The Neolith (2020) is sure to be unlike any short film you have seen before. Set on an unnamed island, the premise seems simple on its face: a lone individual takes a stand against a pack of bloodthirsty men. Written and directed by Liverpool-based filmmaker Daniel Boocock, the carefully crafted short is equal parts beautiful and brutal thanks to an epic scope and a set of committed performances. Boocock imbues this primal tale with a profound sense of dread and depth to explore the darkness at the center of man. The nearly wordless thirty-minute experience is a grand ambition that will linger with viewers and bodes well for a bright future. Recently, after a screening of the film, Scratch Cinema had the opportunity to speak with Boocock via Zoom to talk about the making of the film and his plans for the future.
Watch The Neolith free on Vimeo here.
Daniel Boocock: So, how do you know Chris? [Ed. Note: PR rep for The Neolith] Witchfinder or…?
Scratch Cinema: Actually, my editor just pitched the movie to us and I watched the trailer; I thought it looked really cool. And I was like, let me get on this.
DB: Simple as that.
SC: Yeah, very simple. That’s how things happen. Right? You just take that opportunity when it gets to you; it’s alchemy, sometimes.
DB: Yeah, definitely. I like that word: alchemy.
SC: I thought you might (laughs). So the first thing that struck me even just watching the trailer was the location. I know you guys did some scouting, but how did you decide? Did you know it when you saw it immediately? Because it’s just really, really striking.
DB: Yeah…I had a cousin Caleb, who was the art director on the film and he went on a little trip to Skye [Ed. Note: a Scottish Isle) and he sent me some photographs. I’ve never been at that point. And then after seeing the photographs, I decided to go up myself with Andy, the DOP (Director of Photography). And as soon as we got there, it was…I knew then. But there was still other locations I wanted to check out if you get what I mean. So we was looking there, I was looking at an area called Glen Cove as well. Still Scotland, but Glen Cove was almost too big and too brutal. The thing with Skye is, it’s got these elements of mystery that’s very resonant, but it also contains that brutal unpredictability as well. And, and locations aside, I needed a real authentic environment that could replicate the dynamics in the story. And after a couple of visits, I decided that I would do it there, but deep down from the first visits I already knew.
SC: I’m not surprised to hear that just because you get that sense immediately. I was reading about Andrew’s (DOP) notes about the weather and everything, but even with the unpredictability of it, the brutality and the beauty are such a great dichotomy. I mean, you really nailed that aspect of it and I think it had to be such an important part of “Where are we going to do this?”
DB: Yeah, and it could just turn like that (snaps fingers). So you know, it was like three seasons, four seasons sometimes, but then again that added to the appeal.
SC: Yeah, that’s what I was curious about. Did you find the having to deal with the weather changes, is that more challenging or invigorating creatively? Because I know that you guys kind of had an idea of what you wanted to do going in, but having to switch on the fly, is it kind of like “This sucks” or is it like “Hey, this is cool. It’s like jazz, baby.”
DB: For me, I really like that kind of unpredictability because life’s like that, you know? You can have your plans for anything but just like that something can happen. So anything kind of wild…just off the cuff, I was all for it. And most of the crew were. I think for some people you know, they might have been in the zone a little bit or specifically set to do something on some specific day; but if the weather Gods sort of changed the plans, then you just got to swing with it. The DOP enjoyed it and most of the cast enjoyed it and clearly, I mean, it was just so exciting. When are you going to do stuff like that again, you know what I mean? We didn’t have to answer to anybody and yet that made it fun.
SC: This was a crowdfunded project, originally, correct?
DB: Partly, yeah. And then the other bit was me, I made massive sacrifices financially. And a couple of people who were quite close to me as well who sort of knew what I was about and knew what the plans are going forward. The Neolith was like, well, that’s we’ve got to find out: whether I’m capable of doing this in a way that’s quite unique. And, listen, we have walked so many tight ropes, but we pulled it off. We more than pulled it off, I suppose looking back now. But before, I had to know, you know?
