FrightFest Interview: Phillip Escott and Craig Newman Talk Cruel Summer

One film I got the chance to catch ahead of its World Premiere at this week’s The Horror Show FrightFest is co-writers/co-directors Phillip Escott and Craig Newman’s horrifying and heartbreaking debut, Cruel Summer; a film that shocked and surprised me in all the best possible ways.

Inspired by actual events, the film finds autism sufferer, Danny (Richard Pawulski), heading off on his own to camp out in the country as part of his Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. Secluded from the rest of the world, he soon finds himself hunted by Nicholas (Danny Miller), a classmate out for blood all because of a lie created by the enamoured and envious Julia (Natalie Martins). Teaming up with a new kid on the block, Calvin (Reece Douglas), the three youths close in on the innocent Danny, as Nicholas’ designs grow erratic and increasingly more violent. As the film reaches its shocking climax, Julia and Calvin start questioning whether they are capable of going through with Nicholas’ deadly plan.

In celebration of the impending debut at this year’s FrightFest, Dread Central caught up with both Escott and Newman to find out what kind of ruthless and touching experience audiences are in for.

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Dread Central: How did you find out about the true story this is inspired by? What leapt out at you that made you think a film could, and should, be made about it, and how close to the truth is the film?

Craig Newman: We wrote the film in 2013 when there was a lot of media coverage on youth-related crime and violence so there were many news articles to draw from when creating the story for Cruel Summer. We started looking into as many reports as possible and ended up forming the foundation of the script using several real-life crimes, including the murder of Terry Hurst in 2004 as well as many more. What leapt out at us was that all the crimes appeared to have an element of peer pressure or bullying as one of the core motivations and the incidents always seemed to involve a gang or group of people seemingly encouraging the attacker(s) to carry out the crime and were rarely premeditated. This is what we wanted to explore: how peer pressure and bullying can convince young people to commit brutal and violent crimes, what events preceded the crime and how does a young person end up being involved in something so tragic, from both sides, as attacker and victim. We simply used the news articles for inspiration and took elements from each one to form the characters and the script. We weren’t trying to tell one specific true story or focus on any particular person or group from those stories. We were more interested in the “why” and not the “what”.

Phillip Escott: As Craig said, the Terry Hurst case really struck home. It was so senseless. We started talking after I had read a report about the death of a homeless man in Liverpool; a group of teenagers dared younger kids to do it, and they did, they set a man on fire as a ‘dare’. It was that toxic sort of peer pressure that we wanted to explore. This is why the film is ‘inspired’ by real events and not based on them. To try and recreate the actual cases would be pointless I think; the film would be unwatchable.

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DC: Tell me a little about the casting process and what you saw in the four key players, especially for Nicholas and Danny.

CN: The casting process was pretty straight forward and we were lucky that it fell into place as it did. We knew that the film would require experienced and talented actors due to the nature of the story and motivations of the characters. Reece Douglas, who plays Calvin, was first to sign on. He had built up a lot of experience in his role on the UK show ‘Waterloo Road’ as a series regular and we knew he would be perfect for the role. Natalie Martins, who plays Julia, provided a great audition tape and brought lots of enthusiasm and determination in her audition and really breathed life into the character so it was a no-brainer to hire her, frankly. When it came to the roles of Nick and Danny, our antagonist and protagonist, we were very careful and knew we had to hire the right people. We initially had another actor in mind for the role of Nick. However, the actor could not commit and Reece Douglas mentioned that he knew Danny Miller who had lots of success playing the character of Aaron in the show ‘Emmerdale’. Neither of us watched the show so when we watched clips on YouTube and other sites, we realised that he performed the role of Aaron with great passion, emotion and intensity. We knew that if he could do the same for our character Nick, that we would have a very believable antagonist. Reece made the introductions and the rest is history. With regards to the character of Danny Evans, Richard Pawulski was the last actor to sign on. The reason for this is many of the people we saw weren’t able to bring the role to life in a believable way, that would make the audience emphasize with this autistic character. However, with only about a month to go until principle photography, Richard provided an audition that absolutely blew us away. He had done his research and spent time with people who suffered from autism and mental illness which helped him form a performance that was both authentic and nuanced

PE: Reece really did have the fresh-faced innocence we needed for Calvin. We wanted a world weary youth and Reece is just that; he was only eighteen when we shot, but you would have sworn he was pushing thirty. We had some great auditions for Julia, but like Craig said, Natalie smashed it. There was some competition from another actress, who was more popular due to her appearance in a few horror films and a famous Nickelodeon TV show, but her audition was what sealed the deal; we wanted who was right for the role over star power, which is a novice mistake to be sure, but it worked in our favour considerably. When I saw a picture of Danny Miller, he was in a grey tracksuit with a shaved head. There was an air of danger about him that was perfect for Nicholas.

