spacer
The Vacuum Issue 1 spacer Issue 1
Famous Monsters of Film
The Spence Brothers speak to John Mathews
spacer
John Mathews: I understand you first started making films with a strong science fiction and horror basis in and around your home town.
spacer
Roy Spence: Well it all began in the early sixties working in standard 8mm and 16mm and old audiotapes. Mainly horror, science fiction and turn of the century frock coat films. We liked costume piece stuff because we were influenced by the films we were seeing in the cinemas at the time. Italian stuff, things like 'Black Sunday', 'Crypt of Horror'. We were also influenced by German expressionist film, then we moved up or down, depending on whatever way you want to look at it to the American drive-in movies. The Roger Corman style, which we got enchanted by, the teenage scene of 'I was a Teenage Werewolf' and 'The Blob'. Some of the films we began to make were not so much copies of but tributes to them. We did are own version of 'The Blob' called 'Keep Watching the Skies', which features a drive in movie sequence filmed locally but supposedly set in America with U.S, left hand drive cars, a big rock and roll dance sequence, a sheriff and his car, teenagers, American style phone booths. The whole thing was based on Americana really.
spacer
The Spence Brothers
spacer
J.M. That's an interesting contrast to use Northern Ireland people and locations to try and recreate all these notions of glamour and exotic far away American culture.
spacer
Noel Spence: We used local people and actors, anybody who could jive, especially for the rock and roll sequences. We did quite well with that and got number one in a big worldwide competition at the time called 'The Ten Best', which was organised by the National Film Theatre in London. It was a big influence to win 'The Ten Best' and we won quite a lot of them.
spacer
Roy: It was quite prestigious, you had guests like Jimmy Stewart presenting the trophies, Glenda Jackson, Jenny Agiter, Joan Collins, we met all those people in the late 60s and early 70s. It sounds awful boastful but its just a fact, it was a world-wide competition with over 500 entries. We got ten 'Ten Best' out of that and three of those were number ones.
spacer
J.M. You were working under very tight budgets.
spacer
Noel: The one thing that characterises our films is that it's low budget and if I say we've made our name that way, it's not being pretentious, we had practically no budget at all and you made your film by innovation and making do.
spacer
J.M. How did you develop all these special effects in the first place?
spacer
Roy: When we were working there were no courses or anything like that, you just had to do it yourself. We made films because we wanted to make them, not because there was any courses, degrees or grants, we just wanted to make films. We experimented, whatever worked we remembered and if it didn't we forgot about it.
spacer
Noel: It's such a different scene now especially equipment wise because people can just go to a shop and buy a camera which is going to give you perfect pictures and lip sync. When we were shooting films there was no connection between the camera and the tape recorder, so you had to devise all these ingenious methods to try and get the lip movement matching the sound. It was good to have that grounding, film was so expensive back then I would even drive miles to avoid a slice, editing in camera all the time, doing everything that shouldn't be done. We always found poverty was a great discipline.
spacer
J.M. What drew you to making science fiction films in the first place?
spacer
Roy: That was always our interest, there was a magazine that came out called 'Famous Monsters of Film' in 1958 which was devoted entirely to horror film and that was our bible and we bought it every month, even the photographs were a great inspiration. There wasn't the same range of T.V programmes back then, they only showed the odd film, no video recorders to tape them, so we used to record the soundtracks and listen to that.
spacer
Noel: What had a big effect on us at the time was the Quatermass series on T.V., which got us really interested in sci-fi. You're talking about amateur films, we prefer to call them independent films but the word amateur is right in so far as nobody is getting paid for it. So you can't argue or boss them about. Everything is rushed, they wouldn't be given copies of the script till they got to the location. People get a line to learn and two minutes after learning it they were being filmed delivering the line with only one shot at it.
spacer
Roy: Even though now we maybe have more money or equipment we tend to work the same way, we still do everything in a rush, panicking, looking up to see if its going to rain.
spacer
Noel: We do workshops in places like the Nerve Centre in Derry and in two days we take a group of people who know nothing about film at all and we introduce them to the basics of film making. We hammer a script together on the first day and on the second we film it. So in two days you end up with a finished ten to fifteen minute film, from complete beginners, which are really good even though we say so ourselves.
spacer
Roy: I would go so far as to say that's where our strength lies, working with actors and getting the best out of them.
spacer
J.M. Why did you built your own cinemas?
