Following up on his review of HOST, the insanely popular UK indie horror, Hugh had the chance to catch up with the film’s director, Rob Savage.
Thanks very much for sparing us some time for a quick chat Rob, you must be delighted with how the film has been received?
Its mad! I go off twitter for five minutes and then go back and some crazy new person has tweeted something lovely about it. It’s very surreal, because I still haven’t even really left my house! We made the movie without us leaving our houses, its being released without us leaving our houses, it feels like a weird beautiful dream.
What was the inspiration for the film?
Well, it started as a prank video. Everyone who made the movie are friends of mine and we were hanging out on Zoom having Netflix parties and playing quizzes. One day I decided to try and pull an elaborate prank on them and told them that I was hearing strange noises in my attic. So I got them all together on Zoom to watch while I investigated, and pulled a little stunt where I made it look like I had been eaten by a zombie and it scared the shit out of them!
We ended up putting it online and it blew up in a little way, it became a bit of a viral video. I think around six million people will have seen it by now and we all got a bit of a buzz off it. By this point it was already a couple of months into the quarantine, and people were kinda sarcastically saying “who’s gonna be the first person to make a film on Zoom?” and then a few months in nobody had done it, so we said “Fuck it! We’ll do it!” (laughs). So yeah, it was really was as simple as that.
With all the people involved, I was already on a Whatsapp chat with them, so I just asked them if they fancied making a movie. We got Shudder on board who have been amazing with us. We had no plan, just this little viral video and a one sentence pitch. Jed (Shepherd), who I write a lot of my horror films with, and I had put it to them as “A bunch of friends go on Zoom, do a séance, bad stuff happens, we don’t know what, but it will be scary. Just trust us!” and to their credit they gave us all the support we needed to make it.
You mentioned Jed, and you also wrote the film with Gemma Hurley. What was the writing process like, considering you had to work remotely due to the pandemic?
It was an interesting one. The main thing we wanted was to bring the film out while it was relevant. It was mid lockdown and it felt like that just might be our reality for the rest of the year. Everything was changing day by day, and we made a decision to power through and get it out as quickly as possible. One of the first decisions we made was to never arrive at a complete script, and the thing that would give us the best results would be something the actors could use as an anchor and that I could use as a jumping off point and improvise around. So, we ended up coming up with a ten-page document with all the beats of the movie laid out for each character.
We held back a lot of information from individual cast members. They all knew their own stories, they all knew about the scares they were involved in and if they died, but they didn’t know what happened to the other characters. That was just a big block of red on their scripts.
What ended up happening was that we were individually shooting the scares and death scenes for each character first. The we added the effects and sounds and made them properly scary and then, when we started the film proper, I was able to feed them directly into Zoom and watch the actors respond to them in real time. They had no fucking idea what was about to happen and a lot of those jumps and reactions was genuinely them being absolutely terrified.
That’s one of the things that really jumps out at you about the film; the reactions are so natural it adds to the horror because it feels like you’ve stumbled on to someone else’s very real group chat!
Yeah, it helps that the whole cast are amazing, they’re all so talented. They have a lovely dynamic and the energy of the group was such an important thing. It’s always important in a horror film that you get to know the characters and care about them, because otherwise you could have the best scares in the world but it wont mean anything unless you care about them. That group dynamic was invaluable.
And we were all active in writing the script day by day, we would all turn up in Zoom and have maybe a sentence or two in the overview; we would then do take after take and develop it into a coherent scene.
It meant that we were able to see some things that other horror movies might do that just weren’t realistic, and we were able to jus nip those in the bud and take things out that didn’t feel authentic. And I think that’s what people have been responding to. There are a few moments where the characters make some pretty idiotic decisions, but don’t we all do that? This pandemic has shown that people really do make some stupid decisions (laughs).
In terms of the filming, you mentioned that the guys filmed their own segments themselves with your guidance; what kind of challenge did that present when you had to stitch the movie together?
I think for the editor, Brenna Rangott, who deserves a big shout-out, just making it feel like one coherent piece with the five different storylines all going on was going to be a challenge. To be able to look at any of the individual screens and see its own story playing out while remaining part of the whole was very difficult. We had a huge amount of footage as we were improvising so much and changing direction as we went. Also, just familiarising the cast with the process was important as they had to be their own one-person film production. They had to set the lighting, their sound, deliver the footage in the right format, so many things they had never done before and they all stood up to the challenge.
