The Shimian: An Interview With Writer/Director James Peakman and Cast

Photo courtesy of James Peakman

A couple of days ago, I had the rare opportunity of interviewing the man behind a film made in the same city that I call home: Coventry, in the UK Midlands. The film is The Shimian, a film that blends family survival with demonic folk horror; and writer/director James Peakman brought three of his cast along to talk about it with me: Blake Hutchings, Margot Lin and Jonjo Tweddle. Before you proceed, note there are one or two minor spoilers ahead, but nothing which gives away a great deal.

In The Shimian, Tony (played by Blake) celebrates his birthday with a camping trip, along with his girlfriend Sarah, his daughter Emma, and Emma’s best mate Claire (played by Margot). But little do they know that something sinister (embodied by the mammoth Jonjo) resides in the woods where they have chosen to spend the night. So I opened by asking whether anyone in my panel enjoys camping. Blake shook his head decisively: “Not me! I’ve done a little bit, but to say I enjoy it would not be a fair summary. My wife and kids like it, but I endure it.”

“I actually do a little bit of camping,” said James. “I’m a member of The Sealed Knot, a big society of thousands of people, which recreates events from the English Civil War. There’s camping involved in some of the social activities, but that’s really the only camping I do, and I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite part of those weekends (being cold and wet is never pleasant).”

Filming the campfire scene in The Shimian
Photo courtesy of James Peakman

The scene in the film set during the first night of camping, with the family sitting around the campfire, did seem to me very natural. “Oh it was natural because they were all really freezing cold,” said James. “So you know the way they’re wrapped in blankets and swapping stories; they were doing that before the cameras started to roll. They’d been sitting there for some time while the crews got set up and so on, and one of them asked me, ‘Would you mind if we use those blankets?’ I said ‘sure’ because it seemed like a natural thing to do, and I didn’t want them to get cold. So they were all sat like that and used the time to do some rehearsing prior to filming the scene.”

Margot had only arrived in the UK last year. “I mostly did some acting in China,” she said, “and before this film, did another one with Coventry University students; so this is technically my first feature film. All the people were very nice to me, but also it was kind of stressful because I’ve not worked with professional filmmakers before, only stage and students. Coming from a foreign country, it wasn’t easy to understand Birmingham and Coventry accents, and most of the cast and crew had strong accents. Sophie [Simmons, who played Emma, Tony’s daughter, who had invited Claire on the trip] had a strong Brum accent, and whenever I wanted to use a Brummie accent, I would copy one of her lines.”

Margot was actually one of many fairly inexperienced people in the cast, and I asked James what they had been like to work with. “There was absolutely no chaos at all,” he said. “I’m not just saying that because two of them are here, but overall they were extremely professional for people who had never really been ‘professional’ before if that makes sense. Whenever they weren’t on camera, they were always somewhere rehearsing, going over their lines, or coming up with something interesting to include. They’d come up to me and say things like, ‘Been thinking about this scene and I don’t think the character would say it this way,’ and we’d discuss and try something different. Nine times out of ten, they were right, so they brought a lot to the final script in that way. There were no dramas, no on-set bust-ups. It was all very straightforward, good to work with.”

Blake added a reflection on James as a director: “The four of us would spend a lot of time working on our parts, and if we had something to suggest, James was always very willing to listen, not precious about his film. Obviously, the director has the final call, but he was open and eager to work with us and collaborate. A great experience all around.”

I jokingly asked whether the cast fought over who would have the cool death scenes when they got together like that. “We didn’t get that much say over the script,” laughed Blake, “just two or three words here and there, or the odd line.”

The Shimian was also the first film for Jonjo Tweddle, who portrayed the Shimian itself. “I’d love to do it again,” he said. “Me and Jimmy were friends for twenty years and we talked about doing this ever since we were at college, a pipe dream back then. It was always the plan and life got in the way until now. But I’d love to keep doing it.”

I asked James about that shared dream. “Absolutely,” he said. “To complete a feature anyway is an unbelievable goal for many. It’s hard for filmmakers, and certainly has been since the pandemic and during it; so to get it done, especially in a small amount of time…yes, I’m certainly pleased. We started filming in April, finished in June; then released to Amazon Prime Video in October. And the concept only came into place in January! Script, writing, finding a cast, finding a crew, organising everything, getting it all filmed, edited, post-production, and ready for Halloween…that was our goal, and it was not really something we thought we’d achieve, but we did! So we’re incredibly proud. The film has something for everyone; it’s a horror film, sure, but not full-on gore. I tried to put some heart into it because I was keen that people would care about the characters before bad stuff happened to them. I feel that in a lot of modern horror films, characters are there as little more than pieces of meat to be killed off, and that isn’t for me. So the first thirty minutes or so is about building the characters’ relationship with each other and with the audience, and then we turn it all on its head so that we do feel for them.”

