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Interview with Fionn and Toby Watts, directors of Playhouse
By James Whittington, Saturday 1st August 2020
FrightFest is once again on the horizon but this time, due to global events the event has become a virtual experience with all films being accessed online. Horror is once again sponsoring the First Blood strand of the event. Here we chat to talented brothers Fionn and Toby Watts who have delivered a gothic, creepy piece named Playhouse.
HC: Was there one film or person who influenced or inspired you to become film makers?
FW: As a young boy I remember being absolutely blown away by the image of The Terminator's exo-skeleton rising from the flames. Around the same time I saw Candyman at a sleepover (rented by my friend's 'older' brother...) and it was such an intense and frightening experience that it completely took over my imagination and lead to a fascination with the horror genre. In my teens I watched my mum's VHS recordings of Twin Peaks and then became fascinated with David Lynch and his films. Shortly after leaving school I rented Mulholland Drive on DVD and within the first few minutes I felt like lighting had hit me. I knew from that moment that one day I would become a film director, so I rushed out and bought a mini DV camera.
TW: I just remember walking into Blockbuster video stores in the early nineties with my dad and seeing these iconic creepy video covers on shelves I was too small to reach, like Pinhead's face from Hellraiser, or the silhouetted hook-handed figure from Candyman. Horror images like that created a burning intrigue in me to one day find out what these were all about. I also remember watching The Terminator, like Fionn, and seeing the good guy, Kyle Reese, being zipped up in that body bag - oh boy, that got me! I felt such intense sadness. Powerful emotionally charged moments like that have stayed with both of us and driven us to try and create these moments for others. We also have to thank our eccentric parents, too. Our dad is a writer and our mum is an actress. We grew up around storytellers. Without both of our parents, it is hard to see that we would have picked up that same buzz for storytelling and ultimately been encouraged to pursue it as a career.
HC: Where did the idea for Playhouse come from?
Both: We had been playing around for a few years with different ideas, ranging from sentimental drama films about ageing relatives and long-lost children to sci-fi movies about genius inventors and their humanoid AI's patrolling around. But we began to see a theme emerging, which was that of a feckless parent with grandiose ambitions getting into trouble. This became the seed of Playhouse, which is about a writer whose irreverent scheming drives a wedge between him and his isolated teenage daughter, with frightening consequences. We always knew we wanted to set our first feature film in the far north of Scotland, where we grew up, so this suggested a chain of interesting 'What if...?' questions that helped us create the story. For example, what if a notorious horror writer decided to move to a Scottish castle? What if he began developing a new play based on disturbing local folklore? What if the legends turned out to be true? What if his daughter gets caught up in it? How would it all end? Because our dad is a writer - who has often had very grandiose plans - we had a lot to draw on as inspiration! And Scotland is full of great myths and legends, and has some very dark history too, so that was all gold dust as well.
HC: Did you write the script with a cast in mind?
TW: Yes and no. From the start of developing the story the only given was that we had to work with at least one local actor if we could find them, as the native Caithness accent is virtually impossible to impersonate. Luckily Fionn had a friend called Helen Mackay who had shared his dream of working in the arts when they were at the local High School together. She had since trained at the RSAMD in Glasgow and so we checked out her showreel and experience, and then sent her an early version of the script. She absolutely loved it and we felt she was right for the part, so we cast her as Jenny, 'the local neighbour'.
FW: As regards the lead role of Jack, 'the irreverent writer', casting that was a suitably cryptic experience. We had worked with William J. Holstead years before on a corporate video and he blew us away with his cinematic performance of an American tech entrepreneur. Mysteriously, he said to me at the end of the shoot, "We will work together again, I just don't know when." He then disappeared around a corner, his long black jacket whipping around him like something out of The Matrix. There was such charisma around him. It was years later, when we were taking photos of the interior of the Castle to guide the development of Playhouse, I saw Will in my mind standing at the end of the corridor holding a whisky and staring right through me. A chill went down my spine as I knew he was Jack. When I suggested it to Toby, he immediately knew - he is our Jack.
HC: Was there much time for the cast to rehearse at all?
