One of the boldest creative choices of the year came courtesy of director Jeremy Lovering, who took a bite out of the unconventional when he shot his unscripted feature debut, the psychological horror film In Fear (2013). Lovering discussed with Film International‘s Paul Risker his intent to create a portrait of fear by removing the scripted structures that would usually give his actors a sense of security, before expanding the discussion to other influential cinematic works, the risk aversion of film exhibitors, and the integral role of the director.
Paul Risker: By making a film that was improvised not just in part, but was shot in its entirety without a script, you have turned the conventional use of improvisation into the unconventional. Was it always an aspiration of yours to tackle this kind of approach?
Jeremy Lovering: To be honest, it was. I had a story that I was interested in looking at, and obviously it was quite minimal in terms of its plotting and its storyline. That was very deliberate because I was more interested in looking at fear as a state of mind, as part of the human condition.
So rather than making a film about people who are scared of spiders, or who are being chased by ghosts, I wanted it to be much more ambiguous. So I was therefore thinking of how I am interested in fear as a way of being, and how do I portray that most effectively? I found the best way to do it was to just put the actors in that position. Rather than giving them a script which will inevitably mean they have the confidence that they are not going to die or something bad is not going to happen to them in a scene…by removing those structures, all that is left is fear of the unknown
That is the very first sort of primal fear, and we all get it. As actors they want to prepare, and they want to be ready. To remove that process meant that they instantly had something to be scared of. Then obviously the fear of the dark, a fear of what’s out there, a fear of other people—by keeping them unknown, it helped to make the fear real.
One of the points of interest that relates to the horror genre is the fear of the void, a fear of isolation, and how the terror can in some cases also derive from the fact that we are not alone, which presents a fear of human interaction. One might insinuate that we are afraid of our own society and therein sense of belonging, whilst we are simultaneously afraid of being isolated.
It’s an interesting point, and what you look for is continuity and security. Those are things that you actively search for as a human being; it’s your drive. What is it protecting you from? It’s probably protecting you from, as you say, loneliness, isolation and vulnerability. Therefore, if another person next to you, say someone outside of society, offers that protection then that’s great. But if he or she doesn’t, and instead makes you feel as though you lack security and continuity, then that’s when fear becomes real.
With In Fear, it was interesting watching the actors respond on a personal level to what was being put in front of them. I was watching Iain [De Caestecker] and Alice [Englert] respond to what was out there, or to each other, and they were questioning whether or not they could trust one another. We’ve built a bit of trust but maybe we can’t. Then you exert a bit of pressure on them and they start to realize that they can’t completely trust each other. Then they think, well maybe I can’t trust Jeremy. Well actually, maybe it’s okay if I don’t trust him because I know he’s just directing this movie. You could see them as actors, or rather as people, finding their way in the same way we all do, and therefore their characters are doing that as well.
Cinema can be provocative, and create a sense of uneasiness, but there is always a safety net. As an audience, we always know that they are just images projected onto the silver screen. Actors know they are safe because of the presence of the camera, but there are ways to remove that sense of security, for both the audience and the actors. This seems to be something that piqued your interest and was a driving force in making In Fear, though perhaps more focused on the other side of the camera in the performance space?
That’s definitely true. I love filmmakers like Thomas Vinterberg whose film Festen (1998) was the best of that kind, where there is an edginess to it, and it wasn’t as extreme as Dancer in the Dark (2000) for example, which I loved and hated. Dancer was extraordinary, but would I be prepared to go that far? Bjork had no idea of what making a film would be like, and there’s that one scene when she’s locked away. She’s trying to sing a song, and she’s singing it out of a little hole. They just shut her in, locked all the doors, fixed the cameras, walked away and didn’t communicate with her because they wanted it to feel real. In the end, she had a breakdown because she isn’t an actor; she’s a singer who is doing some acting.
So on one level it is how far I would be prepared to go to achieve that reality, the real response which interested me. Ken Loach obviously does it in drama, but I think what I was interested in was to try and make a genre film which still had that level of authenticity.
