Going Underground #2: Darren Ward

❉ Meet an indie film-maker with a determination to make the impossible possible.

“I was 22 years old and directed DAVID WARBECK – he had worked with Fulci, Lenzi, Martino, Margheriti, Sergio Leone – and here he was in Southampton burning peoples faces off with blowtorches and involved in bloody shootouts – He loved it, playing the bad guy.”

Growing up through the ‘90s, when I would devour all manner of whacked-out, gruesome viddy-shop horror film, it was only a matter of time before I was flicking through the pages of publications such as The Dark Side Magazine or Flesh and Blood and be turned on to the real strange and subversive stuff. It was in those zines for the most discerning cult film connoisseur that I would learn about the do-it-yourself film-makers who had poured their heart and souls into their first magnum opuses and whose ambitions knew no bounds. They thrived in a time when the chances of actually climbing the ranks into big budget territories were actually quite likely. Some progressed to bigger films that would actually see a multiplex cinema screen. Others disappeared off the face of the planet; while a solid few soldiered on and kept making the films they wanted to whilst answering to nobody. Labels such as Screen Edge hosted the cream of the DIY renaissance onto the home video market with their incredible output of gritty, gory, transgressive, and downright weird films. The market was ripe for the indie explosion.

Alongside the likes of Alex Chandon and Jake West; Darren Ward was among the names of the enterprising British indie film-makers of the ’90s who inspired me to pick up a camcorder and make films myself. They weren’t afraid to exhaust all possible channels to acquire the funding they needed and they each made films that encapsulated an anarchic sense of the alternative but not without cinematic flair.

L-R: Nick Rendell, the legendary Giovanni Lombardo Radice, and Darren Ward.

Southampton-based Ward grew up devouring all things horror in the age of the home video boom. It was the Italian horror imports in particular which satisfied his love for splatter and gore and made him want to become a special effects artist:

”I dreamed of becoming a Special Effects artist, I read anything I could find on Tom Savini, by then in my early teens I would try out gory effects on my poor mates who had popped round.  Many an evening cooking foam latex in my Mum’s oven and stinking the house out… Happy days.”

In 1989 – Ward’s final year in school – he joined the set of local micro-budget zombie flick Dead Time where he played a victim and it was there he met Alastair Vardy; special effects technician who went on to work on all of Ward’s films as well as major industry fare such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), World War Z (2013) and Game of Thrones (2011-2019). From then on Ward would involve himself in several gore and action filled shorts up until around 1992 when he’d found himself ready to direct films of his own:

I decided to go ahead and make my first film ‘Paura Il Diavolo’, a 45min short horror influenced by ‘Demons’.  Then I made a giallo ‘Blue Fear’ 1993, 70mins.  Both of these shorts were individually released on VHS by myself and I sold copies from my bedroom…I then made a short 17min film ‘Bitter Vengeance’, that was made specifically for an annual awards ceremony that was held at BAFTA each year called BAVA (British Amateur Video Awards), hosted by Jeremy Beadle. The film was awarded ‘Very Highly Commended’ by the judges and one of their comments was ‘I would love to see how these characters would develop over a feature film.”

And thus Sudden Fury; the first instalment in his eventual ‘Fury Trilogy’ was born. It stood apart from the usual fare that orientated towards the horror and fantastical by being a balls to the wall action revenge epic; a high velocity bullet ballet that made him South-East England’s cut-price John Woo – a tag you’d happily apply after viewing his break-through feature film.

Sudden Fury (1997)

Ward’s plot set ups are decidedly simple and straight forward so he can springboard us into a world of high-octane ultra-violence without much messing around. Sudden Fury concerns characters recurring from the Bitter Vengeance short. Randall; a small-time crime boss has ambitions to rise to the top of the cocaine trade. He hires deadly gun-for-hire Walker (Nick Rendell) to take out the competition, but when there’s betrayal and vengeance on the cards it was only ever going to get messy.

The cast is a mix-up of professional, semi-professional, and enthusiastic friends of Ward. Most notably in the mix is a memorable turn from highly missed cult legend David Warbeck (The Beyond, The Last Hunter) as the asthmatic lunatic ‘Pike’. Ward simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to cast Warbeck when meeting him at an exploitation film event at the Everyman, Hampstead:

”On the Saturday afternoon, as my mate Adam and I are sat at the bar having a drink, David Warbeck walks in (turns out he lived less than 10mins away on foot), soon there was a line of people queuing up for Autographs. I couldn’t let the opportunity slip by to ask David to be involved with Sudden Fury, so I waited in the queue and made up my story.  When I reached the table I thrust my newly printed business card into his face and blurted out something like ‘Hi, My name is Darren Ward, I’m a film director based in Southampton and I’ve written a role for you in my action film.  The character is called ‘Pike’. David just stared at me for a few moments and then said ‘Come up next weekend, show me what you have already and yes, I’d love to be part of it.  He wrote his address on the back of my card and I made my way back over to the bar.