Both: Virtually none, to be honest. We really wanted to have a rehearsal day at the beginning of our shoot, but our schedule became so tight as we approached the start that it ultimately had to become a shooting day. Rehearsals happened essentially during blocking and sometimes even on the first take of a scene. However, all our cast responded incredibly well to the pressure this put them under, and it meant that often you would get such a great variety of nuanced performances as we stepped up the takes. One thing we found particularly helpful was walking through the script with William J. Holstead (Jack) in person some weeks before the shoot and developing a language and a system of references for his emotional states throughout the film. This saved huge amounts of time on set when we could simply refer to our conversation and trigger words, we'd developed to guide his character, who throughout the film varies from subdued and lifeless to vibrantly theatrical and manic.
HC: How did you find such an awesome location and what problems working in such an environment cause?
FW: One of the things we learned early on when making films was to use what you have got and to keep it contained. The quirky thing is, our dad actually bought Freswick Castle - a 17th century tower house built on 11th century Viking foundations - in the mid-90s for practically a steal, and so that's where we grew up. He had this crazily ambitious vision to renovate it and create an international arts community, which he runs there today. As young boys, we would wonder around these massive rooms with cracked, mouldy plaster and slimy stone walls, all the while wondering, 'What is our dad actually up to, here?'. We knew every inch of the castle before we even wrote the script: the dimensions, the atmosphere, the sounds, the props and dressings lying around. We created the story around exact details and features of the castle and its surroundings so were able to be very precise when conceiving scenes, blocking and shots.
TW: There were some brilliant 'happy accidents' we discovered during the shoot in the castle. For example, because it was so cold in the lower levels it produced this awesome effect of all the actors' breaths crystallising in front of them when they talked, which added so much atmosphere and intensity to everything. In one of the scenes - the 'dinner scene from hell', or so we called it - you can see this to great effect. I mean, who puts on a dinner party in a castle in temperatures so cold your guests can see their own breath? We could not have planned it, but it works really well with the story. We also had a number of difficulties with the location, as you might expect. We lost power after a couple of days because all the cast and crew had their heaters on in their rooms whilst our caterers were using loads of electricity to cook in the kitchen. We had to call out an electrician late at night to literally upgrade the entire electricity in the castle! One of the other issues was shooting in very confined spaces whilst burning a heck of a lot of candles for the scenes. To cut a long story short, our 2nd Assistant Director was set on fire in the chapel. It had to happen to someone, right? It melted her coat good and proper, but she was great about it, and it just added to the unforgettable experience of shooting a horror film in a Scottish castle in the middle of winter. And if there's one line we'll never forget it would be near the end of the shoot, our overworked 1st AD (who was in charge of everyone's safety) shouting, "Okay guys, can we have no more steady cam shots on the spiral stairs, please." Everyone just cracked up with laughter.
HC: What is your directing process? For example, do you split up the script and shoot different parts?
TW: We are pretty fluid in our approach. For example, if one of us has a strong feeling or vision for a scene, that person would step in and take the reins a bit more whilst the other would sit back and watch over things at the monitor. But generally, I would do a lot of the blocking with the actors and communicate notes to them, and work more technically with our DP, whilst Fionn would keep a close eye on the monitor to check actors' performances and maintain a broader sense of how the scene is working in context. After every take we always discuss what needs to happen, and then we would talk to whoever we needed to, or swap places if necessary. It works really well because I come from a science background and enjoy a lot of that left-brained detail and the logic of shot grammar, and Fionn has always been more holistic in his approach as a filmmaker, happy to let me worry about that stuff whilst he feels his way through things intuitively. One of the advantages of directing as a duo is that in the moments when you're flagging, thinking, "I'm not sure whether we've got this or what I'm supposed to be doing to fix this", the other one will come along with a whole load of energy and vision and say confidently, "we got it" or "this is what we should try."
HC: You used Kickstarter to help fund the final pieces of Playhouse, were you nervous that you would not reach the target?
Both: Yes, for sure. We got off to a great start but became nervous when the crowdfund stalled half-way through our campaign, especially with our 'all or nothing' goal. Fortunately, we had one backer who dropped a large amount in soon after which changed everyone's psychology and suddenly people started jumping on board. Crowdfunding is definitely a challenging part of filmmaking and needs a lot of planning beforehand, which we learned from our earlier, less successful campaigns on short films. We both worked flat out for the full campaign doing nothing but promotion, updates, making content and reaching out to people. It was intense and we took a massive break from social media straight after! But we are immensely proud that we exceeded our target and are so, so thankful to everyone who pledged. The list of names in our 'Thank You' section on the end credits tells you everything.
