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The Big Chill meets Are You Afraid Of The Dark? is the best way to describe English writer/director Abigail Blackmore's directorial debut, Tales from the Lodge. The portmanteau horror-comedy centers on five old friends who reunite at a remote cabin to scatter the ashes of a dearly departed pal. While there, they share scary and silly stories... and unexpectedly stumble into one of their own.
Following the Tales from the Lodge world premiere at SXSW, Blackmore sat down with SYFY FANGRRLS to share her demonic origin for this twisted horror-comedy, as well as the winding road that led to her first feature film.
"I started as an actor and just a very unsuccessful actor," Blackmore said, recounting how friends would come to her plays and commend her not so much for her performance as much as her just being there. "It was really just congratulating me for getting off my ass and doing something." But through acting, she discovered a passion for writing. "Then, I went into studying at improv," Blackmore said, "That really helped me learn about how to tell a story."
Improv led to writing sketches, then a sketch show, which she performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She wrote the short film "Blind Date," which earned an award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and scored her an agent. "That kicked off my professional writing career," Blackmore recounted. "From there, I wrote a couple of screenplays. (Tales from the Lodge) was one of them." Finally, it was a fateful trip to a pub that led to Tales from the Lodge going into production. There, a friend introduced Blackmore to Ed Barratt, a producer on the hunt for female-made projects as part of an initiative to make UK film more inclusive.
Tales from the Lodge began with one seed of a story: a wife stuck in a rut of a marriage finds new passion when a sex-crazed demon possesses her husband. "I did try and write that as a feature," Blackmore said. However, as she fiddled with that premise, she felt it worked best short, spooky, and salacious. "But I really want to make a feature. I love portmanteau style films. So, I thought I'd have a go at writing one. I had nothing to lose. I was literally just writing for myself."
This incubus tale became one of the campfire stories told by the grieving goofballs in Tales from the Lodge. From there, Blackmore tried to imagine what kind of people would gather around a campfire to hear such a story. "You expect them to be teenagers or in their 20s," Blackmore said, referring to a slew of slasher flicks set in the woods. "There's always five of them. There's always two couples and one guy who smokes weed. I don't know why that is. But so I thought, 'Well, okay, couples. Three couples, (including the weed smoker's new girlfriend) and they're all in their 40s, because I'm in my 40s, and I thought it would be really interesting to see how these people who would never be in a horror film would react."
The stories told in Tales not only give the audience insight into what scares each character but also allowed Blackmore to dip her toe into a variety of horror subgenres. "I love George Romero, so there had to be a zombie story in there," Blackmore said, before noting a night out with Kiefer Sutherland inspired a playful homage to The Lost Boys. ("Yeah, I got drunk with that man, just once.") The story-within-a-story element of the portmanteau also offered a unique opportunity to the cast.
"In the tradition of a portmanteau film or an anthology, you'll have different directors for each story," Blackmore said. "That was the original plan." But rather than casting a net for just any directors, Blackmore and Barratt decided to look for actors who'd be willing to star and helm. "There were so many brilliant actor/writer/directors, comedian/writer/directors in the UK, why don't we just get the actors to direct a story each?" she explained. The first to sign on was Mackenzie Crook, who might be best known from the British version of The Office or from Pirates of the Caribbean, but is also a BAFTA-winning director of the TV comedy The Detectorists. He was offered any tale to direct and chose that of his character, Joe. "So then we're like, 'Okay, that makes sense,'" Blackmore recalled, "Let's have each actor direct their own character's story."
From then on, signing on to Tales from the Lodge meant helming the story told by your character. Blackmore directed the overarching narrative of the friends, but when it came to shooting their stories, she described her role there as "wingman." Through vignettes that involve demons, zombies, killer clowns, and psycho slashers, Blackmore made sure everything came together into one horror-rich and hilarious tale.
Buzzed off her SXSW debut, Blackmore's looking to make another "amusing creeper" as she calls Tales from the Lodge. "It's my new genre, the amusing creeper," she teased, "Because people ask about that. Tales from the Lodge is not really a scary film. I am fascinated by how you make people scared. It's really hard. I love comedy, and I love writing comedy. I feel much more confident there. You can tell if something's funny, but it's really hard to tell if something's scary, because you can see all the workings behind it. Everyone's scared of different things. So, I want to do another that maybe is a little bit creepier than this one, but it'll still be funny."