But you’re right, you’re watching it as an audience going that feels a little more real. Obviously The Blair Witch Project (1999) did it, but we were more controlled than that, and it wasn’t just about running around terrorizing them. There is obviously precedence for it, but I think as a filmmaker it was how to find the authenticity using that dramatic technique within a genre.
When your film was shown at FrightFest, you spoke about your desire to stimulate through film, for which the audience is an obvious requirement. Film is a dance between the writer, the director, the participants, and of course the audience.
There now seems to be a lack of trust in the audience, from the quarters occupied by the money men who ask those restrictive questions of whose film is it? Which character are we following? Does it have a first, second and third act? Filmmaking has become a process of ticking the boxes, which leads to coddling an audience that doesn’t need or want to be coddled.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this, in light of how you spoke about your dependency on the audience to stimulate and push, to embrace them and make it an interactive experience, or rather to incorporate a little gamesmanship.
I totally agree with that, and just talking specifically from my experience with In Fear, because there is no gore and it’s not a slasher, and it doesn’t push you in that way, but rather it relies on suspense and the investment in the characters. I was aware that I was asking a lot of the audience. Whether it is lucky timing I don’t know, but there seems to be a movement within audiences to embrace this type of thing slightly more. Films like The Conjuring (2013) are much more commercial, and it made millions and millions, but it relied on the audience spending a little bit more time and energy with the characters.
Your sentiments are particularly relevant in regards to the cinemas and the exhibitors, who have been more hesitant with this film. They still think In Fear is a bit art house, because it is trying to make the audience work too hard. They question whether it is commercial enough. The most difficult thing at the moment is that you get a good response, audiences like it, but they like it because it’s not exactly the same as the films that came before it. However, since the business side is all done mathematically, the question is how much did Wolf Creek (2005) make? Well the film is not Wolf Creek; it is not meant to be Wolf Creek. It has a completely different second half, but they say “Yeah, but that’s the audience that’s going to like it.” I say, “Well, no it’s not because FrightFest audiences liked it, and they liked Wolf Creek when that came out, but this is not that.” There’s often a distance between how risk averse financiers and exhibitors see a film, and how an audience can respond. So I think you’re right, and the dance is involving all of those people. Unfortunately, it is never just a straight forward communication between an audience and the filmmaker, as everyone else is offering their packaging and theorising, which is not necessarily listening to the audience. It can be very frustrating.
Also, if you do a low budget film that is themed to resonate with people, then they are not spending the money on the marketing because it’s a low budget film, and so it’s not going to be seen by many people. You ask what you can do, but you can’t do anymore and that’s just frustrating. Creatively it was a fascinating process though, and if I had made it more explicit in its telling, or if there had been an Agatha Christie summing up at the end, I think it might have lost something.
It comes down to embracing the mystery in the context that films are like chapters, and they shouldn’t try to tie everything up during the conclusion. We should be imagining during the end credits, beyond the end credits, finishing the narrative off for ourselves, which offers more of an interactive experience.
The inciting moment you’d have in every film, especially the horror film, is where the girl pulls up at the gas station and says, “Oh can you help me I’m lost and I’m staying in this cabin in the middle of nowhere, which way is it?” That’s the moment I deliberately didn’t have. I didn’t want to present the truth so that you the audience was deciding who to trust, deciding what had happened, and who was telling the truth. Without that moment, the audience must commit to be being part creator of the story.
Billy Wilder had a certain fatalistic take on Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine’s romance in The Apartment (1960), only to later reverse this opinion at the close of Charlotte Chandler’s biography Nobody’s Perfect. He spoke of the idea that the film continues after the closing credits in the imagination of the audience, with the audience imagining what happens next.
That is something I always talk to actors about, because actors always love back stories and that’s fine, but for me when I am reading a script it works when I believe we have just jumped into their lives for this duration. They existed before and they will exist afterwards, and if you don’t get that feeling then it’s not satisfying and it just doesn’t ring true. He’s a greater man than I, but I’d agree.
