The UK's Horror Channel begins its Cruel Britannia season on 8th April 2011, showcasing some of the finest British directorial talent around. The special season of UK TV premieres will start with Steven Sheil's terrifyingly ferocious family-unit shocker, Mum & Dad.
Steven took time out to discuss his early work and his thoughts on the current state of British horror movies.
HorrorTalk: You gained your movie making skills from making several acclaimed shorts, Through A Vulture Eye, Cry and the incredibly powerful Deliver Me, which one was the hardest to shoot?
Steven Sheil: They were all really different. Cry was my first funded film, a Digital Short for the UKFC and Em-media, shot over three days on location in Nottigham. In some ways that was the hardest, just because we had to shoot an a near-derelict house – we had to find somewhere where we could literally cover the place in blood – and so we had no power, lights or water. We had to borrow everything from next door. The recipe we used for blood had coffee in it, so the whole place stank. On the positive side, no one fell asleep. But all in all we had a good time – we had a tiny spy camera which we attached to bits of wood and shoved through floorboards and doors and windows and all that was really exciting. Creative destruction.
Through A Vulture Eye was made over one night in my kitchen, for about £30. It was probably the most straightforward shoot I’ve done. There are only a handful of shots in the film, hardly any sync sound – it’s mostly done in voiceover – and I had an assembly edit of the film ready by lunchtime the next day. The idea was just to make something that I didn’t have to rely on funding for, so I just got a cast and crew from people I know in Nottingham. The idea was a mixture of Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.
Deliver Me was again shot over three days. The shoot went fine and I had some great actors to work with, but the edit was hard work. I was already in prep for Mum & Dad while we were finishing the film, which meant that I needed to get it finished quickly, but I had a bit of a clash with the Exec on the film – I think we just wanted to make different films – and the notes on the film seemed to be endless. By the time it was done I was shooting Mum & Dad – which both myself and the producer were working on - so it never really got the attention that maybe it merited. I still think it’s a good film, with a really strong idea, but I probably don’t have the fondest memories of making it.
HT: Mum & Dad contains much of the dark atmosphere these emit, what is it about the darker side of cinema and storytelling that appeals to you?
SS: I don’t know – I guess at heart it’s just my sensibility. I like genre films because we read them on a level of story – they’re already once removed from reality, so they allow us to read a lot of other levels into them. I think the central idea of the horror film is ‘why do we hurt one another?’ and that’s a question that I think is always relevant and always has a complex answer. I guess my concept of evil is that it’s just another way of thinking – so that the characters in my films tend to be people/entities who have twisted worldviews. My interest is in how those worldviews became twisted, and where they lead those who possess them.
HT: Where did the idea for Mum & Dad come from?
SS: I was asked to pitch for the Microwave scheme – Film London’s Microbudget Feature Film fund. I’d already started kicking around an idea for a low-budget horror film which I could attempt to shoot for no money – I’d been in development on a couple of projects for a few years and was getting really impatient with the idea of waiting around on cash. I had this idea about a fucked-up family – riffing on things like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and a couple of British 70s horrors like Frightmare and Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly - because I thought it was pretty fertile ground. I wanted to do something that would have a dark humour to it, like those films – but would also have the inherent wrongness and grubbiness of TCM. I grew up around Heathrow Airport, so that’s where the setting came from – the house I based the script on still stands in a field next to Hatton Cross Tube Station. I wanted to have that incessant sound of the planes flying overhead – and I’ve subsequently had people complain that they’re in the film too much. Christ, you should try living there – and to explore that idea of the alienation of living and working somewhere where you’re surrounded by people but also in a really transient environment. And I wanted to make it contained. Handful of cast. One house.
HT: Did it take long to get a working script?
SS: Because I had deadlines to hit for the scheme, I had to work fast. The original 20 page outline took about four weeks. The first draft – about 70 pages – took about another four weeks – including a week in Spain on holiday with my family. Once the film got commissioned I had to add about another 20 pages – but no new cast, locations or complicated FX – to get it up to length.
HT: How did you go about getting backing for the movie?
SS: Film London put up half the money and we had to find the rest. I went to Em-media in the East Midlands and asked them to make up the other half. Being based in Nottingham, they’d already funded a couple of my films. I spoke to Lizzie Francke, who was the Development Exec at the time. I knew she was a real horror fan and she went for it straightaway. So all in all it was really straightforward. Stupidly so, in retrospect…
HT: Perry Benson, Dido Miles and the supporting cast play their roles with intense gusto, did anyone stay in character between takes?
SS: Not that I’m aware of. They were all sharing accommodation in Nottingham, boys in one flat, girls in another so whether there was any torturing or perversions going on behind the scenes, I don’t know.
Because of the nature of the film, and the fact that I was asking these actors to do horrible and potentially embarrassing things – torturing, murdering, wanking, fucking, cross-dressing – I thought it was only fair to try and make the atmosphere on set as friendly and enjoyable as possible. So there was a lot of laughing. And hugging. Not inappropriate Show-Me-On-The-Doll-Where-He-Touched-You hugging, just, y’know the normal stuff.
The cast were all great and all went with it, and I loved working with all of them. We were just really lucky to get them all in the film. And have them be brave enough to go along with what I was asking them to do.
HT: You shot on a low budget, if you’d had more money at hand would you have changed anything in the movie?
SS: It’s a real hypothetical question, because if we’d had more money and more time a lot of things might have changed, but not necessarily for the better. I tried to see the restrictions as opportunities, so certain elements which I really love in the film only came about because of the lack of time and money. For me it’s a real knotty question.
That said there’s one thing that’s always bugged me. In the foot massage scene I really wanted to get an extreme close-up of Lena kissing Dad’s foot. On the day we didn’t have the lens we needed and were running ridiculously short of time, so we couldn’t do it. But I can never watch the film without wanting to see that close-up of her lips on his manky toe.
HT: What's your take on the current British horror film scene?
SS: I think the current British horror film scene is pretty robust – at least in term of filmmakers. There seem to be a lot of people around at the moment who are working in the genre and making interesting and provocative films. If I think back to when I first started making films, there was hardly anyone around who I could think of as a British horror filmmaker, and now we have people like Neil Marshall, Chris Smith and Jake West who have a real body of work behind them, with more films on the way.
That said it never seems to be a great time to pitch horror to financiers. I don’t know why it is, but there seems to be a real reluctance to fully embrace the genre in this country, at least as far as the established film community is concerned. I don’t know, maybe there’s an inherent snobbery about the genre – I remember showing M&D at the London Film School and having a senior lecturer there tell me that while he appreciated what we’d done on the budget, ‘I find it hard to reconcile it with any idea I have of cinema’. I keep getting told that ‘horror is a hard sell at the moment’, but I know that there’s a big audience out there because I’ve seen them. I’m part of them.
HT: What are your top 3 horror films of all time?
SS: Top three is hard – okay, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Inferno and The Haunting.
HT: In your opinion what is the all time best British horror film?
SS: Another hard one. Maybe The Innocents. Amazing film.
HT: What's your next project? Do you intend to carry on making “horror” films?
SS: I’ve got a couple of things on the go – one’s a full-on horror set in South East Asia, another is a sci-fi horror set in space. I think I’m going to be sticking with horror and genre films for the foreseeable future. They’re the most fun to make. And I don’t think anyone’s crying out for my take on the romantic comedy anyway…