Producer Simon Oakes brings life back to Hammer Horror
BY TODD GILCHRIST
On Friday, March 5, producer Simon Oakes invited a small group of reporters to the Beverly Hills offices of Hammer Films, the newly-resuscitated imprint of the studio that brought genre fans horror films for more than five decades. Largely defunct since the 1980s, Hammer was revived last year when Oakes and his partners debuted the web serial “Beyond the Rave,” and the producer gathered journalists from various web sites to discuss their first project, Let Me In, and offer a few glimpses of what’s in store for the iconic studio.
Hammer’s rebirth is anchored by Let Me In, a remake of the 2008 vampire film Let the Right One In, which is being directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield). Additionally, they have several other high-profile projects on their slate, including The Resident, which stars Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Hammer staple Christopher Lee, and The Woman in Black, an adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel of the same name. In addition to talking about the studio’s upcoming projects, Oakes revealed Hammer’s grand plans as a entity that would bring back “aristocratic horror,” and provided a few details about how he and his colleagues would honor and hopefully expand its considerable legacy.
Hollywood News: How would you say that Let Me In, your first film project, factors into the spirit of Hammer’s legacy and where you want to take it?
Simon Oakes: I think I have talked to some of you guys before about this. When I bought Hammer, this venerable British studio, which sort of invented the modern horror film in a way. And then got taken over by the urban myth films of the ‘70s like The Exorcist and The Omen, I thought to myself okay, we’re going to reboot this baby. And we’re going to make it sort of relevant now for a modern audience. But what we’re going to do is we’re going to take the traits that the Hammer was famous for. So that things like what we call the ‘walking dead’ or the vampire lore. In fact, the mini-Hitchcocks that it made between ’58 and ’63 like The Nanny, and the Scream of Fear, The Fanatic, et cetera. So find a natural link a DNA link between what Hammer did before and what Hammer will do now. I know your direct question is on Let Me In but on the state of The Resident, for example, that’s part of that mini-Hitchcock [legacy]. A psychological thriller – elevated horror, we call it. In fact, with Hammer you have noticed I don’t call it “Hammer Horror”, I just call it Hammer. So it gives a, the breadth to sort of do stuff that maybe we couldn’t do otherwise. And then The Woman in Black would be like The Walking Dead and The Mummy and all of that [classic Hammer] stuff.
Let Me In is a modern take on vampire lore to be honest with you. The idea of a vampire living within the context of an urban environment, and just being there as opposed to the vampire stories of the ‘60s and ‘70s, where there was more of a mythological quality to it, obviously, like Dracula. So that was our thinking behind it and as we go on and do more pictures. I mean, we have a film called The Quiet Ones, which is about a group of scientists in the 70s, based in Cambridge. Do you remember that picture of Bill Gates with all the really crazy-brilliant people behind him, all with beards and he’s there going, ‘I don’t know’, and that sort of incredibly iconic photograph of him with Al and all the guys. Imagine that group of people in Cambridge in the early 70s and they’re brilliant and they’re supposed to be working on DNA and working on computers and they said, “we’re not going to do this anymore. We’re going to create a poltergeist. That’s what we are going to do. Because we are so god damn clever, we are going to do something that no one else has ever done before.” And that fits into another part of Hammer’s sort of supernatural sci-fi history through Quatermass and all of those sort of films.
Hollywood News: I’m curious to know about Christopher Lee in The Resident. It’s fantastic he’s in it, but is his appearance just a cameo or is he actually doing a role and acting?
Oakes: It’s a cameo. Chris plays Max’s father, which is played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and it’s funny actually – when we were looking at the cast list, I was saying, we’ve got to get Christopher to be in the first Hammer picture in 37 years or whatever. He’s called August, and it’s a small part, but it’s not stunt casting. It’s a proper part. He plays Max’s grandfather, he lives in the building in the apartment with him, and it’s great; actually, I don’t want to give it away, but the reveal when you first see him is fantastic. People are going to go crazy, particularly in England. He got knighted actually, when he was on set. He was knighted, and it was announced to the English press eight hours beforehand, and he was in the states. So he was asleep, then when he woke up he had champagne and chocolates and he was like, what’s going on here? Are they trying to pay me less? And we all knew, because we were eight hours ahead, and it was fantastic.
Hollywood News: With Chris, you obviously have this huge audience across the globe, especially in the UK, and then Hilary Swank is an American actress. Is there a consideration of moving back and forth between both camps? Is there sort of a one for you, one for you, mentality?