SC: Absolutely. I mean, for me, it’s a resounding yes. You pulled it off. Was this story the thing that you wanted to know if you could pull off particularly, or just something on the scale?
DB: I have no doubts about what I’m capable of creatively at all. The thing was can we handle wild logistics? Not that every project will be set in an environment like that, but the organization and the sorts of preparation that has to go into it. And like I was saying earlier, the adaptability of dealing with stuff and not panicking, even when your resources are limited. So it was just a perfect test, you know, before bigger things happen. And then like I said before we did that, we didn’t know. You know, we believed it, but that proved that we know it now.
SC: Yeah. It’s one of those things you always hear like, “I think I can handle it.” But until you’re in the shit, you don’t really know until you know. It looks — even if it wasn’t necessarily on a huge scale with huge backers — it looks like it.
DB: Yeah, but that was the whole point: big with substance. So yeah, I’m just itching to go again, really. But like I say, I think when I’m a little bit older, I’ll look back on The Neolith and realize what we done there with that.
SC: Yeah. Sometimes it’s hard to see it when you’re so close to something.
DB: Yeah. And like I say, it was all fun to me really but I think to other people, it was good for them to see what myself and the small team I have can do; when we’re given a shot that we don’t miss, you know?
SC: Absolutely. So, I understand that you cast a pretty wide net, looking for your actors. I was listening to the interview you did with Financial Times, I believe it was?
DB: Oh, yeah. It was Danny Lee, he’s one of the top critics for them. But that was me and Danny separately. He’s a good guy.
SC: Which is pretty awesome, though, still. It was an interesting conversation. Since it was such a wide net, was there something specific you were looking for, like one quality or a type of thing? Or was it just, this is the guy, this is the girl?
DB: I don’t know about you, but the amount of times I see films, and I don’t quite believe in a lot of cast members sometimes. And you can tell that…it’s not knocking them, if they’re doing well, let’s get it while it’s going. But I don’t know. For me, sometimes I can tell when it’s pretend. And I know film and creativity is a kind of magic trick and we’re pretending, but the closer you can get to making it believable and more real, then the better. And I mean, I took a few crazy chances with cast — probably chances I wouldn’t take again going forward. But with the ones that I got right, oh man. I was so impressed with those guys. Why I made it a wide net was Jak (actor Jak Corrie) is kind of the young guy out there. By putting him with a group of guys who are older than him, and from a totally different place, it makes him look more alien within that group. And the thing with Nanna (actor Nanna Lhyne) as well, who’s the female in it — you know, she’s very ethereal and natural, and she pops when she’s on screen so that was a pretty easy decision with regards to her. But the whole point was to make Jak stand out more. Not in an obvious way, it was just kinda like, you see he’s out of place. They all individually had their own sort of vibe. And I kinda like that, because you could separate them even amongst a group and when it comes together, and when it works really well, you can spot that on screen.
SC: I totally agree. I think they all have a very distinct kind of energy, or vibe like you said and I think Jak really does. He looks like he’s kind of got a Jack O’Connell almost type of vibe. Kind of rugged, like there’s a little bit of rough and tumble behind him. We don’t really see a lot of actors like that anymore these days. You know, I mean, nobody really has those experiences like people used to have like Robert Mitchum, or Bogey.
DB: I miss seeing those types of actors. Back in the day, these guys were in wars and then got into acting and now they’re all very trained. They’re all very familiar. Even if they’re good, something about it just seems too recognizable. I like people who are a little bit more unpredictable, you know, and, yeah, maybe it’s a class thing as well. I don’t know. But yeah, you are right in what you say. Very rarely you see those guys from the 60s, 70s. And yeah, Jack O’Connell I’d say is one.
SC: I think a lot of those guys are kind of relegated to like character actor roles now. Especially if they’re not pretty, maybe like John Hawkes?
DB: Yeah, he’s a top, top actor, though.
SC: He’s terrific. But in the 70s he would have been like, you know, he would have been a Robert Altman star.
