The TDF Interview: Ben Young
Australian writer/director Ben Young has certainly made his mark with his directorial debut Hounds of Love. Debuting at last year's Venice Film Festival it proved to be a surprise hit despite its low-budget origins. Over the past 12 months it has continued to gather steam on the festival circuit, receiving almost nothing but rave reviews, and now arrives in UK cinemas this Friday. The films success has also opened a lot of doors for Young, far sooner than he ever expected, taking him on something of a rollercoaster ride, going on to direct Universal's sci-fi thriller, Extinction, starring Michael Peña, due for release in January 2018.
The cast of Hounds of Love features Emma Booth, Stephen Curry and Ashleigh Cummings, all of whom offer strong performances while handling sensitive and harrowing material. The film has received unfair criticism in some quarters, accusing it of exploiting similar real-life events, claims that do it a disservice and overlook the rare insight it offers into the mentality of female serial killers.
Ben is currently in LA working on post-production of Extinction but he was kind enough to put some time aside to discuss the film's reception, navigating such dark material with the cast and how the character focus eventually shifted away from his original script idea.
Really great to talk with you Ben.
No, thank you for taking such an interest in my film.
Not that I’d planned to put it on my playlist anytime soon but I'll never hear Nights in White Satin quite the same way again.
[LAUGHS] Yeah, there’s been a few people that have said that to me.
Where did this story come from and what inspired you to make this your feature debut?
Well, my mum writes crime fiction and I’m always picking up the books she uses for research. One of these was about female serial killers which really interested me. I continued to dig and do more research and became something of one-man Wiki page about female serial killers! What I found was just how different the reasons were for the women to commit these crimes, compared to the men. It’s not really something we have seen onscreen too many times, so it became a subject I wanted to explore further.
The more I read, the more I found out about couples who commit these crimes together. In total I found nine couples who had done these sort of grizzly crimes. In every single one the same pattern emerged, in that it was led by psychopathic men controlling vulnerable women. Not to excuse the acts these women were part of but they were always manipulated by the man once they had totally taken control of their persona, through whatever means necessary.
I wanted to make a film that really examined this dynamic, without being gruesome or making it too shocking for people to stick with. That’s been done a million times already. What I wanted to do was make a film not about the acts that were committed but about the people who were responsible for doing them.
This is pretty heavy material you're working with, how did you manage the cast during the darker scenes - even though nothing graphic is shown?
That’s a really good question. I’d known Emma Booth for around 20 years and I wrote the role of Evelyn especially for her. I think it’s all about trust. The cast need to trust you and know that you’re not going to put them into horrible situations that are not necessary for the story. With all three members of the cast, I just told them very early on in the process that I’m going to be asking them to do some pretty horrible stuff but to remember it’s just a film and it’s not worth damaging your psyche for. So, if there’s anything - either in the script or in what I ask you to do on set - that you’re not comfortable doing, just flag it with me. Let’s not get passive aggressive about anything, let’s just be really upfront and open. If there is an issue, I’ll explain exactly why I’ve put that in the script and if you’re still not comfortable with it, then let’s find another way to portray that particular beat in the story.
I think that helped them relax a bit because they always knew they had an out. There were a couple of times where they called me on it and we discovered new ways of getting the scene across that I thought worked just as well, if not better. I also came up with a ‘safe’ word, which is a pretty common trick, I think. I give actors a lot of room to move off the page, as the dialogue is just a guide. I want them to live in the moment and if something better comes out in that moment then that’s fine with me. Knowing that there was going to be a lot of freedom in that regard, it meant that we could veer off the page quite heavily at times. If we were doing a scene that moved away from the page and someone got uncomfortable they could just say this word that had no possibility of being part of that scene or script. No-one ever used the safe word but going into the scenes knowing they had an out was something that helped everybody.
Also, I’ve got a really strict ‘no arsehole’ policy, which doesn’t just apply to cast it applies to crew as well. When we were looking around for people to perform various roles in the crew, as much as looking into their ability to do the job, I was looking at their personalities. I made it a number one priority to populate the film with good humans, knowing that the material we were dealing with was going to be really confronting and we were going to be asking them to go to dark places. The last thing we wanted was unnecessary stress and tension, so we really did go to a lot of effort just to fill the crew with the best quality people we could find. As a result, the atmosphere – surprisingly – was lovely throughout the whole film. We only had 20 days to shoot, which is really tough schedule, and there wasn’t one voice raised throughout. I think that atmosphere really helped the actors get to where they needed to go.
The time period seems key for the story, as it takes place before the explosion of technology. Was that an essential part of making this work?