Mr Harding (Alex Butler) and the Blatty Descendant (Fiona Dunn) in The Shimian
Photo courtesy of James Peakman

It wasn’t quite the first thirty minutes: before the opening credits there is a prologue scene referring to a grandmother’s curse. I really wanted to know more about that backstory and asked whether it was going to feature in DVD extras, perhaps. “Actually, it’s kind of out there already,” said James, “because The Shimian started as a short film. The short was filmed in Coombe Abbey, Coventry, and it was the story of an old lady (the lady of the manor house in the 1930’s) who couldn’t sleep, because something was possessing or troubling her.”

“Margot tells the story well,” interjected Blake.

“Exactly,” said James. “Watch that scene in The Shimian where Claire tells a campfire story: that’s the story from the short film. It all came from that. Originally, when we thought about turning that into a feature film and we liked the concept of the Shimian, it was going to be an expansion of that story; so it was set in the 1930s, around Blatty Manor, and we’d find out how that possession occurred. But it turned out to be too expensive, to be honest, to be able to film; so we tried to do something set now, and more relatable to modern audiences, but we kept that story, which is what Claire tells around the campfire. And they end up in that house anyway, the house from the short film.”

I commented that the location didn’t look like Coombe Abbey…and James realised then that I was local. He and Jonjo had met at college in Coventry, and later went on to Coventry University (which is where I work), and Blake studied there too, as it happens. But about the film’s location…“The ruin location is Guy’s Cliffe in Warwick,” James told me. “It’s a fantastic location and we were very lucky to get permission to film there. It has all the tunnels they were running through, all the ruins and scary corridors; and it was also good to film there because it has a reputation for ghosts. The landlord was quite happy to tell everyone the legends when they arrived on set, and Sophie was a bit nervous to go into those places by herself. All the local stories and the whole vibe of the place got people creeped out and excited. They do ghost tours there too, worth a visit.”

Most of the film was shot at night, and I asked James whether this came with any logistical difficulties. “Not really,” he said. “I actually quite enjoyed shooting at night-time. The problems happened more in the daytime. We were lucky with the weather at night; it didn’t rain at all then, but in the daytime, we had to keep an eye on the weather and make sure it was consistent—didn’t mind sun or overcast, as long as it stayed the same for a good while. A lot of the cast had work the next day, and after eight- or twelve-hour shifts, they had to get up early, so night work was an issue for them in that sense. We never did a shoot day with night following a day shift: usually, we’d meet at six-thirty, ready for a night shoot. Some of them turned up after a long day at work, so there were difficulties in keeping people’s energy going and keeping their spirits up, with rest times when possible. Mostly it wasn’t an issue though: I remember plenty of people running around to keep their buzz going.”

Back to the story, or rather the concept of “the Shimian” itself, I asked James whether it was an original concept, or perhaps a myth he had brought back from his time in China. “It is an original concept,” he said. “But the word Shīmián in Chinese means insomnia.”

Margot added, “Some friends of mine asked about that too, but I told them it all came from James’ head. Our ghosts tend to be women who possess or entice men, they don’t kill women, and there’s no ‘stalker demon’ in China.”

That’s interesting: if it had been a Chinese demon or ghost, it might have avoided Margot’s character, Claire. Spoiler alert: she did fall into the Shimian’s grasp, and I asked Jonjo what it had been like to play this demonic and intimidating baddie. “I felt sorry for the cast, to be honest,” Jonjo said, “especially Sophie because she hadn’t seen me. We were in the woods, it was pitch black and I just appeared in full costume, and she was petrified. I felt bad for Margot because we had to do that attack scene over and over again, and I just dropped her onto the floor because we had to get that moment of her dropping down like a dead weight. I said, ‘She needs some padding or something,’ because she’s only little, and this is a hard concrete cellar floor, and she don’t bounce! I’m six foot ten, picking her up at full strength and dropping her, so each time I had to ask, ‘Are you OK?’” They all laughed at the recollection, and I think Margot is still OK.

James Peakman, writer and director of The Shimian
Photo courtesy of James Peakman

James remembered them working out a solution: “Wasn’t it kind of about coming at her from behind and letting her hold your arm as she went down?”

“Yes, we stole that technique from wrestling,” Jonjo confirmed. “I told her, ‘I can’t just pick you up by your neck at full force because it will snap! So, you grab my arm, I’ll pull, and you’ll have a bit of leverage before dropping out from the camera.’”

“Jonjo is the opposite of the baddie,” Margot smiled, “a big softie.” And it turned out she had put some work into this before filming too, watching documentaries about how wild animals are caught and killed, and she tried to replicate the final howls she had seen there during her final scene.

“It echoed around the whole building!” said James.

Although none of the characters was more especially significant than the others, Blake’s character, Tony, was often in the centre of the story; firstly, because of his birthday, and then because of the others in his party all bickering or running around him. “It was a lot of fun,” Blake said, “particularly the scene where Emma and Sarah are shouting at each other, and Tony yells, ‘Will you stop it?’ We had to do that over and over again, and it was quite a strain on the voice, which I think you can hear in the film. I had to put myself in a headspace of what it would be like for my character and then just let it out in those moments.”

