The stuff that dreams are made of

Andy Mitton on Covid, nightmares, infectious ideas and The Harbinger

by Jennie Kermode

The Harbinger
The Harbinger Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

One of the great things about film festivals is that there is always the potential for a film which hasn’t had much prior word of mouth to surprise you. The Fantasia International Film Festival is no exception. It was almost by accident that I found myself watching The Harbinger, the story of a woman (Emily Davis) troubled by strange nightmares and the friend (Gabby Beans) who tries to help her, only to be caught up in the nightmare herself. Set during the period when Covid-19 was wreaking havoc in new York City, it’s one of the first films in any genre to really take on the fear of contagion and the difficulty of living in that situation. As soon as I watched it, I knew I had to speak to the director.

Fortunately, Andy Mitton was happy to oblige. He was having a great festival and was excited (and relieved, as if the case for many filmmakers) about the way his film had been received. When we got talking, I asked him if the film had been born out of the experience of the pandemic, or if he had already had the rest of this story in mind.

“Covid, I think, wound up being the mortar to bring a lot of things that have been circulating in my mind together,” he says. “I’ve wanted to work in dreams for a while, then after having done a couple of ghost movies I've been interested in going back to where I started, which was the demonic realm. I literally love that kind of movie, but nothing had really formulated. And then when everything hit in 2020, I just had one of those nights where, you know, my muse arrived.

“All the machinery of this story came to me quickly over the course of the night. The way this might all come together and the way the pandemic might serve as the gasoline basically for the story, not to write about it about exactly on the nose, but to take the collective dread, that's so rare, because it's so rare to find a time when everyone on the planet shares the knowledge of this, the experience of this, and the dread of this. It's kind of irresistible to tap into, but I also knew if I was going to do that, and also make horror audiences happy, there were certain things I was going to need to deliver with it. So I tried to balance those things and make something that scared me.”

The film does a really good job of bringing back that sense of dread that I think a lot of people have tried to to get rid of and push out of their lives as fast as possible. Does he think that it's potentially a helpful thing for people to think again about that and try to process it, now that the initial fear is over?

“I do. I think there's a lot to process, not just the behaviour, but the amount of loss. We all experienced loss in such a short amount of time. When that many lives go out of the world, sometimes in very lonely ways, you can't honour everyone. There’s that existential fear of being forgotten. That was very present for me. So, yeah, I think it's important to keep having these conversations, but I'll fully admit, I'm not ready for a weighty drama, necessarily, about it. This is the kind of thing where I think horror is really a useful tool, because it gives that a little bit of a cushion. There's a little bit of a roller coaster, there's a lens to see it through that that can also be you know, it's just a story that could exist outside of this time, I think.

“I do think we'll continue to look back. I decided it wouldn't date the movie because I think forward into time, 10 years, 15 years from now, this is still going to be a really valid period to set stories in, the same as any other historical period that might serve to elevate themes and fuel story. So I think we're going to have to keep dealing with it and talking about it. I think it's important.”

There’s a moment early on where Gabby’s character is going into a building and she hears a child coughing, and it invokes a real sense of dread. It’s the sound design that does it, and it’s excellent throughout the film. Sound technicians don’t tend to get enough credit for what they add to films, so I ask who did that work in this case.

“I'm excited that you asked about that,” he says. “Yeah, our re recording mixer is Dan Brennan. He was really our sound designer, and we did sound at Soundtrack New York. It's one of my favourite things about making movies as Dan and I were best friends growing up. He was my best friend in high school, he’s still my best friend, and it just so happens that he's a top engineer at this great sound house in the city. He's the one I watched horror movies with when I was 13. So we're really connected to the source in that way and why we do this.

“At the end of the day, Dan lives in Brooklyn, so he was there at the beginning of the pandemic when the National Guard was in town and all the hospitals were overflowing. He was living in that sonic environment where usually all that life you hear outside the windows in New York had been deadened, and it was replaced by this constant string of ambulances going by, and the worry of when it will pull up to your door, and will it be somebody you know? So we started there, and we really kind of pooled our dread together. He's just a masterful sound designer, and I think it's one of the most important elements in any horror movie. But, yeah, the coughing, especially Cody, our young actor, Cody did come in and give us those coughs. So he was a part of that, too.”

Alongside that, it's a film which knows how to use silence. There's a stillness about a lot of it, which I think makes it a lot creepier, particularly because it unfolds at quite a slow pace. A lot of directors lack the courage to do that. Was it always important to him?

“Yeah, and I think that it happens at the end. I think I'm like anyone, when I'm editing, I'm full of doubt, and I'm impatient. And I'm worrying like, are we holding tension, have we earned the right to burn this a little slower? And then as you start to have faith in the story, at least for me, most times I’m making movies. Then I start to pull out the extra music, the extra sound, the things that maybe arrived because I didn't trust the story to just exist and for us to sit in this space with the humanity of these characters and not be influenced by like, low, droning bass music or over the top sound effects. So I do think I think that stillness fits in with the kind of humanity and a sense of sincerity that I like to feel in my horror movies. I think there's a friction there that's interesting.”

We discuss the figure seen in the nightmares, who looks like a plague doctor. I mention that it always seems odd to me that despite their original role being to help people, they have become iconic horror figures.

“I started with the fact that I've always been scared of it,” he says. “For irrational reasons. I think the word is uncanny. It's always struck me as an uncanny image. Even though, yeah, the intention behind the original is help but, you know, it's also helping the person who's wearing it and allowing themselves to smell herbs so they can't smell your skin rotting, and keeping all this space between you and them. And the reality of masks and the expression of the eyes and you know, the different things that happen when you tilt it one way or the other, was a fascinating thing to explore.

