The Second World War irrevocably changed the landscape of Europe, and left deep psychological scars on its inhabitants that even the passing of many years may never fully heal. AUX is a 2017 action-horror that explores the legacy of the conflict and asks questions about what happens when the sins of the past are unearthed. It also delivers spectacular action sequences and an engaging performance from John Rhys-Davies.
Vampire Squid caught up with director John Adams to talk about Aux, being a first-time director, and the horrors of shooting in the English rain.
Tom: Firstly, congratulations on AUX, which I understand is your directorial debut. How have you found the transition from producing and writing to directing?
John: Thanks Tom. Honestly, I found it a bit frustrating! I loved directing AUX, but as a producer, I’m used to having all the information about the shoot as a whole. Directing was strange to me because once the shoot is underway it’s about an intense focus on what’s happening in the moment. It took me a while to get my head around not thinking about planning for tomorrow or even what’s happening with timings on the day and direct all of my energy at working with the actors and making sure what’s on my monitor is the vision in my head. Luckily I had a fantastic team around me who made sure that everything was running as smoothly as possible and insulated me from the day to day planning of the shoot to give me the best chance.
Actor John Rhys-Davies (left), Director John Adams (right)
Tom: The film has a modern-day setting, but it also sheds light on a lesser-known piece of WW2 history. can you explain what it was about the auxiliary forces that captured your imagination?
John: I think people forget that for my grandparents’ generation, WWII was not a history lesson but something that happened during their lifetime and that they had to endure. What really interests me is not the overriding narrative of WWII but the personal stories of hardship and gallantry that are often still to be told. There is no question that after Dunkirk in May 1940, it seemed inevitable that the Nazis would invade the UK and so plans were put in place for that eventuality. Of course now we know that the RAF won the Battle of Britain against massive odds which meant that the Germans didn’t have the air superiority they needed to invade, but nobody at the time expected that. Churchill’s Auxiliary Reserve for me represent the spirit of resistance and more importantly, an amazing story that not many people are aware of.
Tom: John Rhys-Davies gives a tremendous performance in the film. How did his participation come about and what attracted him to the role?
John: Working with John on this project was an absolute honour. He is a consummate professional who has worked with Hollywood legends like Peter Jackson, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and his humour, enthusiasm and incredible stories were often what kept the unit motivated while shooting in freezing cold conditions in the middle of a desolate forest. John is also an avid historian and particularly interested in WWII so from the moment we started speaking about this role, it was obvious he was the perfect person to bring our veteran Jack to the big screen.
Tom: The film combines traditional slasher tropes with elements of other genres such as action and psychological thriller. Was it a conscious decision from the start to blend these different genres and were there any challenges that arose from doing so?
John: We set out to make AUX as commercial as possible by making it a smart genre film with a real world hook. The idea was to deliver something that fits within the horror genre but has enough mainstream elements to break out and appeal to fans of other genres as well. I think it was always clear that the central story is that of a slasher film, but it was a conscious decision to approach this initially from the point of view of the police officers investigating the case. We were very aware that as a British independent, we needed to make sure that we hit the tone of Se7en or Gotham with the police elements so as to avoid looking like an extended episode of The Bill, but equally, we wanted to keep at least a sense of quirky British humour in there too, so it was a balancing act. The most important things then were the set pieces which we wanted to really stand out as the film ramps up into its final act, so we designed some gruesome booby traps and explosions that give the film much more of an action or almost war film tone as it unfolds.
Tom: I understand that the script was co-written with your father. How would you characterise your working relationship and what does each of you bring to the writing room?
John: Pete and I have worked on a number of screenplays together and this is the third we’ve produced. Generally we have a great relationship but this changes when we’re working and we fight like cat and dog. I think because he’s my dad, we’re much harsher and more critical of each other than we ever could be with other collaborators, which definitely brings out the best in us. The process usually begins with one of us bringing an idea to the table and writing a first draft. The other then usually says that it’s rubbish and attempts to write something better. Around twenty drafts later, a lot of shouting and several bottles of brandy, we’re usually ready to share it with other people.
Tom: Which film influences have had the biggest impact on the tone and style of the film?
John: We’ve already mentioned Se7en and Gotham as influences for the police investigation in the film. I was definitely influenced by The Evil Dead in the realisation of the forest location. There are obvious comparisons with slasher films like A Nightmare On Elm Street or Friday 13th, but ultimately by the final act we’re into Predator territory as the army move into the forest.
Tom: There are several impressive set pieces and effects sequences in the film. Is there anything that stands out in your mind as having been particularly challenging to shoot?
John: We faced a few challenges in realising the set pieces we’d written and as with all processes of this nature, we did compromise and rethink quite a lot during the recce and even on set to make sure what we were doing was achievable with the resources we had. There are three that stand out for me: the worst luck we had was with the booby trap that kills one of the main characters right at the end of the film. It was an intricate rig that took several days to set up and then just as we started rehearsing, it poured with rain for basically the only time during the shoot! We just had to muddle through (with the script supervisor saying it would never match in the edit) but luckily, if anything the water adds to the look of the scene now the film is graded and so much is going on that I don’t think audiences really notice.
There is a scene with a young lady strung up in the woods which was obviously a challenge because it was freezing and the sequence took three days to shoot. This was a case of having a team with a step ladder, warm coat and hot drinks standing by to bring her down every time we shouted cut and then string her back up once we were ready to turn over again. And finally, the scene in the Mercedes which we completely trashed. Filming in such a confined space with blood SFX, car crashes and knives was a real challenge to light and shoot the footage I wanted, so it was quite a slow process at 2 in the morning on a freezing cold January night. As an aside, we also set fire to the very tops of some trees at one point and had to call out the local fire brigade to help our on-set fire cover!
Tom: Do you have any other upcoming projects that you’d like to talk about?
John: I’ve not directed anything else (yet) but since AUX, we’ve been busy at Evolutionary Films. The next in-house project we’ve filmed is an action film directed by Ross Boyask and starring ex-WWE superstar Stu Bennett and action legend Gary Daniels. On the sales and distribution side of our business, we then have our recent UK releases like the Juliet Stevenson drama Let Me Go and horror film Cain Hill which are available to buy now as well as some great releases coming up including our documentary about the early life of John Lennon, Looking For Lennon. You can find out more about all of our titles at www.evolutionaryfilms.com.