Something about the way he told this made me wonder if there were some behind-the-scenes stories to be told (and Jonjo shook his head with a grin while I asked this). “Not about that, but there are a couple of stories,” Blake confirmed. “I remember a lot of the time, Sophie and I spent quite a lot of time bursting into song from musicals, just to pass the time in between things. There was one scene where we were at the bar, and I was stood there with Ashlea [Winfield] who played Sarah and James had us hold a conversation that wasn’t going to be used.”

“It was a guide track,” explained James. “We knew we weren’t going to use that particular recording, but it was a chance to get room sounds and capture our people’s voices in case we needed them later. But it was kind of unusable, because of how obscene their talk got.”

“We were just cracking jokes about James and the crew,” Blake confessed.

Emma (Sophie Simmons) being pinned against a tree by The Shimian (Jonjo Tweddle) in The Shimian
Photo courtesy of James Peakman

James had another tale. “I’d really wanted to hide Jonjo from the cast, as I mentioned earlier,” he said. “I don’t know if Blake had seen him around town, but none of them had properly met him, at least not in the full costume. So when they first saw him—that was when he put Sophie against the tree—we had hidden him in a make-up tent for four-and-a-half hours, waiting for it to get dark, and Sophie was terrified when he suddenly appeared. He was conscious about doing it safely, of course, but she was already in shock by then!”

Jonjo clearly enjoyed remembering the performance. “Do you remember that room where Blake does his ‘don’t worry about me speech,’ making it all about him. That room was so claustrophobic, it was a small room with everyone shouting at full volume, especially the girls screaming. I’m so glad I wasn’t in there, I heard it all from outside!”

Turning back to James, I had to ask about what had inspired his style, and I confess I had expected him to refer to The Blair Witch Project. “Camping in the woods will naturally make people think of Blair Witch, so we wanted to avoid reminders of that in the way we made the film, as well as the storyline. I looked at films more like Jaws and Predator, for examples of tension without seeing what it really was. I looked at Jaws and Predator for a lot of influence, actually, putting the audience in the characters’ shoes, for example. The first Predator is brilliantly done, with almost all of it from the soldiers’ point of view. There were some scenes from the predator’s point of view, with the heat vision and so on; and no one had seen that when it first came out. There’s a shot in The Shimian with something watching them from the forest, and that came from those films; the idea of keeping the monster at a distance. I remember talking to Jonjo about his character because when we were at Henley College, we went to see Jeepers Creepers at the cinema.”

“Right,” said Jonjo. “Until you see what it is, Jeepers Creepers is a great film. The only time you see it, it’s at a distance, a big guy with a hat on; then it turns out to be a monster with wings, and it’s such a let-down: just another supernatural thing—it’s not real.”

“The mystery just goes in that moment,” agreed James. “The nineties It with Tim Curry was another one,” James went on. “I looked at films like that and thought about how they were more cinematically done than The Blair Witch Project because I didn’t want to go down the found footage route. Visually, we wanted to make those scenes where they were still OK, and only just arrived in the forest, bright bold colours; we didn’t want any miserable grey palette because this was a nice place they were visiting after all. It’s when things go bad that the colours turn dull blue and grey; that was a conscious decision. We also used two sets of vintage lenses to try to get that filmic smooth look, rather than a digital look; and a lot of the time the shots were very close, especially after the trouble started, giving a claustrophobic, trapped feel. If I did a wide shot, you’d see gaps in the trees and so on, making it feel like there was an easy escape available, but if it’s shot tight, there’s nowhere to go in sight.“

Claire (Margot Lin), Sarah (Ashlea Winfield), Tony (Blake Hutchings) and Emma (Sophie Simmons) ready to shoot The Shimian
Photo courtesy of James Peakman

Sounds like there are plenty of lessons to be learned from prior films, as well as some to be inspired by. “Absolutely,” agreed James. “That’s what I tried to do. Duel is another one: you never see the driver. There’s that brilliant scene in the bar, and the character looks at all the men in the bar to figure out who has been hounding him, looking for clues. One of them must be, but we never find out who. We didn’t have a multimillion-pound budget, so we had to figure out ways to make it interesting, so I just wanted to maintain some mystery to it, to keep people watching. All the way through production and post-production, we never shared anything about what the Shimian is; it was completely hidden away until the premiere. I wanted people at the premiere to not know what it was so that they felt they were in the same boat as the characters, not knowing what was going on. When Claire says, ‘I think I saw something in the woods, and it might be a Shimian,’ she’s telling the audience too.”

Being careful not to spoil the ending, I asked James whether there was any chance of a sequel. “Never say never,” he said. “It depends on how well it does.”

“Don’t forget,” came back Blake, “Mr. Harding from the beginning didn’t make it, but he came back. Anything could happen. Same with the Blatty descendent.”

“There’s always a family going on a camping trip somewhere, I guess,” said James.

“Or the Shimian goes to Butlins,” offered Jonjo, “and takes everyone out, an entire campsite, one by one!”

“Well, we deliberately tried not to answer everything,” said James. “Keeping some mystery and leaving the audience wondering; so there’s that showbiz thing: always keep them wanting more. I’ll just say maybe for now.”

Watch this space, I guess! In the meantime, The Shimian is available to rent or buy on Digital now.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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