A pretty picture

Samuel Clemens on art, ancient mythology, acting and The Waterhouse

by Jennie Kermode

The Waterhouse
The Waterhouse Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

A stolen painting, a safehouse by the sea and a plan which begins to unravel after an unexpected encounter bring a unique flavour to Samuel Clemens’ The Waterhouse, which opened Halloween Frightfest 2023. It’s one of those films which one has to be careful not to spoil by saying too much, but nevertheless, when Samuel and I met just before the festival, he had plenty to tell me about it. I had already explained to him that I have a copy of the painting in question, a work by John William Waterhouse, in my study, so he began by explaining – in a suitably meandering way – his own connection to it.

“I suppose the catalyst for this film was that were going to do another film, which is what we're going to be doing next. We were going to do a western first. We were quite close to doing that, and then Covid happened. And then we were like, ‘Well, let’s do something that is a bit easier to shoot here,’ which was based on my father's play, Strictly Murder. We got ready to do that, and then because of actor schedules and things, it got pushed. So I had a gap where I wanted to make a film.

“I was like, ‘I booked time. I've said no to things so I can make this.’ So I was feeling a little sorry for myself. Then my partner, she said ‘Why don't you write something else?’ I kind of wanted to throw the towel in at that point because I just spent so long trying to write the others. But immediately I was like, ‘Okay, well, the timeline is this: I've got to be shooting in August.’ This was May.

“We called a friend of mine whose family owned a part of that house in the movie, the house itself, which has been used in a couple of movies, probably most famously in Yesterday, the Beatles movie. It's where John Lennon lives at the end of the movie. I didn’t realise that at the time but I looked at the house and thought it was great and had an idea about a team of people that have done some form of heist that come there and use it as a safe house.”

He spent a long time thinking about what they could have stolen, he says. At one point it was going to be bitcoin but he decided that that would date really quickly and then people wouldn’t know what it was.

“I just thought, no, let's be classic about it. I hope this movie could work 50 years ago and I hope it can work in 50 years time. There's very little technology of any kind in there whatsoever. We get rid of technology quite quickly. So I thought that having a piece of classical art would be the best.

“I was at my parents’ thinking about what it could be, and I went into the bathroom and lo and behold, this painting, which is the painting in the movie, is in a little bit of my mum's mirror in her bathroom, which has been there my entire natural life. It was staring at me. And what was so weird is that the story that I was telling was kind of what was the story of the painting without me knowing it. And then once I really did a deep dive into the painting and the origins of the painting and also the story that it’s based on, I really tailored it to that. I was like ‘Well, let's take some inspiration from those tales and kind of add a little bit of truth to all the myths – but it's its own thing.”

He mentions the decision by Manchester Art Gallery, in 2018, to take the painting off display because some staff members considered it to be inappropriately sexualising women. I remark that the young man in the painting is sexualised too, and Samuel agrees, though he notes that the man is less naked.

“There's kind of an innocence to the painting as well,” he says. “I realised I hadn't really known what it was about until I looked into it. And obviously I was looking a little bit into John William Waterhouse and what his subjects were and what he painted quite a bit about. I found it incredibly interesting.”

Waterhouse did quite a few paintings on that subject, I note. Did it influence the shooting style and colour palette for the film?

“One of the first things that we decided to do was like, look, if we're going to do this and we're going to have the painting, we need an oil reproduction of the painting, not a printout. So we hired someone in Vietnam who does incredible reproductions. He worked tirelessly to get it to us. And then were obviously concerned about Brexit. Would it come over, with all the taxes and duties at the borders and all that stuff? We got it about two, three days before shooting. But that informed really quite a bit, actually.

“We decided to only use colours that exist in that painting. So all of the girls are in combinations of mauves and burgundies and purples and stuff that are in there. And then the guys are a little bit more primary with yellowy oranges and green. So yeah, all of the colours within the film were very strategically stolen from that. But what was interesting is that we never got to see our version of the painting until we were almost shooting. So we had to make those decisions based on the real painting, not on what we ended up with. But that was the intention.”

