December sees the release of Die Farbe a fanfilm adaptation of the short story, The Colour Out of Space, by the cult early twentieth century “cosmic horror” author, H.P. Lovecraft. Produced and directed by Huan Vu, who was behind the Warhammer 40,000 film, Damnatus, Die Farbe was filmed in the Swabian-Frankonian Forest near Stuttgart and involved a cast and crew of over 40 people and cost around 27,500 euros. It is not the first fanfilm based on a H.P. Lovecraft story. Back in 2005, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society released a version of what is perhaps Lovecraft’s most famous story,The Call of Cthulhu.
The following is a transcript of an email interview that I conducted with Huan:
FAN FILM FOLLIES (through John Walliss): What inspired you to begin with this project? What drew you to the story?
HUAN VU: I loved the concept of ‘science horror’ in the story when I first read it. The very moment of realization, that it’s just a creature, and not an evil monster, really intrigued me. It’s very different to ‘normal’ horror stories and had a unique atmosphere.
In the same period of time, a colleague of ours (both my co-producer and I were interns in a visual effects studio) showed us the opening animation for the International Trickfilm Festival in Stuttgart that he had created – where strange guys in a very dark, black & white world bring tubes with glowing colours to an altar and mix it together. That brought the idea how to visualize the otherworldly and indescribable colour. Make the film black & white, which does also suit to the historic setting, and give the creature a colour.
FFF: What are the main challenges on bringing the story to life?
HV: Apart from not having much money and only a small crew and working on other jobs, to make a living, it’s the visual effects and especially the creature. We had the idea to give it a colour in a black & white world, but what does it look like? Is it a cloud? Is it fluid? Does it consist of bubbles? In the end we had to take an approach that primarily wasn’t too hard and time-expensive and which we felt confident with. I hope it won’t turn out to be a disaster. Many Lovecraft fans will debate about it, the choice of colour, the choice of physical form, but we have made our thoughts and we were limited in our resources. But that Lovecraft for you – his writings are very vague and full of adjectives, so everyone can fill in what his mind can create and even leave it blank. A film can’t be like that, you have to make choices how things look. And it can’t be too wild, it has to stay believable.
Another problem is Lovecraft’s distance to his characters, there isn’t much emotional bonding. We didn’t really change that, although there are new parts to the story. In retrospect, I wish we would have been braver to explore more inner emotions of the characters, e.g. the relationship between father and son, or husband and wife, etc.
FFF: Linked to this, I know that we have spoken before [for the interview for the article on Damnatus] about ‘sticking to the story/fluff’, how does this relate to the H.P. Lovecraft story that you based the film on?
HV: After deciding to make this film I watched The Call of Cthulhu by the HPL Historical Society and was really happy with their sticking to the story. I felt that this was the ‘right’ way, it felt ‘authentic’ as if Lovecraft would have made a film back in the 20s.
Our film isn’t exactly following the same vein. We transferred the story to Germany and the 30s/70s, whereas the original story happens in the 1890s/1930s, but that’s still ‘true’ to the core. It would have been more expensive to make a 1890s film, but it also wouldn’t have worked in my eyes. The story ends with the question if the creature is still on earth and if it can spread thanks to the reservoir dam. So it has to be in the near past to pose a threat for today.
After finishing the script I found out that an Italian splatter movie director named Ivan Zucchon was working on an adaptation as well [Colour From The Dark]. He was close to start shooting, we saw preproduction images on his website and that demotivated us. But after seeing trailers of his last films and reading reviews we switched to the opposite – it motivated us to push our own project forward. Again we had to see someone not being ‘true’ to Lovecraft’s spirit, only using his name, and since he took the splatter/gore approach, our film would still have a right to exist.
FFF: Producing a fanfilm takes a great deal of time, effort and money, what do you think it is that inspires fans such as yourself to do this?
HV: With me it’s definitely the lack of someone else doing it in the ‘right’ way. Guillermo Del Toro is adapting At the Mountains of Madness now, he will face the typical problems, and he will have to make a film for a huge audience, so it surely won’t be ‘authentic’ in every aspect – but he’s a great filmmaker, a big fan of Lovecraft, it’s his personal dream project – so there’s hope he will get it ‘right’ despite all the tradeoffs he has to make towards Hollywood. If it doesn’t turn out well, then fans will be enraged. But since ‘AtMoM’ is so difficult to turn into a fan movie because of its scale and Antarctica setting, there’s a good reason why no one has ever tried it.