Oakes: No, honestly, there is not. For example; I’m very interested in making a film about Edgar Allan Poe, it is genuinely the material. Frankly, the story came to us as a spec and with Antti Jokinen directing, who is a Fin and me being a Brit and then we shoot the film in America, which is set in New York. New York is the best setting you could possibly want for a thriller like that that is very contained, and I think for our point of view, we wanted to put a marker down of how serious we were about what we are trying to do in rebooting Hammer. Getting a double Oscar-winning actress to be in a thriller like this. And there is a history you know, Bette Davis was in The Nanny, Joan Fontaine [was in The Witches]. There’s been a history of big American what they call the Hammer heroines. Raquel Welch, Ursula Andress. I think also it’s a global business – you know that better than anybody. We just make the pictures where the pictures should be made. I would like to make more films in the UK and Europe – obviously, I would like to do that. But we’ll only do it when the stories are right.
Hollywood News: How much of the focus is there going to be on remaking old Hammer titles?
Simon Oakes: Almost none at all. In the sense that we would never remake; we might reimagine. One of the first questions that I was asked when we bought the company was are you going to remake all of those old Hammer films? Why would you do that? Because in a sense, they almost were of their time, and they sort of, almost became old-fashioned as they came up to the end of that period of time when they were making those pictures. Because of the same time Dracula A.D. was being made, The Omen was being made, and think about that difference in terms of style and what I talk about, the urban myth movies. But there were some amazing characters in here that we want to reimagine like Quatermass. Like Kronos. We’re going to do Kronos, a sort of what would he be like today? What would he look like today? Because the great thing about him of course is that he is a vampire, but not a vampire. He has all the traits of a vampire, he never ages, but he’s not a vampire. So there are so many things that you can do with that. So we have some characters in here that we are going to sort of reboot. And those are two of them. And then we’ve got a couple of other titles like The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires that we are working on; a reimagining of that. But a straight remake, no. Mind you that we are always open to ideas, because what we always find there are always people who know more about this than I do, going, have you thought about this?
Hollywood News: The one that I would like to see is Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.
Oakes: Why, funny you should say that. My lips are sealed.
Hollywood News: So you’re basically saying that your focus is more taking these characters [and repurposing them in different movies]?
Simon Oakes: Repurposing them. Doing a new Quatermass movie. Doing a new Kronos movie. Not remaking the same film with its log line the same, but saying, what would the Kronos movie of 2011 look like? Or Quatermass of 2012. Maybe some of these characters should live in television as well. Particularly Quatermass, which I’m thinking about at the moment. What I love about Quatermass is that he was a government scientist and science is cool. Everyone is into science. So what would he be doing now? In the original Quatermass that Nigel Kneale and Val Guest created, he was sort of like a classic character like a Bourne or a Bond, who have two masters if you like, both of which are trying to fuck with his head. One, are his masters, which in the case of Bond is the CIA, or MI6 in Bond’s case. And in the same token, the enemy – they’re fucking with him, and they end up being this person who was sort of alone and that’s what Quatermass was always like. He was always prescient. He was always ahead of his time. A lot of Tom Neil’s Kneale’s work was about the damaging of the environment. And he used the alien thing as a sort of metaphor for saying what we are doing to our planet. It’s quite interesting I mean, I met him shortly before he died and I’m friendly with his widow and it’s amazing. So there’s a lot of rich material in there that we can rethink, but the issues that he would be dealing with in 1957 compared to what they would be today, that’s the thing. That’s where we have to use our imagination.
Hollywood News: Quatermass TV show would be a great alternative to the new Doctor Who, because there’s so much whimsy that to have something more rooted…
Oakes: I want something as rooted in possible reality, exactly, and less whimsy, and more scares.
Hollywood News: Do you control the entire Hammer library?
Oakes: What we do is control everything in the sense that we also have blocking rights, so in some cases we control titles entirely, and in some cases other people have distribution rights, of which we’re a beneficiary. But we don’t distribute ourselves, and in some cases we have co-ownership rights with studios. Because the company is so old, you can imagine, it made a picture in the ‘50s, and that company it made the picture with got sold to that company and that company and then suddenly you find that you own a picture with Warner Brothers, Canal, and Fox. And that can happen. So I’ve taken a very practical view about it: if there’s a title we co-own with the studios, if we put a package together that is so compelling that there would be no reason why you wouldn’t say “let’s go make this,” then do so. But otherwise just let it lie – let it lie where it is and move on. So there are a few things like that.
Hollywood News: Does that extend to home video?
