Continuing the stylistic trail of bloody revenge we so admired in their short If I Had a Heart, DN is overjoyed to see The Halsall Brothers return to our pages with 100 Bullets: Dead Ghosts. Based on Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s beloved comic series, 100 Bullets: Dead Ghosts sees the Halsalls relocate the attaché case action to the totalitarian domain of North Korea. Simon shares how he and brother Matt persevered through language and financial barriers over the last three years, to deliver a series which is as much a social injustice call to arms as it is a fan film.
100 Bullets is a well loved, multi-award winning comic that also has a Hollywood feature in the works. What were the elements of the series which spoke to your interests as filmmakers?
I’ve always been a huge comic book fan since I can remember. I was a teenager during Vertigo’s golden age, losing myself in titles like Preacher and Y: The Last Man. But there was something about the core concept of 100 Bullets lending itself so naturally to episodic storytelling that drew us in — all you need is another attaché case to ignite yet another 100 Bullets story. Azarello’s and Risso’s masterpiece grew massively over its 100 issue run, but the core premise of 100 Bullets centres around the enigmatic Agent Graves coming to someone in their darkest and most defeated hour and offering them an attaché case filled with 100 untraceable bullets, a gun, irrefutable evidence of the person who ruined their life and the promise of carte blanch: no law enforcement agency can touch them for using those bullets in any way they see fit. We felt like there was immense amounts of scope in that premise and a specific space where we as fans could enter the 100 Bullets universe with our own, original, cinematic narrative.
Revenge fables feel like they are tapping into both the zeitgeist and our oldest primal instincts of violence — a powerful cocktail.
Our previous short film was also a revenge film, but set in South Korea. We both seem drawn to telling revenge stories and I think it has a lot to do with this gut churning sense of injustice, of someone having been wronged so extremely that suddenly the use of a gun to murder another human being becomes morally ambiguous (as opposed to unquestionably destructive and wrong). In a world where we are constantly bombarded by how much injustice there is, revenge fables feel like they are tapping into both the zeitgeist and our oldest primal instincts of violence — a powerful cocktail. A South Korean photographer asked me to sum up 100 Bullets: Dead Ghosts in a single word. It took a while but eventually I came up with INJUSTICE. Things like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or even more recently, Making a Murderer, helped inspire and reinforce our intentions with this project. North Korea has suffered one of the worst and longest running humanitarian crises of the last few decades. It felt like a perfect combination to mix the inherent moral questioning of 100 Bullets with the real world atrocities happening in North Korea right now. It is a means to deliver a humanitarian message through the vehicle of a widely known and respected canon of work.
You’ve been working on this project for the past three years, how has the concept and your ambitions for 100 Bullets: Dead Ghosts developed over that time?
It has changed so much! This initially started out as a “quick mood piece,” around a three or four minute short that we could “bash out real quick.” Three years, three big phases of filming and a lot of post production later and we are only now nearing the finishing line. 100 Bullets: Dead Ghosts has been an experience of constantly re-evaluating exactly what it is that we are making, or at the very least learning the importance of that. We have all learnt so much as filmmakers since we first embarked on this mammoth quest in summer 2013 – so whilst we are very proud to say that we have not once had to reshoot any failed scenes, as isolated scenes everything was so strong but collectively they did not even come close in adding up to a satisfying, long form viewing experience – it was definitely more a case of needing additional time with the characters to thread a compelling, clear and understandable narrative right the way through. So you have scenes from 2013 intercut with scenes from 2014 and 2016. There has not once ever been a script of this story as a whole, only ever fragmented drafts of individual scenes here and there. And that really showed in older edits. In these last three years Matt has been shooting and editing his own feature directorial debut, a truly incredible documentary/drama about a South Korean pastor helping North Korean refugees escape through China. I am on my fifth feature screenplay. So we know and understand a lot more now than we did back then about navigating long form storytelling.