Originally we were in discussion with Jack McMullen’s people, but he had just signed onto another project. This was another blessing in disguise as Danny really did bring a real natural charisma, but also that sense of threat that was all important for this character and Richard is our secret weapon. His performance is paramount to the whole film. If he’d pushed the character’s disability too far, or not enough, it would suck the viewer right out of the story. Luckily he was a familiar with this condition, having spent time in classes with children with autism, so was fully aware of what was realistic or not.

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DC: Are the locations where the actual crimes took place? If not, what kind of locations were important for you in terms of the story?

CN: We did not shoot the film where the crimes took place because the film is based on multiple incidents that were spread out over the country and we also didn’t want to name the town where the story is set because we wanted the events of Cruel Summer to seem like they could happen anywhere, so we were careful not to use landmarks that were obvious or could be easily identified. If the film seemed like it took place in one specific area of the country, then it might seem like the film’s message only applied to that region or that the events of Cruel Summer only happen in that area. This is something we wanted to avoid from the beginning. When it came to locations, we wanted the environments to be a reflection of the characters. For example, Danny is located among peaceful and serene countryside which represents his state of mind and innocence. Nick, Calvin and Julia spend most of their time located in the city so they frequently appear in more manic and busy urban environments which represents their mindset. When the two worlds collide, the atmosphere becomes a lot more sinister and the shaded woodland provides a dark backdrop for the events that take place.

PE: Spot on. We didn’t want to give it a geographical position; it would give the viewer an escape from the events that unfolds onscreen. Though we tried our best to avoid giveaways, anyone who has been to Cardiff will be able to spot a few locations, the city centre namely and a spike of the Millennium stadium that pops up in one shot. As Craig said, we wanted to play on the serenity and beauty of the outdoors. At  first it’s gorgeous and green, but as the film progresses, it becomes much more claustrophobic and foreboding. Or at least I hope it does!

DC: You leave the ‘real’ backstory behind Danny and Nicholas untold. Did you ever have plans to show the audience that side of things or was this a conscious decision to create a talking point after watching the film?

CN: It was a conscious decision to not provide a yes/no answer with regards to Danny’s history with Nicholas. Sometimes horrific events happen based on nothing more than gossip or hearsay. Nick is a naturally hostile person who feels embarrassed, angry and threatened by a rumor and what it can do to his reputation or street credibility. It doesn’t matter if the rumor is true or not. He decides he is going to strike as a way of restoring his reputation and also to seek satisfaction from the violence. This is why we also provided very little back story for the character of Nick. We didn’t want to explain his inner rage or show his background because sometimes acts of violence can’t be explained. Sometimes people do things that even they can’t explain.

PE: To echo Craig, it wasn’t a consideration to link Danny to Nicholas. It’s a seemingly random act of violence. These two characters aren’t aware of each other before the events of the film unfold. The hearsay and gossip of others is what brings them together, in the most tragic way.

DC: Was it tough to find just the right balance of good/evil in the three “villains” as they all have very disparate visions and thoughts on what is going down in the end?

CN: In order to find the right balance of good/evil in the antagonists, it was a case of making sure that their motivations were all different and their reasons for going along on the search all had different meanings to them as individuals. Nick wants to attack Danny as a way of restoring his reputation, Julia wants Nick to respect her and see her as more than just a friend and Calvin is new to the area and needs to feel like he’s part of a group. Giving realistic and intelligible reasons for why characters do what they do provides them with more depth and allows the audience to relate to their actions, even if they don’t agree with them.