Oakes: No, various different companies have home video rights. Warner Brothers have some, Optimum have some in the UK, Canal Police have some, and we always encourage them to sort of get these out in box sets and so forth; we’re putting together right now, I don’t know if you saw the box set of the 21 classics, but we’re putting together new boxed sets in themes right now. What we’re doing is we’re pulling them from the various distributors, and for them we’re doing the work, it’s found money, but what it does is it gets the brand out there. I mean, one of the things I’m fascinated by in the space that you guys are in is 16, 17-year olds, 18-year olds, young kids in the US and they start to look at hammer and they go, “what’s this? No one told me about this. What’s this company?” Obviously some of the real fans will know about it, but a lot of people will never have heard of it. They’ll go, what’s that movie? What’s The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires? What’s Jekyll and Sister Hyde? What’s The Quatermass Experiment? And that’s really cool, I think. Because part of the thing is to with the movies we’re making, and we have got two big hammer films coming out this year in the US is how we maximize getting that message across that this is a great studio, a great brand that we’re rebuilding.
Hollywood News: You have said Hammer will not make torture porn. Can you elaborate on that philosophy?
Oakes: Well, first of all, look, I saw the first Saw and thought it was great, and then it became a franchise and it’s become what it’s become. I’m very friendly with John and Lionsgate and all of that, but I just don’t think it’s what Hammer does. I don’t think it’s what Hammer ever did. I don’t think it’s within the genres that Hammer created, if you like, or was part of. So I don’t see what I call ‘gore-nography’ or torture porn or slasher pictures; I also don’t think it’s to be honest with you, my personal view is that it’s a footnote in the horror genre. To me, it’s a footnote. I think in 20, 30 years time it will be forgotten by comparison to other [subgenres]. It’s a broad genre, you know; it’s Polanski, it’s Hitchcock, it’s Kubrick, and onwards. So that’s just my personal view.
Hollywood News: How do you balance Hammer’s pedigree of personal, character-driven stories with the spectacle of today’s horror?
Oakes: I think that movies find their own feet in a sense, and I think The Resident, for example, is a commercial psychological thriller. I think Let Me In is interesting, isn’t it, you, because I’ve said it’s Stand By Me meets The Exorcist – it’s got art house credentials but it’s got a commercial filmmaker at the helm, and it’s also got a great story. And I don’t want to speak for our US distributor, Overture, where I’ve just been this morning, but I think there will be a wide release, but it’s not going to be three and a half thousand screens. But nor is it necessarily going to be platformed either. I think it will be a film that will find its feet and I think there will be gradual platform release over time, but I don’t really know yet. I think it’s too early to say, but it’s story-driven as you say, like the Hammer films of old – character-driven, story driven. But with an extraordinary central premise at the heart of it, which is that she’s a vampire. And it’s a very touching story as well; do you remember when he says, what if they do this and what if they do that? She goes, well, then I’ll look after you. She tried to get him to really look after himself, and then he eventually says, but what if I can’t? and she says, well, if you can’t then I’ll look after you.
Hollywood News: What about courting the Twilight audience? Are you going to be making movies for them or is it more of an adult focus?
Oakes: That’s a good question. I think there’s room for everybody in this genre. The thing about the Twilight thing, it came from a specific piece of work, which is the novels, and you can’t build your business plan on sort of the poster child for that demographic because no one saw that coming. That was a book that became a hit through word of mouth – you guys know all of the history of the book, obviously – and how it went to another studio and then another studio said we don’t want it anymore. Then, suddenly, it became what it became, and the internet actually was the thing that really built up the rumble about that, the book and the original film. So I think we are relatively opportunistic about that: if we had a story that we liked and it so happened that it hit that demo of the Twilight audience, we would do that. But I don’t consider Twilight a horror movie anyway, to be perfectly frank. Do you?
Hollywood News: No, but we cover it and it’s covered on horror sites.
Oakes: Well, I think that it’s right that it is, because what it actually does do is by virtue of that that it’s not really a vampire movie as such, it allows people to see the levels of vampire mythology and so on and so forth that they can play with. But yeah, there are all sorts of different things. I mean, right now I’m looking for a zombie movie, which I might have found, a period zombie movie, actually. It’s really cool.
Hollywood News: Is it based on a book?
Oakes: It’s a completely original idea, from a pitch. It’s completely original. And I mean to some extent, for example, The Quiet Ones is [about] these are students, these are 21-year-olds, it’s the Flatliners type of casting, these super-bright kids at Cambridge in 1970. At that age you could imagine casting five really good-looking kids, you would just have to be very clever. So yeah, you know – I’m not against it. It’s a great franchise.
