Interview: MRS. PEPPERCORN'S MAGICAL READING ROOM Director Mike Le Han

Interviewby Jim Napier
If you read the site you have likely seen us reporting on a cool short film called Mrs. Peppercorn's Magical Reading Room.  We have posted the trailer and posters for the film.  I had the chance to interview Mike Le Han the writer and director of the short. Keep reading to learn about Le Han's transition from being a session musician in the early 90's to being the successful writer and director he is today.
 
What made you decide to make the transition from music to film?
 
Way back in the early 90’s after leaving school I jumped right into music, no qualifications, just pure determination. Music was a form of creativity that allowed me to express myself. Shortly after I realised that playing live performances wasn’t for me, I’m not interested in being famous I was more interested in the creative aspect of music, so moved over to session work which i did successfully for some time. Also during this time I was asked to teach blind students computer based music, so was given the challenge to figure a way of helping them use something that was very visual without the aid of sight. Was very rewarding. Then while in LA back in 1994 I was introduced to post production having being requested to record some music for a trailer for a ‘B’ rated movie. I found the whole creative process fund and engaging, so without any experience in post I returned to the UK and set out to create one of the largest independent post facilities outside of London. This ended up being my main focus for a couple of years and was very successful at that. spent every penny I had and went from being relatively comfortable financially to being skint (as they say in the UK), but I was creating rewarding work, having the opportunity to work on commercials, television dramas and short films, but.... I wasn’t totally happy. Then in late 95 I was given a project to mix the sound on, but unfortunately some footage had been damaged, the producer and director had fallen out and they couldn’t finish the film. As we had cameras, me being me said ‘Hey I’ll re-shoot it for you’, but had no idea about directing. Throwing myself in head first i loved it, I found that the creative process very rewarding and it fulfilled me. I’d finally found what I was good at and enjoyed. So from there I set out to direct as much material as I could whether good or bad. I wanted to learn as much as possible and 15 years on I’m still learning.

You have a lot of experience writing, producing and directing projects.  What is your favorite aspect of the creative process?
 
That’s got to be directing, creating something interesting and engaging for the audience no matter what the genre. Producing a great story and bringing in the audience into your world is paramount. Creating storyboards to visualise how something will look on screen, to bring the characters to life, then on set reproducing those images I’d imagined, painting a picture so to speak. I’m someone who wants to push boundaries, someone with imagination, drive and ambition to create images that have yet to be seen. I don’t direct like others, I don’t even follow any other director. Some colleagues have their favourite director, I don’t. I either like the way something has been shot, or the way a story unfolds, or I don’t. It’s that black and white for me, but then again I only work in black and white, no shades of grey. Everything is possible, you just have to figure a way of doing it.
Movies or shows revolving around Heists are some of my favorite types.  It seems as though we share an interest, you have directed the The Great Train Robbery and most recently have been directing Britain's Biggest Heists.  What attracts you to this type of material?
 
When I was asked to work on those shows I wanted to do something a little different. Being brought in just to direct the drama elements of a show is difficult, you don’t know how other elements will be, how the producer wants to cut the film, so you have to think way outside the box and make sure every eventuality is covered. It’s not like working to a script and shoot 5 pages a day, we’re shooting 50 scenes a day and that day isn’t an 8 hour day, it 18 hour days and intense for 5 long gruelling days, but when it’s complete, it’s complete. I’m not a money driven person, sure having money is great, but what entices me to a project is something that pushes my thought process. I ask myself ‘can I make this better than good?’ If I think I can then I’ll take the project on no matter what they are willing to pay. Sometimes the wage is LOW and sometimes its good, but what makes it worthwhile for me is producing some great visual shots with limited funding and working real hard for the time I’m on set. Plus, working with guns is great fun...

To date your projects have been for TV and film shorts.  What plans do you have fore feature length film in the future?
 
Yeah, I’ve been working in television for most of my career, but you are limited in the UK on being creative, it’s more about the story and less about the picture. We don’t create that many engaging beautifully shot dramas, in the US there’s so much more freedom. The only place really for visuals to be beautiful is in film and I’ve always wanted to direct a feature, so dipping into shorts has given me that creative freedom. So in January Helen (my wife) and I set to crate a short film that would 1. be beautifully shot with extremely high production design and 2. have a story that engaged the audience to show that I'm a not so bad director. Unfortunately with ZERO money to make anything it was a case of OK how do we shoot this. So with all my contacts in the industry I set about calling round and getting everyone I knew involved. And we created the short film Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room. Huge production value, epic in size and direction. I wanted it to be the best short film ever. Hope we are half way there. Anyway the trailer went live in July and interest started creeping in from all corners of the globe. We’d always known that the short should be a feature, so set about writing the first film of the trilogy. We’re now at the point where SVP’s of all the main studios want the short and a copy of the script. Final tweaks of the script are being made on this very ambitious project. So hopefully one studio will love it and we’ll get it made. I’m also searching for other films to work on and noticed Guillermo Del Toro is producing Drood, now I love period films anything pre 1900’s and I’d love to direct it, so Guillermo if you are out there and read this, get in touch.

I have to say that I love the trailer for Mrs. Peppercorn's Magical Reading Room!  The trailer is better than many big budget Hollywood trailers in my opinion.
 
Thank for saying so, yeah, the trailer is beautiful, and that’s not even the graded material. Stephen Murphy my DOP did such a great job at creating my vision of what I wanted to see. A very talented guy – he’s one to watch for sure. Like I said previously, the production design by Helen Le Han was amazing and all this done with a shoe string budget. We closed a street down for three nights and dressed it in snow every day before shooting. Created frost on glass, making a northern England village look like a Cornish fishing village on the south coast with no money is a tall order, but that’s what I wanted and that’s what we did. Nothing is impossible.

