Helping on the set of Duyster – a horror movie

I helped on the set of the Duyster, just released, aka the “Belgian Blair Witch Project”…and it was awesome 😊 In precorona times Saskia asked me if I could be her assistant for a horror movie with a small budget, but with lots of ideas and enthusiasm. The first half of the movie was shot, but then the lockdown happened and everything got postponed. In September 2020 shooting fired up again, and Saskia was called in to help with the making of Act 3. “Do you want to come in as an assistant for the SFX makeup?” she asked me. Hell yeah!

The movie, Duyster, is the child of Thomas Vanbrabant (who wrote the script) and Jordi Ostir (of the infamous horror podcast Klokslag 12) . Two movie buffs who never directed a long movie (Thomas already directed some shorts), but had a dream and wanted to see it fulfilled. They started a crowdfunding campaign, gathered enough funds, surrounded themselves with people they believed in, gave it a good stir, added some spices and blood…so much blood, et voila: a movie was being made!

I believe the movie will be best consumed if I don’t spoil any story or SFX-tricks used. Instead, again, this will be more of a personal reflection on how I spent two long nights on a set with a group of, sometimes very young, talented and enthusiastic professionals. Read on!

Note: this article was written a year ago. Now that the movie (avant)premièred, I am allowed to tell this story. Check out the end of my article if you want to watch the movie yourself!

Long nights

The movie will be a “found footage”-like film, an interesting type of movie that became popular thanks to the Blair With Project more than 20 years ago. Thomas, Jordi and Michiel Lateur (DOP, i.e. “Mr camera”) wanted long scenes with no (noticeable) cuts because everything was recorded by the protagonists as they happened. Writing the previous sentence took me 15 seconds. Implementing this concept in a movie took two VERY LONG nights (in fact, this was day 9 and 10 of shooting).

Each scene was a choreography between all involved (camera, actors, sound, light, SFX, etc) that needed to be rehearsed a bazillion times. We arrived on set around 15h, but the actual filming only started much later, because everything and everyone “needed to be synchronised for the choreography”. Both nights we arrived back home when the sun already rose, which made for a very caffeine-filed second night.

Makeup

A few days before, I went to Saskia and got a primer on how to apply her makeup on the elements which she was asked to create. She felt confident I was up to the task. Because I have been painting minis for quite some time now, I’ve learned that painting mistakes, in fact, can be fixed. For over 30 years, painting to me was a mystical thing where each stroke had to be perfect from the getgo and any mistake you’d make would result in hours of meticulous work gone down the drain. And so, a bit reluctant I agreed to take the “job”.

As a warmup, when we arrived on set, I painted fake nails for prop device and also an actor’s hands, that needed to be grimy from the hard work he was doing. I liked how grateful the paints were. Slowly, but steadily I gained more and more confidence. What of course helped was that none of the actors knew I was a total newbie. (a clear case of, fake it ‘till you make it).

A few hours later, I was still quite nervous when I started painting the actor I was appointed, but since Saskia was sitting right next to me (working on the lead actress) I was able to keep my cool. It was also helpful that I would do the ‘base’ layers and Saskia would then afterwards do the “finishing touches”. After an hour of painting, I was “ok-ish” with the result. But Saskia proposed to take a picture, which I did. Suddenly I saw how the actor would (probably) look like on screen! A rush of excitement coursed through my body. He looked the way I had hoped he would look like. When other people passed by and reacted the way I wanted them to react, I couldn’t be more proud and felt invigorated. It was way past midnight, but I felt like I could do this for hours on end.

“Your body is your greatest canvas”

Dance time

Around midnight, our work was done and we were all called on-set…outside. It was time to discuss the complex choreography for the final scene. Without spoiling anything, I was to help “my actor” to do his thing and then disappear from screen with him during the shoot on the exact moment the camera wasn’t ‘watching’. This was thrilling. Michiel practised his camera-movements and we then searched for the best way how to disappear …without stumbling and/or making any sounds. After several rehearsals and three or four takes, we finally nailed it. I haven’t seen the final result; in fact, I haven’t seen how the scene looks at all on screen. A propos, I put my actor earlier on between very fat quotes because he wasn’t mine at all 😊 Saskia developed the total look , and Margerita Sanders did the clothing, I simply applied the paint/make-up at the end stage.

After that scene (which took almost 3 or 4 hours of being outside) , we could finally drive home.

The audio man waiting during the rehearsals

Day 2

We were dead tired. For almost 12 hours straight we continuously were busy, but I would do it again any time. I didn’t have wait long: 9 hours later we were back in Kasterlee, for day two in which the actors needed to look their worst.

