CS Interview: Writer/Director Sean Ellis on werewolf thriller Eight for Silver [Sundance]
Ahead of the horror-thriller’s debut at the Sundance Film Festival, ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with writer/director Sean Ellis (Anthropoid) to discuss his return to the genre with the exciting werewolf chiller Eight for Silver.
ComingSoon.net: Eight for Silver is an absolute treat, it’s dark, it’s chilling, but it’s also your first time back in the horror genre in about 13 years, what was it that got you to come back to the genre?
Sean Ellis: I don’t make decisions on genre, per se, normally it’s something other than that, although having said that when I did Anthropoid, after that I was offered a lot of World War II scripts and at that point the last thing I wanted to do was to make another WWII script. I think that normally I’m drawn towards the story and if it happens to be a certain genre that I’ve done before, like The Broken, then I guess you go, “Yeah, why not?” I mean, with The Broken, I got raked over the coals a bit with that one, but then again I learned a lot, you learn a lot more from your mistakes as a filmmaker than you do your successes. I’ve been very wary of making those same kinds of mistakes in the same way with every film that I’ve made since, especially with a horror film, and I think that was definitely one of the minefields I walked into which was to come up with something really original. So that was definitely the bridge of if you’re doing to do a horror film, make sure it’s something that people haven’t seen before.
CS: So how did you come up with the concept and the story for this film? I love it’s blend of a typical werewolf movie with Lovecraftian elements.
SE: I think it was too big for me to say, “Oh I’m gonna reinvent the werewolf legend,” I didn’t know how to do that, I mean I could’ve said it but I wouldn’t have known how I would have done it. Even if I’m going to reinvent the werewolf legend, how do you do that? So what I did was I started to research the original Wolf Man and the fact that it was written by a Jewish writer and that the wolf was a metaphor for his experience as a Jewish person in Europe in the late ’30s and I started to think about how that metaphor for being persecuted for your religion at the time was very interesting. I thought what, in modern society, are we being persecuted for? I think we probably would prosecute ourselves in some respect, because I think we have major problems with addiction these days, whether it be drugs, or phones or a bad relationship or whatever and I like to think of the wolf as a metaphor for addition. When I started to think like that, I started to think that you become a slave to your addiction and they will mostly rule your life. When I started to think in those terms, I started to almost think about the design of what was happening, because that meant instead of changing into a wolf, you were becoming a prisoner to the wolf. I think once that element came into my mind, I started to get excited about the possibilities of where I could take this, so step by step, the concept and the sort of design of the story went forward and basically ended up where it is. It plays with some of the original mythology, but also I had fun spending time playing with that mythology in fact and fiction, I mean there’s biblical references, which are fact, and then there’s the silver bullet, which is fiction and mythological, so it was fun to sort of mix that stuff up, to sort of give the silver bullet some kind of history because we all know it’s harmful to the werewolf but not many of us know why, so that was fun to play with.
CS: You have a phenomenal roster with mostly European stars, but then you have Boyd playing British and he does very well with it, so what was it like building up your roster for the film?
SE: Yeah, I mean, we started to speak to a few actors in the beginning just to sort of get feelers out there and I think at that point, Boyd had got hold of the script through his agent and he got a message to me saying that he loved the script. He’d seen Anthropoid and was wondering if we could have a call about the project, and so I did and I was impressed with Boyd’s work, because I’ve seen him in Narcos and I’ve seen him in Logan and felt he was a very interesting actor and that he’s very chameleon like, where people don’t necessarily know his name, but they know his work and I think that’s a really interesting thing. Because like, when you say Boyd Holbrook, some people will say, “Uhhh?” and you say the blonde guy in Narcos and they go “Oh, yeah, he’s great!” You know, I think that’s really interesting and I’m a little bit like that, I feel that the people don’t necessarily know my name, but my films are more well known. So we thought about that and basically said, “Yeah, I guess the elephant in the room is the English accent.” He said, “Let me do taping for you and send it to you, but just know whatever you hear I’m going to be working on it for three months, so please make allowances.” But what he sent me was really good and I thought this is actually quite interesting. He had a calmness in his voice I felt was really right for the piece. He continued to work with a dialogue coach right up to shooting and even through shooting he would never drop the accent, even during lunch and stuff. He would just constantly be practicing it, whatever he was doing. Then right behind Boyd’s casting with the film, we had Alistair and Kelly, they slid straight in and they were both my first choices, so we were lucky to get that.
CS: This also marks the first time in a while that you also act as cinematographer alongside writer, director and producer, what was it like returning to that position alongside the other three?
SE: I mean, it’s one job for me as a filmmaker, I’m lucky because I know about cameras and I know about lenses and I know that, like, because my background is photography and I was a photographer for many years before I became a director, it’s all second nature, achieving an image that you have in your mind by using a tool, whether it’s a brush or a camera, though my training is with a camera. So if I imagine something in my mind, I’m pretty clear how I got about making that a reality by using light and cameras and lenses, so yeah, for me it’s just one job. I mean, it’s obviously extra work in the sense that because I operate as well, there are days when I’ve got a 23 kilogram camera on my should for 9-10 hours a day and it’s physically demanding. On top of that, you’ve got to be completely focused not only on your actors, but also on if the light has changed and whether you need to open up your exposure a little bit because something’s just happened or you’re losing the lights. It is a little bit extra, but I think because I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s sort of quite second nature, but having said that I think I would have loved to work with a DP [laughs]. There are so many great DPs out there that I admire and I’d love to get them in and give them the space and time to create something beautiful. I think on this one it was also there was budgetary constraints, so it was just easier for us to have two less crew.
CS: So how do you feeling gearing up for the premiere at Sundance?
SE: Because of the lockdown, we’ve never shown the film, so I’ve had a little bit of culture shock in the last few days where these phoners have actually been the first time I’ve really talked to people that haven’t worked on the film and who have seen it. It definitely feels like there’s a lot of positivity around what people are seeing and people seem excited about it. So I hope the audience and the buyers find the same thing, they see the same thing as you, as you sound excited about it, so I hope that sort of continues.
In the late nineteenth century, brutal land baron Seamus Laurent slaughters a Roma clan, unleashing a curse on his family and village. In the days that follow, the townspeople are plagued by nightmares, Seamus’s son Edward goes missing, and a boy is found murdered. The locals suspect a wild animal, but visiting pathologist John McBride warns of a more sinister presence lurking in the woods.
Written and directed by Ellis, the cast for the film includes Alistair Petrie (Hellboy, Sex Education), Max Mackintosh (The Quiet Ones), Boyd Holbrook (Logan, The Fugitive), Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes, Yellowstone) and Roxane Duran (Mary Queen of Scots).