A fractured family

Ben Charles Edwards on going back to basic fears with Father Of Flies

by Jennie Kermode

Father Of Flies
Father Of Flies

Recently screened at Raindance, Ben Charles Edwards’ Father Of Flies is a new horror film which uses old tricks to powerful effect. It’s the story of a family in crisis following a bitter divorce, and is told mostly through the eyes of young Michael (Keaton Tetlow), who is becoming increasingly afraid of his new stepmother (Camilla Rutherford). With father Richard (Nicholas Tucci) trying to provide for the family and Michael’s teenage sister Donna (Page Ruth) increasingly distracted, the suffering of the past could be about to lead to more. It’s based on a story which Ben wrote as a child, and when we met up to discuss the film, I began be asking about that.

“Well, I wrote a short story as a child that was quite similar,” he says. “It was about how we can villainise the wrong woman – the stepmother – and how we're too quick to judge particular traits, particularly in women. There's a reason why, you know, within even folklore and fairy tales, we villainise stepmothers – and, to be honest, women in general, in a very different way. It always seems more of a conniving, manipulative form of villain when it comes to women. And if it is a man, even in Disney films, they’re usually camp. I don't quite understand it, but I like the idea of taking the opportunity to make a film where for once we're making the audience think that we shouldn't be so quick to judge. You know, just because you may wear a mask it doesn’t make you a villain. So it takes that evil stepmother mirror-gazing trope and turns it on its head.”

He’s done a lot, both as writer and as director, to set up that perception of her, with any number of cues that will make genre fans uneasy. I imagine that most viewers will find her habit of wearing a mask creepy. Is it a Rejuvenique facial massager?

Nicolas Tucci in Father Of Flies
Nicolas Tucci in Father Of Flies Photo: Goldfinch Entertainment

“It is,” he tells me, and continues, “The reason why I've done a lot to set her up, as you say, in that way, is not only because it's a better payoff for the audience, but because we are seeing it from Michael’s perspective. And he is seeing her as that character, up until that penultimate moment, which I don't want to give away for your readers. Up until that point, you need to feel that you’re seeing everything from his perspective, and then we're talking about misplaced memories and denial, and acceptance of your destiny or your fate, even. And we never want to see our parents as anything but gods, even when they potentially do the most horrific things. A child is like a dog in that sense. They're always forgiving, they always come back.”

Was easier to get into the headspace of the boy during development because the story originated when he was a child himself?

“Exactly. It allowed me to reflect before I wrote the movie. I mean, I didn't have a bad childhood. I didn't have the same fate as that. But I did grow up in what I believed to be a very haunted house, and I did villainise my stepmother and my family were going through divorce and when families go through that transitional period of change, it opens one up to a lot of emotions, the whole family. Nothing’s certain nothing's landed, nothing's concrete. It opens up a lot of anxiety, and what better thread to pull through a horror film then a constant anxiety and uncertainty where you can't trust your guardians? Dad’s away at work. Sister’s off chasing boys. And this child is left alone to confront whatever fears – if they're unreasonable fears of his stepmother or, you know, what's lurking under the bed.”

I tell him that I love the under the bed thing because I think a lot of adults still have a bit of that fear when they watch films like that – but how does one make something like that really scary again?

“Well, I think with that film, again, I intentionally took typical, almost cliché horror tropes: what's under the bed, what's in the cupboard, static in the television like Poltergeist. And these things were very obvious homages, very clear nods to particular movies of the past, so I'm not ripping off, I'm saying, ‘Hey, I love that film.’ This whole thing was in my childhood so it has that kind of Eighties aesthetic in it, which is when I was born. I remember the Eighties clearly growing up. So that was a strong thing that I wanted in there.

“I just wanted to create a world that is of its own. I didn't want it to be now. Now, obviously, television is a big part of this story, and modern TVs are bloody ugly, they just look like moving picture frames. And I wanted that box, I wanted that kind of that typical TV show. And as I say, my headspace was in the Eighties for me as a child, and I couldn't help but then be unconsciously bringing elements from my childhood forward, including the computer game that the boy plays in the beginning. They're all things that reminded me of my childhood. And it helped me get in the headspace a lot easier. And with that came a bit of a mismatched, fun style.”

Keaton Tetlow in Father Of Flies
Keaton Tetlow in Father Of Flies Photo: Goldfinch Entertainment

The house where the film is set does a lot to contribute to that atmosphere. How did he find it?

“I searched high and low for a house that had that kind of symmetrical feel. It couldn't be too big, because then it wouldn't have suited the family. The house is relatively small, a very modest family home, and lost amongst those trees. It feels even smaller, like a little star floating in nowhere. Then you don't have to worry about trying to cut your family off from neighbours and worry about, you know, how do they lose their cell phones, because it doesn't matter. In fact, I use telephones and technology a lot in it, because I’m bored of those horrors where within the first few minutes, you've got to find a reason as to why your protagonist loses their phone and can't call the police. Well, how about the threat isn't about that? There's no call for help sometimes. It doesn't matter who you call. The boy calls mummy and begs for help. Richard, the father, is in contact with his wife, his new wife, and kids. That doesn't help. When the cracks start to show, a telephone is not going to help keep things together. It's not just a case of calling the cops, you know. The problem is from within. And it's something that eats away at them. It's throughout the house, that anxiety.”

And then there’s the score, which really contributes to the anxiety one feels as a viewer.

“The score was written by a good friend of mine called Gus Collins, and he's a genius, him and his work partner, Will Berger, they just went to town with it. They said ‘Ben, what do you want?’ and I said ‘Do whatever you want, do whatever feels natural.’ And he played around with all sorts of different things, sent me a couple of ideas, uses of instruments, and he sent me that title scene first, and I just said ‘God, that's perfect!’ It made the hair on my arms stand up. And I was like, ‘This is so good, you're bang on.’