spacer
Noel: Cinema was always in the blood, something we have always wanted. When we were youngsters we had a cinema at home in our bedrooms.
spacer
Roy: When you say cinemas, we had a projector and a white ceiling with curtains on the wall. I suppose when we got our own houses and got married the next step was to build our own cinemas. They weren't built as a distribution point. We were making films and we had somewhere to show them, one was not dependent on the other.
spacer
J.M. What sort of audience would you attract to your venues?
spacer
Noel: The cinemas we have built are strictly private, a lot of the shows I do are for people who like old films because there's no use trying to show contemporary films, if you want to see a contemporary film you go to contemporary setting. We would show films that have a nostalgic value. Our cinemas have a strong 1950s feel to them. I suppose its nice for people to watch 50s films in a 50s style cinema, especially if they saw the film originally.
spacer
Roy: Another string to our bow, apart from building our own cinemas, we've built cinemas for other people. We get a great buzz out of that, converting an old garage, shed, cellar or roof space and converting it into a plush little cinema
spacer
Noel: We have a whole stock of original cinema fittings, red velvet tip up seats and we would tear the seats down, trying to recreate the ambience of a real cinema.
J.M. You mentioned earlier about taking your films to international competitions in London. What were people's reaction to these strange sci-fi films and horror films made out in the backwoods of Co. Down, a place not normally associated with horror movies?
spacer
Roy: Northern Ireland at that time had a very strong reputation, apart from us there was filmmakers from Ballyclare, Belfast, Terry Mc Donald up in Derry, quite a few people from here. One of the theories, which I didn't subscribe to, was that Northern Ireland didn't and still doesn't have its own native film industry: the people hadn't an outlet for making films so they turned to making their own. That was a popular notion of why so much good stuff came out of N.Ireland.
spacer
Noel: The Northern Ireland Film Commission has since been formed and there's an active film production scene in N. Ireland now. But this was pre N.I.F.C and there simply wasn't anything, it was all amateur.
spacer
Roy: I think there was hardly a year were there wasn't at least one in the 'Ten Best' from N.Ireland. We had a very strong reputation.
spacer
Noel: There was a lot of inter club competition from cine and film clubs
spacer
J.M. There must be a world of difference with all the funding bodies now, there were none?
spacer
Noel: You did it entirely on your own, funded, wrote the script, everything. When I started I did cameraman, lights, sound, wrote the songs, a whole one-man show. I suppose it was a bit of an ego trip in some ways but I didn't look at it like that, I looked at it like if I didn't do it, it wouldn't be done, it was out of sheer necessity. You begged costumes from drama societies and if you happened to know someone who owned a pub you wrote a scene into your film so you could shoot inside it.
spacer
spacer
Roy: Or somebody who had a big American car, you would work that car into your film, you made use of what you had. When you read now what Ed Wood or Roger Corman did, it had an awful lot of parallels with what we were doing, purely inadvertently. We were begging things and doing all sorts of scams to get stuff, trying to get as much for as little as possible and exploit people as much as we could.
spacer
J.M. You seem to have a strong musical influence within your films, trying to incorporate song and dance numbers at some point within them?
spacer
Roy: We put a lot of Rock and Roll and Do Wop into it and all the films we make now, we try and incorporate a Do Wop song at the beginning or end or else playing in the background. A trademark almost, if there is a hotel scene, there's a Do Wop number in the background. The early 50s films we made always had a rock and roll scene in them, teenagers with Jive sequences.
spacer
Noel: Some of the teenagers were a bit iffy.
spacer
Roy: Some of the teenagers were pushing forty, you disguised them as best you could. In 'Keep Watching The Skies' there was a big rock and roll sequence and a lot of them were losing their hair a bit, so the answer to that was I made all these motorcycle hats. If they arrived and were balding a bit they got the cap put on. If they still had hair we gave them two big wacks of bryl cream down the side, the sensitive director would say those with bryl-creamed hair get to the front and those with hats get to the back, it was great fun.
spacer
J.M. Do you see yourselves working as outlaw film makers working very much outside of the establishment and accepted approaches to film making?
spacer
Noel: I suppose we are mavericks in that respect but it really does please us when someone we have worked with starts do well. Enda Hughes is a very good film director, you might remember he did 'Flying Saucer, Rock and Roll' which we did the special effects for. Enda has gone on and is now a very promising and successful young director and we would like to think we had some part in setting him on that road. Paul Walsh was another guy who we did a course in Armagh with and he was doing camera work and now he's a trainee cameraman in London.
