Having returned from the Moorish
In part two of our FrightFest special feature ‘Unwanted Guests’, HeyUGuys rendezvoused with director Simeon Halligan on the English-Scottish border to discuss his ‘Scottish referendum home invasion horror’, after which we stopped off to view a house just over the border.
Oddly enough it was as though we’d been there before…
How did you come to contribute your version of the home invasion film to the repertoire?
Ian Fenton wrote the script quite a long time ago. This was a good couple of years ago now, when there were not as many home invasion films around. So when we first started looking at the piece it was not as reflective or comparable to other films as it is now. By the time we actually had the opportunity to make it last year; there had been a whole slew of home invasion movies like You’re Next that seem to have been quite popular. So the timing with this stuff is one of those weird things.
We felt frustrated because whilst we were shooting White Settlers we became aware of You’re Next, which was coming out after our film had finished shooting. We immediately saw the similarities in these characters wearing animal masks, and of course these kinds of things can be frustrating, but they happen with timing and life in general.
A writing tutor once mentioned to me that it’s not about creating a game changer, rather it is simply telling a familiar story well. Do you think that we have a tendency to lose ourselves in this need to create a game changer?
What drew the producer Rachel [Richardson Jones] and I to Ian’s screenplay was that it was full of tension and suspense, and it had the ability to involve you. It was one of the few scripts you read that you didn’t want to put it down. The script format is generally a dry one to read – it’s not like reading a novel, and so often when we read scripts it is hard work to get to the end. But Ian’s script was a page turner, and that’s what we also found when Pollyanna McIntosh first read it.
It was funny because I sent it to her one evening, and I expected her to get back to me in a week or two once she had a chance to read it. I woke up the next morning and I had a message saying how she had started to read it that night (I must have sent it at eleven o clock), and she just couldn’t put it down. She thought it was such a tense and exciting film, and she said, “I love it and I want to do it.” So that’s how Pollyanna became attached to the film.
People are saying that it is not hugely original, but what was fun about it was your involvement and attachment to the two characters – their relationship and the situation that they are in. It’s very simple but hopefully involving, and that’s certainly stems from the screenplay. It was never complicated, and it was never a game changer. Nor did it particularly have a huge political message, although it has been described as a Scottish referendum horror movie. There is a subtext to the story and there is a political background to a certain extent, but first and foremost it was a piece of entertainment.
White Settlers can be perceived as a political commentary, but it more broadly focuses on the idea of people stepping foot into territory or places they either know or understand and the conflicts that arise as a consequence. Even the title suggests that it is not simply a tale of English versus Scottish.
Sometimes it is a way to get people to take notice, and as producers we realised, as did the distributors that it was a good idea to jump on the Scottish referendum angle as it seemed appropriate. It was actually The Scotsman that started off this thing of it being a ‘Scottish referendum horror movie’, and then The Guardian picked up on the idea as well. So we thought we may as well run with it. But whilst making the film it never entered our heads. First and foremost it was a suspense thriller, although we knew that it was similar to and influenced by other films. Both Ian and I were influenced, especially in regard to the visual style, and how we approached this concept of two people isolated and threatened by a faceless threat.
Ian didn’t want to reveal until the very end of the film the identity of these people or their intentions. There are other thrillers where you spend time with the antagonists – you see what their plan is and their motivation. But Ian felt it was scarier if we made the focus not about spending time with the antagonists, but with the couple, as the threat is outside trying to get in – trying to get to them. So the idea of seeing the world through their eyes was very much Ian’s intention in the script, which I stuck with as a director. It is about that feeling of absolute fear and emotion, particularly with Pollyanna’s character.
It will interesting to see how White Settlers plays in the future; whether it will transition from a present day topical horror to a traditional home invasion entry. How do you think it will play in the future?