Hollywood News: Do you have any web stuff planned?
Oakes: Um, what we’ve done is we’ve created this new part of our business called Exclusive Labs, and what it is, it’s a part of our business, which is focusing on creating content for digital platforms, and we’re working on a couple of ideas right now. I’d love to be able to tell you, and I will make a promise that when we announce two projects very shortly, I’ll make sure that you guys get it, along with our site first, because I think it should be disseminated in our environment before it goes into what I call the traditional press. And the reason I can’t is that I’ve got a partner who wouldn’t thank me if I said something right now. But very soon, we will; we’re all trying to find out what does it mean, a digital strategy. On digital there are two things; one is distribution and one is content creation. Digital distribution is a product of the things of like the windows, VOD, television. When do you go digital? How does it cannibalize your income streams and so forth, and that’s sort of interesting and boring in equal measure. And then there’s digital content creation, which is what I’m interested in and what we’re about. And I think we’re putting a lot of energy and investing in that space; I also think it’s a fantastic area to test-market some of the things you do, some of the storylines you do. Whether you call them webisodes or what we did with Beyond the Rave, you just get a sense of what people are interested in, and it’s a great way of creating a community as well. So I would say within the next four to six weeks, we’ll be making an announcement.
Hollywood News: Is the cache of familiarity working with existing properties more valuable than shopping around for purely original ideas? Or does it matter at all?
Oakes: I don’t think so. I think the thing is that if you get something like Hammer and then you get Let Me In, there’s a sort of ‘the power of three’ because you’ve got the brand and you’ve got the fans [of the original] film. But what I think Hammer does, it gives a chance to basically develop from the ground upwards if we can and it doesn’t mean that we have to just go and distribute product or go and remake things from their back catalogue or whatever. We can take something and… I mean, A Woman in Black, there’s an example of a novella that had never been made into a movie, it was a play running in London for 21 years and in 17 countries, but we could take it and broaden it right out. When you guys get to read the novella, which is only 150 pages long and I recommend it – it’s like this pastiche of an M.R. James novel – and then you see the movie, you’ll see how James sort of opened the whole thing up. In the case of the zombie picture, that is just a completely original concept and story and take off of a one-pager.
HOLLYWOOD NEWS: What do you think of the state of mainstream horror? What’s lacking?
Oakes: God, I hate questions like that (laughs). My truthful answer to that is that I think it’s wrong for me to have or publicize a view about it. I mean I could comment on the ten films in the Oscar line-up this year, but who gives a damn what I think? That’s just a personal view. What I do know is what we will do and what we’re trying to do. What we’re trying to do is, as I said, reboot, recreate, kick-start the studio again. (It started in 1929.) Make movies in the U.K., make movies in the U.S., make movies wherever we need to make movies. We’ve got deep pockets for development. So we’re not just buying spec scripts or buying books, or buying finished or half-finished products. We can really start from the ground upwards. The genres are broad. In a sense, it’s almost like I know what I won’t do as opposed to what I will do. We will do a lot of stuff, and there are six to eight different broad tropes that we’d say, “Well, that would be okay for us.” The only thing on my watch that we won’t do is we won’t make slasher pictures. I think generally it’s healthy, I think people are thinking outside the box. I think there’s a lot of imagination and brilliance that goes into the genre. What’s also good is that, like many of these things – a light romantic comedy, everybody loves romantic comedy all the time; it doesn’t go like that, it’s not like that – horror, in the broadest sense, has good days and bad days. People like it sometimes and then it has a bad reputation. I think right now there’s a lot of very clever, very artistic people working in the genre. So I’m pretty cool with it.
Hollywood News: Is the intended avoidance of torture porn and slasher films a ratings board issue? Is it an issue of how much you show?
Oakes: No, it’s just my tastes, and the tastes of my colleagues to be honest with you. It’s not a moral position or anything like that, or a religious position. It’s just not my tastes. I also don’t think it’s right for Hammer. I call it “the aristocrat of horror” – there’s something rather grand about it in a sort of funny way, the quality of what we’re doing. We’re not making low-budget horror movies; we’re making mid to high-budget horror movies, in terms of the type of budget you’d expect for a horror film.
Hollywood News: Mostly R-Rated?