The second day involved even more technical scenes. However, “my actor” wasn’t needed today, so I didn’t have any previously discussed responsibilities. Just like my previous times when I helped Saskia, I rapidly discovered where I could be of value. Thanks to the day before, I felt confident enough to help more constructively than “bringing coffee and cleaning up”. A good assistant sees solutions, not problems 😊

Comfort

During our drive back to the set the second day I asked Saskia and Margerita whose job it is to comfort the actors when they have to wait in between takes, for example. The day before, I didn’t notice anyone explicitly asking the actors if they needed anything (drinks, warm clothes, etc.) even though some of them were having a physically hard time I saw Margerita constantly giving them heating pads and warm coats, but I thought she did it out of sympathy (which ofcourse is also part of the reason she did that anyhow). The answer to my question was very simple: “We do, Tim, SFX/makeup/costume”. Aha! A new insight 😊 It should be noted that I learned afterwards that in fact, several other people did indeed helped the actors when needed, I was just too busy to notice.

In hindsight, this was obvious: we are the first people the actors usually see and spent time with onset (i.e. during “prep”(eration)) and when shooting commences we can’t do much but watch and wait while the other departments (light, camera, sound, directors and actors) do their thing.

Comforting people…that was right up my alley! It helped that most actors, especially the ones that had the physically hardest scenes, were much younger than me. I felt an almost sort of parental obligation towards them and made sure that they, at all time, wouldn’t freeze to death or become sore from their awkward/difficult positions they needed to sit/stand/lay in, sometimes for hours.

More blood!

Days 2 had three complex scenes to be recorded. Two of which (the first and last) needed several gruesome things to happen. I had a small dejavu to my day on the Deathcember set where the director from time to time would yell “more slime” and I would then barge in with my pot of green slime. This time, the cue was “more blood”. And in I would come 😊

The cool thing of the last scene this time was the “reset” of everything. Several SFX makeup thingies (no spoilers) needed to be reapplied, refilled and/or removed after each cut. So each time the AD would yell “cut” several people, including me, stormed the set to rapidly (but no too fast…you don’t want to destroy anything by accident) go through our mental checklist of tasks to be done and do them. After several takes, this almost happened on autopilot, which probably also was due to the late hour (again it was way past midnight) and the lack of sleep from the day before.

After each demanding take, we would anxiously wait with the actors, while the chiefs discussed whether we were ready or not for the day. Near the end, I believe some people were ready to start giving bribes to the AD to have him yell “that’s a wrap, people!”.

“Please say it’s ok…please say it’s ok…”

Script

A small side note on the script. When Saskia sent me the script a few days earlier, my first reaction was not that enthusiastic. I thought the writing was bland and shallow. I missed warm and descriptive writing that I am used to. I had never read a script, so I could only compare it to something I knew: books. That was a mistake. After day one, I adjusted my opinion of the script 180 degrees. It became clear to me what the purpose of the document was: not to transport the reader to the author’s world, but instead to accurately describe, to all involved, how the story needs to be told. Suddenly, the script made sense of its purpose and why certain things were written down as they were.

Conclusion

I learned a lot. Not only on a technical (i.e. how to apply SFX makeup, what a script actually need to do, how a movie set works…) but also on a more personal level. I discovered why I love doing this and why I also love my daily job. The combination of creating (creative) things with the tools at hand and at the same time inspiring people around me to give it their best, is something I really liked doing these two days. I really felt that what I did truly helped the cast and crew do their job just a tad better or easier and more believingly.

I still haven’t seen the result of the previous two productions I helped on, but it is this movie that I look forward the most to seeing it when it’s ready: I feel I contributed in a meaningful, impactful and constructive way in creating someone’s dream, and I’m very proud of that!

Update 2021: where to watch & my first première ever

Last week I went to the avant-première of the finished movie in Cartoons. It was very exhilarating to see the small parts I contributed on a big screen, especially when in the end my name scrolled by in the credits! I’m very proud (and a tad jealous) of the final movie and sincerely hope that both directors can make more movies like this: they created this with a budget the size of a coffee cup but still came up with a believable, real “Flemish horror”-movie.

Cast, crew and funders together!

If you want to watch the movie, it will be shown in several cinemas across the county starting tomorrow(see next image); afterwards there’s a Blu-ray & DVD release planned and it will also be streamable on Proximus stream and perchance on other platforms!

And of course, if you like the movie, make sure to add your rating here!

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