Between enforced isolation, the steadily mounting dread that so many of us went through last year and the increasingly key role of communications technology, the terrifying Zoom séance horror Host was arguably the film that best typified 2020.
To mark the film’s release through Second Sight Films on Limited Edition Blu-ray on Monday 22nd February 2021 (pre-order here), Host director Rob Savage talked to The Film Magazine – over Zoom, of course – about the unexpected challenges of making the film, its wider impact on audiences, and what’s next for him now that his career has been catapulted into the spotlight.
Hi Rob, thanks for taking the time to talk to the Film Magazine. How’s it going with you at the minute in whatever number lockdown we’re on now?
It’s good, it’s good. Like everyone, I’m waiting for something that feels like real life to resume. I feel very lucky because we’ve just wrapped on another movie. I finished shooting another movie in mid-December – this is for Blumhouse – and we’re in the edit on that at the moment, and luckily I’m able to carry on doing that through the lockdown. That’s keeping me going and I’m excited about that.
I was going to ask about that – I’d read about you working with Blumhouse and I didn’t know whether you were going straight into that or whether you were doing other things first.
Yeah we’ve already shot it. I think because we managed to pull Host together so fast, really every moment feels wasted if you’re not working on another film.
Zoom must feel like a second home for you by now? Is this just your life at the minute?
Well it kind of is and isn’t. When we did Host, and then all the press with Host, it was all done this way. And then for the past, God it must’ve been four, five months working on this Blumhouse movie, I was in a production office and we were on a real set with real cameras and real people, and it felt almost like being on a normal film shoot again. And now we’re back to post-production and we’re back on Zoom so it feels very surreal. But I know my way around Zoom by now!
We loved Host at The Film Magazine – it got in a couple of our Top 10 lists at the end of the year. It seemed to stand so well for our 2020. I was just wondering if you had a loose idea for doing a film like this before the lockdown, or whether it was the lockdown itself that basically brought it all together quite quickly?
It was totally the lockdown itself, which I think is why the film works, because the reason we were making this movie was to keep ourselves sane during lockdown. I had no idea that anyone would see this movie, I thought that people would probably dismiss it as being gimmicky and didn’t really expect it to do what it did. Really the making of it… that was the point. If nobody had seen it, it would have been totally worth it because it kept me sane during lockdown and is a great creative thing to be doing with my friends, to just not think about the other side of it was a real gift actually – to just focus on making it with the scant resources we had during lockdown.
Did you become in a strange way grateful for the limitations imposed on you, that the lockdown/pandemic forced you to be more creative and economical in your filmmaking?
Yeah, totally, and it kind of shone a light on how collaborative the process is. Making a movie is always collaborative, and it’s always co-authored by all the people you’re working with, even though we like to talk about it as being director-led, it’s always a co-authorship. Making it this way just really brought that to the fore, and having everyone pitch in and throw in ideas. I’m developing a lot of movies and scripts, some of which have been in development for years and years and years, and this, the whole thing from conception to release was only twelve weeks. It was a really joyful process to be able to work backwards and say: we’re not going to write a script, in fact what we’re going to do is we’re going to look at everything we have the potential to do within these circumstances and we’re going to write those into the script. We are able to do these cool stunts because I know a stunt performer who is isolating with a stunt coordinator – that gets written in. It’s just a much more freeing, creative way of doing things.
What was the most challenging aspect of directing a film remotely in the way you have done for Host?
I think there’s an element of letting go that needs to happen, and I think there’s such a trust you need to place in everyone. Making a horror movie is so much about detail, so much about fine-tuning the beats of a scare, you know? A scare scene can be scary or not depending on one second of screen time that you need to squeeze out of there, and having that level of control when somebody who is not a cameraperson is filming it in their own flat, lighting it with an anglepoise – that’s really trying, and luckily I was working with friends who were just totally happy to try it again and again and again until we got it right, and also to try and engage and try and understand why I was asking them to do it again. None of the girls are horror movie fans, but they became students of it by the end because we’d been through the process so much.