I know you wrote the story with your wife Helen, how did you come up with the concept for Mrs. Peppercorn's?
 
Helen and I were sat in our local coffee shop (which features in the film) the day after new year (in 2010) pondering how I could make that move into features when I looked over the road and saw the Talisman Bookshop, quaint little shop with really old books and said ‘We should use that as a location’. Both Helen and I loved the location of the village and had a very distinctive idea of how we’d want to use it. That same day the idea of Peppercorn began. I personally can’t work on a script without having a title first and Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room just jumped out. We talked about how we could use the locations in the village where we lived to our advantage and set about writing the script. Over breakfasts we’d talk about the motive for Eloise (the young girl) and why the family had moved to Black Lake (the setting for the film), we wanted to create something beautiful, yet really engaging for the audience. About three days later we had a very rough script which Helen took apart and rebuilt. We worked on the dialogue, developing the characters and Helen’s amazing interpretation of people and real life. About a week later we had a script and were ready. Not many people really go into production that quick, but if something feels right, then what the hell, go for it. And we did on the grandest scale possible.

The sound quality and score is amazing for the trailer.  How do you feel your background in music has impacted the importance of sound in your directing work?
 
A picture is just a picture until you add sound and its just as if not more important than the images. We’ve been very lucky to have shot something so beautiful that when showing it to some industry people they just had to get involved. Alex Joseph the sound supervisor has worked on films like Harry Potter, Bond, Clash Of the Titans, he’s one of two big sound supervisors in the UK and he wanted to do Peppercorn. Kevin Kliesch who is a god at film composition, his score for Peppercorn is brilliant and exactly what I was wanting. Struggling with the time difference, him being in LA and me being in the UK, I regularly got up at 4AM each morning to ICHAT within him about the music. Kevin has worked on some epic films and recently finished working on the Disney Tangled. Amazing composer and so fast too. Hollywood should keep an eye on him.

The cast for Mrs. Peppercorn's seems like a very dynamic group of character actors.  Emily Coggins seems to stand out in her role of Eloise.  Is this her first acting experience?
 
The who cast who worked for free through gruelling cold nights were amazing. Emily indeed experienced her first time as a lead and in fact first time on camera. She was only eight at the time and loved working with her. We wanted someone who had that angelic look without being Hollywood pretty girl. Someone who at first felt weak in performance but grew as the film moved forwards. This is what the script/story needed and she did a great job at it. We just had to be careful not to give her to much chocolate or she got a little manic as eight year old kids get when tired and experiencing a sugar rush at 3AM in the morning.

The lighting and special effect effects do a fantastic job of creating a tone of fantasy and mystery. My favorite aspect is the flickering of the scene in front of the fire.  Were all of your special effects done in house for Mrs. Peppercorn's?
 
Practical effects were all done on set from snow machines through to flickering fires and lanterns coming on, all the VFX was done by a huge team of people who all got involved. I think in total we had 14 vfx people and our amazing vfx supervisor Ben Haworth at Flipbook Studio who over saw and also contributed to the 40 some vfx shots. The Reading Room location had three windows and a fireplace, the script depicted a room full of books floor to ceiling with only a door as a means of entrance. So they had to re-create cgi bookcases and comp them into the 17 shots used in the cut. Very time consuming especially as the camera is always moving. We’ve got people all over the world working on this film from Germany, Belgium through to LA and Australia. It’s become an international project.

What festivals has Mrs. Peppercorn's Magical Reading Room been shown at lately?  I can't wait to see the full short!  Are there any plans for showing at any upcoming festivals in the states?
 
The short is currently being graded at Technicolor (London) and sound post at Pinewood Studios and will be finished by the 20th December. We shall have a private viewing over Christmas and then it will go off to all the main festivals like Rhode Island and LA International Film Fest. The trailer was entered into the International Movie Trailer Festival in LA and won on Best trailer for an un-produced film on the 1st December, so it’s already winning awards before its being finished. Don’t think many other shorts have done that.

Mrs. Peppercorn's Magical Reading Room is a film that allows audiences to escape into a magical world of fantasy.  As a child growing up or even as an adult, what films have allowed you to escape?
 
Oh... tough question. I love epic films anything on a grand scale. I think one of my favourite films is Minority Report, even though it’s not an old film I think the use of vfx and live footage works really well. They’ve used vfx to aid in telling the story and not used it to be the story if that makes sense. The princess bride was a great film for it’s time, flash gordon another classic. I remember going to see Ghostbusters when I was 11 or 12, that was a fun movie to watch. There were films like BIG and Ground Hog Day which I love, even though not fantasy they still have the magical quality. My DVD and now Blu-ray collection is eclectic from epic cgi based movies through to romance. if it’s got a great story, brilliant cast and excellent production value I’m sold. I think with all teenagers we go through that horror stage and at 8 years old I saw The Zombie Flesh Eaters... I had nightmares for weeks after. The old Hammer films too, did they give me the shivers... classics. I’m currently into The Walking Dead show from AMC, great cast, brilliant story and wow the production design is awesome. Frank hire me!


Where can fans find more information about Mrs. Peppercorn's Magical Reading Room and other projects you have coming up?
 
Is there anything else you would like to add?
 
I think you have my life story there, but if anyone who is interested enough to read this and you have a film you’d like to direct, get in touch.

Here are some cool pictures from the set of Mrs. Peppercorn's Magical Reading Room:
 

 

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