spacer
Roy: I tell you what were not good at and that's paperwork: marketing, chasing grants, chasing money. I'd rather be out there and doing the thing, just enjoy doing it; we can't be bothered with all that. When you ask are we outside the system, we are because were not patient enough to get involved in it. I'd say in our whole careers we've never got a grant for anything, we only got a couple of small grants from the Arts Council in the early days.
spacer
Noel: The sort of stuff were doing is not the sort of stuff they're looking for, they're looking for avant garde stuff, we like beginnings, middles and ends in our films. What we're doing is really a scaled down version of commercial cinema. Without wanting to denigrate anyone, there have been film schemes, which have been around a few years in N.Ireland. Most of the films that have come about as a result of these schemes are a total waste of money, absolute rubbish and they get fairly substantial budgets of £15 - £20,000. More money than we ever thought possible.
spacer
J.M. It's very encouraging and refreshing to see people making films purely out of a desire to just get out there and do it no matter what.
spacer
Roy: We went to an exhibition one time in the Golden Thread called the 'Belfast Independent Film Festival' run by Verity Peake. Two weeks before Premier ran their awards at the Waterfront with films whose budget was £20,000 each, and the B.I.F.F festival showed films made by people who had £20 or £30, just for the hell of it, no other reason. I know which one I enjoyed more, they handed round slices of pizza and bottles of beer, people had old videos and all sorts of gear to show it on, Hi 8 video, real low budget stuff but really inventive. I came away that night feeling really refreshed. As you say making films just for the sheer fun of doing it, not because were getting a grant.
spacer
J.M. You have obviously been involved in film for a number of decades, so what is your opinion of the state of local cinema and films in N.Ireland at the present time?
spacer
Roy: People say there's a great deal of talent here, I don't know if it's a generation thing but I don't see it. It sounds terribly conceited but I think there is more acting talent.
spacer
J.M. Apart from you workshops what film work are you engaged in at the moment?
spacer
Noel: Were making a documentary called 'Comber Bypass', we do promotion and training stuff. Were not really in all honesty doing fictional films outside of the workshops, simply because nobody wants to watch them now.
spacer
The Spence Brothers
spacer
Roy: In the early days we could have run a film show in a hall down in Bangor and it would be packed, you try that now and you'd be lucky to get half a dozen. Even if you gave them free tickets and transport, they'd rather have a karaoke night or go to the pub. We thought when video came out and the technology became a lot easier that there'd be an absolute deluge of films but the opposite has happened. When the technology was difficult and making films was hard, people were making stuff; it was part of the challenge almost. When we look at a lot of the films now, you wonder how on earth you did it. We would film at night with electric cable stretched across fields and the rain would come on and lights would blow, we used to kill thousands of moths burning off the lights at night. If the lamps blew, then that was your budget gone, £18 for a new bulb, the whole film cost less than £18. We would build our own sets as well, I had a studio which is the cinema now, we built an American café, an old Irish cottage and we built a whole graveyard in it once, making the gravestones out of polystyrene. You can see this on the training video we made, 'No Budget Special Effects'.
spacer
J.M. So why did you build a cinema each?
spacer
Noel: Well mine's called the 'Tudor', named after a cinema in Bangor when I was at school in the 50s. I saw 'Beast of Hollow Mountain', 'Pharaoh's Curse', 'Return of the Vampire', I said if I ever had a cinema of my own I'd call it the 'Tudor'. The 'Tudor' in Bangor closed in 1962, when I opened my own cinema in 1974 the first film I showed was 'Them', with the big giant ants, it's a great film. I wanted a cinema as I thought if I was going to watch films I'd show them in the proper location, instead of people watching T.V and carrying cups of tea past you or people putting coal on the fire and all that carry on during a film. It's a sixty-six seater specialising in B-Movies of the 50s and I'll let you guess what sort of music plays in the intermission. When we were very young one of the first films we saw was about 1950 and it was 'Abbot and Costello and Jack and the Beanstalk'. Our mother took us to the Ritz in the city centre and it really made a big impact on us. Then the sci-fi and monster movies came along in the mid 50s with 'Tarantula', 'It came from Outerspace' and 'Creature from the Black Lagoon'. Those films got a hold on you and never let go, the hold they had on us then we still haven't lost.
spacer
The Spence Brothers
spacer
spacer
home | information | issues | artists & writers | columns | reviews
spacer