Q&A | Director Florian Habicht on his latest film, Spookers

Florian Habicht’s unconventional approach to filmmaking has won him critical acclaim and kept discerning film fans entertained for more than a decade. His films Love Story (2011), Kaikohe Demolition (2004) and most recently Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (2014) all break with the rule book, and hit home because of it. For his latest project, the Berlin-born New Zealander ventures into the creepy, freaky world of Spookers, a “scream park” located in a former pyschiatric hospital in Auckland, NZ. Described as being about “the transformative and paradoxically lifesaving power of belonging to a community that celebrates fear”, Spookers is one of five finalists in the Illuminate Award for innovative documentaries at next week’s Sheffield Doc/Fest 2017.

Sarah asked Florian how he ended up working on the doco, and what was surprising about the experience.

How did you come to make Spookers?
I tried really hard not to make the film, as I was in the middle of writing a script that’s very dear to me, and was planning to shoot it last year. The Madman Production Company gave me a call out of the blue, to see if I was up for making Spookers, as they wanted a New Zealand director. Suzanne Walker from Madman dreamed up the idea to make a documentary about the haunted attraction. I wanted to say no and focus on my drama project, but decided to go to Spookers and shoot a test, as I’d never been there before. This was the only way I would know for sure, and when I arrived and saw all the performers in action getting into their make-up and costumes, I knew that this place was for me. When I learned the place was in an old psychiatric hospital – Kingseat – I knew I couldn’t say no.

What was the experience of making the film like for you on a personal level?
On a personal level, shooting the film was a very enjoyable experience; things flowed, and I made some great new friends. But I decided to put all the money I made from my fee into my own self-funded drama project. We had a one-month break in the middle of Spookers post production and I tried to prep and shoot an ambitious feature film in that short time. We didn’t have the resources we needed to do the film justice, and one week into the shoot I had to make the call that we were going to shoot a teaser rather than the full film. That was really morally hard for everyone, and financially hard for me, and it took me a long time to recover from the experience. I’m always taking risks with my films, but that time things didn’t go my way. Now that project has New Zealand Film Commission development support and the script has been selected for a fantastic writer’s residency in Italy.

Can you explain the premise of the doco? Did you find out anything surprising – other than the expected frights! – while making the film?
Is working at Spookers good for your mental health? The Spookers grounds were a hospital for almost 70 years, and housed up to 850 patients.

Who are some of the key ‘characters’? What did you learn about the behind the scenes world of the people who work at Spookers?
There’s Huia the clown, Zombina, Juneen. There’s Beth who dreamed up Spookers and runs the place with her husband Andy and her daughter Julia. Andy is the mayor of the Rangitikei District by day, and a masked monster by night!

Do you have any good anecdotes from the filming itself? Any major challenges?
During the wrap party, one of the producer’s pants caught on fire, from a candle. I ended up slapping her bottom repeatedly, and saved her. When the flames went out, I continued to hit her bottom, repeatedly, just to be safe. The women at the bar couldn’t see the flames, just me slapping, and gave me the evils. It was funny but also very frightening. On the film’s credits, I am credited as ‘Safety Officer’.

Who else was on your crew? Had you worked together before?
Peter O’Donoghue edited and co-wrote the film in the edit. He also worked on Love Story and my Pulp documentary. Teresa Peters was the Art Director and designed the sets that we created for the dream sequences. Like the ocean made of cellophane that we blew wind into, Fellini style. The rest of the team I hadn’t worked with before. Lani Feltham, the film’s New Zealand producer is now producing the drama I mentioned.

You take a fairly unique approach to directing and filmmaking. How did you approach filming Spookers?
For the drama scenes, I wore women’s underwear under my pants. This was inspired by Ed Wood. For the documentary elements, I did the filming and camera operating myself. I feel I can get more intimate and direct interviews like this.

The film is about to screen at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2017. Sheffield was host to another of your recent films, Pulp: a Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets. Can you comment on your experience of making Pulp, and where things are currently at with it?
Yeah, Pulp was the opening night film for Sheffield Doc/Fest, and three years later it’s still having occasional theatrical screenings around the world. It’s going to have a big open air screening in Vienna this summer, and some big screen events in Berlin.

Why were you drawn to make a film about Jarvis Cocker and Pulp? How did it come about that you could do so?
They were one of my favourite bands. As fellow artists, Pulp trusted me and let me do my own thing, make my own kind of film, and I really appreciated that. Jarvis and his manager Jeannette saw my film Love Story during the London Film Festival. Things happened really quickly, as Pulp were playing their final concert in six weeks time. Not a long period to get a film off the ground.

Are you currently working on any other projects?
I’ve got two drama scripts I’m writing. They are both love stories, and will hopefully push my filmmaking to another level. I’ve been itching to make dramas, and I’ve had to learn to become patient with the amount of time scriptwriting takes.

Spookers screens 7pm Saturday June 10 at Abbeydale Picturehouse as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest. Get screening times and tickets.

You won’t find Spookers online yet, but Love Story is available to watch via www.florianhabicht.com. Follow @florianhabicht on Instagram to stay in the loop about Spookers screenings.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.