HC: It has a gothic feel and is beautifully shot, how difficult was it to get the lighting etc so right?
Both: The north of Scotland in midwinter is a very bleak and dark place. But the light also has a mysterious and haunting quality to it, giving everything a kind of tainted beauty, which we really wanted to capture from the outset. Andy Toovey and Sam Olly, our DOP and 1st Assistant Camera/Gaffer, were an incredible two-man team. They worked so hard and so well together and seemed to have a way of communicating without even talking to each other a lot of the time. We were under so much pressure every day to get the shots we needed that there really was not much time to change anything if the lighting or rigging was wrong. But amazingly, so often when Andy would show us the scene on the camera with the lighting all set and actors stood in, we were blown away. It was spot on. He is a very resourceful DOP and loves using natural light and keeping things very simple, which helped. A lot of the time his approach was simply to just augment or boost what light was already there - which was tricky as the sun set at about 4pm and we were constantly battling the darkness! I think we were also hugely helped by the architecture of the castle and the way the light fell sometimes, and also the rich range of colours, stonework, mould and dust all around the place. It was not hard to just point the camera some direction in some of the sets and think, "Wow, that looks like it's right out of a gothic film". Andy was great at going that one step further than we envisaged to get a shot, too. For example, he had noticed that if we just shot vertically looking down the stairs, it created this captivating Vertigo-like spiral shot of the stairwell. Fionn and I had not seen that and had only said, "We want a high angle." So off Andy and Sam went to quickly build a rig that could safely secure the camera in position to look directly down a rickety old bannister and then showed us the shot. Again, spot on. And the shot is one people often comment on after seeing the film.
HC: The sublime score adds much to the experience, how did you choose the composer, Dan Baboulene?
Both: Our DOP recommended Dan to us. We got in touch and he was super quick to send us some demos and possible theme tunes which impressed us. When we listened to them, we just knew this guy was right for this film. He also had some great experience interning at Hans Zimmer's studio and had scored numerous features. Dan was inspired by classic horror scores by the likes of Bernard Herman and so we knew we were on the right page with him in regard to the style of music we wanted. Creating the score and working with Dan was one of the real highlights of the whole project.
HC: You have been included in the First Blood strand which is being sponsored by Horror Channel, how does that feel?
Both: I think the word is euphoric! We are so thankful to the Horror Channel for making this strand happen and for the encouragement it has brought to us and Playhouse.
HC: Are you nervous that the movie is playing in such a respected festival?
Both: Totally! So far only cast and crew and some friends and family have seen it, so we literally have no idea how fans are going to react. For us, seeing how fans and critics respond is key for the future journey of the film and also for our journey as filmmakers. Playhouse is our first feature made with years of passion and hard work and so to have the exposure of such a respected festival and a platform to engage with fans in this way is a dream for us. It is also going to be really interesting being part of the online festival trend that's happening around the world right now because of Covid-19, so we're genuinely excited to see how that will feel! We love the idea of people all around the UK seeing the film in the comfort of their front rooms and yet being transported to somewhere mysterious in the far north of Scotland...
HC: What advice would you give to someone wanting to make their own movie?
FW: Learning how to produce is an absolutely essential part of the process. Once we learnt how to do that then things really started to progress. If you can get your head around the business, then you can make your own movies happen and you do not need to fear getting the money. It can feel sometimes like you have to get permission from someone, or some organisation, to make a film, but once you realise you do not have to do that things take off.
TW: Do not rush your script, get it right and do not cast bad actors as they will butcher your hard work. Finally, do not get bogged down with short films. Make your first feature, however humbly, and doors will open. Everything is about learning from experiences, gaining knowledge and then taking action with a great team behind you.
HC: What are you working on at the moment?
Both: We are developing another horror feature set many years ago in the far north of Scotland. It is a contained film with a big 'world' around it, and we are really excited about it. Watch this space...!
HC: Fionn and Toby, thank you very much.
The world premiere of Playhouse is taking place at FrightFest 2020 on Saturday August 29th at 4pm on the Horror Channel Screen as part of the New Blood strand.
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