Best known for playing beloved vet Paddy in the long-running soap Emmerdale, actor Dominic Brunt pursues his other passion off-screen. Away from the Dales, he directs horror films, and his latest feature is werewolf comedy slasher Wolf Manor. Set in the English countryside and written by Pete Wild and Joel Ferrari, it presents a fun take on the sub-genre as the film shoot for a vampire flick is disrupted in the night by a deadly lycanthrope. I was fortunate enough to sit down with the director to discuss the film.
Wolf Manor is now your fifth feature within the last decade or so. Does the process get any easier or are there different challenges to each one?
It’s still very difficult, actually, I think because no film is exactly the same and no scene is the same. I think I’m getting better in the way of not panicking, and Marc Price (director of zombie film Colin on a budget of £45) is a fellow director and is brilliant at sorting out problems. He always says, ‘just press record’, you know, get it done. If the problems are there, they can be sorted out later so in the face of adversity, he’s the best one to be around. I think I’ve learned that preparing and preparing and preparing, getting a shot list, and making sure you know the locations back to front, and talking to the actors beforehand, saying, ‘Look, trust me, when you stand there, and you move where I tell you to when I say to move, I’ll make it look good. I promise you won’t look stupid’. The last thing actors want to hear is anybody flapping but it’s always scary. It’s a million-piece jigsaw putting together a film. So yeah, the short answer I think is in some ways, I don’t think anybody gets any better at filmmaking.
Do you think that being an experienced actor yourself gives you an added level of trust with your actors?
Yes, yes, definitely. I think actors can be very wary of directors, and directors can be very wary of actors. I think I have a shorthand; I know all the tricks that actors try and play and know, also, that usually, when an actor has been difficult, it’s because they’re uncomfortable in some way. You’ve got to try and find what they’re uncomfortable about. I always say, ‘look, please, if you trust us, we will trust you’, so I do think in a way I know what makes a bad director and a good director, but directing TV is completely different to directing film as well. You know, I wouldn’t use the same processes that I see every day for continuing drama because you’re filming for a different frame, a different frame rate, for a different size of screen as well. In television, I think you’re a bit more fluid in the way you develop things but that certainly isn’t a criticism of the directors that I work with because I don’t think I could direct a soap at that speed. I have a year to plan and I take my time with it and try to be the best that I can, but I think you definitely have more freedom as a film director.
In Wolf Manor, there’s a really nice balance between the violent, darker elements of the story and the comedic parts. Was that a tricky tone to pull off as a director?
I think you’ve got to treat them both very differently; I think the tone of the film is one thing and the humour of the film is an entity in itself, and you’ve got to make sure the actors are on the same page of playing the comedy straight. Pete Wild kept saying ‘we want somebody like James Fleet because we don’t want a comedian actor, or an actor that’s known for comedy. They wanted someone that could do comedy but first and foremost, was a good actor and was a serious actor. So, we said rather than saying, ‘let’s find somebody like James Fleet, let’s ask James Fleet and see what he says…and he was great! He completely got the scripts, he knew exactly what I was talking about, he was second guessing what I was just about to tell him all the time when we went through it. He embraced it very quickly and I think he’d because he was the lead, I think people could see what he was doing. He wasn’t mugging, he was playing it completely straight. It was a three-dimensional character with these funny lines, and that’s exactly how comedy should be played at all times.
And you combined the humour very well with the gore. Can you explain how you approached the violence in the film?
We’re all horror fans, first and foremost, and we all want to get the gore in there because that’s really what you’re paying for, isn’t it? If you’re going to watch a horror film, you’d be very disappointed if you saw a little streak of blood across the forehead. There was a film at Frightfest a few years ago that was the worst thing I’ve ever seen because it was the most polite horror. It was like a new genre of horror – safe horror. You know, where somebody holds a knife and then you turn around and somebody looks down there’s a little patch of blood. That’s not why I paid to see a horror film; I want to celebrate the prosthetics but I don’t like spiteful horror like Hostel or Saw either. I don’t like torture horror. I like the more comic booky stuff, and I suppose that’s why I love zombie films as well because a person can be brutally slayed with the best special effects and it’s fine because they’re going to get up in a minute. I think that distinction between reality and special effects is prevalent for me because if somebody shows me a video of something that’s real life, it just utterly repels me and yet if it’s good special effects, I want to stand up and clap.
There’s a clear homage to American Werewolf in London in Wolf Manor. You’ll be much better versed in horror than I am, so I’m interested to know which films you were inspired by?
Of course, all the references to American Werewolf in London were done with love. We were also influenced by the old Hammer Horror films, the cane coming from Lon Chaney too. It was written by Pete Wild and Joel Ferrari as a love letter to the old horror films. They’re massive fans and have attended all the horror festivals for years. They were saying that there was a film club in a pub in Manchester that they used to go to every weekend, and people just sit there drinking pints and watching horror films, and that’s how they met. I took part in a horror quiz with Joel Ferrari at the Abertoir Film Festival in Wales and his knowledge is just ridiculous. I really liked playing with the tropes of like the types of actor, the types of producers and directors, so that was quite nice. But again, it was done with love. It’s a very gory horror film, but it’s also quite gentle. There’s a lot of goodwill.
There are lots of brilliant deaths in the film. Which was your favourite to put together?