It’s interesting, and I hadn’t thought about it, though it will be interesting to see. I hope it will just exist as a piece of entertainment, which hopefully some people will enjoy, and of course because of the nature of films there will be some people who will not enjoy it. I’d like it to stand on its own two feet as a suspense thriller, because while the Scottish issue is there, it is not the key to the film. As you said before it is more about people stepping into territory that they don’t know or understand, and the intolerance of locals towards those people that come into their environment. It’s also about the haves and the have nots, because the couple who step into this world have money. They come from a background where they can afford this property which the locals and the family who it used to belong to can’t. So there is a political angle in that it is less about the English and Scottish divide, and more about the haves and the have nots in society.
So despite the English-Scottish border setting, White Settlers is in truth a national and international themed story?
I suppose it is, and Ian has mentioned quite a few times that the border is quite important; especially the idea of how people interact on different sides of borders. The imaginary border between Scotland and England is bizarre – does it really exist? Are there differences in attitudes for people who live just a few miles apart from one another? Ian being Scottish and having lived on both sides of the border certainly feels that to an extent it exists, although White Settlers is fictionalised, and pushes those concepts a lot further than the reality he has seen. But he certainly feels that some of those issues, frustrations and animosity exist, and he took that idea of pushing those further to create a thriller.
I’ve been told by filmmakers that creating or directing suspense is one of the most difficult challenges. White Settlers sets out to be a suspenseful tale with the violence held back until the half-way point has been eclipsed. How do you reflect on the experience of directing a suspense thriller?
[Laughs] Well I hope we’ve succeeded. If we have then I’m really pleased. It is a tricky question, but I think that if you believe in the characters then that goes a long way. I think the way you shoot is important in terms of where you place the viewer, and how they interact with what they are seeing. With White Settlers I was constantly trying to shoot point of view shots or put the camera hovering over the shoulder of our protagonist, so that you are hopefully always moving through those spaces with them or you are just behind them. I think the camera then sees what they see, and you hopefully see through their eyes. Visually from a director’s point of view it is an important technique to place the audience in the midst of the action with the characters, but when you are making a movie you are never really sure whether it is working or not. From the script through to the shoot, and in particular in the edit you are sitting there asking whether this is this working? Is this tense, is this suspenseful? [Laughs]
By that point you’ve lived it and breathed it for so long that you just have to hope that your instinct about what you are putting together is right – that you are cutting it and using the music the right way, because you can change a performance so much by the way you cut it. You can use a different take or cut to a different angle, and your perception of how a character interacts with a situation will suddenly feel very different.
It is a difficult question to answer, but it is a combination of all those things, and I am a big fan of suspense movies. As you may know I’m also involved in running Grimmfest, a horror and genre film festival. We see an awful lot of horror movies, and personally I am more of a fan of movies that are tension and suspense orientated rather than blood, gore and guts. It’s not to say that I don’t enjoy those kinds of movies, but as a filmmaker I’m a big fan of Hitchcock, and I have always loved his movies. So I am influenced by directors of tension and suspense.
In horror and genre cinema we frequently place the protagonists in dreadful situations, and then as an audience we engage with it as entertainment. What do you think it says about us on both sides of the camera, from the writers and directors to the genre audience?
Cinema is a form of escapism, and we live out our fears and nightmares through cinema. I’m big on the whole concept of the influence of dreams on films. I love filmmakers like David Lynch because sometimes when you ae watching his movies it feels like you are watching a dreamscape, which is the real nature of it. But they are often scary, and they make you feel uncomfortable. So suspense movies tend to remind me of nightmares and dreams, and I’ve often had dreams that have reflected these kinds of films. But whether films are reflective of dreams or dreams are reflective of films, I don’t know.
Isn’t it a bit like wanting to go to Alton Towers in a way? Some people get their fix from going on rides, while other people get their fix from suspense or gory horror movies. I guess it is some kind of cathartic experience that gets the heart beating and makes you feel tense. But you don’t have to experience those things in reality; rather you live them out through a film.
