Sure to be a highlight of this year’s Grimmfest, When the Screaming Starts is a horror comedy that follows budding serial killer Aidan and pretentious documentary filmmaker Norman. With plenty of murder and mayhem along the way, the film shows us the lengths that they’ll each go to to secure fame and acclaim in their very different fields.
We got the chance to chat about the film with director, producer and co-writer Conor Boru, co-writer, producer and actor Ed Hartland (Aidan), actor and producer Jared Rogers (Norman) and producer Dom Lenoir.
Tom: Thanks for agreeing to talk to us! Firstly, can you let us know what When the Screaming Starts is all about?
Ed: When the Screaming Starts is a horror comedy documentary about an aspiring serial killer and the documentarian who follows his progress. Someone described it to us as “Louis Theroux meets the Manson Family”. I think that’s the elevator pitch right there!
Tom: You’ve recently debuted at Frightfest and had some incredible reactions. Is there anything that’s particularly stuck out for you?
Conor: For me, it was more just being there watching it with an audience for the first time. hearing people laughing, gasping at the right moments. That was a real joy. It was a real relief too, because we’ve been working on this film for about two years now.
Dom: The atmosphere there was absolutely incredible, and it was really exciting to be back in a cinema and have so many horror fans coming to see the film. On the review side, it was not unexpected but it was so pleasant to get so many good reviews, and two or three different picks for Top 10 Frightfest films, which was amazing! It was great to have the audience and the critics enjoy it as well.
Tom: When you think about your original ideas for the film, how close is the final product to what you thought it was going to be?
Conor: It’s hard to know which original idea because there’s been so many versions of this film, right through the script phase. Myself and Ed worked on that for a long time together. Right up to the last minute, and sometimes even before a shoot day, we’d be revising it. We’d be looking at it, knowing we only had limited time, and we’d be cutting stuff. And then, during the shoot and in the edit, we’d still be cutting stuff out, right down to the bare bones. Even now looking at it I’m like “Ah, we could have trimmed that down a tiny bit more!”. Overall, I think we kept it pretty lean and mean.
Tom: One of the things I suspect the audience will really appreciate is the way you balance comedy and horror. Was that a challenge?
Ed: That’s something that we discussed constantly with this, right from the very first time that Conor and I talked about this idea. There was always this discussion of “What is the right balance?’” and “What side of the line are we going to fall on?”. I think a lot of the early drafts tended to have a little more slapstick and also more extreme unnecessary violence. Whereas, as we progressed, we found the right balance of getting that more subtle humour and getting the kind of darkness across in the right way.
Conor was very keen that we sort of drip-fed it throughout the film. In early drafts, a lot of the stuff was in your face straight away, whereas I think we found, hopefully, a bit more restraint in the way that we approached it.
Tom: The film starts with a focus on the two main protagonists, and then, as we bring in more characters, the dynamic shifts a lot. Can you take me through how you put the ensemble together?
Conor: When Ed approached me with his initial draft, the cult-like family was something that I really gravitated towards. It opened up so many possibilities, and I was really excited by that idea. I’d always wanted it to be quite heightened and stylistic more than being super realistic. The family really fit in with that. I just thought they were a joy and wanted more and more of them! I think maybe in the first draft, Ed, they were slightly less involved? We just kept adding more and more of them as we went along.
Ed: Yeah, they were a bit more of a kind of throwaway moment in the first draft. I think, as you say, it was just so much fun working on them and developing them, coming up with their stories and how they fitted in. It just made it really exciting because we got to expand this world beyond Aidan and Norman.
Dom: I think, considering that there’s so many different and unusual and unique characters as well, in a way it’s remarkable that it does glue everything together. Even though everyone is so different from each other, I think it cements the story that Jared and Ed are going through.
Conor: I think we appreciate these characters more because we get to see them interacting with other people more. We see the power dynamics shift, and it just gives everyone more to play off. We had a great cast, couldn’t have asked for a better cast really, and I found that really fun.
Everyone was part of the team. We’d worked together for a long time, and I wasn’t really worried about any egos. It was all about what was right for the story, and everyone was on board from the very start.
Tom: It all comes across very naturalistic on screen. How much of that dialogue was improvised by the cast?
Conor: A lot was in the script. We tended to film everything that was in the script, although often me and Ed would be there on the side with a big black marker. The poor actors had learned their lines and suddenly we’re changing and getting rid of bits of it! But they all did a phenomenal job. We normally allow quite a lot of room for improvisation. Normally, at the end, once we’ve got a good few takes in the bag, we’ll open it up and let the actors have a bit more fun.
