Exclusive Interview with Director Jon Harris


Going back into the caves for Descent: Part 2

“I will be very satisfied when it’s finished. It’s very hard to describe it when you’re in the process.” – Jon Harris, director of The Descent: Part 2.

After a long-awaited pause I bang in the final nail to finish up my coverage of The Descent: Part 2 and catch a busy Jon Harris in the editing suite. It’s been a few months since I had the privilege of visiting the set and meeting the cast and crew on behalf of ShockTillYouDrop.com. So, I had decided to let Jon chill after the shoot and settle into the edit. I briefly introduced myself at the Eden Lake FrightFest party and arranged to chat to Jon where he really shines. Later, I was invited to see him at one of London’s top post editing houses which was very cool and impressive.

I catch Jon tucked away in a room in the roof. He’s in the middle of edits and I try to catch a look at the freeze frame on screen. After the privilege of talking with other heads of department from D2 I am looking forward to hearing Jon’s opinion on the filmmaking process especially as he has made the transition from editor (Snatch, The Descent) to director. Editors make some of the best directors, in my eye, as they know how the film is going to cut together whilst they are shooting it. Which leads me onto my first question…

ShockTillYouDrop.com: So, Jon, how was the experience going from the editor on The Descent to director on The Descent: Part 2, having been the man in a room to the man in the studio?

Jon Harris: Well, it was interesting, I will tell you that. As you say, this is what I’m normally like, here in this room for weeks on end. So, suddenly I’m in a room with 60 people and the hours are incredibly different, just staying on my feet and maintaining the energy. But that wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be, I caught little sleeps at lunchtime but don’t tell anyone that. It wasn’t massively different from a creative point of view because I usually talk to the director a lot and we all work very closely together. Usually I’m in the cutting room and the crew is shooting next door or wherever but I’m completely tuned in to the film, thinking this is the scene that we need to do and this is the way that the characters need to be in the scene. So now rather than waiting for all that to turn up, it’s a question of me communicating that to people and going out and getting it myself. I think if any editor were honest they’d admit there are times when you think “Why didn’t they do it like this?” or “Why didn’t they do that?” Well, now I know to be careful what I wish for. I have also done a lot of second unit shooting in the past but that’s usually only a couple of days at the most. Now it’s for seven weeks. It’s the full, unrelenting nature of it and the accountability. The fact that it all stops with me just adds to all that pressure.

Shock: How do you feel about sequels being made, especially in regards to some of the comments that have been online about D2 being made, some of which have been positive and some negative?

Harris: Well, the decision to make a sequel to The Descent was bound up, for me personally, in the offer of a first feature directing gig so that’s something that’s hard to turn down. Once that decision was made it was a case of doing it justice. There were a lot of factors to consider and I’m aware of the people writing in forums and online chats. Some are kind of strange like, “Why couldn’t Hollywood just leave this alone?” [laughs] as the first one was a British film and the second one is too, we’re the same people making it. So, the only time I get riled is when people say things that are completely warped and misinformed like that. Beyond that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and at the end of the day I’m just grateful that people care enough to write at all. It’s a big thing, the first one’s very popular and they have every right to say “please don’t f**k this up”. I could take all that as pressure and say “Oh my god, I’m miserable, nobody wants this film” but I don’t think that’s true, a lot of people do want this film and I hope that they will all see it when it comes out and make their own minds up.

Shock: As you had the same Head of Departments from the first Descent, do you think that if it had not been that way you would have still agreed to be the director of The Descent 2?

