Following up his review of Father of Flies, Hugh has a chat with the film’s director.
Thanks for giving us some of your time Ben., I watched Father of Flies last week and really enjoyed it. You must be delighted with the feedback you’re getting?
Yeah, absolutely. And thanks for the review actually, I read it and it’s definitely fair and a nice review. With reviews I always feel you should either read them all or read none of them, you know? (laughs). You have to take the good with the bad and with this film it has been predominantly good, which is great and really encouraging
And good reviews and good critique is there for people to learn from, it’s a vital part of filmmaking, it’s just a hard pill to swallow when you know you’ve fucked up and see something you don’t like!
But I’m really happy with it, and with this film it’s truly a film I never thought I’d finish; I mean, I wanted to finish but it just got to some points where I thought it was impossible for so many different reasons. We just sort of lost our way with it and it sat there on a hard drive for years, which makes it all the sweeter to get it finished and to have the reception it’s had. Especially for Nicholas Tucci who passed on, and his father, that was the main reason I finished it.
Do you mind if I ask you a little about that? What was the process that led to it being delayed?
Any film is a mission. I spoke with someone recently who said ‘it’s such a great achievement to just get a film made these days’ and I was like ‘No! We’ve all got a fucking iPhone, anyone can shoot a movie!’ (laughs). The achievement is shooting a good one and finishing it.
A film has so many different lives to it; it has the script stage, the principal photography stage, then there were a huge number of hiccups and VFX that had to be completed in the UK and then there was a hell of a lot of post and edit process behind it too. And it was a very tricky film to cut because of the ending, and the many ways that we could tell it, and I think as your review stated it was clear that some things were left on the cutting room floor. It was one of those films where you really had to kill your darlings, and it was a very tough thing to do.
It was hard to finish a film as a UK production that was filmed in the US. Once you pack up and come back, you’re really limited. It’s not like you can just pop down the road to film some pick-ups. And life gets in between; I had scenes with Nicholas Tucci in the film that needed significant ADR and it was quite clear that we couldn’t get that. And then it became an issue of how to do that? How do we do that justice? How would cutting those scenes impact the rest of the film? So, it had a pretty huge knock-on effect.
And we had a lot of bizarre incidents that happened on set; we ended up getting it exorcised by a priest, we had car crashes, the set house was stalked at night! There were so many odd things that happened and the film just seemed to be cursed for a while. And then with Nick’s passing it just sort of was like… wow.
But at the same time, it was Nick’s passing that made me really want to find a way to finish this regardless. It was one of his last movies. He really was a brilliant man, and I really enjoyed working with him. I’m not just saying that, he was such a lovely guy and did such a great job. There were so many of his scenes that were improvised and so many that had to be left on the cutting room floor. It seemed in so many ways to be such a sad affair to just leave that. And so, with fresh eyes a year later, I had a new approach to it and had a composer on board. And a huge part of horror is really that feeling you generate when you pull the audience in through the score.
We had a great team of editors. We had three editors and three composers across the film, and for a small indie horror that is quite a lot! (laughs) But it needed it to get it to a place that did the film justice and set the wheels in motion again.
And to make a film is a privilege, it really is. You carry that weight on your shoulders for everyone involved and all of their talent; I’m talking below the line, like Heads of Departments in particular, I mean sod the producers (laughs). There is a hell of a lot of people’s imagination and time, and the last thing you want to do is churn out something half baked.
I was in no rush; I needed it to be completed by the right people, in the right way and at the right time.
You co-wrote the film with Nadia Doherty; how did you guys get the balance right in this film of revealing just enough of the plot without spoiling anything in the final act?
That’s a really good question, and that was done partly in the edit. It was part of the struggle I spoke about earlier. The story is partly based on my experiences as a child of divorce and other experiences that really stuck with me, and not in a depressive way but more of a reflective way.
This idea of an evil stepmother is such a cliché, but like many tropes in horror it is there for a reason. I was by myself on a train journey for hours in Morocco when I wrote the original draft and I just started to work it out.
That question you asked about knowing how much to hold back and what to tell; that’s the whole point of childhood. You’re involved in the mix but know so very little. You take everything on the terms of what your parents tell you or what your teacher tells you, or what the TV tells you. And you’re trying to piece together morality, life in general, trying to work out who’s good and who’s bad. These are questions that all children have and that we search for forever. But it leaves you none the wiser as a kid, and that was part of the message and theme of the film, which we see from Michael’s perspective, and he just doesn’t know.
And because of that it leaves us on the backfoot. And we’re so quick to judge other people, especially the ‘other woman’, the vain stepmother. All these ideas that we get from things like Snow White are there for a reason, you know?
The film is very fair with the viewer; you give just enough information so that when that ending comes you don’t feel cheated as an audience.
