Prolific British author and screenwriter Paul Finch (1964-) comes from a family where writing was the norm as his father was television scriptwriter Brian Finch (1936-2007) who for many years wrote for the British soap opera Coronation Street among others. Paul has reportedly written over 300 short stories which have appeared in countless publications and dozens of novels. He started his career with the Greater Manchester Police for whom he served until 1988. He also worked as a journalist and became a full-time writer in 1998. He has written Dr Who stories, children’s animation, titles for Abaddon Books, as well as the ‘Heck’ series of novels about a member of New Scotland Yard. The list goes on… He did script doctoring on the movie Spirit Trap (2005) and combined his talents with Paul Campion to write the love it or hate it cult movie The Devil’s Rock (2011).
Scriptwriting, or writing in general, appears to run in the family… Were you introduced to the typewriter early on… pre-PC?
Without a doubt. I was ratta-tat-tatting on my Dad’s keyboard long before we had Word Processing or anything like that. On top of that, realising that it was going to be essential to me later, I signed on for a typing course when I was still doing my A-levels. I was the only male in the class, and even the lady who was running the course was amazed to see me there. That shows how times have now changed, but it paid off. It meant that I could touch-type at full speed before I even joined the police. So yes, all those nights as a child spent listening to my Dad rattling away in our dining room, which back in those early days he used as his office, was a lesson not lost on me.
Were you a reader of horror as a teenager and did you write any horror stories as a youth or teenager?
I certainly did. Every opportunity I got. On one occasion, I got into trouble at primary school. We’d all been taken to visit UpHolland College, which was a Catholic seminary in our local area set in beautiful grounds and comprising a number of fine old antique buildings. Afterwards, we had to write an account of our trip there, but I found that boring and so wrote a story about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde instead. Rather dumbly, I then handed it in to my teacher; I think they were bemused rather than angry, but I still got a clip round the ear. But mostly it was a happy experience. My Dad was hugely encouraging. In my earliest days, my bedtime stories would be things like Beowulf and Grendel or Perseus the gorgon-slayer, and subsequently I could never wait to have a go at writing stuff of my own. In 1977, I wrote my own comic called The Further Adventures of Jason and the Argonauts. My dad sent it to Screentest, which was a kids’ TV show about films that was on at the time. The producer passed it to Ray Harryhausen, who invited me down to his flat/studio in Kensington, where I got to handle some of my favourite movie monsters for real. So it often worked out well even in those early days.
Did you ever have an interest in horror movies? Where did you stand on the video nasty debate in Britain back in the 1980s?
Always been a massive horror film fan. The first one I ever saw was The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Cushing and Lee. I was about six, and it utterly terrified me but in a good way. I suspect I was hooked from that moment. Of course, growing up in Britain in the 60s and 70s, you were never far from horror movies. We had Appointment With Fear on Monday nights, and the Friday and Saturday late-night horror double-bills. When I was very young, I used to have to sneak downstairs and watch them through the open door to our living room, as my Dad would usually be asleep in the armchair and the telly playing away to itself. Later on, I’d be the only one up and made sure I never missed a single film. Regarding the video nasties, I have mixed feelings. I was a copper in the 1980s and for part of that time it was actually illegal for video stores to stock films on that list, so sometimes I was sent into shops to confiscate tapes and report the owners. I never liked doing that, though a lot of those guys were conmen who were selling second or third generation material anyway and ripping their customers off. In terms of the wider debate, I don’t think the video nasties did horror any good as a genre. Mostly it was just cheap rubbish rather than anything really disgusting – I watched Driller Killer again recently, and was surprised at how tame it seemed by modern standards – but the fuss made in the press made this stuff sound like the worst thing ever, creating a fog of disdain around horror, which lingers even today. The other problem was that a lot of genuinely good movies, like The Exorcist and Straw Dogs, were on that list as well, and lumping them together with all the cannibal rubbish, even temporarily, was ludicrous in my view.
How did you meet and become friendly with Paul Campion?
If memory serves – and I can’t be specific because it’s nearly 20 years ago now – Paul had just finished working on Lord of the Rings and was looking to get his own feature underway. He approached Blake Friedmann, the literary agents representing me, enquiring about writers interested in writing horror screenplays. I had something on the go, on spec, called Voodoo Dawn, which, as zombies were all the rage at the time, was a kind of gruesome horror comedy about the undead running wild in South London. Paul really liked what he called its ‘Reanimator-vibe’, we met up and got on very well, subsequently developing a number of film ideas together before we finally struck gold with The Devil’s Rock.
How did the script of The Devil’s Rock develop? Was it all Paul Campion’s idea? Or did it begin from some kernel from one of you?
Again, it’s vague now, so much time having passed. I’m pretty sure it was Paul who came up with the ‘black book’ idea and he was particularly keen on setting something in the WWII-era Channel Islands as he’d found out how to get access to Wright’s Hill Fortress in New Zealand, which was an original wartime bunker. It had first been built to withstand a possible Japanese invasion, but it was perfectly preserved and wouldn’t have taken much to ‘Nazify’ it so that we could set the film in Europe. I think I came up with the shapeshifting demon – I remember researching an evil spirit that always appeared to you as the love of your life, whether alive or dead, which seemed like a tremendously useable idea for a horror film – and we probably thrashed out the storyline together.
