Over the last few years Aftermath Films have been slowly curating themselves as great craftsmen of independent genre filmmaking. The creative duo at its heart, Becki Pantling and Tom Durden formed their production company way back in 2012 over a shared passion for creating ambitious and challenging work, and have been fulfilling that intention ever since. Today, Twelve Cabins is proud to present the online premiere of Off Duty, their latest creation, a slick and spooky slow-burner that follows a police officer who communicates with the dead whilst investigating a haunted warehouse. Alongside the film, Writer/Director Becki Pantling graces our pages, offering a thorough insight into the execution of their paranormal tale.
How did you derive the story of a police officer who could convene with the dead?
The idea came from having access to just the right combination of things; a police uniform, a warehouse in Basildon, and a crew of people mad enough to enjoy making horror films at the weekend with me. As a team, we had experimented already with a monstrous creation in a forest and a spooky technology-based spirit in a house, so poltergeist activity felt at the time like a great new horror challenge.
Horror is a great way to investigate moral ideas by taking them to extremes.
Once the idea of having a police officer investigating a creepy warehouse came to mind, the story quickly took shape. I think that horror is a great way to investigate moral ideas by taking them to extremes, so the concept of a police officer having access to the astral plane was a way for me to experiment with ideas of control, power, and how the idea of ‘justice’ can result in some very dark consequences.
What was the hardest part of production for you? Developing the script or working out how you would pull it off?
Because the script very much followed along with the resources we had, I did allow practicality to reign over the shoot. We only had a limited amount of time as we were filming in a working warehouse from close of business on Friday evening to early Monday morning, when the first delivery arrived.
This meant concentrating on a few key moments, picking which techniques we really wanted to play with, and learning to work well in the space that we had. For example, knowing that we would need to ‘puppet’ a chair around (which was being moved by a spirit in the story), we used the warehouse mezzanine like the top of a huge puppet theatre! We had our operator dangling the chair from ropes that hung down over the balcony rail, and by shooting ‘plates’ of the warehouse beneath, we could then mask the ropes out in post-production and achieve an effectively spooky movement. The hardest part was therefore developing the script, since I did have to reign in my imagination from time to time, in order to make sure the ideas would fit well in our location.
Could you talk about building the tension at the core of Off Duty, how did you construct that on set and in the score?
The sound and lighting were a huge part of building the tension for me. In our previous short Pulse we had noticed how much the audience responded in the section of the film with very deep shadows, so we wanted to create that ripple of tension again by having lots of shots where sections of the frame really pooled into darkness. Personally, I love that technique in horror films, and I always find myself scanning the shadows to look for whatever might be hidden there!
For the sound, we had lots of long-held notes in the score, designed to keep you tense between shots as the action slowly builds towards the release. On the astral plane, we also removed a lot of the diegetic sound from the scene, the idea being that spirits don’t make a sound when they touch something. This led to quite a nice additional tension boost – as an audience member, you may notice something seems a little off when PC Layton is walking around on the astral plane. Unlike Marie’s real-world shoes, PC Layton’s boots make no sound against the floor, and her only ‘footstep’ noise comes from a little building motif in the score.
Again, I love this kind of stuff in horror films, we’re so used to certain things being present in films that just by removing one or two a whole sequence can leave you feeling uncomfortable and build up that tension!
Unless I’m mistaken, this marks the first time you’ve acted in one of your shorts, how did that affect the other roles you had to fill?
Technically I had acted in our previous horror short, where I appeared as a vengeful ghost – but in that film my biggest challenge had been when a live mealworm made a break for it from my prosthetic eye injury and headed for my nose in the middle of a take! This time, I had a lot more to worry about on set, and it was a big challenge to juggle the performance and directing at the same time. One of the key things for me in preparation was having access to our set ahead of time and being able to walk around with my own camera, trying to mentally prepare as much as possible for how the set might be running on the day.
Taking on more roles yourself doesn’t mean you need less amazing people around you – in fact, you need them more!
I can’t stress enough how much the team put into making that shoot work, and I honestly couldn’t have done it without people I trust completely around me. I had worked with them all before and knew that they had good judgement, so when anything unexpected happened I could rely on them as outside eyes. The best advice I could give for anyone who’s thinking of doing something similar, is that taking on more roles yourself doesn’t mean you need less amazing people around you – in fact, you need them more!
What has attracted you to continuously work in the horror genre?
I think horror movies serve two particularly interesting purposes in the wider realm of cinema. One of them was best summed up by Stephen King when he compared horror to riding a roller coaster. We enjoy the thrill of it, showing that we are not afraid, while feeling the rush of a good scare.
The other is that it can be a useful lens to look at darker subjects, pushing stories to extreme allegorical places that can help us explore topics which are challenging to face. Forcing us to confront our fear of the ‘other’, question our appetites for violence, and making us pause when considering just how far a train of moral thought can go. Horror does it all, and in such inventive ways that you often don’t realise how deeply it made you think until after you’ve left the cinema. I’m only just learning to make it, and I know I have a long way to go, but I hope to craft films that make people shiver, jump, and then have a good long debate when the lights come up.
And what have you learned from these first few horror shorts that has been most impactful to your craft as a filmmaker?
Making horror films has taught me that emotion can be crafted from every part of a film. You should think about how a shadow can benefit you as much as the light, the silence as much as the music, and the empty space in your frame as much as your subject. Building tension is a skill required for almost every story on-screen, so horror is a great playground for learning how it can be done.
I’ve also found horror useful for learning how to write without using too much dialogue. As it happens, Off Duty is definitely one of the most dialogue-heavy horror shorts I’ve made, but even then there are long sections of the film that simply don’t use language at all. Horror as a genre often lends itself to scenes where characters are alone or isolated, or simply unable to speak aloud due to the tense situation unfolding. This means you quickly get disciplined into the idea of ‘show don’t tell’!
What’s next for you?
While we were working on Off Duty, we talked a lot about wanting to develop a longer version of the story, and use the short film as a proof of concept for a more extended story about a police officer who could speak with the dead. We were really pleased with the reception the film received at festivals, and felt greatly encouraged that so many people wanted to see a feature-length story.
In order to take the film to its next step, I wanted to demonstrate that a longer story would work, and re-work the concept into something that explored the moral issues in a much deeper way. I began writing it out into not just a full-length screenplay, but actually developed it into a novel. The book was released at the end of last year, and it’s been a fantastic way for me to gauge the appetite for turning this story into a feature. So far, it’s been lovely to hear from readers that they can absolutely imagine the story on-screen, and they’re excited to see if we can pull it off! In the meantime, I’m so pleased to have both this short film and the book out in the world, and I really hope audiences enjoy seeing how much the story has developed.
I’m actually planning to develop the story even further into a full series of books, while pursuing our dream of creating the longer film. So, if you’d like to see more of Off Duty, watch this space…
If you’d like to either send us your film or contribute some writing to Twelve Cabins, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for all the details.