Stuart Gordon is adapting The Thing on the Doorstep now and has declared to strengthen the sexual parts in the story, which is the only one of Lovecraft’s with a strong albeit evil female character. I’m not sure how Lovecraft purists will respond to that, but we will have to wait and see.
With our film it’s basically the same. There are changes to the original story and I always have to ask myself if I can justify them. Peter Jackson’s approach to The Lord of the Rings was similar – in the beginning he had to write Arwen as a warrior princess to fit into the expectations of Hollywood bosses, he had to cut out many parts of the story. But in the process he could convince the producers to stay as faithful to the original story as possible, because that’s how he felt in the first place and he knew the fans. Still there are many Tolkien purists who are not totally happy with the many changes we see in the film trilogy. Like myself – as a film maker I can understand almost all of Peter Jackson’s decisions, but as a fan of the book it still hurts if characters are depicted in a wrong way.
This difficulty – making a good film, but staying true to its origin – is what drives us, that’s what I want to hear from fellow fans. I know it won’t be a crowd-pleaser since it is not a standard horror film with fast pacing, action, violence and stuff. It’s great enough if ‘normal’ people would like it. And Lovecraft fans as well. No one has to love it. It’s walking on a tightrope and so we’re happy if no one hates it.
FFF: Speaking of which, what has been the attitude of fans to news of the film?
HV: Only positive feedback, everybody thinks that we got the atmosphere right in the teaser and trailer, the website too. So there are expectations to meet now…
FFF: Fanfilms have been around for years, but have achieved a degree of prominence in recent years (with, say, the media interest in The Hunt for Gollum). Why do you think this is and what do you think the future holds for fanfilms?
HV: I think it’s due to the possibility of digital filmmaking. The urge was always there (see those guys who recreated Indiana Jones, they started with VHS cameras) and with cheaper cameras, faster computers, young guys like us learning how to create visual effects at home, it suddenly is possible. If there’s a universe out there, and if there aren’t legal issues colliding with it ;), fans will always try to get there and tell each other new stories from that other beloved fantasy world.
But I think there’s more and more career ambition in it as well. For some fan film makers it’s only a hobby in their free time, but for some it’s really an attempt of getting a foot into the film industry. I don’t know if that will work out for me, till now no one has made the step from fan film to professional filmmaking as far as i know (those guys from Finland with Star Wreck and their new Nazis on the moon project could be the first ones, they have a reasonable budget for that). Still it’s probably better to make your own short films, totally on your own, without fan support, find your own stories of heart and your own voice of telling, win some prizes at festivals, and start a career by that traditional way. But who knows, new ways are there to be taken, and I don’t feel too restricted by making fan films, it’s a challenge, a challenge that you have to face with all adaptations of successful source material. Female fans of Twilight also would not accept unfaithful retelling of that story, with Lord of the Rings it’s the same – the bigger the project the more both genders tend to stick to the original story.
Thus I wouldn’t expect to see big fan films to take wildly creative approaches. The Hunt for Gollum is a good example for that: They perfectly copied the style of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, to the last detail, costumes, cinematography. For me, that’s a little bit too much, that’s too restricting. But probably it’s a special case with LOTR, since we have book fans and film fans mixing here. The Hunt for Gollum wants to be ‘true’ to both sources, and then you have less creative space.
I think there are two types of fan films – those who continue and expand a film/universe and those who bring a universe/story to life. Damnatus and Die Farbe are the latter. We will probably see other adaptations emerging in the future – for example if someone thinks we didn’t make justice to H.P. Lovecraft. Star Wars fan films are based on the films, they can only expand the universe, it’s already been brought to life. LOTR fan films as well. I wouldn’t say anything to be harder or more a challenge, it’s just a matter of taste and affection and personal ambition, and so we’ll probably continue to see both types in the future as long as there are films and books and games etc. which are capable of spinning off fandom.