INTERVIEW: ‘Host’ Writer/Director Rob Savage and Co-Writer/Producer Jed Shepherd
One of the biggest stories about the summer of 2020 will undoubtedly be the unexpected breakout of horror film Host. Host focuses on six friends, who are unable to meet up in person because of the quarantine procedures in place as a result of the pandemic, so they get together for an online séance via Zoom that ultimately goes disastrously wrong when they inadvertently anger a malicious spirit.
On the surface it’s a crisp, to-the-point and extremely well executed horror film, which comes in at just under an hour in length. So why then has it taken the world by storm, achieving a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, being labelled by Dread Central as the scariest horror film of the last decade and gettng so much buzz that the cast and crew are being interviewed by national television broadcasters? What’s the secret behind its success?
One element that has been talked about extensively is the story behind its production. Host was conceived, shot and edited in a mere 12 weeks period on a shoe-string budget, with a group of relatively unproven actors in the cast and a relatively unproven director. It was also shot completely during the quarantine, which meant that everything had to be filmed in isolation. This meant the cast had to learn how to be their own camera and sound operator and their own VFX specialists, stunts were shot at entirely different locations and seamlessly integrated into the film with invisible cuts.
As a result, Host is more than just a film; it’s a stunning example of what can be achieved with a little ingenuity and a lot of talent in extremely limited circumstances. But, whilst the story of how they did it is incredible in itself, there are certainly other things about Host that have contributed to its success, so I recently spoke to director Rob Savage and co-writer producer Jed Shepherd to get to the bottom of what else makes Host, Savage’s sophomore effort, such a special movie.
What’s your reaction to how much Host has blown up since it was first released, with you guys going from relatively nothing to being interviewed on national television in a few weeks, did you expect something like this, were you blown away, do you still not believe it’s really happening?
Rob: About all of those things. The weird thing is, I directed most of Host sat here in this spot on my sofa, and I basically haven’t moved. And yet all this craziness has happened. There have been a few moments where it’s really hit me, when me and Jed have been doing these national breakfast shows and things like that. Things that have a little bit, a little bit of visibility beyond, beyond maybe the film crowd.
It’s been really nice to see my extended family, who would never dare to watch Host, but have seen us on those and have been sending us nice texts, so that’s really nice. So, there are these little moments where it feels real but otherwise it’s quite a bizarre and surreal experience.
Jed: Yeah, it just feels like me and Rob went to sleep the day before Host came out and we’re still in the dream, a beautiful dream, and just don’t wake us up because it’s so cool.
Rob: Someone just turned on the gas and left us…..
Jed: [laughing] Yeah! We’re sleepwalking. But, it has been absolutely insane. We obviously didn’t expect the reaction on the go. We just thought it would be, I think, for people like us – horror fans and the horror community because Shudder was specifically for the horror community so we thought it couldn’t reach beyond that particular group of people. But the fact it’s gone mainstream and it’s got the plaudits it has is something we didn’t expect.
Most of all, though, the thing that I like the most about all of this attention, is the fact that the cast, the girls, are getting a lot of attention because they’re used to us puttng them in our little horror shorts which don’t get a lot of that kind of attention, but at the moment they’re the most talked about actors on the planet. So from that perspective it’s, it’s amazing, really.
It’s great that you bring up the cast, because all of them, and the both of you, have been heavily interactive and involved on social media following Host’s release. You’ve been doing interviews like crazy, Q and A’s, live watch-alongs and even a live séance, which has undoubtedly helped the movie in terms of word of mouth.
Was this a deliberate decision or just because you guys have been having fun talking to fans of the film?
Jed: It was organic!
Rob: We’re still having fun and I think it just speaks to the fact that we’re all so proud of the movie, we want to talk about it, we want to get the word out there. And we also we just, we like hanging out so anytime we can get together on a call and do a séance or chat about the movie, we just jump at the opportunity.
Jed: Me and Rob are quite twisted as well. We always like putting the girls through weird situations like séances again, because we know they hate it so much. It’s so funny. Well, that’s exactly how this whole thing came about, right? With a prank call video you did to scare the girls where, Rob, you go into your attic and…
Rob: A zombie eats me when I go and investigate my attic and the girls had no idea that I was playing pre-recorded footage on the zoom call. So they react as you might expect and. And we cut that together and put that on Twitter and it became this little viral video. I think it’s got like 7 million views right now and so that was really the genesis of this.
I think a lot of people, because we used a clip from REC, this found footage movie, but a lot of people did don’t know that movie and didn’t spot that clip so they thought that it was all made as a lockdown short and everyone was acting, they didn’t realise that it was a prank.
So we got a lot of interest from TV companies, asking if there was a way to expand that short film. Shudder were the only people we spoke to who really got on board with how we wanted to make this. The fact we wanted to make this really, really quickly, as well as a film made in lockdown, for people in lockdown, they really got behind this.
Was this something that was important to you, basing the film during the lockdown and capturing that period of time? Because, you could have easily set Host on a Zoom call taking place at any time and not grounded it as a piece of its time?
