Computer says no

Paul Hyett on technology, the creative process and Peripheral

by Jennie Kermode

Hannah Arterton plays an author whose life is turned upside down by a computer in Peripheral
Hannah Arterton plays an author whose life is turned upside down by a computer in Peripheral

A red hot author whose book has inspired riots. A publisher determined to extract as much money as possible from her next book. A computer system designed to make that work more commercial which gradually starts to take over more and more aspects of the author’s life. Peripheral is a cautionary tale about the intersection between society and technology. It recently screened at Frightfest’s Halloween event and it’s getting a lot of attention. Director Paul Hyett told me how he came to be involved with it.

“The original producer called me about the script,” he says. “I’d just finished Howl at the time and he said ‘I’ve got this movie, it’s one woman in a room and evil technology.’ At the time, well, Howl was a big film with lots of sets and visual effects and I wanted something that was logistically just as big or bigger. And I thought doing another film with just one person in a room or in a flat wasn’t really appealing, and he said ‘Just read the script.’

Hannah Arterton in Peripheral
Hannah Arterton in Peripheral

So I read the script and I absolutely loved it. It was one of those scripts where I thought ‘This is a really important film. It’s really pertinent to what we’re going through today with technology, social media addiction and, you know, all sorts of streaming services forcing artists to make films a certain way for a certain demographic,’ and of the scripts I had, that was the one that felt the most important.”

Was it a challenge working out how to take a film about an internal process like writing and make it work visually for the big screen?

“Yeah. I mean that was one of the big things. I was very aware that people could get bored visually so I really spent a lot of time trying to work out how to shoot it, how I would do the drug sequences, how I would move the camera and how I could light it. The production design with the different wallpapers and the different colours and the feel – and what could I do to make this visually interesting? Because the words were there. The dialogue was great and I did like the story but for 90 minutes in one flat, I knew that it was very much on my shoulders, that I had to make sure it was always visually interesting.”

Did it help to have Hannah Arterton, whom he also worked with in Heretiks, in the lead?

Hannah looks through a screen darkly
Hannah looks through a screen darkly

“Absolutely. And I said to her ‘I just don’t want you to feel limited.’ Me and Hannah have a great working relationship. She understands that I’m a very visual director so she’s always very understanding about how I’m going to move her and move the camera. She was phenomenal. I think she’s a great actress and we work so well together in building a character and working out what I want visually and how we’re going to tell the story.”

He’s also full of praise for the screenwriter.

“It was nice to have someone else’s script. Dan Schaffer, he’s a great writer. His scripts work on so many different levels. So it was lovely to take a script that was as good as that... it was nice to take that and try to push my vision onto it.”

Did he feel a personal connection to the story, having spent time sitting in front of a computer trying to write a script on a deadline, having experienced that pressure?

“Absolutely. And it wasn’t just pressure, it was pressure on someone trying to write a script so that it works for their demographic, it works financially for their publisher. You can spend six months to a year writing a script only to have someone say ‘Yeah, can you turn the protagonist into an 18-year-old so it goes to a teenage audience,’ or ‘Can you make it less gory and turn it into a PG,’ or something else that really tears out the soul of the script. The deadlines maybe force you to make creative decisions that you wouldn’t usually do.

Facing temptation
Facing temptation

“All these things [in the film] really appealed to me. I loved the themes of addiction. Now I’m so addicted to technology – I never used to be. Technology now has its claws in me. I can’t be without my phone. I get separation anxiety if I can’t check my email, and it was all these little elements that made me feel yeah, I’ve felt all of those kinds of issues.”

Paul spent many years working in the field of make-up and visual effects. Did that help him when it came to developing this film?

“It’s one of those things where I’ve worked so much in visual effects and all those type of things that it really was a help in that,” he says. “I think we had 350 visual effects shots. I had to understand how we were going to make the computer work visually... We had a fantastic company doing the visual effects. Also the prosthetics and the make-up – I’m quite experienced with make-up and I was trying to make everything look right. The DP was Peter Taylor who was Ridley Scott’s camera operator. We talked a lot initially about what we could do there and what we could do visual effects-wise and what we were doing in camera and all the weird stuff.”

Peripheral poster
Peripheral poster

Although he enjoyed all this, he doesn’t want to get stuck working in one particular niche.

“I really try to do something different each time and, you know, I see other people quite happy to do a type of film but I just want to do things differently. You know, next time I’d love to do a thriller or perhaps a genre film but it has to be very different to what I’ve done before.

“You can easily spend two years of your life on a film. You don’t want to feel that you’re doing the same thing again and again. Creatively it’s really refreshing, it gives you a whole new energy to try to do something very different.”

How did Peripheral go down at Frightfest?

“I was a little worried at first,” he admits, “because obviously it’s not a gory horror and I thought, well, will they embrace it? And they did! I was really shocked at how everyone seemed to really like it. I think sometimes it’s you know, do you call it a science fiction film or a horror film? I’m not sure that’s where it comes in. It certainly has horrific moments in there. I think if people are going hoping it’s going to be a Paul Hyett gore movie, a blood and gore fest, obviously they’re always going to be disappointed but I think a lot of the time those crowds just want really interesting, different visions to watch. From what I can gather there was a really good reaction to it. So I was very nervous at first but I think they all liked it.”

So what’s next for him? It’s a project still in the process of finding funding, he says.

“I’ve got a dark thriller that I’m kind of working on at the moment, quite different to what I’ve done before... It has a very interesting style and a killer twist to it, so that’s what I’m doing next. Hopefully.”

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