Exclusive Interview: Director Sean Ellis of The Broken


One of After Dark’s Horrorfest III entries

Lena Headey (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) comes face-to-face with a spitting image of herself in The Broken, a new surreal thriller from British writer-director Sean Ellis. What transpires is a brooding, measured mystery that finds Headey’s character questioning the true identity of her friends and loved ones as she seeks her imposter. The film played to audiences at Sundance at the outset of the year; genre festival screenings followed before it was acquired by After Dark Films for Horrorfest III (beginning January 9th).

Ellis, a fashion photographer cum filmmaker, was nominated for an Academy Award for his short film Cashback in 2004. He turned that film into a feature two years later with Harry Potter‘s Sean Biggerstaff and Emilia Fox. The Broken finds Ellis switching gears for something darker and, as he tells us, “dark” is a place he’s quite comfortable with.

ShockTillYouDrop.com: You started out in photography, was that a means to work your way into film?

Sean Ellis: I was probably a photographer posing as a frustrated filmmaker. Photography is more immediate and is easier to do in the sense that it’s just you and a camera. I got quite involved in fashion photography and took it was far as I really wanted to take it. I wanted to challenge myself in a new field, so I moved into film.

Shock: Tonally speaking, Broken is vastly different from your short film turned feature Cashback, so was the change in genre a new way to challenge yourself yet again?

Ellis: Cashback was actually a bit of surprise for me because a lot of my work is very dark. Broken‘s script was written before Cashback. The short for Cashback came about while I was waiting to do Broken which kept getting postponed. Then when it was indefinitely postponed, I thought it might be easy to actually turn Cashback into a feature film. I just rolled with that and tried to do something visual with that film so people could look at the Broken script and understand I was going to do something with it.

Shock: During that time of postponement were you fine-tuning the script for Broken or were you satisfied with what you had?

Ellis: It’s funny, it was developed, or should we say, it was originally a 20 or 30 page treatment that got picked up by a studio and financier that wanted to develop it. I developed it with them but it was going in the wrong direction. There were problems with everything and, ultimately, it was only a matter of time before it was going to collapse. Once it did collapse, without all of the financial restraints people put on you, or, even creative restraints, I went away and took a year out and rewrote the script the way I thought it should be. That was finished by the time I came back and I pretty much then wrote the feature script for Cashback. I found backing for that immediately because of the availability of the cast was the same as the short film. We needed it to go quickly. When I was done, the brand new draft of Broken was waiting to go. This, inevitably, changed from the final draft. It was taking it back to original idea, really.

Shock: Which was?

Ellis: Well, this came from the creepy films I used to love as a kid. Films that are not being made so much more these days. Like the feeling I got from Don’t Look Now maybe. I just wanted to do a film that got under your skin and stayed with you. Not just a bunch of teenagers getting killed by a murderer. I wanted to do something that made you think a little bit more. I wanted to create a very definite world with a very definite atmosphere. It was a creative challenge in that sense.

Shock: Now I heard you spoke with Nicolas Roeg…

Ellis: I did speak to Nic, because I wanted him to be in the film. A little cameo. But he was finishing up his movie and was too busy. I wanted this film to be creepy but you were not sure why. It was a very atmospheric story. Everything is suggested. It’s not like, this is the curse of this… Or, this is the murder of that… It’s very cerebral in its approach in that sense.

Shock: There’s nothing gimmicky about the plot.

Ellis: No, not at all. I didn’t want Broken to be a twisty plot, “guess the ending” kind of thing. It’s not structured that way. It’s structured like you experience it, whether you have a certain interpretation of it is fine because it’s open to that. It’s not locked down. There are a number of ways you can read the movie. And there is a conclusion, of course, but there are a number of ways you can look at this movie. It’s interesting to hear people’s take on the movie. It has its own personality, like taking your kid to school and making some friends or enemies.

Shock: In your experience with the actors, did you find them coming to you through the production with their own interpretations of what the story was?

Ellis: I think it’s a very confusing script to read. And I think that’s probably why it’s taken so long to get anyone to really trust me with the project. When you read the script you’re not really quite sure where you are. It’s a descriptive script. You know the world that it’s set in. You don’t necessarily know who’s good or bad, it’s ambiguous in that sense. It’s just the idea that somebody that you know or love has changed. Have they changed…or have they really changed? It’s like, “I don’t even know you anymore.” People say that, but what if that person you know isn’t really that person anymore? Does the same job, looks the same way, lives in the same house but is a completely different person. I thought that was an interesting concept for a movie. People say, “Oh, I saw someone that looks exactly like you.” But, what if you actually saw yourself? I thought that was a spooky idea and played it around that.

Shock: Did principal photography go smoothly knowing that this idea has been gestating in your head for so long?

Ellis: Very much so, very much so. I was also careful not to storyboard the movie because I didn’t want to dilute the images I had in my head. It was about keeping those images very fresh and not looking at a storyboard and compromising saying, “That’s it.” Then getting on the set and seeing what you got and realizing it’s not it. I really just said, the image in the head has to come out. I was stringent on letting the quality control of the movie not going under a certain level. If it wasn’t the image in my head, it wasn’t right. It has to be right.

Shock: Being a photographer, I’m guessing you were very deliberate in choosing the color scheme and look of the film to match the themes you were playing with.

Ellis: We were very careful with the colors because the mood and the location, atmosphere, was truly a character. It was intentional to make that a character within a movie, so you’ll see a London you’ve never seen before. You’ll feel unease unlike you haven’t done before. It’s not all about terror, it’s about that sense of dread.

Shock: Lena Headey is currently on the pop culture rise for her work on the Terminator series. How did she get onto your radar?

Ellis: I’ve known of Lena for a few years. She has done films for TV in England and has done a lot of work. I met with her and at the time she had just completed 300, so I knew she had a big box office hit on her hands. She’s the only girl in that film. That helped us in the sense that she had a lead in 300. But to be honest, Broken was never going to be a star-driven project. She got The Sarah Connor Chronicles while we were filming, so that’s her own journey and I’m happy she’s meeting success. I don’t think it was necessarily a make or break for our movie. There is a positive back-end of that because now she’s become a name.

Shock: What’s your journey then? What’s the ultimate goal?

Ellis: To carry on with work that I’m passionate about. I’m looking for stories that drive me forward. I’m not just into comedies or thrillers. I’m into something that sparks for me. And it’s not about the money or I’d go and be a trader or something. So, I’m into stories that inspire my imagination and hopefully I can execute them so people can watch them in the same way I understood the story. I’ve got a number of projects I’m looking at now, but I’m not sure what’s next. I’ll wait and see. I work on three or four projects at the same time, because you never know what’s going to go on.

For more on The Broken, including photos and trailers, follow this link.

Source: Ryan Rotten, Managing Editor