Jed: Necessity right? It wasn’t an intention. We used the tools we had at the time, which was our friends, we used the lockdown. But it’s not a quarantine movie; it’s not a pandemic movie. But yeah, we just used the tools we had. We realised that the best thing would be for it to be released during the lockdown period to amplify the feeling we want in it, of claustrophobia, and a representation of the time.
Rob: Whenever you’re trying to come up with a horror idea, whenever me and Jed are throwing horror ideas around, the thing that we’re always striving for is an idea that people are going to take home with them. They’re going to be watching it at a cinema and they’re still going to be thinking about it when they turn off their bedside lights and they’re looking into all of the dark places in their apartments.
So, we had this opportunity where everyone is at home, everyone is living the same reality, they have similar routines. Just the texture of our lives are very similar at the moment. We saw that as an opportunity to take this supernatural fear and put it into a context that everyone’s living in at the moment.
That’s certainly a common theme in similar films that have taken off like Host has, and that Host often gets compared to, like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.
Do you think this grounding of the film set during the lockdown is one of the reasons why Host has become such a mainstream success?
Jed: I don’t quite understand why it’s so big. I genuinely wish I knew so that Rob and I can do it again and again. I can’t work it out, obviously the performances are amazing, we have a cool story, everyone that worked on it is amazing but I don’t know why it’s so big.
Rob: I think its partly to do with the story behind it. We made it, despite these restrictions under lockdown conditions; I think that’s a good story. But also, the fact that people are able to see themselves in the characters, in the situation; it makes it a much more involving experience. We were looking at movies like The Blair Witch Project and Ghostwatch from the BBC, movies where there’s a very kind of thin distinction between reality and fiction.
We really wanted people to feel almost as though they were on a zoom call with their friends when things start togo wrong. It needed to feel authentic to what we’re going through right now so that people could empathise and see themselves in the situation.
One of the other big things about Host is how genuinely scary it is. I’ve seen countless numbers of reactions where someone has said something like ‘I don’t normally get scared by horror films, but Host scared me.’ What is it about Host that you think causes it to be so scary, obviously you intended it tobeso,butwhyhasitbeenso successful in this regard?
Jed: I’ve got a couple of theories on this actually. With me and Rob being students of horror we are very interested in the anatomy of a scare, how to scare people and we watch every horror movie ever to kind of work that out. I think one of the interesting things about this and why it scares people is because it’s not American. It’s like when the first Ring film came out, it’s Japanese and J-horror really wasn’t a thing in the West yet, but when that came out people thought maybe this could be real because it’s not American. And that’s the same as Host, because it is British people for the majority of it, it feels like it’s not American, it doesn’t have that facade of the Hollywood studio system here, so it could be real.
Rob: And a lot of people will be seeing the cast for the first time ever, that’s very Blair Witch and we were definitely going for that!
Another contributing factor to the film’s success, in my opinion, is the fact that almost everyone involved was within this close-knit group of friends. Rob, I believe you tweeted that more studios should make films with friends; can you elaborate a bit more on why you think this?
Rob: We made this for not very much money, its low risk, high reward. I also really strongly believe that energy with which you make a film ends up in the DNA of that movie. So, the fact that we all are great friends and we all wanted this to be as good as possible and we’re all throwing in ideas, just to try and elevate this movie, I think that’s ended up in the texture of the film. I think that’s part of what people are responding to, there’s a kind of mad chaos in the making of this movie that made it onto the screen.
Jed: Obviously there’s an element of trust. The more you trust someone, the more you can rely on them to make your film as good as possible and also pull in a bit of favours. I’m sure these girls went above and beyond what they would normally do on a film set. Especially in these particular conditions, we’ve almost set the template for what people can do in lockdown, so you just have to trust that your friends can do the job as well.
I need to do an addendum to that. Do make films with friends, as long as your friends are semi-talented. Because I’ve got a group of friends that would not be able to pull this off.
Whilst this is something of a breakout for you Rob, it’s not your first breakout as technically Host is your second feature length film with an award- winning film called Strings being your directorial feature length-debut.
However, Jed told me earlier that you don’t necessarily consider it your debut?
Rob: It’s interesting because Strings was a movie I made when I was 17. It was the first thing that I did and it was really a calling card movie that I made to get the attention of the industry and get the representation. It was made with a similar energy to Host.
It’s a movie that was made, like Host, out of necessity, we had £3,000 that I’d raised from doing paper rounds and other odd teenage jobs and we looked around at what he had access to, the stories that we’d experienced ourselves and we made a movie that was very low-key. It was a relationship drama, it was very indie mumble-core and it’s not the kind of movie I imagined myself making when I was picturing my career. I was always interested in making genre movies, horror movies.
So, I had Strings, it was a success, we won the BIFAs, we were on the BAFTA shortlist, it made a stir in the industry. Then I was going around pitching alien invasion movies, zombie movies and ghost movies and nobody quite knew what to do with me, because all they had as an example was this mumble- core movie. So I kind of had to do things back-to-front. I made the feature first and then the shorts afterwards.