DB: Yeah, he would have been! Exactly. And it’s funny you say that because I have noticed that’s so paramount in England. You know, we’re seeing less and less of these guys. I don’t know about the States, I think there’s a couple coming through a little bit, but most people sort of in the mainstream don’t really know who they are yet. It’s a sign of the times. It’s quite telling, really.
SC: In terms of your actors, how much did they want to know about what was going into their performance? Was there any backstory? Or were you kind of just leaning on them to say, here’s what the scene is, fill in your imagination. I know some people like to work with a lot of backstory, and then some people are kind of like “point me and shoot.”
DB: Well, a couple of those guys — and Nanna to a degree — but most of the guys have been through a few things in life that, you know, most people probably haven’t. But they’ve come through that and they’ve gained this self awareness from it. So knowing that about them beforehand, I kinda knew what they were about individually. So, the ones who got it, I didn’t have to say too much, you know, it’s as if they sort of knew straight away what they were about, what that character was about. I don’t really like bombarding an actor with too much instruction, I like them to find their own rhythm, if that makes sense. So I think by the time they got to Skye and then seen the environments and got into costume, a lot of the work was done. If it ever felt like they were going off track a little bit or something was too much or wasn’t good enough, I’d interject and maybe just give a few pointers. But like I say, creatively speaking, I myself don’t like being sort of told what to do. So with regards to cast, I like to see what they’re about and we can build off that and make it better. But if it works, if it’s fine, but then we go with it, you know, so there was a freedom to it.
SC: It’s interesting that you say that about the costumes and everything doing a lot of the heavy lifting, because it’s a great point. Especially as men, it’s easy to kind of hype us up and you get to play that action hero type of where you’re like I get to dress up and have blood on my face.
DB: Yeah, exactly. Jak comes from a combat background. Dan Bowie’s had a really tough life as has Jacob, so they really know what conflict is, you know? So that was like a little bonus — I think they wouldn’t say it was a bonus — but how they could use that. I suppose in a way, growth comes from it. But yeah, next time, I would probably be a little bit more rigorous beforehand with the prep because I’m in England, they’re in Denmark. But like I say with bigger projects or bigger budgets, then I suppose we would see a bit more of each other, but we done pretty well with the prep. Two-thirds of the work was done before we even got there.
SC: That’s great. I guess the way things are going it’s good practice just because you’ll probably have to keep doing prep over Zoom and things like this.
DB: Aw, I hope not!
SC: I think to your point, I’m sure they would probably feel like yeah, those experiences aren’t necessarily great, but it really does lend a sense of authenticity that you can’t fake or account for. So when you’re casting, is that important to you? Or is that just sort of happenstance that you found these guys?
DB: Well, in this case, I’d say it was probably a little bit more happenstance except with Jak because I knew about his history. So straightaway, I thought, well, that’s the kind of person I would want in this role. The others, it was a bonus. Obviously, I would see things, showreels of them. But I don’t really like looking at showreels and too much of previous work, because it can be a bit deceptive. I’d rather get face to face with them and sort them out that way and see what they’re about before too much creative talk happens. But yeah, depending on the role, I would certainly keep an open eye for any background, but it’s not necessarily a requisite.
SC: Based on your comments about the film, you had some pretty specific ideas that sort of went into it psychologically. I think there’s a lot to unpack in the film, and especially because it’s so visual, there’s a lot of little details, I think you can re-gather. So what was the push-pull there between “Here’s what I have in mind” vs “Here’s what’s on the screen in terms of — I’m not giving the actors too much creative direction, but I’m sort of keeping this vision that I have intact.”