“In making the mask, what we tried to do was take the familiar image and evolve it. Moung Hui Park was our mask designer and our make-up designer on this movie. And she did a masterful job. She really took the angle of the beak to a new level, and added all this interesting texture in the face. And we went with a cloak instead of the traditional little top hat, to put them in a more timeless, ancient space. And then Jay Dunn, who is also the actor who plays the building manager in the movie, was playing the Harbinger as well, and he's not only a trained physical actor, he's done a lot of mask work. He actually teaches mask work. So I really tried to bring the talent and to elevate that stuff so I could bring it beyond what's familiar into something that felt distinct and part of the fingerprint of this movie.”

There’s a huge amount of rich horror material to explore in the film. has he always been interested in the idea of people being trapped in nightmares?

“Yeah, I mean, it's irresistible because it's something we all relate to. We don't really understand it, even on a scientific level. Dreams are always interesting to me just for that reason, and no one can really escape them because you’ve got to sleep. I remember watching The Nightmare, the documentary on sleep paralysis...”

I explained that I linked to the documentary from my review of his film because they go together so well, and he smiles.

“Yeah, well, I've seen it recently and it really terrified me. I've never experienced that myself, but I've had several audience members and people come up to me who that's a part of their lives, or someone they love goes through that, and it's reminded them of that. So I think we did try and infuse the Harbinger with that figure that people often see during sleep paralysis as well.

“My touchstone for this tonally – because obviously there's Elm Street and Freddy Krueger, people are automatically going to think of anyone working in dreams is like standing on the shoulders of Freddy Krueger to some degree, and I do love that - but Jacob's Ladder was the film that I was really reaching for and studying, because it's one of the first films to really scare me. And it does involve dreams and, you know, surreal layers of consciousness and transitions that you aren't expecting, but also, it's just more human. The camera is more relaxed and handheld like it is in the Harbinger, and it feels more down and dirty, and less just stylized and surreal and there to mess with you for the sake of it. I tried to mess with people with intention, or purpose.”

Something that got to me about The Nightmare, I say, is the suggestion that those kinds of ideas can be contagious. And that's something that's there in The Harbinger, too.

“Yeah, that’s the same as I felt watching The Nightmare,” he says. “I remember – I'm sure a lot of people are like this halfway through it – like, I need to stop this because I feel like if this gets in my head, it’s going to happen to me tonight. So yeah, there's something of that. Of that bad idea that that is, in that scene where a demonologist explains it. That's the experience I was hoping people would have, like, ‘Is it safe for me to be thinking about this thing, if she needs to write it down on a piece of paper and won't even say it?’ But she's also speaking to the world we live in and a sort of post truth idea of life when there are false, there are just wrong ideas in the world. They spread like wildfire, without reason in a way that you can't stop. And now that we're all connected with technology, and all these things, they have new ways to spread that don't even need physical contact, that can happen through isolation. And I think he's taking advantage of that.”

On another note, one of the reasons why the film hits so hard is that it features really strong performances.

“Yes, happily, and I feel like they're the anchor and the thing that lifts the movie up. They lifted me up on set every day. Part of the idea of the production plan was, we knew we were going to be shooting in New York, and we wanted to cast and crew locally. That was not only kind of more economical, but it was safer during the time we were pre-vaccine, when we shot it. So the other thing that was happening in New York is all the theatres were closed. And the very best stage actors in New York City were at home.

“At any other time when we're making a movie, I'd have no access to these people. Not every horror filmmaker is reaching for those people all the time. There's not a ton of crossover with theatre and horror. But there ought to be, because they are masterful, and a lot of them spend a lot of time playing to the back of the house and doing a different kind of craft, but are really hungry for smaller, nuanced screen where their smaller gestures will be read.

“So that's where I started. And through just talking to some of my friends in the theatre community, I first found Emily Davis, who plays Mavis, who is a rising star. At the time, she was in a great play called Is This A Room? where she played a reality winner, but that played close, like every other play. So she was available. And she had recently seen Gabby Beans, so that's how Gabby came aboard, and the family was built from there. But they're all stage actors, and since that's my background as well, we just have this sort of shared vocabulary in how we work, and our apartment set in the movie felt a little bit like a theatre space, because we took a big open room.

“The exterior walls are real but the interior walls were built, so behind those walls we have a lot of space and it kind of had wings and a prop table like maybe you'd see in a theatre, and it was a really nice place to work. I tell people, it's a cold movie, I get that it's bleak, and its topics and everything, but it was a super warm set, it was a nice place to come to work. There were a lot of people with big hearts who were really committed to it. So it's actually a really warm experience. I have to explain to my mother, who sometimes who wonders why I chose this, that the darkest things are made with a lot of love.”

So with that in mind, how does he feel about being at Fantasia?

“I'm thrilled,” he says. “I mean, I'm someone who's terrified of these moments and the build up to it. I'm always in the back sort of terrified, and I tend to watch it covering my eyes up so I don't see if someone shifts, and I'm not reading that the wrong way. But I could feel them take on the weight of the movie, and I could feel the focus. And I love this festival, because it's so community driven and they're so passionate. It gave me a lot of pleasure to feel it work in the room. And then so far, not to jinx it, but yeah, the response has been great. I’m really, really excited about it.”

He spent much of the lockdown period writing, he says, so he has a large stack of scripts from which to choose his next project. He’s ready to embark on something which might surprise his fans with a new approach, but as usual, everything depends on funding, so he suggests that people follow him on Twitter if they want to know what happens next.

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