It was a learning process as we went through. But that was the benefit of them being our friends, because if something didn’t work, we could just be like “Well fuck that, let’s try something different”. It never would have worked if we had run it like a normal film production.
One of the things that really jumped out at me was the quality of the VFX. It caught me off-guard, as with a low-budget British production I didn’t expect it to be quite so impressive. How difficult was it to integrate the VFX to the Zoom setting?
Normally when you do that level of VFX you have a VFX supervisor on set to make sure that the shots are useable. Here we had the actors do all of that. Our VFX supervisor, the amazing Steven Bray, deserves a big shout-out too for being incredibly patient with the actors. He would come on the Zoom call and help them position everything; it’s a very difficult thing to set up the VFX shots, especially over Zoom.
One of the things I was keen on was using a lot of in-camera effects. Even though we have some shots in the film that are absolute beasts, for the most part the VFX shots were quite simple. It was always 90% a practical effect, even the bigger ones. It had to feel grounded, like the effects had weight. If it looks or feels like it came from the inside of a computer, it isn’t really that scary.
And yeah, when you say that you made a movie on Zoom, people’s expectations are going to be set pretty low and will have an idea of whats achievable in that context. It was always important to us that people go in with that low expectation and then are blown away by the quality of the VFX, of the scares and of the performances. We were very aware of that and wanted it to be a pleasant surprise in those big moments.
Yeah, the final twenty minutes are pretty breathless, with each moment getting bigger and bigger until you reach that huge moment with Teddy in Australia. It was an amazing ride!
In the treatment, it was always broken into three acts; The Séance, The Haunting, and the last act was called the Freak Out. We always wanted that slow burn pace and then just go fucking mad at the end (laughs).
The last ten minutes are hard going, and some of the scares really stick with you. There’s a scene where one of the characters is pulled screaming from the room by an invisible force that was just terrifying.
We actually filmed that on the first day! A lot of the big effects where the first things we filmed.
Did you need to get permission from Zoom in order to use their format?
They were very cool about it. Douglas Cox, our long-suffering producer was amazing. He contacted Zoom early on to get the ok. That was one of my biggest worries, because it’s my pet hate in films when they are searching something online and they use Bing instead of Google and it just takes you out of the movie.
The whole world is on Zoom, everyone knows how it looks and feels. If we weren’t able to use Zoom, I think that this movie would have fallen apart. But they were super cool about it and didn’t mind the movie using the platform to murder a bunch of people (laughs).
The film seems to have so many different influences. What are some of your favourite found-footage films, and did any of them have an influence on your storytelling?
The main one was Ghostwatch. We were trying to figure out if there was a way to do a modern Ghostwatch but came to the conclusion that there wasn’t; thanks to the internet, people are less gullible and easy to fool and I don’t think you can convince people that they are watching something real like with Ghostwatch or War of the Worlds.
This is a rare scenario where everyone is in the same predicament, everyone has used this technology in the last few months, so we focused on making people feel like they were on a real Zoom call and let their guard down subconsciously
The final 20 minutes, I took a lot of inspiration from V/H/S. The final segment of that movie, about frat boy who go into a haunted house, that was the kind of energy we wanted. The way they build scare upon scare upon scare was the kind of thing we were going for. The Blair Witch Project was a big influence, REC is huge. I think REC is one of the best movies ever made.
Also, a film I watched during lockdown, As Above, So Below. It’s kind of moronic, but it’s the most fun I’ve had watching a horror film in years – it’s like a horror infused found-footage Tomb Raider.
I love found-footage. Done right, its just naturally scarier than most forms of horror, as your grounded in a greater sense of reality.
Completely agree. I was lucky enough to speak to Graham Hughes recently who released Death of a Vlogger, and that has a similar aesthetic. Much like your own film, the fact that it is so well grounded really adds to the terror when the supernatural events occur.
Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions about one of your older films? A favourite of mine that I saw a couple of years ago was Salt, a friend of mine sent it my way. What a tremendous short – How did that come about? Was it always planned as a short?