“I said to my mate Adam, ‘Fuck, he said yes, I better get back and start writing the character of Pike!’ I hadn’t thought of this role until the moment Warbeck walked into the Everyman…To meet someone you have grown up watching in countless Italian movies is one thing, but to then have them star in your first feature film for free and invite you into their life was totally amazing experience.  Remember I was 22 years old and directed DAVID WARBECK – he had worked with Fulci, Lenzi, Martino, Margheriti, Sergio Leone – and here he was in Southampton burning peoples faces off with blowtorches and involved in bloody shootouts – He loved it, playing the bad guy.”

David Warbeck in ‘Sudden Fury’

Warbeck’s presence is symbolic of Darren Ward’s passion for Italian crime and horror cinema of the 1960s, ’70s and the early 1980s. His unflinching sequences of gruesome violence had his film, whilst not outright horror – share the lineage of Italian crime and action films that are often so graphic that they often cross the boundary into horror and, like Ward’s films, are embraced by the horror and exploitation loving communities. He explains:

Even though the budgets were tiny compared to their American counterparts, Italian movies made up for that with beautiful set design, lighting, camerawork, real craft and it really pops out at you.  The longevity of these films – and I’m talking across many genres here, is partly due to the lets make every frame matter attitude, the composition of framing is immaculate, camera movement majestic in many cases.  An excess of everything visual and audible.  That is what I take with me when I make my films.  My crime trilogy has allowed me to play out some very outlandish set-pieces that maybe I wouldn’t attack with such gusto like I do, if it wasn’t for the great Italian masters that have influenced me since a young age. I try and keep the tradition alive in my own way.”

Shot on high-band UMatic tape between April ’95 till August ’97 on a mostly self financed budget of £15,000; Sudden Fury had its world premiere at The Crimson Eye Film Festival in Stuttgart, Germany in May ’98 and wowed audiences with its truly audacious action set-pieces with gun blanks and bullet sparks firing off all over the shop, characters getting splattered with endless blood-filled squibs and other gory gags. I asked Darren how these were pulled off:

‘‘All the pyrotechnics were done by Alastair Vardy and all the special make-up effects were Stuart Browne.  Al had been trying to get into the industry as an effects artist and was always willing and keen to try out and make the best of everything we could.  Al supplied gods knows how many squibs for the film and I wanted big Peckinpah squibs…and I think we did ok. We had a gun armourer down on set who would leave the Danny Cannon ‘Judge Dredd’ set and bring guns and ammo down to us – we had specially made cartridges for Stallone going off in the movie.’’

Equally remarkable was the camera work in the film. Fury certainly rested on the higher end of shot-on-video film production.  Ward and director of photography Peter Dobson really pulled out the stops with their hugely inventive movements and set ups:

‘‘We used wheelchairs for a Dolly.  Converted large ladders with pulley systems, so we could achieve crane shots, you name it we tried it.’

The plot of Sudden Fury, as straight forward as it is, is a little uneven with its dealing of the characters. Folks no doubt criticised this along with some of the acting that is par the course for indie films of the type but, you know what? – The marvel of Sudden Fury is that it is a shot-on-video product of hugely inventive budding film-makers elevated by it’s stunningly ingenious cinematography and gob-smackingly executed action sequences that match and even surpass the numerous action films that were out around the same time with twenty times the budget. Ward wanted to make a balls-to-the-wall action flick and he pulled it off.  It remains one of the most amazing examples of ambitious indie film-making to come out of the 1990s.

A Day Of Violence (2009)

It would be 12 years before the release of A Day of Violence; Ward’s second feature film and the second in his ‘Fury trilogy’. Make no mistake, the long gap in between was spent productively; after touring with Sudden Fury in 2000 he wrote the first draft of Beyond Fury and wrote a zombie film called ‘Insurrection‘ that almost saw production. It was to star Ian McCulloch of Zombi and Contamination fame. Sadly the film never was and after a couple of years down-time he made the short film Nightmares (2004); a grim little short about a serial killer shot on Super16mm film.

A Day of Violence is another exercise in rabbles of underworld bad-lads making mince meat of each other, only this time his plot is more focused and with it achieved a piece of work that was even meaner, nastier and much gorier than it’s predecessor. Debt collector Mitchell (Nick Rendell; fulfilling the role of leading man once again) finds 100 grand stuffed in the sofa of one of his drugged up clients (Icon of the Italian exploitation age Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and decides to kill him, run with the money and tell his gaffer that it was already raided upon his arrival. Now he has a ruthless gang on his tail who want their money back. Cue a rampage of seriously vicious bloodshed where nobody comes out unscathed.

Giovanni Lombardo Radice in his neck cast for A Day Of Violence.

