[EXCLUSIVE] An Interview with “Playhouse” Directors Fionn and Toby Watts

   Hello there, Nightmare Shift!
   One of the neatest (as the kids are saying these days) things about running a horror website is the opportunities it has to engage and interact with talented filmmakers and genre enthusiasts. Embracing our love for the macabre is kind of our shtick, after all. One such opportunity arose recently when I stumbled upon Fionn and Toby Watts’ film Playhouse one late night when I was left to my own accord.
   After watching the film (the review I wrote should be available shortly), I reached out to Toby and Fionn and managed to score us an exclusive interview about the film. I always try to be as thorough and as thoughtful as possible with my interviews (to the point where I sometimes wonder if I make them regret agreeing, haha), but I am happy to say they were game in their response. Check it out!
The film centers around a notorious horror writer, who moves into an ancient castle with his teenage daughter, to work on his next play; only to face terrifying consequences when his daughter falls prey to a Supernatural evil lurking within the castle walls.
   As always, it is an honor and a privilege to spotlight filmmakers here on the Nightmare Shift, be it the tall, small, or badly mutated. So, with that said, thank you to brothers Fionn and Toby Watts for allowing us to crack open their minds and spill out the excellent nightmare juice (they’re not all literary winners). Although we’ve seen a lot of sibling duos over the years, it can never be understated how cool it is to see happen. As a writer who has written several novels with my sibling, I know that’s a bond that’s unique and different from other relationships I’ve made. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship and what led you to collaborating in such a major way?
   We grew up making films together as teenagers, which is probably where it all started. We had a very creative family with a dad who was a playwright and screenwriter and mum who was an actress. It was kind of encouraged to just play around and have fun with creative mediums like film and music and drama. Although Fionn studied film at University and knew earlier on that he wanted to be a filmmaker, Toby actually went to study Biology at Cambridge University, all set for a career in research. But the film bug got hold of him and after he graduated he joined with Fionn to found Far North Film, which we still run today. It was corporate videos at first, content for charities and businesses, but eventually we took the leap and made our first feature, which was always the dream from the start! Making a feature together and learning to work together wasn’t that hard in a way because we’d spent 8 years or so making short films and corporate videos together, so we just had a natural rhythm and way of working. In general, Toby leads a bit more on the technical side of directing, such as blocking the scenes and working with the DOP, and Fionn takes a more holistic view and considers the whole and the performances, but this is kind of fluid depending on the scene. We often say ‘we have the same brain’, which is kind of true – especially after a ton of planning together before a shoot!
   Would you describe the production together as smooth or nightmarishly rewarding? I’ve always found myself far blunter and more direct with my brother compared to anyone else I have worked with, which can be nerve wracking, at times, but capable of being withstood because of our own bond (can’t get rid of me, or vice versa).
   Yeah we didn’t fall out or anything on PLAYHOUSE actually. I’d say we were pretty chilled as far as directors go! We’d have moments where one of us would need to pick up the energy because the other one is flagging or something, but generally our way of communicating is quite non-verbal and we just know instinctively that we’ve got the right take. The key for us is to talk so much and plan so much before hand when we’re writing and then creating the shot list later, that you’re not working out too many things on the set. Really for us it’s more like just the art of recalling what we’ve already created in our heads and on paper. But then definitely being open to the genius that actors or DOPs often come out with and having strong instincts about which way to go – to accept or reject a performance or camera move you weren’t expecting, for example.
   Let’s talk more about your film – Playhouse is a thriller film with Gothic undertones, set in a remote Scottish castle. It’s often asked whether the chicken or egg came first, but, in the horror genre, (Full Moon’s Charles Band would attest) an apt question might be – what came first, the story or the castle? How did the idea for Playhouse come to fruition?