Not to digress, but that is what is interesting in regards to the conclusion of Psycho(1960) and how Hitchcock gets away with something that is considered a crime by the critical establishment—exposition. Hitchcock’s handling of Psycho‘s conclusion is riddled with exposition, and it deprives the character and the scenario of any mystery. Whether it is because it is one of the first films of its kind, Hitchcock seems to have escaped unscathed.
I think it is what you’ve just said—because it’s one of the first. What’s interesting is you look at films that were adapted from plays, for example Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and they don’t have that level of exposition because it’s a theatrical exercise made roughly at the same time, and put on the screen at roughly the same time. But it revels in the mystery because it was part of a solid tradition of theater going, and the transfer to film. What Hitchcock was doing in his films was too new, he had to help the audience a bit. If he made Psycho today he wouldn’t need to.
I’m a great admirer of Hitchcock and I appreciate Psycho. There are moments in it of pure genius, and when considered alongside the release of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, one can see that 1960 was an intriguing year for the way in which the psychological thriller and the horror film were intertwined. I wouldn’t want you or anyone to think I was anti-Hitchcock or anti-Psycho.
No, it’s interesting, and no not at all. I watched The Birds (1963) again the other day, and it’s funny because I was trying to work out exactly why I liked it so much when I saw it before. When you re-evaluate it, the suspense is great, but all the other stuff doesn’t ring true.
Exactly, but it is funny because I re-read the Daphne du Maurier original short story for The Birds, and realised just how good it was compared to the film. It’s interesting what you were saying about exposition, because if you ever read the short story and then think about your theory when you watch the film, then you’re absolutely right. It’s what he was doing in exposition that actually interested him. The short story has no exposition. Rather its pure suspense and terror, and so it’s much scarier, bleaker and nihilistic. It is more political because it’s about the rise of communism. It’s anti-violence and it’s about male dominance. But the film is none of those things. He made it into an Oedipal study, as a kind of metaphor for the Oedipal tension. You look at what he did and you realise that he turns a good horror story into a piece of psychoanalysis, and obviously a part of psychoanalysis is exposition.
At FrightFest, you spoke of how In Fear works on different levels—a thrilling film that satisfies genre criteria, a film that invokes conversation afterwards but also a film that offers psychological insight. First and foremost, you’ve said it’s important that it’s a good watch.
Yeah, I still hold to that, and I think that’s true, but I definitely didn’t make it just for a good watch; I made it to be both. What I meant was if you so wished, you could just watch In Fear and enjoy it and forget about it. What I was trying to do was put a lot of stuff that interested me into the film, such as my own personal thoughts and analysis. Some people have enjoyed the film more in the days following their initial viewing, but I don’t think it’s effected the watching of it, and that’s what I hoped for.
What I learned is that if you are doing this kind of genre, the audience doesn’t have time to analyse it. You don’t have an intellectual response as you are watching it, and you shouldn’t necessarily have one. There was a moment when I was trying to pack a lot into the film in terms of my thoughts, etc. Then in the edit I had to say to myself: Hold on a minute. You need to pull away from that and just present it as a good story, as a good watch. If all your thinking behind it has gone into it, then hopefully some people will get that, and they will think about it or talk about it afterwards. I do subscribe to the idea that more than anything it just has to be a good watch, but if you create it just as a good watch with nothing underneath it, then it won’t have the same level of impact you might want for it.
Are there any films that had a creative influence on In Fear, or a group of films you made a point of watching in preparation?
I deliberately didn’t go back and look at any films. There were a whole bunch of films that had a bearing on it though. First would be Deliverance (1972) and Southern Comfort (1981), for the whole sort of macho, alpha male attempt, and the failure against an unknown enemy. Then there was Knife in the Water (1962), where again the alpha male is a threat-agent provocateur. For the horror side, I suppose The Vanishing (1988) for the process. Duel (1971) was there for building claustrophobia, working with a vehicle, and some of the other technical stuff. Perhaps Funny Games (1997) for some of the theorising. Obviously Straw Dogs (1971) was important because it’s about someone who is stripped of their veneer, is pushed to a bestial level and therefore resorts to violence. Is he released in the heroic, or is he destroyed and fallen because of it? What I didn’t do was go back and watch only one of them, because I didn’t want any one film to have more of an influence than the others.
