Filmmaker Storm Ashwood Talks Fantasy Horror Film THE SCHOOL!
Writer/director Storm Ashwood has produced an Australian film that looks and feels like no other with fantasy gothic feature, THE SCHOOL.
THE SCHOOL concerns Amy (Megan Drury), a doctor, wife and grieving mother who is failing. It has been two years and she still cannot manage to leave her comatose son David’s side. Amy falls further into her own selfish and twisted world of obsession and denial, blocking out everything and everyone around her. Meanwhile the walls of the hospital she is neglecting begin to fall apart. Awakening in what seems to be an abandoned old school, Amy finds herself a prisoner to a hoard of displaced cultish and feral kids. Trapped in a hostile supernatural purgatory for children, Amy becomes an unwilling surrogate mother and must try and escape an impending evil. As supernatural and psychological terror ensues, Amy must find her way out, fighting against the demonic, supernatural and ultimately her own demons.
A stark example of how boldly creative independent Aussie films can be, and perfect for genre fans of all ages (strong nerves required), THE SCHOOL is a must-see for anyone who wants their local films with striking visual style and powerful emotional impact. Ahead of the film’s World Premiere on Friday July 27th at Monster Fest Travelling Sideshow Adelaide, Cult of Monster’s David Churack caught up with Storm to discuss how he achieved the film’s distinct look, shooting on location in a mental hospital and what draws him to darkly fantastic projects!
The darkly fantastic concept behind THE SCHOOL feels so fresh and unique – especially for an Australian film. How did you come up with it?
The concept for THE SCHOOL wasn’t born overnight. I have also always loved the Peter Pan story. And so 10 years ago, I jotted down on paper a concept surrounding ghost children stuck in purgatory. But instead of Neverland it was a school. Not just any school, but one from a pre-World War I era that had intrinsic roots to a modern time and place. However, over the years THE SCHOOL became much more. Dealing with my own personal loss and helping someone close to me with their own kind of grief, I found that THE SCHOOL became about learning to let go, and to recognise when manifestations of our own pain become the macabre.
The most striking thing about THE SCHOOL is its fantastical gothic aesthetic. What went into creating it on screen?
How could an institution, transitioned into a purgatory world conceived at the end of the 19th century not be gothic its presence? I have also been inspired by the look and feel of films by Guillermo del Toro. When my DOP Aaron McLisky and production designer Nicola Stillone came on board, we all collaborated to create a unique world unlike any another. A world ruled by children but somehow lost from the modern era.
A major contributor must have been shooting on location at the Gladesville Mental Hospital – what did this place add to the film? And what were your experiences shooting there?
Hands down, Gladesville is one “hell” of a scary place. Don’t walk around there at night by yourself. There was a darkness that was thick enough to “cut with a knife” in some of the buildings. We met with some of the old employees. I can’t repeat the stories they told, and we dared not let the crew know. . .But I can tell you this – if there are truly ghosts in this world then Gladesville Mental hospital is certainly one place they hang out.
THE SCHOOL deals with some heavy themes like motherhood, grief and loss. Why did you choose to tackle these subjects?
Parental suffering is certainly something I have had and I have loved others that have suffered from grief and loss. It has a habit of eating at you from the inside out. Writing a story that highlights these themes and offers hope to “find a way forward” is as much a part of universal storytelling as it is cathartic for my own well-being.
Despite these big themes, I also thought the film has great appeal to children – almost as a throwback to a darker style of children’s movies like the work of Tim Burton or Jim Henson. Were they major influences for you?
It is definitely still a kid’s film. I loved taking my kids to the movies and they all loved the dark tales like NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, or THE NEVERENDING STORY. The kids loved reading all the fairy tales too. I could see how they connected with the loss of something and the quest though a dark (sometimes horrific) realm to eventually find hope.
Another fascinating part of THE SCHOOL is the participation of Australian internet celebrities the ‘No Frill Twins’, who are gaining international recognition for their musical performances and unique style. How did they come on board, and what do you think they add to the film?
I remember saying to my casting agent “Where do I find a couple of eerie looking twin girls from?” We had no idea. Then my brilliant make-up artist Elvis, said she knew the No Fill Twins and would put me in contact. When I saw them I knew they would be perfect! As soon as they read the script they were in! The girls had so much fun.
Including the twins, you’ve assembled an impressive cast – alongside a number of talented child actors. Can you talk about how you found your actors?
Greg Apps came on board to cast for us. He did a brilliant job. We must have auditioned a few hundred kids. A slow process but we struck gold. All our supports and leads were amazing. Ironically Alexia, who plays Becky, was in fact the very first child we auditioned. And when Will McDonald came into audition for Zac, he brought something so unique to the character. I loved it and went out and rewrote parts of Zac’s scenes to suit that very character.
Prior to directing THE SCHOOL, your short film MOTH also took a darkly fantastical look at family tragedy. What draws you to these kinds of projects?
A dark childhood [laughs]. . .I suppose innocence, death and accountability are probably something all parents should be aware of. I feel sometimes we allow social amnesia to take the blame for why we might not be connecting with our children. Perhaps these types of projects help jog our memories?
THE SCHOOL was your feature film debut – overall how did you find the process? And what advice would you give to other aspiring filmmakers?
Never ever give up! Trust your gut and believe in yourself. The very first funding body I took THE SCHOOL to, laughed at me and told me “throw this one in the bin and start again”. Being a stubborn person, that just made me all the more determined. No matter how many times you get knocked down, jump straight back up! And keep making stuff. Find a way. Short films, webisodes, a YouTube vid made from your mobile phone. Just keep telling stories and keep building and working your bigger works. You will succeed!
Can you tell us any plans for future projects?
It seems I am very lucky, as I have a multitude of ideas and stories to tell. Some are ready to go straight in financing, while others are waiting for me to develop them further. What I can tell you is, I think THE SCHOOL would make a sweet series. MOTH does have a feature version written. . .And there might be a dark kid’s musical surrounding the youngest son of Mother Nature floating around too!