Opening today via Kaleidoscope Pictures is the hard-hitting Seasoning House, last year’s FrightFest opener. We caught up with director Paul Hyett to discuss the film.
I only just had a chance to watch The Seasoning House the other morning, and—
—Well, it’s a nice morning movie to watch. [laughs]
Indeed! It wasn’t the film that I was expecting from a first-time director with a heavy special effects background. I was expecting a full-on creature-horror, and while of course there are horror elements, there’s a lot more.
Everyone expected me to do monster or loads of gore, but what really interests me is story, interesting characters, and the tone and subject matter of the film. People might think that I spend all my time watching horror movies, but I simply love film in general. Of course I love the horror genre, but I love anything that is challenging, engaging, and thought-provoking. I wanted to make something that was a mix of genres, something that was a little bit different. Sort of more me.
I see your name isn’t involved in an effects capacity; I take it you wanted to let someone else handle that?
Yeah. I know so many people in that field, and the guys that did it were from a small workshop that used to work for my company. I really just wanted to concentrate on directing. I was involved in the effects to the point where, as an over-enthusiastic director, I was looking at the stuff and being really picky, and the guys had to keep saying, “Paul, just leave us to it.” And then I’d pick up a make-up brush and they were, “Paul, let it go!”
How did you move into special effects initially?
Well, as a young kid I always liked sculpture and painting so I had a very art-based background. And I always loved horror movies so much that I felt doing creatures and make-up effects would be a way to work on them. And if I’m honest, as an 18-year-old kid it’s the most perfect job in the world! So I worked hard and got into that side, but there was always a part of me that wanted to direct, but I kept getting job after job. Then after The Descent my career really took off, and there were so many movies I wanted to do. But it got to a point where I realised I was working with a lot of first-time directors, and they weren’t really doing the sort of stuff I wanted, making stuff that, if I’m honest, wasn’t that great. And that led me into thinking that I just really, really wanted to make my own movie.
There was another film I was going to do before The Seasoning House, but it was just too complicated, too much budget, and I felt that I had to make a film that was small and contained. Then a friend of my mine had been doing a lot of research into the subject of human trafficking and sex slavery, and I thought that was a really good setting for a film. So we took the research and fleshed out a story, and myself and Conal Palmer, my main co-writer, came up with the script.
Perhaps in quite a mercenary way, with it being a story that’s sadly really happening in various parts of the world, was it easier to get funding?
Yes, it was. It did seem to get funded pretty quickly. When we were shopping it around all the Balkan war crimes were in the news, so it hit all the right buttons at the right time.
Young Rosie Day is a bit of a discovery, isn’t she?
Oh man, we looked at about 130 girls, and came up with nothing, and I was thinking, when are we going to find Angel? I was really getting quite worried, because not only does she have to be small and tiny to get into the air vents, her character has to be emotionally numb [and] has a humility; there were so many progressions that the character had to go through. No one was quite right, and then when Rosie walked in I thought that she looked great, perfect build, and I was just hoping that she’d be able to act, because I didn’t know a thing about her; I hadn’t seen a showreel or anything. And she absolutely blew us away with her audition. Called her back a few days later, and I knew then I’d found the one. She’s got these amazing eyes that are just full of life, and every time that we called action she would turn them off and let a real sadness creep in.
From giving her the part to a few months later when we started shooting, I hadn’t really seen her, and on day one she was bouncing around the set really happy. Then I think the first thing that we really shot was her and Kevin [Howarth] together, where he first calls her Angel, and it’s a really emotional scene. I called action and suddenly her whole body language completely changed, like everything shut down, and she just became this totally broken girl. Amazing how she could turn it on and off, and for a girl that was 17 at the time, it’s an emotionally and physically demanding role, but she never complained once. You know, we had her in harnesses, body pits, injecting girls… and she was a star. I’m sure she’s destined for big things.
It’s a brave role to take on, because that’s probably one of the least glamorous debuts I’ve ever seen.
