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Terror in the UK! Michael Axelgaard and Matthew Holt on British Horror Flick "Hollow"

Do you like scary movies? The two wicked minds behind “Hollow” spill their guts about low-budget filmmaking, English folklore, and a truly terrifying third act. Available now on VOD.

October is right around the corner, and have we got a scary movie for you… Directed by Michael Axelgaard, Hollow is a found-footage horror flick direct from the English countryside. Inspired by the real-life folklore, the film follows Emma (Emily Plumtree), who, along with her boyfriend Scott (Matt Stokoe) and their friends Lynne (Jessica Ellerby) and James (Sam Stockman), decide to holiday in the eerie village of Dunwich, where Emma grew up. Prompting their curiosity, Emma tells the group about the legend of an ominous tree that looms over her family’s property.

When Emma and her friends uncover the grisly history of the tree, they inadvertently disturb a horror that has terrorized the countryside for centuries. Written by Matthew Holt, Hollow is a worthy entry into the fresh and terrifying new wave of modern British horror.

From across the pond, we interviewed the team of Michael Axelgaard and Matthew Holt about their process in creating this terrifying found-footage ride. They divulge their research into spooky English folklore, provide tips for filmmakers on creating found-footage fare, and explain why three-dimensional characters are essential to the genre.

Matt Stokoe, Emily Plumtree and Jessica Ellerby in Hollow / Credit: Mark JamesTribeca: Hollow really took the Festival circuit by storm. What inspired you to make the film? Have you always been drawn to the found footage genre?

Michael Axelgaard: We’ve been surprised and delighted by the fantastic reaction at festivals! In our view, found footage has had a tremendous impact in cinema over the last few years and been enormously popular with audiences because it adds intimacy and immediacy, bringing a first-person dynamic to the cinematic experience. Good found footage films envelop you in their worlds and give viewers the feel of entering virtual reality.

Tribeca: While we are big fans of found footage horror, we knew that character development hasn’t always been its forte.

Matthew Holt: We wondered what would happen to the genre if we could get viewers to engage with the characters—with their hopes and fears—and try to make viewers feel like they know these people, that they could be their friends, even that they are the 5th member of the group of four. Then when scary things happen, you feel more engaged because it’s more personalized, you feel involved in the characters’ plight. That’s one of the things that inspired us: to add a slightly different dimension to a well-liked and established sub-genre.

Tribeca: The story contains many elements of English folklore, unusual content for American audiences. Was Hollow based on any particular folk story or did you integrate various folklore motifs in writing the script?

Matthew Holt: We filmed in a place called Dunwich in Suffolk, a county at the very eastern edge of England. It is flat and, in parts, desolate, full of myths and legends, many springing from medieval times when Suffolk was a major religious center. In a way, the backdrop for Hollow leapt fully formed from the ancient evils lurking in Suffolk’s lonely woods and dells.

The countryside is littered with the ruins of monasteries and churches, abandoned or destroyed at the time of the founding of the Church of England. This was a time of vicious persecution of the Catholic monks, many of whom were forced to renounce their faith or be hung, drawn, and quartered for treason.

The tree featured in the film is over 900 years old—very likely the oldest Oak in England. It is mentioned in the Doomsday book, a census ordered by King John in 1086, almost 400 years before Columbus set sail for the Americas. A living thing that witnessed so much suffering and change provides a wonderful link to the very scary past.

In this case, the monk whose story is central to the myth would have lived in around 1540. For breaking his vow of chastity, he was hung from the tree while his stomach was ripped open and his entrails were removed and burnt before him. Talk about horror…

Hollow / Credit: Mark JamesTribeca: Your cast works so well together. Did you form the groundwork for their complicated relationships during the rehearsal period? Did you allow the actors to have any input about their characters or improv the dialogue?

Michael Axelgaard: We did very little rehearsal in the normal sense of it. But we did spend time exploring the back stories of the characters and the history of their previous inter-relationships, so that each actor could understand how his or her character would be feeling coming into the weekend over which the film’s story takes place. We hoped that if they could internalize all this, then they could add their own elements to the characters to enrich them.

