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Ben Steiner | MATRIARCH

Written By:

Martin Unsworth
matriarch interview ben steiner

Following his successful shorts The Stomach and Urn, writer/director Ben Steiner has his feature debut with Matriarch, which lands on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK. We caught up with Ben to find out more about the film…

STARBURST: Can you describe the film for our readers?

Ben Steiner: Matriarch starts off as a dark drama about an ad exec doing too much coke, then morphs into a gore, sludge, and saliva-spattered black comedy, and by the end is something like The Wicker Man meets Society. What holds it all together is the tension between the two main characters, brilliantly played by Jemima Rooper and Kate Dickie.

What was the inspiration for the story?

The main inspirations were my short film Urn, the landscape around where I live and Tlazoltéotl, the Aztec ‘goddess of filthy things’.

In 2018 I was commissioned by Hulu to make the short film URN which stars the brilliant Alex Reid (Unorthodox, The Descent) as a woman who’s escaped a toxic relationship with her mum by suffocating her with a plastic bag. That led to a commission to adapt the short into a feature, which I accepted without any idea of how I would do it, and the only thing I ended up keeping from the short was the theme of a troubled mother/daughter relationship. As I was developing the feature, the sludgy dankness of the Somerset Levels near where I live in Bristol seeped into the story and I also stumbled across an article about Tlazoltéotl. She merged with a monstrous father demon that I’d drawn several years previously called The Wormeater to form a character who pops up in the latter part of the film but is central to the whole story. The film’s title was actually Wormeater up until halfway through post-production. The original Wormeater has a mouth full of worms (obviously!), is shrouded in swirling black hair, and in a couple of my drawings, is surrounded by floating, worm-riddled turds. The character in Matriarch lost the turds but gained another nest of worms in a place that may raise a few eyebrows…


The cast is fantastic – what was the casting process like?

Thanks! Yes, I couldn’t believe my luck when Jemima and Kate accepted the roles, and I was luckier than I realised because not only were they brilliant actors, but they were also extremely kind, committed and low maintenance, which was a godsend given some of the challenges we had on the shoot.

Jemima and Kate didn’t audition but I did go through that process with the rest of the cast. I’d do a couple of scenes from the script and also an in-character Q&A, to give the actor a chance to really inhabit and own the character. I borrowed/nicked that technique off Ben Wheatley having sat in on auditions he was doing for some GoCompare adverts I co-wrote many years ago. I don’t know if he still does it, but it really works for me. Thanks, Ben!

What was the hardest part of the shoot?

My son tested positive for Covid on the evening of day one, so I had to spend the first week of my first feature directing in isolation via walkie-talkie, first from inside my car and then from inside a sealed tent! And then Jemima got Covid, so we had to totally reschedule the whole shoot. And then one of the main cast got shingles and had to be replaced at the last minute. Meanwhile, we had all kinds of basic day-to-day operational problems going on in the background. But when the team is committed you can get through those kinds of things together and you make it work and it bonds you. The only thing that seriously tested us was that, while the vast majority of the crew were really lovely, talented, and collaborative, we had a few people on board who were none of those things, to put it very diplomatically indeed.



How long was the process from writing to the final cut?

Just under three years, I think. A year to get the script signed off, a year-long Covid interlude and then a year for production from prep to completion.

Were there any films you looked at for inspiration?

The Suspiria remake was a massive influence with its predominantly female cast, grim and grey setting and occasional flashes of smutty humour. Not to mention its matriarch(s)! The cold, autumnal palette and feeling of pervasive moisture were a real touchstone for myself and DOP Alan McLaughlin, too. The Wicker Man obviously looms very large over Matriarch and I referenced it and The Devils in discussions with Hulu when suggesting that a horror film can be funny and even a bit silly without compromising the darkness. Early Cronenberg, especially The Brood, was an influence as I was writing some of the more visceral sequences. While we did struggle to get some of that from script to screen for the crew-related reasons touched upon earlier, our VFX artist Chris Clements and guest prosthetics designer Leigh Cranston did some absolutely sterling work for which I’m eternally grateful.

This is your feature debut, how differently did you approach compared to shooting shorts?

The guts of the process were virtually identical: I storyboarded the whole thing myself as before, rehearsed and blocked in the same way, and confused the actors with long, rambling notes as I always have done. Obviously, there are more people with a bigger cast and crew but that’s a matter of scaling up rather than changing anything. The one massive difference was having a First Assistant Director, the wonderful Kim Heron, to structure each day and keep us on schedule. Prior to that I’d either done it myself (badly) or relied on a resentful producer to do it. As well as doing her actual job brilliantly under very trying circumstances, Kim provided a lot of what you might call pastoral care that held the production together. She was my on-set emotional support animal, which I’d never had, or needed, before!


How does it feel to have your debut feature appear on Disney+ and Hulu?

The whole thing is a dream come true. The world premiere at Screamfest in LA went really well, so hopefully, it’ll get a similar reaction in people’s living rooms. Between them, Hulu and Disney+ have around 200m subscribers worldwide so it’s pretty amazing… and also terrifying!

What’s next for you?

Another feature, I hope! The feature version of my short The Stomach has producers and is seeking finance. I also have a J-Horror-influenced, transgressive haunted house thing called Dead Windows that’s ready to go. And then I have a horror/comedy/true-crime/bio-pic about two young men who perpetrated a vampire hoax around where I grew up in North London. It’s an amazing true story that hardly anyone knows about, and nobody knows more about it than me!

Matriarch is released on Hulu and Disney+ on October 21st. You can read our review here.


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