DB: Well, everyone involved kinda knew the boundary beforehand, of sort of basically what I wanted. That being said, I would keep certain things to myself because I wanted to see if they can find their own way. Probably the guy who knew the most, who I was most in sync with, was Andy the DOP, obviously, because we’ve known each other for a while, and we were prepping a lot. And I didn’t want to talk too much to the cast about, you know, the Gnosticism or the mysticism because I didn’t want them overthinking. I was the one who would sort of keep that in mind, and I would usher them towards something that they might not have understood initially, say within a scene sometimes that they wouldn’t know about — and they probably still don’t know about now — but like I say, I myself knew and probably Andy knew a little bit as well. And we’d kind of, not manipulate, but usher them towards those things. Because when you talk about a lot of that stuff, I think it goes over most people’s heads, but I think even if they don’t quite understand it, like you say, looking at the film, you can kind of sense there’s something else going on under the surface and that’s what those things are ultimately. I knew what I was doing on Skye, but I can sort of see clearly a lot more when I sat down to cut it and put those things in. I will manipulate the visuals on the take itself to kind of hint at a certain meaning, but in the edits, I would focus a little bit more on those hidden themes but not make it too enigmatic to the point where you don’t sense what’s going on. And the whole point was to leave it a little bit open for you to decide for whatever you choose as and when you see it — or not.
SC: That was gonna be my next question. Is it open to interpretation? You’re looking for some ambiguity, like what does this mean to you?
DB: Yes. Like what it means to me, it might not necessarily mean to someone else. It doesn’t mean that I’m right, and they’re wrong. Because people can see things differently. But don’t get me wrong, there is an underlying sort of hint as to what certain things are in it. And like I say, the more you may hear me talk about the influences or stumble across those things yourself, then you will connect the dots a bit more. But I think the best filmmakers throughout the ages always left a little bit in there that was a little bit ambiguous.
SC: I agree. I think that’s kind of the beauty of it, to not explain things to people. And it’s interesting, because it sounds like there was a bit of symbiosis between you and the actors. You really take advantage of the sound design and the howling and the growling and all the adjectives that you could throw out. When the horde is kind of pulling up, and there’s that just synth electronic, ominous, almost like a John Carpenter [score]. That was when I was like, okay this is cool. It was just a really great design.
DB: Yeah, but the whole point is not dialogue because I’m a big fan of communication without words to a degree, especially face to face. I think there’s a quote from psychology — you’ve probably heard me say before on the interview with Danny — 90 or 95% of what you say isn’t necessarily coming out your mouth. And you see that a lot in combat. That’s where it’s probably more noticeable. You know, before two boxers have gone head to head just before things are gonna happen. And it’s like, whoa here we go. Just in a day-to-day situation, you can sense those kinds of things from people. Phil (Hartley) the sound recordist was very talented, and he was super creative. So I was thrilled with him for the whole shoot. But Sam (Auguste) the sound designer, as well, I would argue is probably one of the top sound designers in Britain. He just sort of happens to be away from the whole London scene. But he’s worked on all the Harry Potters. He’s worked on some of the, you know, massive, massive projects. So he’s a pro, but he’s a good guy as well. He’s a film fan and he cares, you know, and he’s willing. For The Neolith, Phil would get quite a lot of atmospheric noise, and me and Sam would sit down and I would let him do his thing because, and I know how good he is and how creative is — not just because of his experience, but like he’s a film fan, you know? So he knows cues. He knows what to do. He knows so much. One funny thing is, it’s so difficult to sort of describe sounds sometimes you know, when you’re creating that sound. So we’d have our own stupid little language where we’d be like making noises to try and get a sound sounding correct. But yeah, it was a big thing to be, not necessarily reliant on it, but it would be more important than what it might be in another project because of the lack of dialogue. So with Phil, Phil and then Sam’s obvious source of talents…I knew that I was in good hands there. And I was so pleased with it by the end.
SC: You all really did a great job. I would think being a film fan as a crew member is important because I think it’s like the old Stephen King, “If you want to write books, you got to read books.”
DB: 100%. I always thought I want to be creative with people who are film fans, you know, because if you’re a fan, I think there’ll be more passion. So it’s a source of what you’re doing. So I would say it was important, personally, and it makes a difference, too, because, listen, we’re all film fans. I think most people get into film because they are fans initially. Whether they stay fans, I mean, I don’t know. But it’s good when you hear people like yourself or whoever or family members, who are film fans. And it’s the way it should be to be honest, rather than just “Now let’s do it, and that’s that.”