Shots of the house itself, where we see it from across the sea, were done with a combination of drone work and 3D modelling, he reveals. Composites were the key to creating footage which looks better than most special effects work. Underwater footage presented a different kind of challenge.

“We used a place in Nottingham called Tank Space, which is quite a small tank. And we just framed what we needed really well, with a little bit of compositing. The tank was really quite small because if you have a bigger tank then you need scuba diving safety and lifeguards. Budget wise, we had to be very careful with what we shot and how we shot it and we limited it to things that we needed.

“We didn't intend to show a great deal. I mean, I know we're not Jaws, but I think the reason that Jaws works so well is because you don't see anything. It's all in your imagination. And I really think that is so underestimated. Nowadays, with visual effects, you can do anything. And I think the problem is whenever you see the thing, most of the time, it's disappointing. I think the imagination of the thing is always worse.

“I leaned into that as a construct for the whole movie, that you're not going to be able to see too much. I wanted to put it in your imagination. I suppose the film that was in my head a lot, that I'm sure a lot of horror fans would agree is a fabulous film, is The Shining, because again, it's the anticipation of violence.

“There's so much that's uneasy, but you don't really see a great deal. What you do see is suggestive a lot of the time and it stays with you. And your imagination is fired because of that, and I think that's why it lives with you for such a long time. I think the moment they start doing sequels and prequels and all those kind of things, I think that is just the worst mistake in movies. I don't want to know Darth Vader is. I don't want to know who the Joker is. I want my imagination of that person or that journey or that story to be mine. And once you tell me ‘Oh, well, it's this,’ I think it can dilute your experience of it.”

Because of The Waterhouse’s limited budget, he says, he hand his team had to be inventive throughout.

“We had to be inventive with what could we do in the edit and what could we do with sound. And because it's a film based around sound and music, I knew I was going to lean heavily into that. So I was speaking to my composer, Edward White, before I even wrote it. We discussed themes and it changed as we went on, but he was with me the entire way, so we could always keep adapting and discussing themes and the ideas of what we wanted to do, and we could experiment.

“This is my début feature as a director. I’ve done lots of shorts and I directed lots of audio drama and bits of theatre and stuff, but I've never done anything with so much experimentation in the edit. We took a long time experimenting back and forth and did so many versions of it before we hit on this. And the same with the visual effects, the same with the music, with the sound, even with some of the grading and some of the visual effects.

“We were testing and trying to see what works and trying to make it feel as optical and analogue as possible because I wanted it to feel like a kind of one of those Seventies horrors. We did it in anamorphic. We made it look as filmic as we possibly could, and we added quite a bit of grain and that's why I made it a bit anachronistic and got rid of technology as soon as possible, so in 10 or 20 years’ time it still could fit there.”

We talk about casting and how it was influenced by his experiences of life in London, where he went to drama school.

“My experience of my youth in London is total multiculturalism,” he says. “Many of my friendship groups were people from all over the world. I get annoyed with films when everyone has the same voice and looks the same, and I'm like, ‘Well, I don't care because I don't know who anyone is.’ I need to know immediately. There’s such little time to get that information across. It's a very strange comparison, but like Predator, for example, you know immediately from what they're dressed as or what weapon they have, who they are.

“I really wanted to make a distinct choice with all of the actors, to make sure that they all had a different voice and they all looked very different and they all had a different colour palette. When it came to the boys – and because there's a sort of Greek undertone to this – there was a certain type of casting that I wanted to achieve. All of these people I'd worked with before or had known socially or something, and because it was such a quick turnaround, I really wanted to use people that I knew because I knew that it was going to be long days, it was going to be tough, it was going to be in the trenches.