I started working with Jed and we did Absence, Salt, Dawn Of The Deaf, these three horror movies that really crystallised who I wanted to be as a filmmaker and made the industry see me in that way. Now they see me as ‘the horror guy’ which is great, so, it’s taken a while to realign in that way and Host is true to the kind of movie that I want to go on to make.
What is it about horror that you guys love so much?
Jed: For me horror is the greatest way to make an audience entertained because it’s a roller coaster and you have the emotions going from zero to 60, very, very quickly. You don’t get that with a Rom-Com; you might leave a Rom-Com and go ‘that was sweet.’ But you leave a horror film thinking ‘I can’t sleep tonight’ or ‘I’m going to be able to sleep for a week,’ ‘I’m going to call my mom and see if she’s okay’. What other genre does that?
Rob: Totally. I think there are two that I really love horror and the first is that I think horror can do anything. I feel like there’s such a direct communication between filmmaker and audience. When you’re making a horror movie you’re in a contract with the audience saying, ‘I’m going to scare you, I’m going to unnerve you, for the rest of it, you’ve just got to trust me.’ I think horror audiences will get behind complicated characters, complicated situations, allegory, all these things that would otherwise put them off if the film is a conventional drama. But because they know you’re going to deliver on the scares, you’re going to deliver on the contract; they’ll follow you down the psychological rabbit holes that I think would otherwise be shut off to you.
An example is Dawn of The Deaf, our short film that is being made into a feature. It’s a film where the aim is that it’s a fun, scary, Friday night horror movie that you can watch in a multiplex, that just happens to have an entirely deaf cast and is set in the deaf community. I can’t think of any other genre, where that could be a possibility, that a film about such a specific community could make it onto the screen at Cineworld (Writer’s Note: Other cinema chains are available.)
So that’s one thing I love about horror and the second thing is that I think horror is the purest cinematic genre. I feel like filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, who are real proponents of pure cinema, that cinema that’s led by visual storytelling. They made their best movies in the horror space and I think horror is one of the few genres where audiences will accept pure cinema, will accept storytelling that’s based on a visual communication of ideas and not bucket-loads of exposition or an approach that might feel more televisual. Even the worst horror movie in the world is still 90% more cinematic than movies in other genres.”
Your love of horror is clearly evident in Host as there are a number of Easter eggs and homages to several other horror films like Satan’s Slaves, Alice, Sweet Alice and Lake Mungo. Tell me about the process of puttng these Easter eggs in?
Rob: You never want Easter eggs to get in the way of the experience of watching a movie, so we were keen to put little in-jokes in the background and to foreshadow certain things. But the scares were designed to scare, that was the main thing. It wasn’t that we decided to halt the movie and drop in a Satan’s Slave reference in the last ten minutes, you know. With every horror movie you’re standing on the shoulders of masters who have been working in the industry and settng the standard. So, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taken scares from other movies and trying to come at them in a different way.
Jed: Again, we did not think this would blow up how it has done, so it’s almost like we made this for ourselves and these little in-jokes are for ourselves. These are things that the majority of people wouldn’t notice, but for us it’s a way for us to rewatch it and rewatch it with our friends. So, the fact that it’s blown up and all these Easter eggs are kind of taking over the internet is really funny, and the fan theories as well, I love the fan theories.
I’ll wrap this up with one final question – what is your favourite moment from Host, it can be a specific death, a line of dialogue, an Easter egg or whatever you want!
Jed: I think there are a couple of iconic moments from this that will be remembered for years to come. One of them is the mask filter turning, I don’t think that’s been done before ever in a horror film, it’s the Alice, Sweet Alice mask, but that move has not been done before and it will be copied for eternity! I think that’s my iconic moment, I loved that, and it’s actually scary, it’s actually really scary. And the other moment is the sequence with Emma and Teddy, when Emma’s watching Teddy die; it has so much emotion to it…
Rob: Emma knocks it out of the park!
Jed: Yeah, and obviously Teddy’s face burning as well to make Emma knock it out of the park is brilliant.
Rob: Mine’s a very specific moment. I can actually pin-point my favourite shot in the movie and it’s probably not what you’d expect. When Jinny comes back on the call to pull Teddy away, there’s a shot of Caroline, where she just tilts her head, and she’s just clearly seething with rage with Ginny. For some reason I just love it so much because there’s so much like history in that shot, and we talked a lot with the actors about backstory and you know we had this idea that Teddy and Caroline had had a bit of a fling and she was still holding a candle for him.
All that stuff, all that backstory that never made it into the actual dialogue of the movie. I just love that I can feel it all there. I think the audience can see that as well because the audience was picking up on some tension between Caroline and Teddy, and there’s something just feel so real about it. I don’t know, it always just makes me crack up, that look Caroline gives.
Rob and Jed have some exciting projects coming up with the feature length Dawn of the Deaf film, which sounds amazing, as well as Multiplex, which is a short film directed by Jed that was shot before Host, but reunites its cast for some high-fantasy sci-fi/horror action and then there’s the tantalisingly teased project with Sam Raimi. I can’t wait to see what they do next!