Interview: Paul Hyett, Director of THE SEASONING HOUSE

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Look down the credits at any major British film over the past fifteen years or so and likely in the make-up effects department you will see the name Paul Hyett. He has worked on almost all of the British genre films that have put British cinema back on top recently. Including things like The Woman in Black, The Descent, Doomsday, Heartless, Attack the Block and the Red Riding Trilogy. Basically throw a stone and he has worked on it.

With The Seasoning House, Hyett makes his directorial debut. Premiering at last summer’s London Frightfest, the film is a brutal and uncompromising dark fairy tale that deals with very real atrocities that occurred in The Balkans in the mid-‘90s. Boasting a remarkable performance from young Rosie Day, the film is very different from your typical British genre picture and is a refreshing change from endless zombie films or movies about hooded violent teenagers. The film is just powerful and gut-churning enough to leave a lasting impression and one of the strongest directorial debuts of recent times. You should be able to see the results for yourself when the film comes out this June.

We got the chance to sit down and discuss the film with the director recently and it made for an interesting and illuminating conversation.

WARNING: Minor spoilers for The Seasoning House follow.

Starburst: How did it feel being the opening film of last summer’s Frightfest?

Paul Hyett: We got the phone call and I was just so happy, just to be selected as the opening film was beyond what I was expecting and was absolutely brilliant. It was such an honour and a festival that I have been to so many times. To be the opening film was amazing, myself, the producer and the cast and crew, we were all so happy.

Has the cut of the film changed at all between then and what we will see on release?

No not really not the edit, it was pretty much 99% there, there was just a bit of sound tweaking but pretty much what you saw there is the film as it stands now.

Your background is in special make-up effects, how did you find the transition between that and directing your first film?

You know something, because I have spent all my time on set for the last 18 years, I am so used to being on set that I was used to running my department of 10 to 15 people and working out what was required for the shot, storyboards and have always worked very closely with actors. So to be honest with you it was kind of like just being on set but I had more to do, I worked with costume and make-up and prosthetics but I was working with them again but telling them what I wanted rather than the other way round. It wasn’t a huge shock to the system it was an easy transition. Nothing happened that I didn’t expect to happen, sometimes directors go on set and they haven’t done a film before or they haven’t worked on a film for years so it’s a whole new experience for them. For me it wasn’t, I had worked everything out and I had planned it and worked with my actors and gone through everything with my heads of department so it was similar to what I had done before except on a bigger scale. Instead of just bringing the make-up effects vision to the scene you bring the vision to everything in the scene.

As the lead, actress Rosie Day is amazing in this film, how did you find her?

Basically we had open casting with all the agencies and we looked at about 130 actresses and Rosie came along in the last ten, so I was quite worried as by that point we had looked at 120 girls and suddenly it’s like ‘My god we only have ten left and we haven’t found my angel yet’ so she walked in and I thought ‘Oh my god she looks perfect’ because a lot of it aside from the acting she has to do, was showing the emotionally vulnerable side and the fight for survival side, she also had to have the physicality to be able to crawl out of holes and walls so that cut a lot of the actresses out because they did not have the right physicality. When she came in I thought she was perfect and we gave her the audition and a couple of scenes to do and she really got it and understood what I meant by being vulnerable but showing strength, being emotionally shattered and an empty shell but with a little bit of hope she shows once she connects in the friendship with Anya. All those scenes and all the different emotions and progressions of character she was great at. We asked to see her again and she came back and was great again. To be honest after the first audition I knew we had her and then we gave her the job and we worked a lot on the character. It’s one of those things where being deaf and mute and fighting meant that she didn’t say a word in this movie but there was a lot of communication with Viktor the pimp, Anya and all these different characters and she had to talk without using a voice, through expressions and body language. If she overdid the facial expressions it would look comical and if she underdid it she would just look blank so we put a hell of a lot of work in. For five weeks or six days it would be very punishing on her because of the physicality of the character. Outside when we were in our big North Face jackets and she would be in not much clothing at all. Then she had to learn sign language and how to react in this environment, there were so many facets to her character and we didn’t have a huge amount of prep time and we shot quite quickly, there wasn’t really any margin to take our time and so for an actress who was 17 at the time to take the entire film on her shoulders and get it so right was a huge risk to put on someone so young when I look back on it. She had been acting since she was 4 years old in television but this was her first feature film, she brought an experience of all the stuff of being on set and hitting your marks and that stuff. This was more about let’s work out this character to fine details of how she looks and survives and what’s going on in her head. To be able to talk to a 17 year old girl like that and really go through everything, it was just amazing to have her.

The camerawork in the film, especially at the start, was very dreamlike and puts you in the main character’s mind-set and then later on becomes very sharp suddenly when the location changes. What did you use to shoot the film on and was this part of a greater plan?

We shot on the Alexa digital camera which is a wonderful digital camera. Depending on where we are in the film I wanted the film to be in her mind with the muted colours and the slow dreamy camerawork to show her isolation from what was going on around her as well as an opiate world in which she is injecting all these girls and they are going into drug induced states. I wanted to give the impression of a dark fairy tale where all these men were walking around ignoring her like ghosts and almost otherworldly as she is in this world with no connection to anything and has disembodied herself from her surroundings. She is surviving in this world by shutting off her feelings and can inject these girls by shutting off her feelings. Everything about the camerawork in the first half of the film especially in the house was to show her disconnect from reality with the weird dreamlike haze of the drugs. It’s mostly from the stabbing of Ivan that really rips her into reality. As soon as she stabs him, that is it, she is in the real world and I really wanted to get that across. Suddenly by having feelings for Anya and stabbing the guy she is ripped into this reality and that was when I wanted this sharp, handheld camera in the second half because there is no way for her to go back into the dream world and I didn’t want the camera to shy away from that. It was all those kind of thoughts of ‘what is her perception at this point in the film?’ and the camera kind of has to tell the story from her perspective. With the production design, camerawork and sets I wanted this to be very realistic but then combine with the camerawork to create something very interesting. I wanted the camerawork and lighting to draw you in seductively.