Harris: Well, that’s hard to say as luckily I was never put in that position. We always said if anybody who worked on the first film wanted to work on the second film then they would be welcomed with open arms and thankfully just about everyone wanted to come back. After I edited the first film I got a British Independent Film Award for editing, they called it Best Technical Achievement with the nominations including Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, etc. all lumped into this category and I got the award. So, the first thing I said was well if it is a technical award then I’m sharing this equally with Sam McCurdy, Simon Bowles and Paul Hyett. They were on the scene long before I was and have so much to do with the whole style of the film. It would have been very hard to imagine doing this second film without them and without David Julyan doing the music. As you know Neil Marshall wanted to be around for this film but not in the main chair and I couldn’t have asked more of him as an Executive Producer. He had input at every stage and gave me an awful lot of emotional support and advice. You see, the pressures of doing a follow-up are far outweighed by the advantages. I had a team who had learned so much from the first film and as a first directing gig I had the entire first film as a kind of trial run.

Shock: Had you directed a selection of short films?

Harris: Yes, I started out when I was 10 or 11. A bit like Neil really, like young filmmakers, making silly films with our friends in the woods. Then I went to film school and made short films. I always wanted to be a writer/director but I never quite had the confidence. But I always used to edit the things that I had written and directed so when it became time to make a living I thought, here I have a trade, I can actually go out and do this. I always found editing the most rewarding part any way. Directing is fun but essentially very frustrating which is something I have learned in the process of doing this. No matter how organized you are, you can never quite get everything you want in a day’s shooting. If you can then you’re not trying to do enough. Compared to editing, your never feel fully in control and you have to get used to that. As an editor here, I don’t have to talk to 60 people. I can hide away, think things through properly and even have a kip if I feel like it.

Shock: Has there been a certain scene that you have shot that you have looked particularly forward to editing?

Harris: Yes, there was a fight that takes place in a certain location which I thought would be fun to do. It was very messy to shoot but a lot cleaner to edit. In fact most of the fights and set pieces were a lot easier to edit than shoot. At one point I had three people dangling off the same wire all thrashing about 20 feet in the air, and I’m thinking “what the hell am I doing?” And it takes so long. I timed that it took two hours one day to get 14 frames of useable footage. But they were 14 crucial frames we couldn’t have got any other way. So at times like that, yes you just can’t wait to get in the cutting room where it will all make sense and move a lot faster.

Shock: What sort of cinema release are you intending for The Descent 2?

Harris: Same as the first one I should hope. You’re better off asking [producer] Christian Colson that question though. It’ll be a number of screens for a length of time depending how well it does.

Shock: Are you looking forward to seeing The Descent 2 poster up in the subway, it must be pretty exciting to see a poster of the first film you directed on your way to work?

Harris: Yeah, I am. It’s funny as no matter how many films I’ve worked on, when I look back, quite often the artwork of the DVD cover or the poster sums up everything about that film and the experience for me. Yet more often than not that image design came along right at the end of the process. I did a film called Layer Cake and that experience is in my head in a certain way but it’s always that yellow and white cover that sums it all up for me. So, I’m very interested to see what they will come up with for this poster as ultimately it will come to sum up this whole year for me. I don’t know what it is yet but I dare say there will be a 2 in it somewhere.

Shock: Will you have any input in the poster?

Harris: Yeah, they’ll probably show me and ask what I think but I once worked cutting trailers so I know that when a distributor buys a film it’s totally up to them how they sell it. It’s not the people that make the film that usually make the trailer or the poster. Quite often the campaign needs to sort of misrepresent the film, not in a cheating way, it just needs another eye, a fresh take. For instance for the first film there was a poster of Sarah drenched head to toe in blood, screaming and we were like “yeah, that’s really cool, that sums up this film for us.” But then the distributors came back and said, “to be honest if you put that out then no women are going to go and see this film”. So we have an input but we’re not always the best people to ask. Besides it’s not our job, they know the market and how to sell things. They did a pretty good job with the first film.

Shock: Who is usually involved in the process of elimination in the editing suit?