Radice made a career out of getting killed in various disturbing and ultra-violent ways in the numerous Italian classics of the golden age such as Cannibal Ferox (1981), Cannibal Apocalypse (1980), City of the Living Dead (1980) – and Darren Ward continues that tradition here with gusto. Radice’s turn doesn’t last too far beyond the opening titles but his cameo is certainly a memorably bloody one, and also the start of further collaborations with the Italo-inspired auteur.

Myspace was the big social media event at the time.  I was browsing one day and stumbled across a page of Giovanni, so I emailed and said who I was and that I had a script for ADOV and ‘Would you be interested in reading it?’  Also I tacked on: ‘Is this really you, or a fan page?’

That night I received an email back from Giovanni saying, ‘Hi, it is really me!’

I sent the script over and Giovanni loved it…he wanted to play the part of ‘Boswell’, the big boss in the film.  Unfortunately due to not knowing where the budget was coming from, or how much we would have, I had to turn him down because I couldn’t afford to keep flying him back and forth from Rome, when I didn’t have a proper schedule setup at the time.  Giovanni agreed to play ‘Hopper’, the doomed druggy at the start of the film.

He was going to be over in Manchester in sept 2007 for a convention, so we planned to meet up at his hotel, so that I could cast his neck for ‘Hoppers’ gruesome neck cutting.  So Stuart Browne and I travelled up to Manchester and cast his neck and chin in his hotel room. Two months later in November 2007 we were filming in Southampton.”

The digital cinematography for A Day of Violence was decidedly more verite’ in style with less of the stylish movements of Sudden Fury to create a raw and gritty urgency to the carnage on screen. Ward explains:

The raw look for A Day of Violence was planned from the start, I wanted the film to be hyper realistic in its look and energy.  When it gets brutal it’s in there with all the blood and gore (Always my nod to Maestro Fulci), and we juxtapose that with Steadicam and dolly shots.  I had never used Steadicam before in my films, and my new DOP John Raggett happened to own one.”

Our lead is a dead man walking from the start and with suspicions rising on both sides – the camerawork really highlights his frenetic sense of impending danger. The pace, confrontational violence & gore and overall doom-laden tone to ADoV seals the deal in it being an extremely unrelenting picture that crossed into horror territories even more explicitly than it’s predecessor:

”Overall the two films differ as I see the action/violence a little more cartoonish in SF, whereas I wanted A Day of Violence to slap you round the face with its hyper violence.  We had walkouts at every screening I attended on certain splatter scenes.  Nick was even accosted by an angry couple at the screening in Edinburgh at Harvey Fenton’s FabFest 2010, who stated how disgusted they were at the violence.  In fact after the festival I had telephone calls from the cinema asking me to make a statement on justifying the violence.  The couple who had accosted Nick, had complained to the Scottish film board.  I refused, stating ‘Why did they go to an exploitation festival, to watch a film called A DAY OF VIOLENCE and then complain because it’s violent?’  What did they expect? Bambi!?”

Beyond Fury (2019)

2019 saw the work-print screening of Beyond Fury at the Romford Film Festival – the conclusion of Ward’s Fury Trilogy and also the most ambitious undertaking of his career so far. The post HD age has swept the consumer and professional camera market so there is less room to hide some of the seams that come with low to no budget films. Beyond Fury was shot in RAW 2.5k on Arri Prime lenses with a Black Magic camera so we are talking crystal clear images. With the upgrade it meant that Ward could leave no chances with the spectacle he had in mind regarding all the assets you would see on screen.

‘’I wanted BF to be the grandest looking film I had made to date.  I really wanted it to pop on the screen from the very start to the end.  I wanted it to carry the feel of the 70’s euro crime films, gritty, unpredictable, but most importantly entertaining with enough set pieces that leave an impression once the film is over…I wanted to make a proper film you know? Let it breath, go places I hadn’t before with my characters.’’

Beyond Fury is quite clearly the colossal undertaking one would expect from an ambitious auteur who seeks to out-do himself with every next film he makes.  It would take Ward 5 long years to see it’s completion:

‘’From the first days filming on 14th April 2015 to the last on 28th Nov 2018, to post which wasn’t completed until April 2020…It has been the most difficult and demanding film to date and one I am not keen to ever repeat – the long five year shoot that is. Demanding comes with the territory.’’

Ward didn’t even have a budget in place this time round. He was sick of ‘‘waiting for the magical cheque to appear, so I just thought fuck it, lets start.’’ He shot a lot of the dialogue driven scenes first and would gradually move into the more complicated and expensive set pieces that have become an exciting staple of his work. Not only was he juggling the organisation of a whole cast and crew – including an international range of actors flying in from the US, Germany and Italy but also balancing family life, his full time job and a mortgage.