There have been many very difficult moments for us as filmmakers throughout this three year process, at different junctions in time either not knowing if it would ever get finished at all or knowing that it was not good enough as it was but also feeling emotionally and financially exhausted, fed up by the whole thing, plus the emotionally traumatic nature of the film itself took its toll — there’s only so much human suffering and pain, repeatedly watching Korean people crying and screaming you can take before it starts to burn an imprint inside of you — so we were all crawling up the walls for the project to finally be done and able to move onto other things. Some awfully hard decisions and sacrifices have had to be made along the way, but the decision was made to keep going till the bitter end and the project is so much the better for it. It has been one of the greatest challenges of our lives getting this project to where it is now. From a three minute mood film to an hour long mini feature and now finally a four part web series, we all embarked on this with no idea what it would become.
How did you approach translating the narrative and visual style of the comic into its new North Korea locale?
As part of our fundraising campaign we have actually made a series of video essays discussing exactly this!
The one thing that I will add here though is that 100 Bullets had already had a huge impact on us as filmmakers before we even had the thought of making our own fan film of it. The very first embryonic idea for If I Had a Heart was actually just to make a film about a man with his face covered in bandages, as homage to Milo Garret from 100 Bullets! (Obviously it then developed more from there) On the set of If I Had a Heart there were many times Matt and I would reference various shots as “the 100 Bullets shot!”
What invaluable knowledge did shooting If I Had a Heart beforehand bring to this project?
If I Had a Heart was shot in Seoul and 100 Bullets: Dead Ghosts was shot in England and Wales. We ripped out the furnishings of our flat in South London and turned it into a Pyongyang apartment. Went hiking in Welsh mountains to double as epic, rural North Korea. So this time our crew and collaborators were all English speaking friends from film school. Luckily the majestically bright and wonderful Herman Kim is both a great friend and has Korean parents, so Herman became a crucial collaborator with translating. With If I Had a Heart we very purposefully strayed away from any dialogue due to the language barrier, but this time we made a concentrated effort to push ourselves and write extensive scenes of dialogue. We said let’s set ourselves the challenge of a long scene of just two people sat in a room talking and figure out how to make that compelling (you see some of this scene at the end of Part One and almost all of Part Two consists of this scene). This was in March 2014 and involved four days rehearsal and then an emotionally bruising 14 hour shoot day. It was the first time Matt or I had written or directed dialogue and that it was in a language neither of us could understand made the whole thing so much more challenging. Trying to navigate that experience definitely made us both grow as filmmakers.
Very much in keeping with the visuals 100 Bullets: Dead Ghosts employs an unsettling, discordant soundtrack. How did you build the unnerving tone of the film’s sound design?
The one and only Kellen Malloy. A man exploding with artistic flare, technical amazement and an artistic intelligence to be reckoned with. Kellen also wrote the score for If I Had a Heart and the most amazing thing is that none of us have ever actually met each other. I somehow stumbled across one of Kellen’s tracks when we were editing If I Had a Heart. He lives out in LA and we either send long emails back and forth or try to Skype whenever we can. That he has worked so hard, from so far away, not earning a penny, goes to show how lucky we were to have found him. Neither of these two projects would be as good as they are were it not for Kellen’s work. He made well over an hour of powerful music for 100 Bullets: Dead Ghosts, ranging all the way from strong melodic work with core themes, all the way down to nauseatingly physical drones and abstract howls, via intricate and chaotically organised string work recorded with a string quartet that would make Clint Mansell jealous.
I do not see why any major studio should feel threatened by a fan film.
All of the above praise also goes for our Sound Designer, Kieron Wolfson who was the final missing piece in our team. We had not found a sound designer who we could gel with or who was willing to come on board such a demanding marathon of a project with our limited resources. Matt and I always think of sound a great deal when writing or developing a scene. We respect and awe its true power. So we always had ideas of what we wanted the sound to be doing from moment to moment, but Kieron always elevates it so much higher than we ever could have hoped for and always pushes it further still by adding in new ideas. His understanding of this project and what we are trying to do with it is both immense and a total godsend. Not finding Kieron until early summer 2015 was a challenge and a tundra in itself. Now that we have him on board it is hard to imagine a time when he was not in our lives.