Which kind of horror films and horror film directors would you say are your biggest influence on projects like this?
Every time I’m making a horror movie I go back and I watch a bunch of James Wan’s scare scenes because I think he is just working on another level when it comes to set pieces. He is such a master of visual storytelling and I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit. He’s obviously hugely successful, but I don’t think he gets spoken about in terms of his mastery of camerawork and executing these incredibly complicated, but deceptively simple set pieces, so he is always a huge influence.
One of the things we always get compared to is Unfriended, and the first instinct was to say, no we’re not influenced by them at all, but actually I f**king love those movies and I did watch them before we shot this, and there are lessons I took from those, both in terms of what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. Same with the Paranormal Activity movies – I love all those films and I’m happy to say that those are references.
I consider myself a horror movie fan but it is ghost stories, haunted house stuff that properly freaks me out. I will admit that when I watched Host I watched it in the daytime, but even so that image of the floating mask, that’s an image that haunts me and haunted me for weeks afterwards, you just close your eyes and it’s there – so thanks for that Rob!
Any time, yeah (laughs) that was a good one.
Did you have a certain kind of mischievous satisfaction that you’ve added this kind of extra tense element to any mundane video call with friends now? When I’m catching up with my friends on a weekly basis I’m finding myself always looking over their shoulders like, is there anything odd going on over there?
That’s totally it. That was my mission statement for this movie. I was trying to find a way to make people feel unsafe in their homes, you know? We were being told that outside is scary and inside is safe – that’s a great challenge for a horror filmmaker then to come up and say no, you think that’s safe? It’s not at all! I always talk about the best, scariest horror movies that stay with you; they are horror movies that take a safe domestic space and pervert it it some way, like Nightmare on Elm Street – the place you’re meant to feel safe is wrapped up in your quilts, and that’s the site of the danger. I’m always trying to think of that as a jumping-off point – where do we feel safe and how can we f*ck that up?
Have you heard about any instances of people trying their own online séances since Host?
A couple of people have done it, yeah. Actually, I was tweeting with Steve Pemberton from ‘Inside Number 9’ and he said he’d done a Zoom séance. I think he’s done a bunch of séances – he’s quite fascinated by that stuff. Because I’d done a bunch of séances in real life before and I knew a few real-life mediums that actually started doing them on Zoom, which was part of the inspiration. Hopefully it becomes a thing. That would be interesting!
You’ll be looking towards the Blu-ray release of Host now?
I f**king love Second Sight so much, like I’m such a geek for that kind of thing, so to get a beautiful special edition is one of those… there’s a few points on the course of this film, because a lot of it has been in lockdown, we had a little cinema release but it was mostly like this. To have a release like that is just one of those things that makes it feel real.
Are fans still discovering new details in the film all these months down the line?
Yeah, well that’s the fun thing – we got to put so much of that stuff in. There’s still a whole ocean of things they haven’t discovered yet – film references and little details.
So what can we look forward to with the physical release version in terms of extra content?
The thing I’m most excited about is that it’s got the original treatment included as a beautiful little booklet, which was the beat sheet we started with when we went into filming. And then me and Douglas Cox did a commentary on the disc, which is really nice because Douglas Cox is the unsung hero of Host – he’s the person who produced it and he was on every single Zoom call with me, he was just totally in it from the very beginning through to the final post. He’s not a very public figure, but it’s as much his film as anyone else’s and to get him on the commentary to kind of talk about behind-the-scenes stories… he remembers stuff I’d totally forgotten, all these details of the shoot and how it came together that I think people will really enjoy.
One final question for you Rob. I’d just like to know and it’s a popular question online, but I thought I’d ask it anyway – was it all Jemma’s fault?
(Laughs) Er… yes! It was Jemma’s fault.
Thanks for that – thank you for confirming what we all believed!
Yeah, I’ll go on the record for that!
Host Limited Edition Blu-ray is released on 22nd February (pre-order here).