PE: Yeah, Julia is the epitome of the human heart and all the emotions that come with it. Calvin is the brain; he’s able to step outside of the situation and evaluate logistically and Nicholas is pure instinct, in all its ugliness and beauty. By covering all the groups, hopefully most viewers will see something of themselves, or certainly someone they know, in one of these characters; which puts the viewer in an awkward position: To see something of themselves in a film’s protagonist.

DC: Did you and the cast do much research into the real characters the story was inspired by or talk to anyone who had committed similar crimes?

CN: Although the film takes inspiration from real events, we wanted the actors to put their own interpretation of what goes through the mind of someone in that scenario. If you take away the violence of Cruel Summer, you’re still left with a situation that many people have found themselves in, at some point in their life and can relate to. We’ve all been peer-pressured at some point in our personal or professional lives. We’ve all encountered some form of bullying, whether it’s physical or mental. We’ve all wanted to be part of a group and we’ve all had something said about us that isn’t true at some point. So it really wasn’t necessary to speak to anybody involved in the actual crimes or similar crimes because the actors were all able to relate to what their characters were going through, albeit under different circumstances. I think allowing them to draw from their own experiences helped them create more passionate and realistic portrayals.

DC: By the end of the film, the terrifying truth is that “love is blind” and people will do anything for love. For me, that was more frightening than the actual events themselves. Was that side of things inspired by the actual events or did this idea of people capable of such heinous acts in the name of love something that came later and worked as the catalyst to what happens in the end?

CN: Using Julia’s love for Nick as a catalyst for the events that take place was always part of the story but it originally was only used as a jumping point for the story to get moving. Originally, Julia was more like Nick; lots of misguided anger with a lust for violence. It was only after meeting Natalie Martins, who plays Julia, that I realised that we were missing an opportunity to create a more sympathetic character and thought that it would add an extra depth to the story if her main reason for becoming involved was her unquestionable devotion for Nick and less about her violent tendencies, which allowed us to create a more diverse and believable character. ‘Love is blind’ is certainly one message of Cruel Summer, but it also makes statements about the complexities of human emotions and the lengths that people will go to feel accepted or gain redemption.

PE: Yeah, Natalie really helped with Julia. I originally wrote her as a much darker character, who enjoyed toying with Nicholas and Calvin. Luckily for us, Natalie brought out a new avenue to venture down, which again helped strengthen the film.

DC: The soundtrack works wonders and is very disparate depending on which scene or character is on screen. Can you walk us through how you worked with Josef Prygodzics on the score?

CN: Josef Prygodzics was a pleasure to work with and very collaborative. Josef had created a breathtaking album with his band Winter Villains called ‘February’ and as soon as we heard that album, we knew that he was the person who could really breathe life into the score. When describing the mood of the music we wanted, we were very careful not to use phrases like ‘dark’ or ‘ominous’. Essentially, we wanted to move away from typical horror/genre musical scores and focused more on themes of beauty and sadness. Being fans of South Korean cinema, we wanted to take a page out of their book and use the music as a representation of the environments’ and characters’ mood, as opposed to being guided by the story or genre of the film. This was Josef’s first film score and we think he did a great job. He also worked tirelessly and we could probably release a double album with the amount of content that he created!

PE: At least! We had so much material it was ridiculous. The guy is a machine. When editing, I layed down a temp track for him, which included music from David Juylan, Harry Escott and Paul Cantelon. This gave him a sense of what we wanted, then we suggested films we admire, like Memories of Murder, and how smart the music is in that film. From there, we played around with musical cues and themes for the three protagonists and Danny; some worked and some didn’t. So it was a matter of seeing what worked best for the film. We had to leave out some beautiful music at a result, but it ultimately helped the film to leave it out.

DC: Are you working on anything else that you can tell us about now?

CN: We’re currently developing a project called Rehab which focuses on the recovery of several drug addicts who are located in a new experimental rehabilitation center. However, the local residents aren’t happy about the rehab facility being in their community and events escalate in a very dramatic and explosive way.

PE: It’s an exciting project that taps into the current post-Brexit climate. The country is divided like never before, and this film really plays into that. It’s also an extension of the theme in Cruel Summer; peer pressure and bias play a huge part in this project.

You can catch Cruel Summer this Saturday, August 27th at London’s Frightfest and we’ll leave you with the first terrifying trailer.

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Howard Gorman

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