The film mainly has one location which feels very real, where did you film the house and the exteriors in the second half?

It was a previous children’s hospital in Uxbridge (West London) on an air base and it had lovely colours and we went in there and over four weeks turned it into a horrible nihilistic location. We had to change it back to how it was but we did build some sets. Anya’s bedroom we had to reproduce because of the huge fight scene and we couldn’t shoot that in a little bedroom so we rebuilt that on a bigger scale. Then that room was re-dressed to be the cottage room with the pigs. We built all of the interior sets that take place between the walls.

In terms of horror British cinema seems to imitate one success for a very long time until another success comes along but The Seasoning House is completely different, was this a conscious decision and what made you want to make this particular film?

Well the thing is for my first shoot I didn’t want to go the route that everyone is expecting me to go so I didn’t want to make a horror film with loads of creatures and loads of prosthetics. I have been in that world for 18 years and I didn’t want to make something typically British and a lot of people have said ‘It’s not like a British horror film at all’ there are no zombies or creatures just an interesting story with interesting characters in this world. You can have all the werewolves, aliens and all that stuff but what is most interesting to me is the monsters inside human beings. I’m a huge film fan and watch stuff like Million Dollar Baby as well as all of the horror films. I love stuff that does cross genres and I like it when brave filmmakers cross genres and people don’t really expect it. Our film has a couple of genres in it and has raw drama but horror elements typical to horror films. I wanted to make something different that wouldn’t make people say this is another this or another that. I think filmmakers should strive to do something different and I think with horror films you don’t typically get the characters who are not dumb kids but I thought I would like to set my film in an interesting place with some social realism going on but be an entertaining film set in a nihilistic world and these elements make it stand out from generic horror.

Did you struggle at all with striking a balance between the real life horrors that took place and making a film that didn’t feel exploitative but was still entertaining?

Yeah, we were always very conscious about that and it’s a very fine line. The producer and I were always very concerned in pre-production. We really made a conscious decision not to be too exploitative and not too political or point the finger and be respectful towards people who have endured these atrocities that go on in the world. We were always very conscious of all those elements and not being exploitative.

You have worked on a number of the most popular British genre films of the last ten years including: The Woman in Black, The Descent, Attack the Block and Heartless. Which experience for you stands out as the best and why?

Well I think The Descent will always be a special movie to me because not only is it great, like a modern classic, but working with Neil Marshall was a film that really gave me my springboard and a real push for my career. It was great fun making it and we were pushing the boundaries. Silicone prosthetic make up hadn’t really been done on such a big scale as we had 50 or 60 creatures wearing silicone prosthetics so for me the mix of working with Neil and it being a great movie and pushing the boundaries of prosthetics was one of those really enjoyable experiences to be honest with you.

In these days of web series and on demand entertainment, has it become easier or more difficult to get financing for low budget genre films?

I think it has become interesting from looking at stuff developing and evolving over the years and budgets have gotten lower and lower. I remember six or 7 years ago when £1.5 million was a decent budget but now the new £1.5 million budget is £600,000. Sometimes they get it right, with The Descent they spent £3.5 million and at the time everyone was like ‘wow that’s a good amount of money for a horror film’ they had the exact right amount though and it went on to do £80 million worldwide. With The Woman in Black they spent £10 million and it’s made ten times that. So really it’s about people who are brave enough. To be honest with you with VOD and DVD everything is worked out on sales estimates and they work out that for them to turn a decent profit they need to make the film at a certain amount. It’s interesting how budgets have gotten lower and lower. DVD is starting to get wiped out and VOD I don’t think pays the people who make the film as much, I’m not quite sure about the details but I have a feeling that the budgets are going down and getting lower.

What advice would you give anyone in the UK who wants to work in film and is full of ideas?

Make stuff as cheap as you can first. All the equipment now is so much cheaper than it used to be. Digital cameras etc. The number one thing is have you got a good script and then number two is just trying to make stuff. Whether it’s short films or a low budget feature film. Obviously you need to get some kind of grounding first, I was lucky in that I had a career for 18 years with prosthetics so I worked on over 80 films so that’s how I learnt. People getting into the industry really have to work for next to nothing, understand being on set and understand how the process works. If they want to direct they have to start making these short films for online which is a great way to show off what you’re making with short film competitions etc. Nothing is going to come to you overnight, you really have to work for it. I think that talking about it and doing it are two different things. At some point if you have a good script and can show you can do it then it becomes a lot of different little steps to get to where you want to get to. Some people are lucky and they have a good script and suddenly get a million pound deal but those things are few and far between now. Best thing to do is just make stuff - trailers and short films.

What do you have coming up next?

I’ve got a couple of things I am attached to. We will be announcing pretty soon what my next one is; you won’t have to wait long. It will definitely be in genre, could be a straight horror or a slight crossing of genres but will be in genre.

THE SEASONING HOUSE is released in UK cinemas June 21st, and on DVD/Blu-ray July 29th.

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