Close to two decades working in television, how would you compare the transition from television to feature film production?
I don’t know if this was a typical example because we had a lot of freedom. With film, I feel there is a very healthy recognition that there are three parts of filmmaking: the script, the shoot and the edit. It sounds completely null, but it means what you have in an edit may be an entirely different film to what you had on the page. In film there is that recognition that you can evolve, you can develop and it becomes much more of an organic and collaborative process. You trust that the actors are going to bring something more than what’s on the page. You then trust the editor to bring more into the edit. Sadly, with TV it’s become less about that, and more about shooting what’s on the page (though I think it’s starting to change again now).
This year, I’ve had more approaches from financing sources who ask, “What do you want to do? We want to have it coming from a director, and then feed it into the writers and the producers.” So it is changing because people are recognising that that’s a healthy approach and because that’s what a director can bring to it. If you just shot what was on the page all of the time, you’d only have a rendered script, and that’s not what a film is. To me that’s the biggest difference. Film has the freedom of an ongoing creative process, whilst television has a lot less of that, for whatever reason.
It may partly be because we have a very strong literary tradition in Britain, and so television was traditionally about transferring theatre or literature onto the small screen. I’m obviously talking about many years ago, but that still lingers. People still sweat so much over the script, and then they won’t change anything. They become too scared to say, “This is really exciting, look at what this actor is doing, how he’s changed it. Let’s go and adapt what we’re doing to what he or she the actor is doing.” When you watch amazing television, I think that is what has happened.
The creative process is about creation, taking something and giving it a facelift; doing something new with it no matter how familiar, old or worn.
I think so. It’s extraordinary to think that what is printed out of a computer onto a piece of paper should be exactly what an audience is going to see, because that is ignoring all the other stuff. That’s an obvious thing to say, but I do think there is a bit of a hang up on that.
When I interviewed Sophie Lellouche for her debut feature film Paris-Manhattan (2012), she remarked, “First movies are very different, they are dreams. They are what you expect cinema to be.” With In Fear being your debut feature, what are your thoughts on the idea of the first film being a dream?
I’ve directed a lot of stuff, and some of it has been to pay tax bills, and some of it has been because I’ve been excited about it. The first thing I directed was a promo for the English National Opera, and it went on at the Coliseum. It was a full scale backdrop to a part of the opera, and I found it the other day on a VHS tape. I look at that, and that was the moment of the dream. That was when it was just me doing my first thing and it had that quality to it. It’s interesting looking at it because it’s not great by any means, but you look at it and go, “Ah, where are the things that went into that? Where did they go missing slightly, or how did they change? How did they develop?”
What’s interesting was in making this first film, it slightly returned me to that feeling. So I would agree with her in that regard. You’ll never get the same feeling again perhaps, but it’s interesting because a lot of filmmakers find they need to return to that freedom on a budget level or whatever it is that puts them back in that place where it’s just incredibly exciting. Still, the first time that you make something, it’s entirely representative of some part of you, whereas the more you make, the more you tone it down due to other issues and expectations.
I was on a jury for RTS [Royal Television Society] and screened student films from around the country. There was one film that I absolutely adored because it was made by someone who had more life experience. She was a single mum who grew up in Liverpool, and when her kids reached a certain age she took evening classes and she made a short film. It was so much more beautiful, in so many ways, than the National Film Schools or any of the others, just because it was totally her; it was her primal expression. Finally she was able to express herself following these life experiences. That really stuck with me because it reminded me of the honesty and integrity you get when you make your first film, because you are not yet mindful of everything else.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.
In Fear was released in UK theaters on the 15th of November, 2013.