Hex, lies and videotape

Tiago Teixeira on creating magic in Custom

by Jennie Kermode

Custom Photo: Frightfest

As anyone who has ever attended a Frightfest event will tell you, the UK’s horror filmmaking scene is a close-knit community. One is always hearing about hew films on the grapevine, and it’s a delight when they live up to their promise. I first heard about Custom a few months ago when talking with Andy Edwards about his film Punch. He’s a producer on this one, and was keen to introduce me to first time feature director Tiago Teixeira.

The film follows young couple Harriet (Abigail Hardingham) and Jasper (Rowan Polonski), who finance their artistic work by making custom porn videos. It’s all well and good until they are approached by a client who has some unusual requests, leading them into a world which has more to do with ritual magic than simple sexual fantasy, and which leads them into unexpected places. It would eventually screen as part of the 2024 Glasgow Frightfest line-up, and just prior to that, Tiago and I met up to discuss it.

“I knew Andy from the festival circuit,” he tells me. “Custom was an idea for a short film, initially, but I couldn't get the money do the short. And then I decided to reverse engineer it into a feature that I thought I could pull off well in a micro budget situation. I thought ‘ You know what? I'm tired. I've been spending years with this project trying to get the funding to get anything done, so I just I know that I’ve got to do it myself. I don't care anymore.’ But then I needed a producer.

“I was trying to find a producer for some time. I was trying to find to think of any British film of last year that had a thriller aspect which had some eroticism, and I couldn't find anything, but then I found one and I went ‘Oh, my God, I know that guy!’ So we went for a pint and I explained to him the idea, and he loved it. And then he read the script, and he got on board.”

Both he and Andy have backgrounds in short film. Was he nervous about expending this into a feature?

“No, because the short film had some the same plot points as a movie, but it was very compressed. I always try to focus on atmosphere and mood. My short films have sometimes very little plot, and this one was going to be one with a proper plot. I was feeling that I needed more time to tell this. I didn't feel like I needed to create more stuff to fill it. I actually had to remove something from the scripts to make it shorter because of budget constraints, mostly. But I thought that it would work and even as a feature, the idea was always to make a very short film. I think that this particular idea works better in a short duration.”

I tell him that I think people will inevitably look at it and be reminded of Videodrome. A lot of films have tried to do similar things over the years, and I think this is actually much more successful at capturing that kind of mood. Was it a significant influence for him or did he to steer away from it to do his own thing?

“It's funny because the VHS thing it came on later,” he reveals. “At first it was online. There were a lot more digital elements everywhere. The more surreal stuff that happens was digital as well. And I thought that was missing something. I think that the VHS tapes, they came up as I needed something to ground it.

“I can't remember where the idea came from, but I remember that I liked it, because it helped me to ground the more surreal aspect of the film. I felt like it was something that I could use visually, as well. But then, you know, you inevitably start thinking about Videodrome. That's fine. I love it, of course. But for me it was very helpful to have something physical, even as a production design element. I feel that if there is a supernatural thing – you know, the more strange things that happen in the film – I think they need something physical to represent them, even if it was symbolically. It's hard to do that if it's something that's only digital.”

That might also be a problem because we’re all used to seeing digital films which have been manipulated, I suggest, and he agrees.

“Even if you shoot something with a digital camera, it could be manipulated. It could be hacked or controlled by something, or have something inside the camera that can manipulate the film. So yeah, the VHS helps to make it feel like this is something that's happening that we can see or we can touch. It's something that exists in the real world.”

It’s also interesting because the relationship between ideas and physicality is very important to the film, and to a lot of magical traditions to which the film refers.

“Yeah, this was something that clicked with as well. When you're making a tape, you’re making a form of physical thing. You are changing the electromagnetic. And I thought that this fit very well with the rituals and all that stuff.”

I tell him that I'm also interested in that idea because in a way, every time an actor plays a role, they're lending their body to communicate somebody else's ideas, and somebody else's information. That seemed to me to be at the core of the film. When people make pornography, they're lending their bodies to somebody else's fantasy, but that's there in all kinds of acting.