There are all these arguments about movies influencing criminal and psychotic behaviour in society, which I always find to be ridiculous. I suspect that it is the other way round. What movies tend to do is give people a way of letting out those feelings by giving them a release rather than influencing to go and do crazy stuff.
On the subject of the debate that violence is bred by mass entertainment, whilst interviewing John McNaughton at FrightFest we spoke about whether violence originates from within us or whether it as a result of the mass media. I tend to perceive mass media as a receiver for our violent signals as opposed to the other way around.
I personally have more issues with films that present violence in a light-hearted way, and enables kids to go and see films that make it seem fun. Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer was an intense and ground-breaking film. It didn’t glamorise the violence, rather it disturbed you. I would almost rather young people see that kind of thing than see glamorised, exciting violence that you find in a lot of certain kinds of movies. Maybe even some of these superhero films if you think about it, which everybody watches and enjoys in a basic way. They don’t push too many buttons, but what they show is people doing very violent things, and the outcome of it appears to be that it doesn’t hurt anyone too much or at least it doesn’t appear to. I’m always fascinated by films where people do get hurt, and when they get shot for example you feel it, because so often in movies you don’t. Someone gets shot in the leg and a couple of scenes later they are walking around as though nothing happened.
There are certain films that show the violence and the pain in a real way, and if you feel that in a movie then it sends you a message that violence is not a good thing. Whilst it sounds awful, it is sometimes not necessary a bad thing for younger people to see violence in movies if it is presented in the right way – where it is not glamorised, but in a way that makes it disturbing, shocking and very uncomfortable. Hopefully that sends a message that you should not engage in this kind of thing.
One of the reasons horror endures is because it taps into our primitive instincts. Fear is an important part of our survival instinct, and speaking with Emily Berrington for The Last Showing she offered the thought that horror endures because, “There is a desire to feel that tiny part of your mind that otherwise doesn’t get tapped into.”
An experience of modern life, and if you think about human beings thousands of years ago, they would have been in those situations at night in the dark fending off predators such as big cats. So you can almost see the similarity between movies like White Settlers where you are being tracked down by some kind of predator, and it’s an innate fear that we don’t generally experience in life. So maybe it goes back to some primeval fear that we have, and the fear of the night; the fear of the dark is a strong one that must derive from primeval fears.
White Settlers doesn’t allow us to sit there as passive observers; instead it forces us to become involved in the drama. You actively pursue that interaction between film and spectator.
Sometimes you see filmmakers who are not steeped and are not passionate about this kind of movie they are trying to make. Sometimes you feel that you are watching it from a distance, and are not involved in the drama or the tension of the situation. A lot of it is about the craft of filmmaking, and how you use the camera and sound. It would have been easy to shoot White Settlers in a way that you just step back and see everything from a distance – where you would not have been put into the action of the characters. But I tried to do the opposite, and I hope it works.
One of the things that I learnt from and I love about Hitchcock is that he’s obsessive about his point of view shots. In Vertigo there are whole sequences where you spend time with James Stewart while he’s following Kim Novak. You watch him following her, and then you literally see his point of view shot through his eyes as he follows her. There is a whole sequence in that film that only uses that type of shot, and it puts you into that space.
The irony is on our shoot point of view shots tended to get left out or left until the end of the shoot. When you have the actors on set you need to point the camera at them, and with such a tight schedule despite the fact I wanted to shoot all of these point of view shots when they are prowling round the house, and which would helped build the tension, because we were tight for time it was a case of we’ll shoot them at the end once we’ve shot the actors, and we’ve got them out of the way. But of course once you get to the end of the night shoot and you’ve got half an hour left you have no time to shoot all your point of view shots [laughs]. So if I had my way there would be more than there actually are. It’s something I’m passionate about, and so if we’d had more time you’d probably feel that placing of the audience in the drama – particularly in Pollyanna’s shoes.