Improvisation was key in certain places, and it added enormously to the end of the film. In the casting process, we made sure that the actors could react rather than just mechanically follow the script, and some of the most realistic moments in the film occur when one actor says something unscripted and another actor, playing opposite, reacts in character. It’s a tribute to the skill and dedication of our actors that what we hoped might happen in terms of them honestly reacting to the story and to each other largely did.

Tribeca: Found footage is a tricky genre because the construct is so limiting in many ways. Hollow stands out, however, because you took the time to craft interesting, well-developed characters.

Michael Axelgaard: It was one of our core objectives to augment a found footage film with character development. We wanted to draw the viewers in and engage them at an emotional level that extends beyond the fight or flight reflex. In a way, the modus operandi of our ‘monster’ was getting into the characters’ heads, understanding their hopes and fears and using them to turn the characters against each other. In the same way a poltergeist might blow out a candle, our ghost subtly alters the characters’ feelings for its own ends.

Tribeca: How did you find the incredibly eerie location for Hollow? Did you have to do any scouting or did you already have the place in mind?

Matthew Holt: The genesis of the story began a number of years ago, way before the concept of making a film was dreamt about, when I went to Dunwich with friends over a New Year’s Eve. I went to the local pub to drink a couple of pints of warm beer with my mate, we got talking to the locals, and these stories came out. We went back to our rented cottage and repeated the tales to the girls in our party. In the morning, we found that none of them had slept a wink.

These stories remained with me, and re-emerged when we started our search for a story for Hollow. By the way, our choice to set the film in Dunwich was not connected to HP Lovecraft’s wonderful book of the same title, but what a great name association!

Tribeca: For all those young filmmakers/cinematographers reading this, how did you film Hollow in terms of your choice of equipment and technique? What were the challenges you faced filming a low budget project like Hollow?

Michael Axelgaard: The challenges of low-budget filmmaking are significant, but as equipment costs and post production software costs come down, and with perseverance and good preparation, some really interesting films can be made. We really encourage people to go and be creative.

In terms of equipment, we used a fairly standard low-end professional camera, and we got a really good documentary film cameraman as DP to give the film a documentary flavor. We wrote to scale and made best use of what nature could provide for us in terms of sets. Getting good actors was important.

Postproduction is probably the trickiest phase of a low-budget film. Professional postproduction is still very expensive, and even though our film is found footage and much more forgiving on finish quality than, say, a drama, it still had to be produced to a professional standard. Sound, for example, is very hard to do well and cheaply.

Matt Stokoe, Emily Plumtree and Jessica Ellerby in Hollow / Credit: Mark JamesTribeca: The film’s final act takes place mostly in a parked vehicle, and you masterfully elicit horrible claustrophobic feelings from your audience. Can you talk about the logistics of filming that sequence?

Michael Axelgaard: For that sequence we had in mind Jaws—people trapped in a vehicle with an evil monster circling outside, ready to eat them should they slip up. In the end, their refuge (in Jaws, the boat; in our film, the car) proves less strong than they might imagine. Our hope was to have people leaving the theatre getting very warily into vehicles they normally consider their safe, private bubble!

As it was such a confined space, the blocking was really difficult for that scene. The camera was mostly handled by the actors, with guidance from the DP, so careful planning was needed to get it right. We shot the scene many times to stitch together the final footage. By the time we filmed those scenes, we’d been on set for two weeks and seen dawn all days. Interestingly, we filmed in summer, and nights were very short. True darkness lasted 4 hours only, so we were always battling against time. Inevitably, our actors were frazzled and feeling on edge, which helped their performances!

Tribeca: Are you two planning on collaborating on any future projects?

Matthew Holt: We have a number of other collaborations we are looking at, mostly genre crossovers that make the best of both of our interests and skills. We have one project that is really getting us excited currently which is a contemporary sci-fi.

Hollow hits iTunes, Amazon and Cable VOD nationwide today! Find out where to watch.

Watch the trailer:

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