Scare story

Flo­rian Habicht isn’t con­cerned that his lat­est film faces some ul­tralow-bud­get com­pe­ti­tion.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Nz Film Festival -

When we catch up with Flo­rian Habicht, wild-child ge­nius and the di­rec­tor of a new film about Spook­ers, Auck­land’s haunt­ed­house “scream park”, he’s about to go on TV to dis­cuss a new film about Spook­ers, Auck­land’s haunted-house “scream park”. Ex­cept the film isn’t his one.

“One of the guys who works at Spook­ers shot this two-minute video of peo­ple-scar­ing on his phone and put it on Face­book, and in the last two days, it’s had 50 mil­lion views.”

Fifty what?

“Yeah, 50 mil­lion. Spook­ers have had to hire two peo­ple to an­swer all the fan mail.”

He laughs. “I can spend a year and a half mak­ing a film, and then some­one spends two min­utes shoot­ing some­thing on his phone... and...” He trails off into more laugh­ter, and there is no shred of irony or bit­ter­ness de­tectable in his voice: he gen­uinely thinks it’s won­der­ful that some­one else’s two-minute Face­book video is do­ing so much bet­ter than his film will prob­a­bly do.

Al­though ac­tu­ally, of all Habicht’s films so far, this is the one that might draw a wide au­di­ence. He be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with avant-garde cin­ema while he was at Auck­land Univer­sity’s Elam School of Fine Arts; six months af­ter grad­u­at­ing, he had put to­gether a suc­cess­ful Creative New Zealand grant ap­pli­ca­tion. (“Do­ing fund­ing ap­pli­ca­tions was ac­tu­ally one of the things we stud­ied at Elam — it was su­per-prac­ti­cal.”) For the bet­ter part of two decades now, he has been con­tin­u­ously at work on a string of bound­ary-push­ing drama/doc­u­men­tary fu­sion films,

As soon as I saw the ac­tors get­ting into their char­ac­ters I was like, oh my god, this place is for me.

in­clud­ing Kaikohe De­mo­li­tion, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and

Su­per­mar­kets, and (my favourite be­fore Spook­ers) Love Story, in which he roams the streets of New York ask­ing the lo­cals for ad­vice on how to tell a love story, and then films their sug­ges­tions.

Spook­ers has its own mo­ments of Habicht’s trade­mark whimsy, but by the stan­dards of his pre­vi­ous work it’s a re­mark­ably straight­for­ward doc­u­men­tary. It isn’t the film Habicht ex­pected to be re­leas­ing this year. “I was busy mak­ing an­other project; ac­tu­ally, I was just about to leave for Europe to work on it when Suzanne Walker from the Mad­man pro­duc­tion com­pany in Aus­tralia called me up to talk about Spook­ers. She’d never been there, but she’d heard about it and thought it would make a re­ally good film, and then the com­pany got ex­cited about the idea, and they re­alised they needed a New Zealand di­rec­tor to make it.”

Habicht gets pitches to make one film or an­other rea­son­ably of­ten. “Ev­ery year, I get of­fered a cou­ple of things.” He’s never said yes be­fore — “It’s such a huge thing, to com­mit to a film; it’s years of your life” — and the film Mad­man was sug­gest­ing was not quite one he wanted to make. “They were think­ing more of a film about scar­ing as en­ter­tain­ment, and maybe the na­ture of fear, and why peo­ple want to go and get scared at this place.”

But some­thing about the idea of a Spook­ers film in­trigued him. He made Mad­man an of­fer: he would go to Spook­ers with a cam­era, and in­ter­view the staff, and watch them work­ing. “I’d never been there, so I re­ally wanted to suss it out.” If he found him­self want­ing to make the film af­ter that, they could talk about how to pro­ceed, and if not, Mad­man could have his footage and use it to make a pitch reel to help raise fund­ing to take the project fur­ther.

“As soon as I walked in and saw all of the ac­tors putting on their make-up and get­ting into their char­ac­ters I was like, oh my god, this place is for me. So much creative en­ergy.

And the fact that they were these su­per-tal­ented amaz­ing per­form­ers, but they were all un­trained — I mean, they’d taught them­selves, they were what you call am­a­teurs, mean­ing peo­ple who do some­thing be­cause they love it. It kind of re­minded me of how I learned to make films at Elam, just through do­ing it with friends and dis­cov­er­ing things. And then when I found out about the place’s history, that it was an old psy­chi­atric hospi­tal, that for me was just — oh my god. This is re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing. I could see the film I wanted to make, and Mad­man turned out to be re­ally open to me do­ing it my own way.”

Habicht’s film does not ne­glect the fun to be had with Mad­man’s ini­tial con­cept — we see peo­ple pay­ing to be chased by chain­saw- wield­ing red­neck zom­bies, and there are en­ter­tain­ing in­ter­views with staff about the var­i­ous ram­i­fi­ca­tions of in­vok­ing your cus­tomers’ fight-or-flight re­flex. But the film weaves an­other story into this nar­ra­tive: the history of Kingseat, the for­mer psy­chi­atric in­sti­tu­tion whose build­ings Spook­ers now oc­cu­pies. With­out giv­ing too much away, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween pro­fes­sional scar­ing and men­tal health turns out to be deeper and more pos­i­tive than you might ex­pect.

The film’s mix of hu­mour and com­pas­sion has al­ready seen it warmly re­ceived at sev­eral in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­vals, though Habicht has stopped try­ing to guess how his films will per­form overseas. “I thought Love Story was go­ing to be a lot big­ger — I thought it would go be­yond the film fes­ti­val cir­cuit. And it didn’t. So I don’t hold my breath any more. But so far Spook­ers is do­ing pretty well.”

The film was one of six fi­nal­ists for an award at the Sh­effield Doc/ Fest in Eng­land that is given for films in­spired by science. “Just to get that out of the 250 films there was pretty cool. So, you know, I’m hope­ful. Al­ways hope­ful.”

ABOVE— Spook­ers staff in ac­tion in Flo­rian Habicht’s doc­u­men­tary.

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