He nods. “We had a lot of discussions about it because from the beginning, there was always this sex work aspect to the film. I didn't want it to be a morality theme, you know, like ‘Oh, sex work is bad.’ That wasn't intentional at all. Sex work is supposed to feel like work. The relationship with the client is this supposed to be like a working relationship. I always felt that the real villain of the film is capitalism. You want to make art, but you have to rent your body to a job so you can keep on paying your rent, and working on your stuff. One of the things it's supposed to be is a work relationship that that gets out of hand.”

I was amused by the fact that the characters talk about their art at the start, I say, because in some ways this film feels very arty. A lot of it takes plane on a plain stage with the two of them working with their bodies to tell the story. That seemed to be quite a bold choice.

“Yeah,” he says. “And one of the things that I had in mind when we were talking about them being sex workers as well is that I wanted them to be creative, to make something visual that you could see in the film. When they have to do the ritual, I thought it was good for this to be connected to what they do. It's their creative expression. I wanted this daring art to be a part of the film. That's why I think it really clicked with the ritual sex magic.”

I was interested in Abigail Hardingham’s involvement because I loved her work in Nina Forever, I tell him. Something that stood out to me about her performance there was that she was clearly someone who understood the more complicated ideas around erotica that a lot of people shy away from, so I wondered how much she contributed ideas to this film.

“We discussed this product since the beginning,” he says. “She got on board as we were discussing the script and all the characters’ motivation. She's the associate producer. The thing about film is, of course, it's a group effort. It's the collective creation of everyone that gets on board. The film completely changed when she and Rowan [Polonski] got on board and they're both fantastic.

“In the final film there was a little bit when we were creating the performances of the rituals. Me and Andy, Rowan and even the intimacy coordinator, we were creating the scenes and it was completely a group effort. This is something that I love about cinema. I'm not a filmmaker that comes up with an idea alone. I like to drag people in and see what happens with their ideas, and everyone was on the same page and we were just creating this and getting crazier and crazier, which I think is a good thing in this in this film. he laughs. “There were some times that we had to go ‘Guys let's calm down.’”

I tell him I’m impressed that through all of that he managed to maintain a consistent look for the film. He puts that down in part to his pre-existing relationship with DoP Philipp Morozov, whom he had worked with on shorts.

“We created this huge mood board for just throwing up ideas, but right from the beginning there was like always this idea that was supposed to have this Seventies texture. Then we wanted it to feel a bit dirty, but in a way that's a bit more realistic. And I don't know why I'm saying ‘realistic’ because of course it doesn't look realistic at all! We tried to make it really colourful and dark. This was on purpose because it was supposed to be like a dark dream. Digital cinema is great at making these beautiful pictures but sometimes they don't feel...”

He trails off. “Not like the real world?” I suggest.

“Yeah, exactly. It’s so nice and we just wanted something more dirty.”

We talk about the relationship between the central couple and the way that letting sex become a work activity seems to damage their intimacy over time.

“One of the main things driving this film was that there is always this thing that they lost,” he says. “Their relationship is a bit falling apart, because it has just been like doing work for too long and they lost their thing, their sparkle. I think one of Jasper’s main motivations that we discussed, to get into the videos, was to bring something new and exciting in order to bring them together again.

“They want to create, you know? When they start creating the rituals where there's something that they get drawn into, it seems to bring something back to their life. But yeah, of course, it's something terrible.”

It's a complicated film. Was he ever worried about how he was going to place it?

“I was very worried. I was very worried with my shorts as well. I've been to Frightfest three times with my shorts and each time it was a surprise...When we got to the final stages of making this, I started thinking ‘Okay, yeah, I really liked this, but I don't know how to sell this, or if this is going to play at any festival. I always get worried because at the same time that I try to do you know, what I want to do, I completely understand that cinema is a commercial art, and it costs a lot of money, and it would be amazing if we could sell the film so we can get money to do another film.”

I tell him that, honestly, I don’t think we see enough films which invest in atmosphere like this. It’s much easier just to focus on plot. This is more interesting.

“Yeah, well, that's what I really love. If I could I would make a picture that would be just mood and atmosphere, because I love this. I love films where the vision is huge. It's amazing. But yeah, this one I wanted to create, there is a plan but it's not a traditional one, there's no payoff. Nobody learns anything. Nobody changes.”

Custom is going to stand out at Frightfest, I assure him, and it’s one that viewers won’t easily forget.

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