Beyond Fury sees the return of the character Walker from Sudden Fury (once again played by Nick Rendell). He is trying to put his past life behind him and settle down with his pregnant wife Claudia (scream queen Dani Thompson) but true to form in a Darren Ward picture things go drastically wrong and our man Walker finds himself on the path of vengeance as he goes up against a ruthless crime syndicate headed by Russian mob-boss Ivan Lenzivitch (Giovanni Lombardo Radice promoted this time to chief antagonist).

Beyond Fury not only boasts the most diverse and interesting cast to grace a Ward epic yet – with names such as the late film legend Dan Van Husen in his final role – but also the most graphic and relentless gore effects afforded to him yet – provided by Beau Townsend:

“Beau is extremely talented, he had never done any of the special effects you see in the film before.  I knew he had something when we first met at a film expo in Southampton, he had some stuff there on show, we met up afterwards and discussed the film in length. He was really keen and I thought ‘you know what – let’s give it a whirl’. The gore is off the charts in this film.  Like I always do, I got stuck in casting body parts from the actors and I would then post everything up to Norwich and Beau would do the rest.  We would talk about every little detail as I am a perfectionist when it comes to the effects in my films.  They have to look realistic…end of!”

Ward’s old friend Alastair Vardy was on hand to provide some of the pyrotechnic work but due to his commitment on Game of Thrones for most of the production – Ward found himself doing around 70% of the pyrotechnics and squib effects himself:

‘’It took me four hours to rig the nightclub scene in BF, no backup, no second take (I hadn’t done pyros in 20 years).  I had no firing box, so armed with a plank of wood with 40 nails in I; I would individually wrap each connection round a nail head and strike them with a battery with a cable hanging off it.  Well, the old way still worked.  They went off a treat showering everything with blood.”

Squibs ready to blow: ‘Beyond Fury’

Beyond Fury may have been the most taxing and grandiose project of Ward’s film-making life but he would be unaware of the challenging landscape that would await it’s completion. The film was due to premiere in its complete form on 28 March 2020 at the Harbour Lights Picturehouse, Southampton, but due to the onset of the pandemic and the start of lockdown it never happened.        The film market has also changed considerably since his days with A Day of Violence. I asked Ward how much it had differed:

‘’Massively, everything is wrapped up in VOD, digital downloads. Gone are the big pay deals for indie films. The companies that ten years ago paid £10k plus for your movie, now either want it for a nominal fee, or free with back end splits. It is harder than ever, this year hasn’t helped anyone with the whole world on lockdown etc. Festivals cancelled, private screenings cancelled. However you soldier on. BF will be released in Italy & US (the complete trilogy) later this year. As for the rest of the world, we are plugging away.’’

Whilst we look forward to seeing more of Beyond Fury and degrees of normality in the world; Darren looks ahead to where he is heading next now that the ambitious trilogy that began in April 1995 is finally complete:

‘’I am currently writing a new script.  Tentatively titled ‘ Armed to the Teeth’.  Not what you might expect from me, but it is early days yet, so won’t say too much. My first female lead.  I am also wanting to release a large colour coffee style book on the making of the trilogy.  I have almost 9,000 photos from the trilogy, I would love to write the ups and downs of an indie trilogy over 25 years, spattered with many BTS and never seen before photos.  We will see what next year brings on that front. I would love to film a spaghetti western in Almeria, the towns are still there, the scenery is as striking as ever.  I would also love to make a real ‘Giallo’, black gloved killer with all the trimmings.’’

Darren Ward.

Darren Ward is an auteur whose films you could call uncompromising – and with an uncompromising vision comes an uncompromising determination to make the impossible possible. Most indie film-makers wouldn’t dream of taking their films to such visceral and cinematic heights yet Ward’s work are clearly the products of a film-maker making films that he would want to go and see. His films have taken him to such far reaching corners of the movie business that he has found himself rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in the game and will stop at nothing to deploy his ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ policy of film-making to achieve the vast scope of his visions.  Somewhere in the mix I asked him if he had any ‘mad’ stories to let us in on:

“What about the one where I got smacked round the face by Jean-Claude Van Damme, or told to ‘Fuck off’ by David Carradine, or giving two copies of A Day of Violence to Eli Roth (one for Quentin?)  I have so many I could tell.”

I guess you’re going to have to wait for his colossal coffee table book for those juicy tales.

Click here to buy SUDDEN FURY on DVD from Amazon.

Click here to buy A DAY OF VIOLENCE on DVD from Amazon.

❉ BEYOND FURY is set to screen at the Horror on Sea Festival May 15th 2021 and is awaiting retail release.

Thomas Lee Rutter is a director and editor, and creator of Carnie Films’ folk horror short Bella InThe Wych Elm (2017), acid western Day of the Stranger (2019) and upcoming feature The Pocket Film of Superstitions (2021).

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