRE: I’d been wanting to work with the awesome Garth Maunders for a while so I wrote the character Roland specifically for him. I saw him in an excellent short film called “A Fathers Day,” and then after seeing his other work, I just had to get him. I feel like Garth could be in all my stuff now, he can play so many different characters so there’s this amazing freedom with him.
MMM: How about casting the Mara character?
MAGUIRE: Taking inspiration from other indie filmmakers I sent out adverts on social media for the lead Mara, and got some amazing responses. So much talent out there, but nobody was Mara. So I then searched on Casting Call Pro, and eventually discovered Nicola Holt. She absolutely killed it with the self-tape audition. She wasn’t just Mara, she was the more than Mara. She took the words off the page and discovered something heartbreaking in there. It was amazing to see. And she’s like that all the way through, such a committed performer and almost makes it look easy. Every take is just perfect. The film pretty much rests on her shoulders because she’s in every scene.
MMM: And the supporting roles?
MAGUIRE: The rest of the cast I found using social media. They all knew each other and worked with each other on other projects before, so we had a great little team going.
MMM: During the shoot, did you encounter any really big challenge?
MAGUIRE: The day before shooting, I discovered the sound equipment I’d purchased was unusable, so I had a panic attack. Luckily I work on a TV set, and the sound supervisor was kind enough to lend me the sort of recording equipment I could only dream of. Even so, sound was a nightmare. So many unexpected issues caused by locations. But I’m confident we can get around it in post. Most of the other problems stemmed from me wearing a lot of hats and being inexperienced in all of them. I scheduled way too tight so we fell behind on most days. We also got kicked out early from one location, a bit of miscommunication, which has meant a rewrite of key scenes in the finale. But it’s weird, every time we have had to compromise or change something quickly, it has worked out for the better.
MMM: So the big lesson?
MAGUIRE: As a no-budget filmmaker, don’t be precious with the script, and be ready to think on your feet.
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If you’d like to learn more about Maguire’s work, you can follow him on Facebook.
“The Ferryman” teaser was chosen as a Mobile Movie of the Week.