“We had very little time, so I had to make sure that everyone was on board with that. Because I'm an actor, I kind of know what I'm asking, so it was easier that way. So, for example, with Alan [Calton], I'd done a film with him and he'd always played the second to the bad guy or whatever, always the heavy or the bouncer or the security guard. But I thought he had such a sort of enigmatic quality and was very charming. He looks fantastic on camera. He looks like an all American hero, really. He's built that way, and he's such a nice man. I think he was a professional footballer before he was an actor as well. He’s very physical and I needed somebody who was physical and really understood what that meant and was happy to jump into it.

“So Alan was my first and only choice, really, for this. And luckily he said yes, so that was great. Dominic I'd worked with on stage. We did Rope together on stage, the play. I was the bad guy and he was the second to me, Brandon, and I loved working with him. He's a fantastic actor. And bizarrely, his family are the family that owned the house. So I just thought, again, he was perfect for it. And Michelangelo, I trained at a drama school, because I teach at a drama school called the Giles Foreman Centre for Acting.

“I worked with Michelangelo a lot, training him, and I just thought he's got such a sense of danger and freedom and an ease on camera. He's quite a successful young German actor in his own right. He's doing a lot of work in Germany and he really wanted to do something in English. He said, ‘I'd really love to work with you.’ And so when I came up with this idea, I thought he'd be perfect. I thought, ‘Why don't we have a German in there?’”

He took a similar approach with the film’s female characters.

“Having an American [Lara Lemon] makes it feel a bit more like a party, or it's going to get playful and fun. Lily Catalifo is bilingual, she speaks English and French, but she and I thought it would be good to do something Eastern European. She wanted to be quite specific, so she went and studied Estonian as the accent and went down that route. So, there’s an air of mystery.

“Do we trust her? Do we not? And then, obviously, Sandrine [Salyères] is French, and I thought, that voice is so sexy and alluring and she's so charming and playful, it's misleading all of them. Helping bring the men's guard down. With all those accents, I felt that it gave us a real sense of an international cast. And I felt that, it being my début, I'm not going to have a famous person in it because no one knows who I am. So I thought, I want good actors that I can work with, that I know that I trust, that are really good.”

He has a history with Frightfest, he explains.

“Being at FrightFest feels a little bit like coming home because our first horror short that we ever did, when me and my brother directed together, Surgery, screened there. That was made after my dad died and it was his last idea, so we made it as a tribute kind of to him. And FrightFest premiered that back in 2015 and that was a real dream come true. I was never intending to make a horror as my first feature film and this has become a kind of psychological horror thriller. It’s a hybrid of genres. I was so pleased when Frightfest got in touch and were interested in the film and wanted to include it.

“I knew that we wouldn't be able to finish the film for August and I was really gutted that weren't able to, but they kept got in contact and said ‘Look, we're doing this event. We'd really like to have your film.’ And I think that the most humbling part is not just that is the fact that we're opening the festival – I think we're the only British film in the line-up. So, again, it feels very special and I feel really humbled, not just me, but for everyone involved in the film.

“ I know it's a little old hat, but my dad used to say this and I think the sentiment is the same: I feel like film is made by Kodak and Fuji. Films are made by teams of people, armies of people. And so getting into a festival as renowned and celebrated as FrightFest is such a win not just for me, but for all of the people that came and did this film.

“When you're making it, you're trying consistently to sort of reassure everyone that what you're making is going to be great and you're going to put your best foot forward and you're going to put as much effort and work into it as you can, but I don't think anyone really knows. So this validated everyone's work on the film and I'm so excited to unleash it on the world and see what people think of it.

“I grew up with a populist writer as my dad and then I went to drama school and we were working on Shakespeare and Chekhov and, I suppose, high art. And I feel very much I'm in the middle of these two worlds. I understand the principal at my drama school and my dad probably wouldn't have got on, but they would have respected each other for what they did.

“While I like both of them, I wanted to try and make something that was kind of commercial, but also might have people talking about it in the bar afterwards. I wanted to leave people with questions and for them to make their own minds about what happened, and leave them with a little bit of imagery and iconography that might stay with them.”

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