The play's the thing

Fionn Watts and Toby Watts on Playhouse, Caithness and the power of the unseen

by Jennie Kermode

Fionn and Toby get ready to go
Fionn and Toby get ready to go

Screening as part of this year's Arrow Video FrightFest, Fionn Watts and Toby Watts' supernatural mystery Playhouse tells the story of a teenager who moves up to Caithness when her playwright father buys a castle there, and how the two are affected by grim events deep in the building's past. It's a film that draws on the brothers' own past, and ahead of the festival they agreed to answer some questions about it.

Jennie Kermode: Caithness isn't the most common starting place for filmmakers. What inspired you to try and make a film, when did you decide it was something you wanted to do and what did your friends and neighbours think?

Grace Courtney in Playhouse
Grace Courtney in Playhouse Photo: FrightFest

Toby and Fionn: We spent most of our teenage years in Caithness living with our dad and so had dreamed of making a film there since being very young. There really wasn’t much to do outside of school other than play football, so we started recording short radio plays on a Nineties Talkboy, eventually graduating onto using a mini DV camera and shooting experimental films. We did some avant-garde things like dressing up in old costumes and sitting in a rocking chair and filming ourselves in black and white whist covered in shaving foam. All of this playing around eventually lead us to scriptwriting and casting school friends to act for us in short films, which was a great laugh during the holidays.

As for our neighbours, they mostly didn’t know what we we’re up to, although for one shorty film we rigged up some very bright blue halogen lights in a tree at one point and we heard later that rumours had developed that there was UFO activity at our house! I guess it shows that not many people do this kind of thing from a rural place like Caithness. Thankfully for us, we had very creative parents who had both worked all their lives in the arts, writing and acting, so it was kind of a logical step for us.

JK: Do you think Scotland's northern landscapes are an overlooked asset when it comes to film?

Fionn and Toby set up a shot in the attic
Fionn and Toby set up a shot in the attic

TW & FW: Most definitely. It’s such a unique landscape that often resembles the wild west with endless horizons and grassy wilderness, and it boasts an incredible quality of natural light. We discovered this early on when shooting with basic cameras and achieving astonishingly good picture quality. Our hope is that the Caithness landscape remains unspoilt as there are few places on earth where you get such incredible skies without light pollution and nothing man made in sight for miles. Some people think the north of Scotland is bleak but it’s actually not true, as the weather continually changes due to the strong winds which means you get lots of rainbows and dramatic skies which are amazing on film.

JK: Are there autobiographical elements in the film, given your father's profession and where it's shot?

TW & FW: There are definitely some autobiographical elements to the film, probably owing to the fact that one of the things we were taught early on was to write about what you know. Our dad is a writer and so growing up we would see him isolate himself and we often wondered what he was doing in his wooden cabin by the beach. With a bit of artistic license we created the idea of Jack - a notorious horror writer who moves to a Scottish castle - loosely based on our father. Although there’s nothing horrifying about our dad and his work, there are definitely some eccentricities we drew on! The other aspect is that Freswick Castle is our childhood home and so it was a no-brainer to set the film there as it has always had an enchanted feel which has inspired us from the beginning. We felt the pressure to shoot a film there before it became fully renovated as we wanted the atmosphere of its partially dilapidated state, dark dungeons and dusty attic to be an essential part of Playhouse and Jack’s vision for the horror play he’s working on.

The spiral staircase
The spiral staircase Photo: FrightFest

JK: How did this particular story develop?

TW & FW: Over a period of years we developed different stories set in the castle that were contained and achievable on a low budget. These ranged from sci-fi to comedy and drama. However, nothing seemed to stick apart from the central idea of a highly strained relationship between a single father and his daughter. This is the core of what Playhouse is about and we felt continually drawn to the supernatural thriller/horror genre knowing it’s a great place for filmmakers to start their career. The castle also suggested something inspired by early Gothic films, with its mouldy walls and draughty stone tower.

This was a great canvas to paint on as so much of Playhouse came out of the inspiration of the building and the wild landscape around it. I think that walking around the Castle and day dreaming eventually gave birth to Jack and Bee as real characters that had their own life force. Once we had them in mind the writing became easy as they just seemed to talk to each other in our heads and then the other characters appeared around them as ways to antagonise and interfere with their already strained dynamic.

JK: You go to a lot of trouble setting the scene for your story. How important do you feel it is to create the right atmosphere for this type of film, and is there more you'd like to have done with that if you hadn't been working with such a tight budget?

Dinner time in the Playhouse
Dinner time in the Playhouse Photo: FrightFest

TW & FW: Getting the atmosphere right is very important with this kind of film, especially if you are on a tight budget and can’t rely on expensive special effects or big action scenes. We often prefer the kind of horror film that relies more on atmosphere and tension than gore and doesn’t show too much of ‘the monster’. The power of suggestion is really important in horror films and therefore if you hint at something lurking in the dark then the viewer will project their own ideas on to what that is. This ultimately can make a film much more frightening. That’s how psychological horror works and we were keen to realise Playhouse this way. Of course, if we had more time and money we would have gone to town on certain elements of the production design and added additional scenes; but given what we had it’s the best we could have done and so we’re incredibly proud of what was achieved with a such hardworking and talented crew.

JK: Did you both work on every aspect of the film when co-directing, or do you specialise in different areas, such as framing shots and working with actors to get what you want from them?

FW: We tend to mix and match on directing the actors and it really was dependent on who felt they had the strongest vision for the scene in terms of who led the direction. Often Toby would work out the blocking with the actors and I would keep my eyes and ears on the monitor to check performance. We would talk together after each take about what to try next and then he would go and talk to the actors. Sometimes we changed roles in this process to keep things fresh, so it was very much two heads working as one in terms of direction. We both would direct Andy, our DP, on framing although more often than not he just got it right himself based on our shot list and his instincts and sometimes threw his own great ideas in to the mix.

Fionn and Toby direct William Holstead as the film's troubled leading character
Fionn and Toby direct William Holstead as the film's troubled leading character

JK: How did you go about casting the film?

TW & FW: We’d met William Holstead who played Jack some years ago on a corporate video shoot and were blown away by his charisma as an actor and incredible face, so we primed him for Jack. As for the others (apart from Helen Mackay who played Jenny, and who is a Caithness native who we knew from school), they came through Spotlight casting. We ran casting sessions and received self-tapes in order to find the cast. Casting was very important to us as we knew one bad actor could really screw up the film so we did a lot of leg work to make sure that not only our cast could act but also that they could take direction.

JK: How do you feel about the film being selected for FrightFest?

TW & FW: Getting in to Frightfest has been incredible for us. As soon as that happened we found that sales agents wanted to watch the film and would quickly get back to our emails. It’s a very important part of the process to premiere at a respected festival and to be able to reach the fans and to help secure distribution for the film. Many festivals don’t have a great deal of clout but in terms horror, FrightFest is a dream come true for us!

JK: What's next for the two of you as filmmakers? Do you plan to keep on working together?

The Playhouse crew prepares for a scene
The Playhouse crew prepares for a scene

TW & FW: We are in development with our second horror feature with a significantly raised budget which we plan to shoot next year. In terms of working together, we’re practically inseparable and much of our motivation comes from our shared loved for movies and the great fun we have on a daily basis as we graft out the next project. We’re very fortunate to get on so well as brothers and have a mutual filmmaking dream. This is the source of our strength and what keeps us going when things get really tough!

Playhouse will screen at FrightFest on Saturday 29 August.

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