SC: Absolutely. There are jobs and then there are passions. And if you can make something out of — if you can make one out of both of those things, that’s great. To me movies…you know, I do my real job so I can watch movies. Was there a lightning rod where you were like, holy shit, I have to go make movies, this is what my calling is?
DB: I suppose it was like what I said a little bit, you know about picking Skye as a location. Since I was very small, I always probably knew that I was going to go for making it before I fully decided. My parents were very encouraging creatively, you know, they’re always sort of like, reading stories to me when I was very small and taking me to the pictures and stuff like that. But I’d say mostly where the lightning bolt started hitting young was my grandparents, because they wouldn’t let me watch — they would let me watch, sorry — films like that Das Boot (1981) and The Wild Bunch (1969) and Aliens (1986). [I was] only like nine or something like that. Like, you know, there was reading a book or hearing a story in school, or off your parents or whatever, when you really little, and then there was this, you know, and this was like, wow, this is like the stories come to life. When I got to about 14-15 I remember seeing American History X (1999) and then a couple others, and I thought, “Oh, you know, people make these!” That’s when I said, okay, even though the odds are against me, I thought, well, I’m gonna go for it.
SC: Well, I gotta tell you I think this is a hell of a calling card. What do you want to do next? Do you want to keep making shorts? Are you hoping to make the leap to features at some point?
DB: There’s so many things I would like to do next. Though ultimately, Dan, unfortunately, it will probably be a case of what’s there financially to do what I may want to do. Because there are ideas that will cost multi-million pounds, but I know straight off the bat that’s not happening now. You know, it’s going to be a gradual growing process. The next thing that will happen will be what’s cheapest to do probably. But I’m all for upping the stakes once again. So there’s about five projects I have sort of out there to propose to people, but I think realistically two out of five would be the goal. One is very similar to The Neolith about [an English Knight] Sir John Seagrave, but it’s kind of a really intense, minimal piece. And the other one would be, well, ideally, I’d like it to be a TV series. That would be about specialist and response officers who discover something sort of accidentally, but it kind of makes themselves targets for an enigmatic foreign crime syndicate. I mean, I’ll be more than happy to do both. Whatever I can get the nod for.
SC: We see a lot of directors now who come from an indie background. They go from their movie they shot for $50,000, to handing the keys to the next huge franchise. Would you be comfortable making that leap to multi-millions? Or do you kind of want to exist in this space where you’re like, “I have enough money to make what I want to make, and I have the control to make what I want to make?”
DB: Listen, I’ll always want to up the stakes on whatever I do. The Neolith was a big jump for shorts, because I think you can’t really — can you call it a short? I suppose you can, but when you see it, it feels like it’s something a bit more. The whole thing with The Neolith was to kinda turn that on its head in a way that was sort of unique to myself as a creator going forward. I do think I would like to sort of make a jump in terms of what you see on screen and probably the finances towards it. I love American cinema personally. That’s what I grew up with. Don’t get me wrong, I like certain cinema from all over the world, but mostly that U.S. kind of cinema is what I grew up on and it’s what I want to make. It’s where I see myself in the future. You know, at that level, I love people like Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Lean from back in the day, Sergio Leone. So that’s where I’d like to see myself. If I can be more respected as my own sort of individual filmmaker before whoever comes calling then maybe that’ll give me a bit more muscles to flex what I would prefer to do.
SC: The old Soderbergh; one for them, one for me. I think this film has a very strong sense of identity that feels unique to you. I’m happy to kind of keep pushing the film on our side as much as we can. I’m really looking forward to whatever you do next. And this has been really great talking to you. I really appreciate the time.
DB: Well, I appreciate it. Like you say, we’re fans at the end of the day. We make the stuff we want to see and our people can connect and that’s a good thing, especially in this day and age, and that’s what’s so cool about the internet. Whatever I do next, I’ll send to Chris or yourself.
SC: Please do! It was a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to talking to you again in the future, brother.
DB: Nice one, Dan. I’ll speak to you, soon.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.