Steven Sheil on "Mum & Dad" – A CFQ Interview
Steven Sheil’s MUM & DAD was shot in seventeen days, on a micro-budget of only £100,000, yet the 2008 release manages to stands up as one of the best British horrors in recent years. How did Sheil pull off this amazing feat? Cinefantastique Online’s British correspondend Deborah Louse Robinson was lucky enough to collar the writer and director and ask him all about the movie-making experience…
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You made this film on a low budget under huge time constraints. Did this make for a stressful shoot, or was it still an enjoyable experience?
STEVEN SHEIL: The shoot was really good fun. We decided early on that the only way to deal with all the constraints was to try and work with them rather than against them – we didn’t want to be moaning all the time about not having enough money, because we knew the budget going in, so by the time we got onto set we were just determined to get a film made – whichever way we could. Also, because people were working for low wages, we wanted to try and make the experience more of an adventure than a chore, so that people wouldn’t end up resenting what they were doing. Another thing, at least as far as the cast were concerned, was that the subject matter of the film is pretty grim, so we wanted to try and make sure that there was some relief from all the killing, maiming and wrongness.
CFQ: How long did it take you to write?
STEVEN SHEIL: I wrote the initial 20 page outline in about 3 weeks, because it had to be submitted for a deadline. Then I had about a month to turn that into a script. We ended up with something about 70 pages long, which is how it stood at the time we got told we’d get the money. Then I did another couple of drafts – maybe a week each – to extend the film to full feature length. All in all, it was really quick, with minimal changes from the initial outline.
CFQ: When you’re writing a film do you generally know how it’s going to end before you start writing, or do you just start writing and see where it takes you?
STEVEN SHEIL: I outline everything first, and test that out on a few people before I take it to script. I like writing fast because it means that it’s easier to keep the core ideas of the film in your head. Some other scripts that I’ve written have taken a long time to develop and it’s really hard to keep them going once they’ve been in your head for a couple of years. In a way, I think it would be good to be less precious about scripts as such, and to concentrate more on the central ideas of a film – really boil it down to the essence and work off that. I think that the script development process is a relatively recent addition to the whole idea of filmmaking, and I’m a quite ambivalent about how it works.
CFQ: MUM & DAD is pretty shocking in places; did you have any problems getting it past the BBFC?
STEVEN SHEIL: From what I’ve heard the BBFC watched the film three times before deciding to pass it uncut. I didn’t think that we’d have any problems – there was one shot that we changed in the edit at the last minute because I thought it might cause problems (it featured a hardcore pornographic image), but that was more to do with the fact that we’d run out of money and wouldn’t have had the funds to recut and resubmit the film if it hadn’t been passed…
CFQ: MUM & DAD is perfectly cast: Did you have the actors in mind when you wrote it or did chance bring you together?
STEVEN SHEIL: No, I don’t ever write with actors in mind; I like to keep my options open. We used a casting director for the film, Anna Kennedy, who brought a lot of people to us, and we found all of them through that process. Perry had already been recommended to me by a couple of friends who are directors (including Chris Cooke, co-director of the ‘Mayhem’ festival), so I knew I wanted to have a look at him. We were just looking for people who wouldn’t be scared off by the script (we had a lot of actors who refused to turn up for auditions because of the nature of the roles) and who would play it straight – that is, they wouldn’t do too much of a ‘horror film’ performance.
CFQ: The lack of any real musical score only serves to heighten the tension in the film. Was this a conscious decision or was it down to budget?
STEVEN SHEIL: It was a conscious decision that grew out of both an awareness of the limitations of the budget, but also out of a desire not to make the film too much of a straight horror. I didn’t want to have to rely on stabs of music to make the audience jump; I wanted the film to have more of a creeping, insidious effect. The idea of using the planes came from the setting at Heathrow airport, obviously, but it’s also the sound of my childhood – I grew up next to the airport so that noise is really evocative for me. That said, I initially promised my producer, Lisa Trnovski, that I wouldn’t have any music apart from the song over the closing titles (‘900 miles’, an old American folk song, which I knew we wouldn’t have to pay publishing rights for, recorded by the brilliant Gemma Ray), then threw loads of music into the Christmas scene, which we then had to scrabble about to try and afford. I don’t think she’s forgiven me yet.