   You’re right to ask this – the castle definitely came first in this case. We totally knew we wanted to film at the castle (which is where we grew up with our family – long story!) as we knew it was an incredible location to shoot at with so much potential inside and out. The process was then to work backwards and ask, ‘What kind of person would live here? What could happen? What would the tone be? What genre?’ And so on. Ultimately we arrived at Playhouse, which is semi-autobiographical in a way because our dad is a writer and moved there to write, just as the lead character Jack does…
   There is certainly a classical feel to Playhouse, reminding me vaguely of a Hammer Horror or a Victorian throwback. What influences played a role in your film’s creation?
   Yeah we definitely infused some of these kinds of influences into the story and style of the film. Lynch’s Elephant Man and Herzog’s Nosferatu we had in mind for some of the gothic and Victorian-type aesthetic, and then Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein for the energy and madness around Victor Frankenstein, who, a bit like our lead character, is creating something terrifying. We also referenced some of the classic horrors from the 60s-90s such as The Shining, Candyman and Rosemary’s Baby. Often our whole approach for a scene or the sound design and music would in some way be influenced by one of these great films. We like slow burners and plenty of atmosphere, and that’s how we constructed Playhouse, which may not be to everyone’s taste these days, but some seem to love it too.
   I am always grateful for more thematic storytelling, and certainly believe Playhouse achieves a gloomy and moody aesthetic. How important was the cinematography and stylization for Playhouse?
   These things were really key. We had such a great location to play with that we wanted to use it to full effect. We grew up around candlelight a lot because that’s just how our parents lived so that found its way into the film naturally, and goes so well with stone walls and dark corridors as we all know. Our DOP Andy Toovey had some brilliant suggestions and ideas at times and much of what you see is more his brilliance than ours. We knew that because the film wasn’t going to be loaded with jump scares and huge set pieces that we had to lean a lot on atmosphere and captivating visuals with compelling music and sound design, so that’s what we really tried to get right, and are pleased with how it all came out.
   Were there any shots you were particularly proud of and / or were particularly difficult to capture?
   There’s a beautiful shot looking down the spiral staircase from the top of the castle that Andy managed to capture. We had said we wanted a high angle, but didn’t know that we could find a way to rig a shot that looked vertically straight down. Andy and his 1st Assistant Camera Sam Olly created a custom rig in about 20 minutes that could secure the camera in the right position and it just looks incredible with the colours of the mouldy stone steps and natural light pouring in, just spiralling around. At that point in the film it just feels so right and powerful, we think. There’s also the steadi-cam shot in the courtyard near the beginning of the film which was all done in one shot. This was really hard to pull off and took loads of attempts, but we really like how it came out. In the edit, we decided to make a cut in it to miss out a pan at one moment, but thankfully it still feels like one shot for the most part. This was rewarding to achieve and glad it finally paid off!
   In my research, I could not help but uncover a handful of stories I was curious if you could fill in the blanks on. One such story was that a small fire broke out on set?
   Ah yes. Our 2nd Assistant Director backed into some candles and her coat set on fire! Thankfully it just burned a hole in her coat and didn’t harm her or anyone else, and now apparently she wears it out in public with gaffer tape over the hole as a talking point with people! One of the perils of working in very tight corridors and rooms with loads of burning candles…
   One criticism I’d heard and would, thereby, be remiss if I didn’t ask you about it, has to do with the casting of the father and daughter. Specifically, the age difference between them. It is acknowledged by another character in the film as well, which makes me wonder if it was a conscious decision.
   That’s right. We deliberately cast a younger looking father and an older looking teenager as it was important to the story that the father had her when he was very young i.e. she was an accident. It’s really interesting to us that some have commented on it, perhaps because they found it implausible to look at them that they could be related in this way, whereas others thought it worked fine and it never crossed their minds. One critic even read into the film that there were hints of incest between the father and daughter, which is really fascinating. Not what we intended, but somehow it does actually fit with the unsettling feeling around their relationship. Either way, given some people raised it as a criticism it’s something we’ll probably mull over the next time we have to cast with ages in mind in a particular way, not that you want to listen to critics too much!
   I noticed you guys developed Playhouse through Kickstarter, very cool. How would you describe your experience with Kickstarter and what recommendations you give other filmmakers for a successful campaign?
