Lessons from the making of ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ (2021)

As a leading scriptwriter for hire and UK script consultant in the last few years I’ve started a side career as a director of low budget horror films.  My second feature film as a director ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is due for online and DVD release in a few days, and I thought I’d write a quick blogpost on how we managed to shoot a full feature film for less than £2k – during lockdown two in the UK.

The film is based on one of horror author H.P. Lovecraft’s most celebrated short stories.  The story is so old there are no copyright issues, and I put together a script which took into account our meagre resources. The story helped us in that it’s pretty self contained (with a small cast of characters). That’s lesson number 1. Limit your characters, and your locations.

At the Mountains of Madness’ is the second feature film in a trilogy of films we’re making based on stories by Lovecraft – the first film Markham was released in 2020, and that set a kind of template style which was down and dirty and shot in Black and White.  Black and white not only looks glorious, it also covers a multitude of sins in the lighting, special effects and the grading. That’s lesson number two – pick a visual style that suits not just your film, but your budget too.  

As well, as the low budget, the film was also shot during the second Covid19 Lockdown in the UK – now, the pandemic has brought up all kinds of rules to protect cast and crew when making film and TV shows. But, when we made ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ we also utilised all the things that modern tech can bring – actor Tony Coughlan’s entire performance was recorded remotely, and the limitations of this method were written into the script. So, that’s lesson number 3 – use new tech, to solve production issues.

So, we wrote a script that matched our budget, we picked a visual style that matched our budget, we limited locations and cast to match our budget and we used modern tech to get around production issues. This approach meant we could shoot a decent, well made, nice looking and effective feature length film for less than £2,000.

In the film business, as it exists today, there are three type of film:

  • Tentpole/Franchise films – these are Marvel, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Fast and Furious, Transformers – booted and rebooted, with whole worlds open to explore and exploit.  These films are made with big budgets and are designed for cinema release.  These films have in-built audiences in the USA, Europe, Asia – and most of all CHINA, where they make the majority of their money back. Scorsese famously isn’t a fan (I’m not either) but these films are keeping cinemas open, and studios in business.
  • Mid-budgetoriginal films, drama, comedy, thriller, recognizable stars -these films are ALL studios used to make. And…. these films are dying theatrically, and are more likely to end up as ‘content’ on Netflix or Amazon – often some of these films are Oscar Winners or make up for what me, you and Mr Scorsese see as ‘real films’. These are original films (no franchise), but they can struggle for an audience (especially without star names) Some of these mid-budget films might be better as TV shows than one off films. In today’s world ‘Fargo’ is a TV series rather than an Oscar winning film. The budgets of these films can be less than a million up to $80 million – but they’re struggling – Franchise films have all but killed these off.
  • Low or Micro budget films. These films, usually made for less than $1million – right down to the budgets I’m working on of a couple of thousand pounds. These are the only area of the current film business where growth is actually possible. These films, if you hit the right note can be break out successes (Paranormal Activity / Monsters / Nomad Land).  Low or micro budget means a quick turn of profit and massive profits if the film breaks out. Makers often don’t need ‘stars’ or name actors – they just need a killer premise.  These films, if well enough made, can also act as stepping stones to bigger budgets.

So, while super talented Hollywood big shot, Guillermo del Toro wants to make his version of At the Mountains of Madness’, with a $100 million dollar price tag – our version at £2,000 is already a lot closer to profit than his.   Here endeth the lesson.

Watch At The Mountains of Madness (2021) Online | Vimeo On Demand on Vimeo

Buy At The Mountains of Madness on DVD

Matthew Cooper has been a scriptwriter for hire and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer.

His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller ‘Markham was released in 2020, his second feature film as director ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ will be released in 2021. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director here.

You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.