CFQ: Although we’ve seen sick families in films before, MUM & DAD comes across as a very original film, and I think a lot of that is down to the direction. You directed it as if this was a normal, real-life family, in an ordinary British soap opera, and this makes it even more shocking. How surreal was it to be shooting such extraordinary scenes in such an ordinary way?
STEVEN SHEIL: It did feel quite odd sometimes – I had a couple of moments where I kind of stepped out of myself and saw what was happening from outside – Perry Benson wearing a dress and covered in blood, staggering between the washing lines of a suburban garden, for example – and it just made me laugh. It felt weird that we’d somehow managed to convince so many people to be a part of it all. I guess one of the things I wanted to do with Mum & Dad was to play up the normality and not be afraid to make the film feel a bit sit-commy, a bit soapy. Those are the places where you’re most likely to see realistic portrayals of British families – it doesn’t happen so much in British film – it’s either super-grimy kitchen sink council estate realism, or tourist board rom-com London. Mum & Dad has got its share of grimy realism, but it’s more inspired by EastEnders than Ken Loach.
CFQ: Is there anything you would change about the film now it’s all done and dusted, or are you 100% happy with the finished product?
STEVEN SHEIL: If I had the chance I’d go back and make sure that we got an extreme close-up of the toe-kissing. We couldn’t do it at the time because we didn’t have the right lens, and it’s always bugged me. Apart from that, obviously there are things I think I could have done better, but I don’t really dwell on them. I think given the time and the budget and all the constraints we did a great job.
CFQ: How did you feel the first time you watched the end product? It must have been a strange and exciting experience finally seeing how it had all come together.
STEVEN SHEIL: We cut the film on an edit suite where all the footage had been digitised at really low-resolution, so I got really used to seeing it as flat, ugly and video-y, so when we actually got close to finishing the film – conforming it and grading it – it was like a revelation – it just got better and better looking. The first screening we had was a cast and crew which went really well, but I find it hard to watch anything I’ve made – I feel really self-conscious about it.
CFQ: We all know that getting your first film made can be very difficult. Tell us how it happened?
STEVEN SHEIL: Sol Gatti-Pascual, who was running a scheme called Microwave for Film London, had seen a horror short that I made a few years ago called ‘Cry’ and she invited me to come and meet her so that she could tell me about Microwave and see if I was interested in applying. The scheme is designed to make 10 microbudget features, each costing £100,000, with half of that coming from Film London. On the way to the meeting, I was toying with ideas to pitch and what would become Mum & Dad wormed its way to the front of my brain. I pitched Sol the idea of making ‘The Heathrow Airport Chain Saw Massacre’ and she told me to go away and write it. I applied, found a producer and then just kept going. We were selected from among 70 or so applicants and then had to go and find the rest of the money. I went to Em-media, who had financed a couple of my shorts and asked them for the rest. They said yes and then we were set to go. It was a ridiculously quick process really.
CFQ: Do you think, now you have this one under your belt, that the next one will be easier?
STEVEN SHEIL: I don’t know. Easier to make? Probably not, in some ways. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the freedom that I had on Mum & Dad, and despite all the constraints, it was a pretty straightforward shoot. The other scripts that I’m writing are more complicated – bigger casts, more locations, a lot more production design. As for funding – I think Mum & Dad has been seen by enough people that it should be easier to get to have meetings with people who might be able to fund my next film. But I’m taking nothing for granted – I know how hard it is to actually make yourself a career making films in this country.
CFQ: What do your own Mum & Dad think of the film? [I lent my parents the DVD, and when they handed it back, their faces spoke volumes!!]
STEVEN SHEIL: I was a bit worried about my parents watching it, especially as they used to work at the airport, so some things might have struck them as being a bit close to home. I pre-warned them about the nature of it – I know they don’t like horror films – but then they told me they liked it. They liked the humour of it, and the Christmas scene. Don’t read anything into that about our past family Christmases, though…
CFQ: Who would you say was your greatest inspiration from this genre?
STEVEN SHEIL: In some ways it’s obvious, but Texas Chain Saw Massacre was big inspiration, more for the feel of the film than for the plot – although there are similarities. I just love the way that TCM makes an audience feel.
CFQ: What can we expect next?
STEVEN SHEIL: I’ve got a few projects I’m working on – another horror, again with a family theme, and a couple of twisted science-fiction films.
CFQ: Finally, and I have to ask – you do know that it’s very, very, very wrong, don’t you!?
STEVEN SHEIL: Yes. Yes, I do.