I think there’s a few with the severed heads, that Shaune (Shaune Harrison, prosthetics designer) did that were brilliant because they were painted perfectly. They were truly shocking when the head rolls into the screen, which took about 15 attempts! We kept rolling it wanting it to end up facing the camera and when we rolled it that many times that when it rolled into position correctly, they had to pull me away from the camera! It was great seeing that working perfectly within the frame that we’d set for it. I think in terms of pulling off a trick stunt prosthetic shot, it was the one down in the cellar where the cameras swung from one room to another in one shot. We crossed all the fingers because we rehearsed it for hours. If we could get it the first time, it would save us a two-hour setup again, of cleaning up all the heads, all the costumes, the floor, fixing the set, and it was all done in dead quiet and rehearsed with precision. When we did it on the first take, the cheer that went off when we shouted cut was brilliant.
I enjoyed the supporting part from Nicky Evans and remember seeing you work together on Emmerdale years ago. How much do you think your day job seeps into your career as a director and vice versa?
Nicky Evans and also John Henshaw is in it as the landlord. He was a Dingle years ago and we keep bumping into each other in different things. Again, it was Pete Wild, saying ‘it would be great if we could get John Henshaw for the landlord’ and I said ‘Oh, I know John Henshaw!’…So we rang him and said ‘it’s only a night and if we pick you up from your house, drive you down here, you do your stuff, we’ll make sure you’re back there the same night, but we’ll get your stuff done first’ and he agreed so I suppose knowing people is great! Nicky had left Emmerdale years and years ago, but we’ve remained friends, and we’d never lost contact with each other. When he’d finished with Shameless and was available, we grabbed him a few times. He’s just a brilliant actor. He just turns up knows his lines, he’s really into the characters, always has new ideas and just throws himself into it. Even if it’s a little part, he’ll do it. He’s one of the people you want to have on set because he gets on with everybody and lifts the spirits of everybody.
I always enjoy scenes in Emmerdale where Paddy and Marlon will be excited about the release of a new zombie film or horror video game. Is this something that the writers slip in because of your background in filmmaking?
Well, me and Mark (Charnock) did the Leeds zombie film festival for about eight years, so I think they know that we are both horror film fans. That’s definitely real life bleeding over into the writers going ‘oh, wouldn’t it be funny if we reference what they are up to in real life?’ So, you know, we’re two nerds playing two nerds.
It’s so impressive, even from a time management aspect, that you can do such long hours on your day job and also pursue your directorial work. What would be your top tip for people who struggle to juggle their responsibilities?
Well, it is it is a matter of scheduling because you couldn’t do both at the same time. That’s why it’s usually two or three years in between each film because you want to plan it carefully. Because my wife produces the films and she’s, you know, sat beside me on the sofa, we can get on with it and also, I can plan ahead with any time I’ve got. I don’t want it to disrupt Emmerdale and I don’t want to do it by halves. So, it is a time management thing but it’s usually six months ahead. You can see it coming once the budgets in place, and you can usually aim for a date well in the future and then warn everybody, or they’ll tell me that in next September, there’s no storyline for you so you’ve got this time spare. So, it usually works out.
You’ve been really prevalent in the last few months in Emmerdale! I’ve read some headlines saying that you’re leaving to be a director full time. Is that the case or is it just a wee break?
No, no, I’d never leave Emmerdale unless they want to get rid of me. I’m staying exactly where I am, and I’m really grateful that they let me go and do the films when they let me go and do them. I’ve read that myself a couple of times and I think some people can’t see that you can do the two at the same time but I would never leave Emmerdale unless they wanted me to leave.
Good news for me because I’m a big fan. I think your scenes with Danny Miller, especially when Aaron was coming out and attacked Paddy, are some of the best soap scenes I’ve ever watched.
I think at that time, we really felt that we had something big on our hands that had to be treated not just as a storyline. We would either affect people’s viewpoints, or people would relate to it. We felt that we had to handle it extra carefully. It felt important, and then the reaction afterwards was phenomenal. It was very flattering. That’s when it felt that soap had transcended, really. It seemed to really matter to people not just as a story, but it informed their lives.
What has been your highlight from working on Emmerdale for all these years?
I’ve just had so many. I think, for me working with some really incredible people like Lisa Riley for years then Zoe Henry for years, and now Lucy Pargeter for years and my mainstay Mark. I’ve just been very, very lucky to be partnered with some really incredible actors that make you want to really try hard because when I first came on this, I was working a lot with Leah Bracknell played Zoe, who sadly died recently, and she was one of the people that, when you arrived, you thought she’s taking this really seriously. She’s absolutely going for it and really taking care of the delivery. There was no cynicism of ‘well, it’s just a soap’ or anything like that so it was a really good start to my working on Emmerdale, knowing that everybody wants to do this really well.
What’s coming up next for you, not on Emmerdale, but on the side of directing more horror films?
We’ve got two or three films on the go at the moment that we really want to make, but the usual thing happens where you get so far with funding, and then it collapses. I just want to keep making films. I’m really busy at Emmerdale now through to the summer, and then I’ve got a break, but I’m going to use that quiet time to recuperate and try and get something else off the ground. I’ve been very lucky so far, and I hope that luck carries on.
Wolf Manor is available on DVD and on digital release from 9th January 2023