We’re actually planning on making that as a feature. Hopefully if the world returns to normal, it’s something that we’re looking to do next year.
Me and a lot of the same team from Host made a film called Dawn of the Deaf. It kind of blew up on the festival circuit, it went to Sundance, it was a teaser for a longer piece we wanted to make. I was keen to spend a lot of time on the characters, it was very slow burning and the horror beats didn’t really occur until the very end. It was a horror movie that never really showed our ability to pull off a horror set piece in the vein of James Wan, who is a big hero of mine.
We were at Sundance, me and Jed, and we got lost in Park City. We were wandering through a blizzard, and in an effort to keep us alive we started pitching movies at each other. We both love siege movies so we tried to come up with the most tense siege movie we could think of. We whittled it down to the idea of somebody in a salt circle, and that was the most intense thing we could think of. We batted it around a little, and we sat down with Fox Digital who gave us a little bit of money to make it.
The idea was to showcase a different approach to horror than Dawn of the Deaf, and was designed to be something like a Conjuring style set-piece to show Hollywood what we could do. And it worked; the film did pretty well online and its been picked up to be made into a feature version.
That’s terrific news. In just two minutes, there is so much going on in that short and it leaves you desperate to find out more. Would you be looking to use the same cast? Alice Lowe is great in the short, much like she is in everything!
Its always a dream to work with Alice, she is an amazing actress. One of the things I’m really keen on, from Host moving forward, is to keep working with the same people. Its such a pleasure to make these films with my friends, with people who I trust and whose opinion I trust. They also happen to be incredibly talented so I’m going to keep trying to do that as much as possible.
I always like to ask anyone I interview for their favourite horror film or films. What gives Rob Savage the creeps?
Just as we were talking about found-footage, I’d like to throw Lake Mungo out there. Its one of the great, under-valued horror films. The first time I watched it, it scared the shit out of me and really got under my skin. I re-watched it recently and the thing that really struck me was just how sad the film is, and how it works as a character study for this family that’s imploding. The Mum character is so heart-breaking, her relationship with her daughter is so sad. I love horror films that after the scares wear off on you, there’s a richness underneath that you can keep returning to.
Another film that I shout about a lot is a horror film from the sixties called The Innocents, have you seen it?
No, it’s a film that I know the name but have never actually sat down with it.
Dude, you’ve got to see it. It’s a contender for the best movie ever made, not even just in the horror genre. Its impeccable on every level. Its directed by Jack Clayton, Truman Capote wrote the screenplay based on The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ book, and Freddie Francis did the cinematography.
It’s one of these films like the original Night of the Living Dead or Carnival of Souls where its from the sixties, it’s in black and white, you think it’s going to be melodramatic and not going to be scary like modern horror films and it just fucking IS!
It gets under your skin and it has some amazing scares; with the way it uses negative space and the frame, it’s a bit of a precursor to what Mike Flanagan did with The Haunting of Hill House where the scares are dressed into a widescreen frame. Its probably the best horror film ever made and one of the best movies ever made. Everyone should see it.
That’s my weekend sorted.
So what is next for you? You’ve mentioned a feature length version of Salt, do you have any other projects on the horizon?
So, we’re doing the Salt feature, we are doing the Dawn of the Deaf feature, and it just got announced that we are doing an original idea that me and Jed came up with that we are doing with Sam Raimi who will be producing. He’s one of my heroes.
The Innocents might be the best movie ever made, but The Evil Dead 2 would be my Desert Island movie. If ever I’m feeling down, I just whack on The Evil Dead 2, it’s such a great movie. Working with him is an absolute dream.
So, one of those three will be the next thing to go. I’m still keen to work again in found-footage, it’s not like it’s something I’ve ticked off and don’t want to go back to. I’ve caught the bug for it now after doing Host, and as it looks that this might be how we’re living for the foreseeable future it that genre still has much more material to be pulled.
Absolutely. And with Host, you really have made the best of a bad situation, and it’s creativity is to be commended.
Thank you. If this can inspire other film makers to pick up a camera and make a movie, that’s brilliant. The way that the genre gets reinvigorated never comes from the big money productions, it’s always ingenious little projects that people make when they are pushed or constrained.
Rob, thanks for your time and best of luck with your next project. We are all excited to see what comes next.
By Hugh McStay
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