“Gus has an interesting way of working because he plays many different instruments, so we sat in the studio and put it on the projector, and he just tried things out and didn't want any comment from me, only needed me to shut up. He needed to feel his way through the emotion. Because for a horror, it's got a lot of emotion. I didn't want it to just be a normal horror, I wanted it to be something that” – he pauses – “you know, true horror, true fears. Not always a cheerleader getting stabbed in the head. True horror comes from, hopefully, what we've demonstrated in this movie, which is anything that a human finds horrifically scary. And in this case, for me, it's the loss of loved ones. It's uncertainty. It's that growing fear of what's under the bed, of ‘Who's there to look after me?’ as a child. And that's truly playing on basic human traits that we're all kind of scared of.”

That emotional content is essential to make the family feel natural.

“Exactly. And I think some of that came from the fact that the actors improvised a lot. This could constantly evolve until I was in New York and I would still be writing it on set. I was getting the actors to workshop it on set and the dialogue with them worked better, felt more natural. That lovely speech that Mrs. Start gives in the garden when she’s asked ‘Do you miss your partner?’ and she says “It’s more than that. We spent 44 years together. Now I've got nobody near me.’ So your life is worthless. If you've got nobody there to laugh at a joke, if you've got nobody there to say ‘Do you remember when we did that? Remember when we did this?’ then who’s to say it happened at all? And that's where she is. So that's how I use her own nightmare. I wrote that when I was in New York with Colleen Heidemann, the actress that plays her, and she was talking about her personal story.

Father Of Flies poster
Father Of Flies poster Photo: Goldfinch Entertainment

“A lot of them were connected to the cast themselves to some some degree and then some of the cast, like Page Ruth who plays Donna, just took it. She just regressed back to the ratty, 15-year-old teenager that is inside all of us, and just played it out. And it's brilliant. You know, you love her and she looks cool but you think ‘My God, she would be a hard work!” He laughs. “And then Keaton Tetlow, who plays Michael, was just such a star. I mean, really. I think he's a real talent. And his performance was so strong, so strong.”

The film is dedicated to Nicholas Tucci, who passed away after filming was complete. I ask Ben if they knew, during filming, that their star was ill.

“No, I didn't know,” he says. “He was a very private, professional person. He really was a true professional who kept the atmosphere up on set. He remained on set as well, even when he wasn't filming. If his scenes were finished by three in the afternoon, he’d hang around until five or six, until we wrapped, just watching. He was the beating heart of that film set. I'm not just saying that. He really was. And it was, for so many reasons, devastating. That I didn't get to work with him again. That he didn't get to see the movie. I think he would have loved it. He was so happy on set and he said some wonderful things. I hope that he enjoyed the experience because it was one of his last in an industry that he loves. And I spoke to his father recently and told him that Nick’s performance was up for an award at a festival in Hollywood. It must have been such a nice moment for everyone we know.”

He pauses for a moment to collect himself, clearly keen to talk about this but finding it hard nonetheless.

“It's a great tribute. And he went too soon. He really did go too soon. That guy still had his best performance in him. I really enjoyed working with him, and I thought, gosh, in the next 10 years, he could really go up, he can elevate that genre we love. He could have gone the full way. It's just a shame when people are taken from us.”

It seems like a good time to move to a different subject, so I ask him about the film’s title, because it’s very striking. Where did it come from?

This is the first time he’s had the chance to answer that question, he tells me, having missed an opportunity at a recent Q&A. He explains that the film had several working titles during production, and that he eventually settled on one which – without wanting to give too much away – sums up Richard’s state at the end of the film. “He made an ultimate mistake, Richard, and he turned away his wife at the door in her greatest moment of need...And that was the sin. He should have stuck by her. You don't denounce somebody just because you’ve handed them a divorce paper. They're still a huge part of your life, if you like it or not, and if you don't like it, you should have make better choices 15 years ago. We have to live with our choices. You don't write them off. And lots of divorce couples do that. And that's a real shame, because it leads to bitterness and casualties.”

The title can also be seen as a reference to Beelzebub and to Satan, he adds, which perhaps fits in with the idea of sin and paying a price.

“I really enjoyed making Father Of Flies, more so than ever,” he says, as we discuss where he might go from here. “It’s the second movie that I've directed, it's one of four feature films that I’ve either directed or produced. And I really enjoy elevating the genre. And I love horror. I've always loved it. I want to make more horror as I find that horrors are the reason why I go to the cinema, I want to experience that roller coaster, I want to sit on a roller coaster and I want to go up and down, hold my breath and not know when the next thing’s coming. That's film for me. It's a ride. It's a rush. And of course, I love all films and watch so many. But if I'm going to the cinema, and I want to sit in the dark and be scared to death, I want to watch a horror.

“I run the production at Goldfinch Entertainment, which is a very good and lovely, family-run company. It's one of the biggest independent UK production or film financers in the UK, but it's family run. And it's just a great place to be involved. And they're very open to be shaping this whole slave around the kind of horror genre that I love. So that's really exciting. We’ve acquired some amazing scripts and we've got great partners with the right kinds of film festivals and distributors. So hopefully, we're going to be on a journey to make some some really exciting movies in the UK, around the genre and stories and themes that I love, and things that elevate the genre. Diversity, getting new voices involved. If I'm directing, then the actors, the writers. If I’m producing, then really trying to give them a voice. Film has always been an effective medium which has allowed people to tell really punchy stories, and I feel that we did go through a point of dull film where the same men and the same stories kept being made and it gets boring. So I'm wanting to make a difference to that. I think we all want something different. It gets boring otherwise.”

Father Of Flies will be released in the UK in 2022.

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