Absolutely, a film like Hounds would’ve been impossible to set today, with things like Find My iPhone, Facebook and all of that kind of technology. Also, there are so many low-budget films that get made every single year and I really needed to try and find a way to make my film standout a little bit from the crowd. The city where I live and where it was filmed, which is Perth, Western Australia, was largely built in the 80s and there are entire pockets that look exactly as they did back then. So, it was a very cheap way for us to give it an aesthetic look that would make it stand out. Similarly, the kind of clothing that our characters were wearing isn’t the trendy stuff that hipsters throw hundreds of dollars at, it’s the kind of stuff you find in charity stores. It also allowed us to make the sound of the film a little different from a film that would be contemporary.
With Evelyn in particular, you look beyond the shallow concept of evil and ask us to be concerned for her too, which is a tough ask. You would imagine Vicki to be the central figure in the film and in fact, it turns out to be Evelyn’s story. Was that the case in the script or did that evolve in the edit?
What became evident while were filming was that Emma (Booth) was bringing so much more to Evelyn than what was on the page. She’s such a great actress to work with, not precious in any way. She’ll do a take and then say “Ben, just give me a weird piece of direction. Ask me to do something that you’d never thought you’d ask me to,” which I did. And we’d re-shoot the takes and they’d be completely different, which allowed us in edit to very carefully to track the arc. On the page it was definitely more Vicki’s story, but Evelyn is the more interesting character, which she always was in the script because she has the most dilemmas and is a hostage by choice. Subsequently it very much became Evelyn’s story in the edit.
I remember I showed a rough cut of the film to a friend of mine and they said that they wished they could see more of Evelyn in the beginning because she is so interesting. The beginning of the film, as you would’ve seen but not known, is largely constructed in the edit. In an early draft that I had written, the film did begin with Evelyn and John committing a murder and one of the principle investors said to me that you can’t start the film with a couple killing a girl like that because it’s too brutal, you just can’t do that. I thought OK, well I thought you could, but I guess you can’t then! I watched the rough cut of the film and we had the netball sequence as it is before going into a very linear version of Vicki’s story and it was just boring. All of the cast were great but it just didn’t flow well. It was just about an upper-middle class girl who was grumpy at her Mother because she had left her Dad. That’s the basis of a kitchen sink drama. So, I just started to think about the note my friend had said about seeing more of Evelyn. Then I remembered the original draft I’d written started with a murder. I mean, the first cut of the film was three hours long, but I had so many things on the floor I started to think that I could construct a murder from scenes we’d taken out of the movie. And so that first murder, all the close-ups of that girl are actually Vicki that never made the film. By not showing that first murder, but implying it, ended up working really well in our favour because it set the tone for what was to follow. Plus, it very clearly set up Evelyn’s conflicted character.
Given the heavy content, how did you know or decide where to draw the line on what you were going to show and not show onscreen?
Definitely in the script. I didn’t shoot any violent scenes, the only violence you see is what is in the final version. I knew because I didn’t want to make a horror film. I’ve seen a lot of press calling it a horror film – they’re saying nice things about it in that regard and I’m fine with that – but not for one second did I think I was shooting a horror film. I thought I was shooting a psychological thriller. I’m not drawn to horror films most of the time, so it wasn’t my objective to make one. I’m drawn to psychological thrillers. I knew from very early on that I didn’t want to make a film about the acts themselves, I wanted to make a film about the people involved in the acts. The acts that we are talking about are so foul, had I shown them, it would’ve completely distracted from anything I was trying to talk about with regards to the relationships of the characters.
What did you take away from the film - either from the production element or the subject matter itself?
Well, there’s so much! Firstly filmmaking is certainly something I believe that doesn’t get any easier the more you do it, it gets harder because the pressure grows. You learn more about the fine line between making a scene sing and making it fail. I learnt a lot about filmmaking in that regard. I think the frightening thing that I took away from it is that evil is all around us and is often invisible to us. The ones that commit the most heinous acts are completely unrecognisable and that was something I learned throughout the process of making it.
The banality of evil I guess.
Yes, exactly. Also, on another level, I’ve also learnt that audiences seem to respond far better to dark material than I thought they would!
You're currently in post at the moment for your first studio film, Extinction, how's that coming along?
I’m in my fourth week of post-production for Extinction and it’s going very well. I saw my first cut of the film last week and now we’re just going through and evening it all out. I was surprised how much I enjoyed working in a studio system given all the horror stories that you hear but I didn’t find them to be true at all. It’s been a surprisingly positive experience.
Anything else bubbling around you are hoping to get involved with after you’ve wrapped Extinction?
Yes, I’m writing a TV pilot with a director friend of mine, Zak Hilditch, who made a great film a few years ago called These Final Hours. I’m also developing my own idea for a TV series as well as constantly writing one-liners down for film scripts. I’m reading a lot of scripts that I’m being sent and I’m attached to a film for the beginning of next year with a really great English/Australian production company and a fantastic Australian writer, and I really hope that one goes ahead.