Steve Oram on AAAAAAAAH!, monkey business and Battenberg

We talk to Steve Oram about his mad monkey movie Aaaaaaaah!

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You’ve not seen anything quite like Steve Oram’s dark comedy Aaaaaaaah! Set in a dystopian world where everyone behaves like apes (complete with grunting, there’s no dialogue), it’s a viciously funny and totally odd piece of work that’s been building excellent word of mouth since its debut at FrightFest.

Oram (the co-writer (with Alice Lowe) and star of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers) himself stars as Smith, an alpha who challenges the status quo of a household run by Julian Rhind-Tutt’s obnoxious washing machine repairman. As the battle for supremacy begins, characters scream, drink, fight, fornicate, shit on the floor and, in the case of Julian Barratt’s ousted Jupiter, fondle Battenberg cakes.

We talked to Oram about why we’re not too far removed from apes, why he had to self-fund the film, and why Battenbergs.

The film has been going round a few festivals, how have you found the reaction so far?

We’ve had various screenings all around the country, we had a little tour with Picturehouse Cinemas, so we’ve been going round with them and it’s been brilliant. We’ve been doing Q & As at most of these places and I’ve been blown away by the response, it seems people like no-dialogue films these days!

FrightFest was a really good start for us, it was amazing. It really seems to be growing, which is great. We had a really good screening at Mayhem in Nottingham on Sunday, which went really well. Really great crowd there, very pleased.

Is this an idea that you’ve been working on for a while?

Yeah, I’ve been fascinated by just how like apes we are, we’re simian people, we don’t particularly reference it. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for a few years really, of just how much of a difference language makes to us as people, and how it normalises weird and strange behaviours. I tested the idea out in a short film a few years ago and it seemed to work really well so it just went from there.

Was the social satire something that you were consciously trying to put in, or did it naturally come from the humour?

It naturally came about. There is satirical intent, but it’s all to do with the human condition really, rather than anything specific in our world now. It was just something that we kind of happened on as we developed the idea and worked with the actors, it just became apparent how resonant it all was. Every scene was played with jokes within it but also with serious intent.

So the idea was to just focus on this human story. It is essentially a Romeo and Juliet style love story, kind of skewed! That was my big interest really, just the story of the ape people.

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Did you do much research into apes’ family structures and dynamics?

I did, yeah. It was a lot of nature documentaries. I was very interested in comparing monkeys to us, and how similar they are in their behaviour. They’re horrible, you know! They really are when you actually get down and see what they do and how they behave, it’s a total slaughterhouse in the simian world. Lots of raping and killing of kids, and we are slightly more civilised than them but elements of our behaviour are extremely similar.

I was really interested in how males strut around and display, which is something that is very evident in our world. The male behaviour in Aaaaaaaah! is ape-like but it’s probably pretty similar to what you actually get, just a slightly heightened rendering of it.

Was it a difficult concept to pitch to investors and actors?

I funded it all myself! I didn’t even try because it was just such an out-there idea, and I’ve worked in the industry for a long time and I know that these sorts of films don’t really get funded. It’s just the way it is, sadly. But the actors on the other hand were really easy to persuade and very keen and it was a really interesting project for everyone, I think.

It’s quite different to what you normally get asked to do. Might be the only ape-speaking film that any of them ever do! [laughs] You never know, there might be another one. There’ll probably be loads now, won’t there! Looking forward to the period drama, Downton Abbey rip-off, that would be good, wouldn’t it?

Did you have actors in mind?

I did, I wrote most of the parts for the actors that ended up playing them. They’re gathered from the comedy world and most of them are good friends of mine, Tom Meeten who plays my beta male in it and Julian [Barratt] and Noel [Fielding] and Julian Rhind-Tutt, Holly Dempsey, they’re all really good friends, but Toyah [Wilcox] was the one I didn’t know. I just sent her a script because I was a huge fan of her in Jubilee and Quadrophenia, her early work I think is just incredible. And she loved it and fit right in with all my mental friends! Which was really great, a really happy coincidence.

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Was it important to have the chaos really structured, or was there a lot of room for improv?

Well, the scenes were very tightly structured, it was all written in script form. I actually wrote it in English so the actors all learned the English version and then we took the script away and they approximated whatever type of ape they wanted to be. There was free rein in how they wanted to portray their particular way of doing the language, because everyone did something slightly different, which I found really fascinating and I think the actors really enjoyed that.

We workshopped and rehearsed and we did a lot of talking before we actually got on set as to how the language would work and what we would be doing, so there was no real improv section. Other than Julian with the blancmange fight, you go ‘We can’t really script that, it’s just got to unfold!’ But yeah, when you work in low budget, we literally had no money and no time so everything has to be very tightly scripted and tightly organised, otherwise you can’t do it.

I was going to ask if the actors needed time to warm up but I suppose, with no time, they had to just jump in!

They did and because they’re all such good actors, they’re just pros, it was seamless. The preparation really helped and they all knew what they were doing. Basically nailed it first time, which was fantastic.

I wanted to ask about the Battenberg cake that Julian Barratt’s character uses as a comfort mechanism, was that always in the script?

That was always part of the script, yeah. It’s like a weird childhood cake, isn’t it? You don’t tend to buy them these days, do you? It’s a slightly nostalgic cake and I like the colours as well. Poor old Jupiter, he just likes the colours and they comfort him in some way. He’s a bit tormented, it’s a nice image, I like the vibe of it. Poor Jupiter!

This is your first film as a director, are you hoping to do continue making movies?

Yeah, I’d love to. This is a start hopefully for me to do more films, I’ve got some scripts I’m working on at the moment in various stages of development, so yeah.  Paying for it myself is a really good way of doing it very quickly and on my own terms. And the fact that it’s done well is really pleasing because maybe someone might give me some money next time. We’ll see.

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As an actor you’ve also been in some really excellent horror films, like The Canal. Is it nice to switch between comedy and straighter work?

I do, I love it, and it’s really refreshing. I like having parallel careers really because you have a varied life and I actually love doing the straight stuff. It’s actually all about whether a script is good or not, and I don’t care what genre I work in as long as it’s something interesting to me. I thought The Canal was a really, really good script and it’s kind of a comedic character anyway, the policeman with the strange rumbling stomach. Ivan Kavanagh wanted a slight comic edge to it. I’ll do anything, you know? Anything as long as it’s good.

What are you working on next?

Well there’s a horror film I’ve just wrapped on which I was acting in called A Dark Song, which is an Irish horror film, there’s no laughs in it at all, very serious film. I play an occultist who goes with a vulnerable woman to a house and perform this Crowley-esque ritual for months. It’s really intense and Catherine Walker is this amazing Irish actress. And I’m directing a small thing for Sky’s Christmas Crackers season which is really good fun.

And also just writing the next film, getting the time to do that and hopefully we’ll get something underway next year. It’s along similar lines but there’ll be dialogue in it! It’s a strange dystopian comedy horror sci-fi thing, so it should be pretty out there, I think. It definitely will be! It’s got familiar faces in it as well, my team of people, we’ll get them back. Working with the same people you’ve worked with is such a great experience.

Aaaaaaaah! is available now to download from FrightFest Presents. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.