I didn’t want to mislead the audience. I felt that there wasn’t a need to, because as any young child may experience with a new Mum or Dad in the house, they’re not intentionally being misled. You see things how you choose to see them, and the clues are there and I think the trick in the film is trying to find that balance. It’s about how Michael chooses to perceive things, and perhaps there could have been a far different outcome if he had kept his mind a bit more open (laughs).
You mentioned some of the cast, Keaton Tetlow seems to be a great find.
We found Keaton through a casting director in the US. And I didn’t want to work with a child that had too much experience, because we really wanted to create an environment that he could believe in. I think that’s what created a natural performance from Keaton as he wasn’t really over thinking things. And I think that we structured the shooting schedule to help with that. We didn’t shoot it all linearly, though it would have been nice to, but he hadn’t seen the ‘monster under the bed’ ever, but he knew it was in the house. So a lot of his fear was real (laughs), and the house was very dark and he was kept in the darkness, and the set was dark too. So, he would come into this scary set, and he knew he was shooting a horror, and would be like ‘what the hell is this monster?! Where is it?’ (laughs)
And he never got to see it, he never knew where it was. The only time he got to see it is when he does first and finally see it in the film; and that jump that he gives us where the camera and the room shakes is real, because he jumped so hard that he kicked the camera and the tripod! That look of fear is real, and it made me shout too (laughs) I remember as he turned away from the television screen to face the thing, I could see the fear in his eyes and I though he was going to scream! But he was so scared that aside from the initial flinch he just froze as his little brain was trying to take it all in. The hairs on my arms were standing up and all I could think was ‘my god! I’ve destroyed this kid for the next ten years!’ (laughs).
His performance was brilliant, he was so committed, and he really believed in it.
How did you find the rest of the cast?
Well, Camilla Rutherford who plays Coral I had worked with before in the UK. She’s a brilliant actress and is great at treading that line of ambiguity in her performance. You’re never quite sure what Camilla is thinking, and we really needed that for the character.
I also like the idea of the stepmother being British. I was brought up in Britain by a Swiss stepmother and that coldness that only the Swiss and the Brits can deliver, combined with these different sensibilities, ways of doing things, even accents create a more alien presence in the house.
Colleen Heidemann is a terrific model. She has crazy beautiful white hair, and she was based on the babysitter (Vivienne) I had next door as a child. She looked just like Colleen, and when I saw her for the first time it was just like ’my god, she looks just like my babysitter Vivienne!’.
Looking back, Vivienne was quite a strange looking woman but I wasn’t afraid of her. She was such a sweet woman who gave me so much of her time as a child, so it seemed like so much of a terrific coincidence when I saw Colleen.
Colleen has such an amazing outlook on life. The film is about fear, and everyone has their own things to worry about. Mrs Stark (Colleen’s character) feels she already has access to knowledge of the other side, but it doesn’t make her any less scared. She’s scared of being alone, of dying alone, of not being able to remember parts of her life. She has already lost her husband and has no one to say ‘remember when we did this?’, ‘remember when we did that?’. Can you imagine how devastatingly awful and scary that must be?
And Colleen had some experience with knowing that feeling. When she does that scene in the garden with Michael, I think she really felt it.
Nick Tucci, well I loved him in You’re Next which is such a great film. He was great in it and has this sort of cheekiness to him that you would want in a Dad, and at that point You’re Next had been a few years ago and he was kind of at that stage where hew could smash that performance so well.
Page Ruth was found through the same agency ass Collen Heidemann. She had just started out on her acting career and had a few really good roles, and her mannerisms reminded me so much of my sister so she worked great for the role.
There were a lot of scenes for Page Ruth’s Donna that just didn’t make the edit that were excellent. I imagine now that we’ve got this done and out there that there will be a point when I’ll revisit it with another cut, maybe extend it. Once you know the ingredients work you feel safe to push it a bit further as there are a few great bits and great performances that really should be in there.
The film is doing the festival run right now, what are the distribution options looking like?
The first quarter of next year, around March, Trinity 101 US/UK are distributing the film. So that’s exciting, and Screen International just announced into the American Film Market last week so that’s going to be good. So, it’ll go out to streamers and maybe even a limited theatrical run.
That’s exciting; it feels like a film that will find an audience quite quickly once it’s widely available. It has such a weird energy about it and has so many arresting visuals. In particular, the odd featureless mask that Coral wears in the film is really haunting. What was that?
Without running the risk of getting shot or assassinated, it’s something to do with (whispers) scientology (laughs). I need to do more research into it, but it was a device that was on the market at some point in the 80’s and early 90’s, but it ran into some legal issues… (laughs)
The device fries your frontal cortex with these weird mobile batteries on metal pins that apparently make you look younger. I found a great review of it on Amazon where some housewife had claimed to have put it on, but it fried her brain and she woke up in a poppy-field semi-naked! (laughs)
I thought, well if anything is going to drive somebody mad it would be doing this. There was that kind of undertone to the reviews of this mask, that it has sent people nuts! I figured well that would explain Coral’s strange behaviour! (laughs)
It doesn’t really need an explanation in the film, it just adds to that uneasy atmosphere where nothing is as it should be.