And how was the writing process with Campion? Do you like to collaborate? It seems to me to be a difficult way of creating something… Or is a script easier to collaborate on than a book?
I never co-write with anyone. It would be unbearable having to share a written page with another writer. The way it works with Paul – and it’s always worked seamlessly – is that we talk beforehand, exchanging pages of notes etc until we’re happy that we know what we’re doing, and then I go off and write the first draft. Paul will send his thoughts back, and we go again until we’ve got it right. Usually, if there’s only me and Paul involved – because we always seem to be on the same page – it takes three or four drafts and then we’re happy. It’s only when other people start getting involved that the rewrites tend to go on and on ad infinitum.
Were you aware of the sub-genre of Nazi occult or supernatural? You’d probably seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. How about the low budgeter Shock Waves (1977)?
I think I first became aware of it when reading James Herbert’s The Spear in the late 70s, or maybe even earlier. I remember a Dennis Wheatley novel; think it was called They Used Dark Forces, and that was full of Nazi diabolists. I don’t remember Shock Waves very well … though I do remember something that sounds similar called Zombie Lake. But by the time Raiders came along, I was very well aware of the subgenre.
Was it deliberate to make the atmosphere of The Devil’s Rock almost like going to the theatre? If so, it is definitely Grand Guignol!
The limitations of space, budget and cast inevitably mean that, if you’re going to make an 86-minute movie, it’s going to rely on dialogue a bit more than a visual medium like film would normally. I don’t personally find that a problem, though I know that some folk do. So, yes … several people have commented that The Devil’s Rock is like watching a stage-play on screen. That said, we didn’t pad it. Lots of dialogue was still cut from the final draft before shooting, leaving us with just the essentials to establish time, place and character, and to keep the story moving. The high-level gore factor would certainly have put it in the Grand Guignol bracket, I agree. But you know, this was war, and war is Hell.
The Devil’s Rock is a cult movie to me because it makes the most of its location and a small cast and uses a subject that could be exploitative… Yet, it’s not really a Nazi exploitation movie… it’s a purer type of horror which uses human frailty for manipulation of its characters and audience… Am I making any sense? What do you think are the movie’s drawcards in terms of the cult experience?
I think the quality of the production, which Paul maintained despite the low budget, makes it a stand-out piece of work … which often surprises people who see it for the first time, especially if they’re aware that it wasn’t widely distributed on the cinema. It doesn’t look even remotely like a cheapie, which has always led to positive gossip online, which might have created cult interest in the film. I also like to think that we transgress a few of the traditional boundaries of horror. The Devil’s Rock is a typical story of good v evil, but there are shades of grey too. Some evils are seen as lesser than others; both the demon and the Nazi try to play this game to win Grogan’s support, which gives him several moral dilemmas to deal with. We also examine the subject of loss, Grogan volunteering for multiple suicide missions after his wife’s death, fighting the war on and on with no expectation of surviving, unaffected by fear because he no longer cares, and yet when confronted by that darker darkness of the infernal, and realising that there are some things worse than death, at last able to focus again. Whether these subtexts help us categorise The Devil’s Rock as a cult film, I’m not sure, but I like to think they raise it above the common herd.
If you were tempted to write another screenplay…. Would you do horror again?
I’ve already got several horror scripts that I’ve written on spec, in the drawer, while a couple are under option with different producers. My main craft these days, though, is novel-writing. My thriller novels sell very well and keep me occupied a lot of the time (and have actually been described in reviews as ‘very cinematic’). But if I ever get a great idea for a flick, then sure, I will sketch it out quickly. The problem with the movies, as you no doubt know, is not the writing – it’s finding someone who will then pay you for it. So, it’s not the kind of thing I can do all the time. But to answer your question, yes, I’d do horror again. My preferred field is what I always call ‘dark fiction’, which means crime, thrillers, sci-fi and horror.
And you’re probably always asked this… What is your writing discipline? Is it a certain time and place? Coffee and cigarettes?
I’ve been a full-time writer since 1998, and it’s never really changed. I like to do nine-till-five weekdays, but it doesn’t always pan out like that. Sometimes I have to put in extra time in the evenings and at weekends. Sometimes, depending on deadline, I have to go all night. Other occasions, if one project is a priority, that doesn’t mean that other projects don’t need work too, so more extra time is required. One thing I do very differently from others, though, is that I tend to dictate my first drafts. I use a Dictaphone and do it while I’m out walking my dogs. That way I can try to keep my weight down and write both at the same time, and my dogs are in good shape too given how long we are sometimes out for. I still need to type it all up afterwards; no app would be able to make sense of my spoken-word garble. But once I’ve bashed it all in, I always feel as if I’ve broken the physical back of the job, and my second draft is about refinement. To make this second stage even more enjoyable and effective, I play mood music in the background. I have a number of playlists depending on whatever type of project is in hand. Thus far, it’s worked very well.
For an interview with The Devil’s Rock director Paul Campion PRESS HERE
PRESS HERE for the original article on The Devil’s Rock