   Oh boy, yeah, we raised just under £10K on Kickstarter to complete our post production. In one sense, we’re really grateful for it and of course thrilled we hit our target as we just had no other way of raising the finance we needed. In another sense, it’s a huge amount of work to run a successful campaign, before, during and after it. We didn’t go on social media for months afterwards because we were so burned out with messaging and getting the word out there! One thing that did happen was very interesting though. Until we started creating a campaign, we weren’t really using the word horror to describe the film, which we always saw as more of a supernatural thriller. However, we realised that there seemed to be a much, much bigger crowdfunding audience (and in general) for horror, so we started creating visuals and graphics as part of our promotion that called it a horror and made it look like a gothic horror. We’re pleased we did this in the end, and it taught us a lot about how important it is to understand what genre you’re making and and what the commercial aspects of your film really are. As the film has picked up distribution around the world, the horror branding has only become more important, and something you don’t get a lot of say in as it’s more of the sales agent and distributors deciding these things. Fascinating to see how it all works though – that you can make one film and then it gets packaged up in a way you didn’t expect.
   Do you see yourselves using Kickstarter again for your sophomore film, or do you think you will head for a more traditional approach?
   We think as far as possible that we won’t use it again. It’s a lot of work for a small-ish amount of money in film terms, so it may be best to just ask investors to put more in instead. However, sometimes you just need that extra bit of cash for something special you didn’t plan for, like VFX or something, and crowdfunding suddenly becomes very appealing! It also helps to get the word out a bit for your film, so that can help too. Never say never, but ideally we’d rather avoid it next time.
   Are there any immediate plans for your second film? Are you devout genre enthusiasts, or are their other genres you’d like to explore?
   We have a couple of horror ideas at different stages of development. We really love both, so we’d love to make them both but we’ll have to see which takes off first. One day we’re pretty sure we’d like to broaden out into other genres, such as drama, but horror is actually so broad anyway that it basically encompasses most of the genres we could see ourselves working in e.g. fantasy, sci-fi, period, religious etc.
   Barring any limitation, is there a horror series you’d be interested in creating a sequel for? What changes would you make in order to make it your own?
   Great question. That’s a tough one. We’d be very torn between Alien, Predator, and The Exorcist. Maybe a blend of all three, haha! We’ve always talked about doing a horror version of the Legend of the Waterhorse, set in Scotland. We’re generally drawn to family friendly fantasy movies as inspiration for horror, as it happens, such as The Neverending Story or Casper. They’re incredibly imaginative worlds and you can quite easily ‘tweak’ them to make them terrifying. Watch this space…
   I understand the film was released at last year’s FrightFilm Festival. What was your reaction to participating in an online festival (thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic) versus a traditional event?
   Playing at FrightFest was an amazing thing for us, full stop. We didn’t know where our first feature would end up in terms of festivals so were delighted to be playing at such a big and well respected festival. It has to be said though, that the digital experience of watching on your TV at home with a glass of champagne doesn’t even come close to walking down a red carpet at Cineworld Cinema in London’s Leicester Square! We really missed that, and all the photos and glamour that go with it too. We would have loved to do the live QnA afterwards on stage but hey, FrightFest did a fantastic job with what was possible and we’re ever grateful. It certainly helped us to get reviewed by critics and garner some great attention before our release.
   With that, I offer the floor to you, Playhouse is available on the Tubi TV streaming service, as well as on-Demand for $3.99. What would you have to say to moviegoers on the fence and what’s (Watts) next for the Watts’ brothers?
   We’d say that if you like moody atmosphere and films about chilling folklore, mythology and history, then this is totally up your street! Go watch it now. Or even if you just like slower burning thriller/horrors with some classic horror inspiration behind it then you’ll also really enjoy the film, so it’s well worth the money. If you’re on the fence, it’s probably a film you might need to be in the mood for. If you’re lusting after something with more jump scares, shock value or gore, maybe wait for the right night to watch Playhouse! And look out for one of the film’s we’ve got coming up next… this time it will be more in the horror genre box, more tense and more frightening, but all will be revealed in time!

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