Financially this has been a hard road for you guys. How have you managed to fund the project up to this point and how are you hoping to raise funds for the next three instalments?
It all started with self investment. Back in 2013 I had just edited a Royal Mail Christmas commercial and used every penny of that to fund the first phase of filming. Alix Milan, our beautiful human being of a Producer, also invested a big chunk of his own money to keep production going. Then the second part of filming was funded by the wonderful Agile Films. Kristian Brodie discovered us and brought us to the welcoming embrace of Myles Payne, both of whom are Executive Producers. Agile invested the money we needed to finish the film, and this last Christmas 2015 the film was about to be finished. But after time away from it we did some screenings to friends and realised it deserved to be so much better than it was, and so we started the Indiegogo campaign to fund this very – definitely (!!!) – last stretch of production. We have an ongoing fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo. We raised barely enough money to just about film the extra scenes we needed. Those are now being edited as we speak. We still need to raise just under £5,000 more for postproduction completion costs. Foley, full sound mix, new scenes to be worked on, these things all come at a cost.
Was the decision to designate 100 Bullets: Dead Ghosts as non-profit driven by recent lawsuits filed against crowdfunded fan films such as Star Trek: Axanar or Severus Snape and the Marauders? Has New Line Cinema made any contact?
Unfortunately New Line Cinema have not got in contact yet. Over the past three years we have been keeping a very keen eye on developments in the world of fan films. From Power/Rangers to most recently, Star Trek: Axanar. We did our research before starting our own project and, as we still understand it now, we should be ok so long as we don’t make any profit off our series. So no festival submissions allowed unfortunately. It was great that JJ Abrams came out in defence of the Axanar production. Ultimately, if it is a means for fans to fulfil themselves creatively, meanwhile maintaining and spreading a focus and love of that property, I do not see why any major studio should feel threatened by a fan film. We have always hoped that our decision to set our story inside of North Korea and also staying very true to the tone of the comic book would make our little web series as unthreatening as possible to New Line, and hopefully instead be seen as an exciting example of how much love is still out there for 100 Bullets and how versatile it is as a property.
Your approach of merging the 100 Bullets story with North Korea’s real world atrocities is a provocative one. Ideally, what are the conversations or actions you’d like the series to spark in viewers?
I think awareness is always the first thing. Then after that you want people to take the feelings and insight this series hopefully conjures within them and pass that on by discussing those feelings and insights, our portrayal of North Korea, the real life situation, and then doing something themselves with that energy. Be they filmmakers, musicians, journalists, activists, estate agents, whatever, to engage with the issue and create some artistic and cultural momentum around it. In the same way there was a cultural focus on Apartheid, what’s happening in North Korea right now, what’s happening to the millions of other refugees in desperate need of compassion fleeing through Europe, gun crime in America, whatever it is that is not right with this world, the art and culture of that generation always has a responsibility to breathe a subjective realism into these issues to keep them in our minds and retain their importance. It is why films about the Second World War are just as important today as they ever have been – if not more so now than ever – to remind us of history’s lessons and how to move forward.
Can we still look forward to the feature version of If I Had a Heart?
We both sat down and sketched out what we would want that to be and how we would want it to grow. The feature version was very much about family actually. The Place Beyond the Pines was a huge influence during that development. But to be honest we haven’t done anything more with it since 2013. I think we are both looking to move away from working in a foreign language, for the time being anyway. It can be too much of a brain melt directing actors in a language you do not understand on top of the constant need for documents, scripts, etc. to be translated. Then before you can even start editing you need all the rushes translated back into English and fully subtitled. It’s a worthwhile experience but can become a bit draining after so many years of it. Plus we both have so many other stories we would like to tell. There are these other five feature scripts lying around…
If you’re as eager as we are to see where The Halsall Brothers will take us in the remaining three parts of 100 Bullets: Dead Ghosts, be sure to support their Indiegogo campaign.