Oakes: I think The Quiet Ones and The Woman in Black will get a 12 in the U.K. The Resident, I don’t know what that will get actually. Because the ratings system is slightly different here than it is in the U.K. and France. In Italy it’s really tough. You get a film that would normally get a 12, and it might even get an 18. We definitely are not driven by the ratings system. We’re driven by the stories.
Hollywood News: You mentioned the Hammer heroine earlier. Next to the Bond girl, that was sort of a defining sex symbol of the 1960s. There was a certain look they had…
Oakes: Hammer Glamour?
Hollywood News: Yes, the buxom woman in the nightgown. Have you guys thought about that, reintroducing a certain sex symbol?
Oakes: Yes is the answer, but you’ve got to do it carefully, because if you don’t it becomes pastiche. But one of the things I’m doing – I’m doing a Hammer publishing venture, which would be creating new stories and short novels, branded Hammer, with a major publisher. We’re doing Hammer Theater of Horror, where we’re doing live theater, where we actually can create that repertory group of actors and actresses like Hammer did in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But you can’t do that in the movies anymore, basically because the agents get in the way of that. And the actors would love it frankly. But like Steppenwolf, as a repertory thing, we’re going to do that with theater. We’re going to create new, frightening theater – “horror theater,” if you like – and original stories. That creates more IP for us to do our day job, which is make movies. So we’re doing a lot of brand extensions around Hammer to create new things. So to your question, I think we can do that to some extent through the theater side. And if we do have a story that lends itself to have what we call a Hammer heroine we would do so, but we wouldn’t just put a girl in a nightie – and the rest [laughs] – just for the sake of it.
Hollywood News: Are there any directors or writers that you’re courting at the moment?
Oakes: Loads. We’ve got a big slate. As you know, the group is Exclusive Media Group, so we have a non-genre label as well. We have a Peter Weir movie, which is coming out later in the year. And we have a big lineup in Cannes of non-genre. With the Hammer world, you have the “real slate” and you have “the slate.” So we have about twenty projects, and we’re focused in at about four to five right now. But we’re looking all the time. We’re looking all the time. We’ve got a great team here, we’ve got a team in London. We get a lot more inbound here, specs here – the spec script world doesn’t really exist in Europe. It does here. But we take pitches. We buy scripts, we buy books. We buy scripts that are packaged. We’re hungry to do this.
Hollywood News: Any genre names that will ping the IMDB crowd?
Oakes: Well, you guys would be the first to know. The thing is, we’re in the situation where we didn’t want to be the emperor’s new clothes. We bought the company, we did Beyond the Rave. Then the announcement of doing The Resident and Let Me In. These films haven’t even come out yet. So we’re just slightly holding. I think there will be a lot of inbound. There’s already a lot of inbound by some really amazing talent, going, “Okay, you guys are really serious about this.” I think the other thing that’s great is that we’re one of the few [companies] in town that are well-financed. We can finance our own pictures. We put equity in, we do gap financing, we’ve got a phenomenal sales team led out of Europe. For example, Let Me In, as you know, has a domestic in place. But in other cases we can go ahead without the domestic in place. Because the days of having a domestic deal in place all the time, or a deal with the studios, are gone. The whole industry is going through a change at the moment. We acquired Newmarket recently, the great independent distributor, and we’re picking up pictures. At the moment, we just bought a film called Hesher, from Sundance. So in the fullness of time, we’ll know where we’ll be. I’ve been talking to my colleague Chris about this – that Newmarket may be releasing Hammer as a genre label in the US. That may well be where we go, finally, with this. Because a lot of the genre labels, like Dimension, are not around anymore. And as you know, the specialist divisions of the studios – the Paramount Vantages, the Warner Dependents, Picturehouse – they’ve all gone. So there’s a massive gap for distributing and bringing certain films to market.
Hollywood News: Supposedly, Paramount is starting this micro-budget wing. Do you have budgets at that range?
Oakes: We have some projects at that budget range, and we’re working with them. In fact, I may be going over there in a couple of hours time.
Hollywood News: How can you make a project at that budget range, which is think is $200,000, with a studio involved?
Oakes: Well, first of all, I’m not entirely sure that is what the real minimum budget is. Nobody’s been told. It’s less about the budget and more about the model. What you do is you platform release it, you get advertisers in; you cover a lot of your downsides with sponsorship and advertising. That is the model. It’s an interesting model, given the fact that we’re working in an environment where advertisers aren’t advertising and budgets are being slashed, and so on and so forth. But it’s a great seeding ground for that. And they’ve had great success with it – obviously Kick-Ass. So a lot of these budgets are bounded around – “Well, they made this for this, and they made this for that.” Who knows?