At a festival in Brazil she just picked up the Best Actress award for it, and I think she just came into this totally fresh. I mean, she’d never even seen a horror film! But that was one of the things that I liked, that she was just so fresh and natural. Over Christmas I gave her loads of movies to watch; she watched Martyrs on Christmas Day with her mum and dad.
Now that’s a hell of a Christmas movie!
I know, and I think they were all watching it going, “Oh my God, what the hell is our child getting into here?!” But she took the role on completely. She was amazingly mature to work with, hitting all the marks, bringing out all the right emotions. It was a real pleasure, and something that you perhaps wouldn’t expect from a girl of that age.
Her and Kevin Howarth were very good together.
Thanks, and it was good I felt because you didn’t know how it was between them; you’re not quite sure if she likes him or if she hates him. Does he really care for her? Has she got Stockholm Syndrome? I wanted it to be blurred, and I wanted the two of them to have their own ideas what their characters meant to each other, but I didn’t want lines drawn in the sand. I wanted them to feel whatever it was for the other, and the audience to understand their backstories and where things might be going, but I wanted there to be a real feeling of ambiguity.
That ambiguity is particularly felt when Sean Pertwee arrives in the second half, and there’s the conflict between him and Howarth.
Well, with a lot of films I see and with the scripts I get to read it feels that the writers need to spoon-feed the audience too much, and then people can’t guess, you know? The scene between Sean and Kevin, when they meet again and are talking, there’s enough there for you to know that they have history, and are there for different reasons, but we don’t have to tell any more than that. We don’t need backstory. I always find it exciting that when dialogue is really good, it’s usually because of what they’re not saying as to what they are.
It’s funny, because a lot of what I’ve seen recently I’ve come away with the feeling that the filmmakers are treating the audience as fools. I don’t want everything spelt out for me. I’ve the intelligence to interpret things for myself.
I think you’re right. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious that filmmakers want you to know who’s who, what’s gonna happen, someone will get naked, who’s going to live or die. No thought process involved. But I think you want people to be guessing, because surely that’s the fun of it? I’m glad you felt that about this movie.
You must be happy with a theatrical release, because so much just goes directly to home entertainment now.
I am, and it’s always kind of heartbreaking because there are so many great films that deserve to be seen in the cinema, that just get dumped on the market, because certain distributors just know that if they stick it on DVD they will get back a certain amount of money. It costs so much to get prints into the cinema, but this film was really made for a cinema screen; that was my intention all along.
That’s what’s so great about going to the festivals. It’s been all over the world now, and the one thing that I’ve really noticed is that women react very positively to it. The guys seem to feel a bit more battered by it, but women tell me that they like the direction we took things in; that it wasn’t exploitive with lots of naked girls everywhere. And that’s what I always wanted to do; not to make an exploitation movie, but an interesting, thought-provoking film about a very dark subject matter.
Even the BBFC have passed it fully uncut. In their own words, they felt that the rape scenes were totally un-erotic and subversive. We were really worried that we were going to need cuts, but they saw it for what it was. I didn’t want to make rape scenes; I just wanted to show enough for it to be an ugly act of brutal violence against a woman. It’s not a love scene, or erotic in any way; it’s purely an act of terrible violence. And I think a lot of women who have watched the film have recognised that.
I like the way that you showed the aftermath of the sexual violence. We talked about Rosie, but I think all your supporting cast were good. Not easy for an actress to play that kind of role, and the fear and revulsion they portray after the event is more powerful than showing the act itself.
Absolutely, and Dominique [Provost-Chalkley] who plays Vanya, she really twisted herself up to play the role, and when you see the terror in her face during the scenes with her and Ryan [Bell] it made it very real. She’s a really bubbly girl, and Ryan, who plays the huge monstrous soldier is the sweetest, loveliest guy you’ll ever meet! He terrified me in his first audition, and for them to get the horror of what’s happening across in their scenes took some doing. Her silent terror as she’s being raped, just being so scared that you can’t speak—if you can capture that you’re onto something. It’s important that it works because if you don’t really feel for these girls, then the movie fails.