Harris: Filmmaking is a huge collaboration. People may think that as I am editing and directing this that I am by myself the whole time but I’m not at all. On any film that I’ve worked on there’s usually about three or four key people involved in the cutting process, usually the director, the editor, a producer or two and often a writer. Sometimes the writer/director is the same person, or the director/producer may be the same person. In this case the director/editor is the same person but there’s still a bunch of us. I have James Watkins, the writer, and Christian Colson, the producer. It was the three of us that made Eden Lake and it’s the three of us that are doing this. We make a good team as we don’t agree all the time. If we did there may as well just be one of us. We all see things very differently and Christian points out things in this film that would never have occurred to me and usually he’s right. You absolutely have to have that creative friction. I really like it when there are eight people in the room and they are all disagreeing because it means that we are going to thrash it out and find something.

We also do test screenings which can be tricky as you get people going away and writing about it on the internet, which of course isn’t fair as the film’s not entirely finished yet. Some people don’t agree with test screenings but I see them as a useful tool to check that certain bits of the film are doing what they should. Does the audience understand this bit? Does it drag anywhere? Do they jump in the right place? It’s a long and tortuous process and you can lose your way if you start responding to every little comment. You have to look for patterns in the responses. When you show it to sixty people and twenty people tell you the same thing then you know you’re on to something.

Shock: Would you say that you have been more relaxed editing this as you directed it?

Harris: I would say no, it’s been more the other way around. Editing is solving problems which is normally very satisfying. But it’s not so good when they’re just problems you caused yourself. At times I’ve been skirting around stuff thinking “that really should work, why doesn’t it work the way I meant it to?”, instead of just accepting it and finding a totally fresh approach.

Shock: How has your personal editing process been going along? For instance editing certain chunks out of order and then putting it all together?

Harris: Usually as an editor I look at what’s been shot the day before and it’s all out sequence but gradually it pieces together. But this film and the first film were shot almost entirely in story order. Because the story starts above ground and goes below ground and through the caves it makes sense to shoot it in order. Then you can chart the deterioration of the characters. But either way, once the shooting is over you pretty much have that first rough assembly then it becomes good fun for the editor because you can choose every day what you want to work on. Do I want to do an action set piece today? Do I want to do a bit of drama with some characters? This kind of film is very interesting, there are lots of different things to do. There’s some good character development to work on but if I feel like it I can always stop and bash some heads in. For quite sometime I’ve been concentrating on just the story and the characters. Once I have that right or it’s got to a certain stage then I will move on to some other bits. I think that with the best horror films you could take the horror aspect out and sure it wouldn’t be scary but it would still be a good story.

Making this film had a lot of fun aspects to it but, hand on heart, it was a little bit harder than I expected it to be. I’d been editing films for a while and getting into a pretty comfortable routine so I really wanted to do something I didn’t know if I could do, something that scared me. Speak to any director and ask him, I think you go a little bit mad shooting and then you come out of it and get sane again. That definitely happened to me. There weren’t any night shoots on this which was nice. We were going to set the above ground scenes at night but then thought, hang on a minute, the whole film’s going to be dark so we may as well make a contrast. So there’s a sense of going into the dark. But that meant that the shooting schedule was nine days of daylight followed by six weeks in the dark caves. And the sets were pretty realistic so we were all completely barking, seeing crawlers everywhere by the end of it.

As our conversation comes to a close Jon and I talk about the relationships of the characters development throughout the film and I really sense the passion that Jon has for his first feature project, he was very modest and a little bit precious about it all in a very good way. Finishing this article now and conducting the interview a few months ago I am sure that the film has come along so much further.

Jon gave me a little treat before I rushed off from our chat and I got to see a trailer which was made for distributors and the film festivals. It totally kicked ass! Busting with action and still leaving me not knowing what’s actually happening, I love the fact that after chatting to so many people involved with this film I have let myself be slightly naive to what’s really happening in it. The Descent: Part 2 is made by some of the UK’s most talented film makers and is defiantly worth watching from a horror fan and filmmakers point of view. Eyes peeled, people.

(Read an exclusive interview with The Descent: Part 2 FX artist Paul Hyett here!)

Source: Misartress Melanie

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Weekend: Feb. 27, 2020, Mar. 1, 2020

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