Yeah, and I suppose that’s the point. We do things that are a bit bizarre or look a bit bizarre, like last year during lockdown where you had people walking around wearing these big facemasks that were a bit terrifying. I suppose there’s an irony there of making yourself terrifically scary for a moment just to improve your look (laughs).
I also liked the idea of having another barrier up between her and the children. And it’s just vanity; she’s a little younger, trying to hold on to her youth, and as you say it just adds another layer of oddness.
Are you a horror fan yourself, Ben? What kind of films get under your skin?
I grew up in a haunted house and I was terrified as a child until I made peace with it. I realised as a child that if wanted to harm me or do worse that scare me it would have done so by now. The house that I’m in now… I sometimes question if it’s all in my mind or if something is bothering me (laughs).
I’m always looking for that kind of roller coaster; I want something to affect me, I want something to make my stomach go. And like you said earlier, you must wade through so many horror films and some of them will have an interesting story and might almost get you there, but you want the ones that make you feel and have a great story like a good drama. Ken Loach does it with kitchen sink dramas, and you want to feel something and be moved by something.
With horror, you want the highs higher and the lows lower because you want feel what it is to be horrified. The word horror is banded around in the sense that we assume it’s a slasher or it’s gory but horror can be a thriller as well, if something genuinely horrifies or terrifies you. And in Father of Flies I guess we try to cover that emotional and dramatic side as well as the demonic side of the story.
To answer your question, films that have an undercurrent or undertone to them that is unsettling in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. Something like The Babadook is a terrific example of a very simply structured horror that leaves just enough questions open to make you want to think to give the film a purpose. You don’t want all the bows tied up at the end, it’s also not trying to be too clever; it’s your typical ‘whats in the closet? / what’s under the bed?’ set up.
We don’t fear the complex, we fear the unknown. And horror that makes me question the unknown and what I’ll never understand, I find the most terrifying.
I think that’s a terrific answer. I always find the films that I watch or books that I read that stay with me longest are the ones that you describe. A creeping, unknowable horror that almost invites you to return to it. Father of Flies strikes me as a film that a year from now I would return to and find more than I did before.
I think you’re right; every Christmas time I watch Home Alone because it’s that atmosphere that I’m really watching. It sort of brings me to Christmas. And that’s what horror can do too, or even film’s like The Goonies or a good old Spielberg. It brings me to that atmosphere that I enjoy and creates an environment that you sit in and enjoy. It’s such an important part of filmmaking in general, but horror in particular; if it lacks atmosphere, I don’t care how scary the demon is or how loud the sound is, I need that atmosphere that gives me the weight of that world on my shoulders for an hour and a half.
What’s next for you Ben? Have you got anything you want to talk about?
God, you sounded like my shrink there (laughs).
Yes, well our time is up for the day.. (laughs)
I am Head of Production at Goldfinch Entertainment which is one of the largest UK film financiers, and we’ve just structured a new company within Goldfinch called The Number 44, which I’ve named after Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger. The slate is specialising in good fucking horrors (laughs)!
I’ve been looking for them for several years with Goldfinch, and we’ve only come across a handful, and I mean a handful, as we only have nine. But these nine films feel like gold dust, and they are the kind of things I really want to make and the kind of horrors I really want to watch.
Father of Flies is a good starting point for those and gives you a taste, but as with any career you hope that you would pick up momentum as you go. Essentially The Number 44 under Goldfinch, over the next eighteen months, is going to bring a bunch of scary, atmospheric movies. Things that are high concept and elevated genre horror true to the source, with voices and topics covered that don’t normally get enough attention. Get Out did that incredibly well but there is space for a lot more of that.
That sounds pretty exciting. I’ll definitely keep my eyes peeled for The Number 44 productions.
I’ve just sent the slate off to the rest of Goldfinch this week to mull over, there are potentially some great talent and directors there.
It’s always great to hear that there is a new outlet for people to get their start in the industry, and horror in particular.
The market has an opening for that, it really does. There are a lot of other companies, not just Goldfinch, steering that way and looking to do that. I think the difference we have is that we are not just the financiers of our work, we curate it and develop it in house as well. We are one of a few lucky enough to do it well. The films aren’t going to be mega budgets, they will be modest budgets that will be able to deliver the kind of fun calling cards that companies need that will get them attention.
As cheesy as it sounds, it will be great to be able to do something for the industry. I love horror, and I think that the Brits are incredibly good at making great horror when we get it right, and we just need to expand that platform to make it possible for more people to make more blood great horrors.
I agree 100%; the British have a real knack for horror, and I’m excited to see what’s coming next.
Thanks Hugh, it’s been a pleasure to chat to you.
By: Hugh McStay