Tom: On the subject of performances, I wanted to ask Ed something. I had in my notes “Patrick Bateman slash David Brent”. What were the inspirations for your performance?
Ed: David Brent and The Office were a massive touchstone for us, just like how What We Do in the Shadows was a key reference point for all of us. I think that is an accurate thing, because it’s finding that balance between the drab world of The Office and the more stylised and heightened reality that Conor was talking about. Which you get with something like American Psycho. It was about making sure we picked the right moments to switch between those two modes. That was the game of it.
Tom: Similarly for Jared, you’ve got this character who’s very hungry for success and acclaim but also has a very heightened opinion of himself. I’m wondering if, maybe working in media and film, you were able to draw from life at all for that?
Jared: I guess that in previous jobs you see those kinds of people! There’s a little bit of David Brent and The Office in there, also a bit of Louis Theroux and other documentary people that I’d watch to kind of get that sense of presence. Then chuck it out the window and be a lot less professional! Obviously Louis Theroux is very professional, but his earlier stuff is a bit more comedic. Norman Graysmith is definitely the Pound Shop version of Louis Theroux!
I think that’s the thing I tried to approach him with as well. He thinks of himself as being this amazing documentary filmmaker, but really he’s done nothing, and when he calls himself “award-winning”, I really think those are probably awards that he’s bought himself or found in a skip!
Tom: Conor, I understand that this is your first feature following a series of shorts. Did you find that there were a lot of challenges making that transition?
Conor: Oh, so much! It’s not too dissimilar to a short film, it just obviously goes on a lot longer. Continuity is a big one, and scheduling. It’s a lot simpler trying to organise a two- or three-day shoot instead of what I think turned out to be a 20-day shoot! Keeping up with the logistics, props and how everyone is going to travel. A lot of the time it was us loading the van in the morning ourselves, so making sure we had everything came down to us. We had props stored in our parents’ houses as well as our own! So, anything we could do to get the film made with a very small team we had to do ourselves. We couldn’t have a dedicated continuity person, we couldn’t have a dedicated costume person. We had to wear many hats.
You can sustain that over a few days, but when things get stretched over a longer time you can start to go a little bit crazy. Or I certainly did!
Dom: I can confirm he did!
Conor: Your brain just starts to melt! Too much information. There’s only so much RAM in there.
Tom: Did COVID have an impact on production at all?
Jared: A little bit. The first block of the film we’d shot in Jan 2020. I think we finished the first week of Feb where it was still a pretty distant thing. That meant that we’d shot some of the biggest set pieces with the cast and crew in the room without even having to think about masks and temperature checks. But then as we did the additional shoots later on in 2020, it was already a very small crew juggling lots of different things, so we had to decrease in size even more. It meant a lot more choreography, trying to limit contact as much as possible.
Dom: I think it’s quite a benefit in a way with our film, because Conor had a lot of time to go through and talk to Jared and Ed about what we’d already got left that could be shot. In a way, it’s allowed us a lot of time to really plan and improve the film. It’s got into amazing shape, kind of because of that gap, so it’s worked out really well in some ways.
Conor: Well, we had to find a silver lining somewhere, didn’t we?
Tom: You’re screening at Grimmfest in Manchester very soon. What do you hope audiences take away the film?
Dom: I think it’ll be very exciting to screen to a northern audience. I mean, we’ve done London, and I don’t think as many people travelled in from outside places because of COVID. It’s all quite fresh to have in-person screenings. With Grimmfest, it’s a really big venue and it’s a really good festival. It’s going to be really exciting to take it on a little road trip of our own up to Manchester.
Conor: We had three screenings at Frightfest, and we got to sit in on two of them. The reactions were quite different between the two screenings! It’ll be really interesting to see how it goes down at Grimmfest. As Dom said, we’re really excited to go to Manchester, and hoping for a good reception!
Dom: We’ve done a few other screenings for films up north, and the audience are all really fun and engaged, vocal about stuff, and there’s always a lot of fun in the Q&A’s!
We’d like to congratulate Dom, Ed, Jared and Conor on their film When the Screaming Starts and thank them for taking the time to talk to us!
When the Screaming Starts will screen at Grimmfest in Manchester on October 9th at 1:05 PM. Find out more and book your tickets here.