So often characterisation and performance is forgotten about in a low-budget film in favour of sex and gore, but you went for script and performance from the start. And the look of the film isn’t low-budget either, with the wide angles and your tracking shots.
Well with the first half of the movie I wanted it to feel like a disembodiment of the world that she’s living in, showing that the way she survives is by cutting herself off emotionally. The fact that she’s deaf lends itself to that. That’s why I had a lot of muted sounds and a quite surreal soundtrack, because I wanted it to be the darkest of fairytales. And I wanted the camerawork to subtly grasp the feeling of her drugging up these other girls and putting them into an opiate state. I wanted the audience to be in that state with them; an otherworldly kind of feel.
The soundtrack complemented that well. Understated and moody.
The one thing I said to [composer] Paul Francis was—especially during the first half of the movie—that I didn’t want the classic horror film style score; I wanted it to be beautiful and haunting, and minimal. I didn’t want the obvious. And that’s what I tried to do with the camerawork too; I didn’t want the classic clichés and angles. Maybe more in the last half of the film where she’s being chased and all the revenge stuff, I did want to go hand-held, but for me in the first half it was important to stay away from all that.
The first half, with the fluid camera and soundtrack reminded me quite a bit of early De Palma.
I grew up loving De Palma; he’s one of my great influences. He’s not really talked about as much now but the way he moved his camera was fantastic, even down to his later stuff like Snake Eyes. He’s a master with a camera.
You’ve worked with Neil Marshall on most of his pictures. I was really pleased when he came along with Dog Soldiers; he seems to put an element of fun back into horror. A lot of directors are almost embarrassed to be dealing in the genre, but Neil embraces it.
Absolutely, and the lovely thing about Neil is he’s a totally unashamed lover of the genre. And when you meet him he is so enthusiastic about horror, and he makes the films that he wants to see.
That was pretty obvious with Doomsday. That was a great mix of Escape From New York and Mad Max; I had such a good time with it.
I’m glad you say that, because I watch it and I really like it. It was so much fun to make and be on the set of, and as you say it pays homage to so many of the films that we love, and it’s such a crazy mix! We spent about three-and-a-half months in Capetown on it, and every day there was a decapitation, or someone getting squashed by a tank, knights in shining armour fighting, guns going off, explosions… A great popcorn movie; a blend of everything. And as I said, Neil makes what he wants to watch. Too many people make films that they think an audience wants to see.
You worked on The Woman in Black too. That must have been great, to be working with Hammer?
Oh, it was lovely. Hammer films were such an important part of our young lives, and growing up those were the first sorts of horror movies that you got into, and it was great to be a part of it. My father is a theatre fan, and he was a big fan of the stage production, and he was really impressed that I was working on the film, which was nice.
So what’s next for you then?
It will be a genre movie, but like always it’s one of those things where the producers want to make the announcement, so I can’t say a lot now. But it’s gonna be pretty damn dark, that’s for certain. As for the effects work, I’m kind of moving away from that now, and passing on the work to my team. I’ll still do a little bit of design here and there, but to be honest I want to be directing full-time from now on.
I talked to Greg Nicotero last year, and this was just as he was getting into directing episodes of The Walking Dead. He said that it was a natural progression for effects guys, because you’ve been directing certain scenes and second unit for years anyway.
I actually had a conversation with him at FrightFest about pretty much the same thing. And it is a natural progression. You’re on set, you’ve got 50-odd movies of experience, and you’re thinking about your own angles and shots and lighting, then doing second unit and inserts yourself. You want to take the next step, which is kind of the same but just in a wider scope. Whenever you work on a film you’re trying to think about the whole thing anyway; what the costumes and production design are doing, the script and the like. So with directing you’re just taking more responsibility for the things you’re already thinking of, but you get to shape the film to your own vision. It’s an easy transition.