Is there anything more terrifying than being stuck in the house – unable to so much as wander onto the patio for a crafty cigarette – with your own family? Yes: Imagine that scenario, but on Christmas Day. Such is the claustrophobic premise of Await Further Instructions, which sees grumpy patriarch Tony trapped inside with his nearest and not-so-dearest over the festive season. The force imprisoning them is some sort of sentient black goo, and the only contact they have with the outside world comes from the ever-vigilant television. Its first message: AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.
Melding savage satire with gleefully grim gore, Await… has been a hit at horror fests across Europe and beyond. (Read our review here.) We caught up with Gavin Williams (screenwriter), Johnny Kevorkian (director), Jack Tarling (producer) and Grant Masters (lead actor) at Manchester’s Grimmfest back in October and discussed our trust in TV, dysfunctional families, body-horror and Brexit.
So, congratulations on a brilliantly taut horror film. How did it come about?
Gavin Williams: I had the idea 10 years ago, New Year’s Eve 2008, and I was travelling down with my then girlfriend and I’d bought an album by a band called The National and this song comes on called Apartment and the lyric is ‘Stay indoors until someone finds you / do whatever the TV tells you’ and that rattled around my brain and I started thinking it was a good set-up for a horror film.
Johnny Kevorkian: They can’t work out what it is – is it terrorism or whatever – they can’t get out and they then have to figure out…. It communicates with them via the TV. It sends them their first message ‘Await further instructions’.
It was conceived of during the festive season and is set over Christmas – was that always part of the idea?
GW: Not immediately, but when you start developing an idea, you take the premise to its logical extreme to up the tension, the conflict. One thing about being an independent filmmaker is you’ve got no money so you look for an idea can you make cheaply. This was set in one location, so it has that idea of conflict baked into it. My first thought was it was a horror film, so lots of teenage kids trapped in a house, but then I realised it had to be a family – the hierarchy of that, and dysfunction that can be transmitted down the generations. So it soon became about being stuck in a house, unable to get out, with your family. For most people, that would be bad enough, but when you think ‘When would that be the worst possible time to happen?’ then the answer is Christmas.
Especially with racist granddad (Game of Thrones’s David Bradley)
JK: Getting him attached to the project was a highlight. And he was, of course, utterly brilliant.
With Granddad’s racism, and his antipathy towards his grandson’s Asian girlfriend, and also Grant’s character, Tony, the father, stuck in between the older and younger generations, how much did recent events play into the film?
Jack Tarling: You mean Brexit? Well, the funny thing is, it was shot in 2015, so it was pre-Brexit. But these things don’t come out of nowhere. At the time, David Cameron’s talking about migrant swarms coming into the country and that sort of thing, so, looking back, it was in the air. And, of course, on the TV.
Grant Masters: There’s also the religious aspect to my character. There’s media indoctrination but then he’s influenced by something older – religious indoctrination. Which, obviously, is heightened, because it’s Christmas.
GW: And TV is sort of this god, too, that you dedicate your life to for hours and hours each week.
The uninvited guest.
GW: Yes. The TV is the antagonist but, in a way, the family do it to themselves. This is what society is – all this bad stuff simmering away just under the surface.
JK: What was good was having quite a long rehearsal period – on the set – so the actors can come together to really feel like genuine family.
GW: Also, as I was first working the idea up, the Credit Crunch was kicking of, and there were lots of people on the TV hearing that there wasn’t any money in the banks and so going down to the banks and queueing up outside banks themselves. So the panic and paranoia that the media can generate and, broader than that, the idea of technology and how, as a layman, a lot of it you can’t understand. If the TV tells you something, is it safer to follow instructions?
JT: There was a delay after the shoot because we had to wait our turn for the CGI and various other things – but that delay has helped us a lot in a way, because we’ve since had the rise of nationalism, Brexit, Trump. I keep saying I’d like to shake Trump by the hand.
Ugh. You don’t know where they’ve been.
JT: [Laughs] No. Maybe not then.
The single location really works and it’s testament to your set designer that it’s all actually shot in a studio – you really can’t tell.
JT: We hear that a lot. To get cast and crew into a real house with all the equipment wouldn’t leave much room for creativity.
JK: Yes, Nina Topp, our production designer, was brilliant. We basically shot it outside Yorkshire on three stages. One whole stage was the living room and kitchen, and then the stairs and the upper level, and then the final phase. It meant I could design the shoot down to the last detail – the set was designed to incorporate room for cameras to make certain shots. I had to work all that out beforehand and Nina’s design took all that into account.
JT: It’s a studio in North Yorkshire, about half an hour out of York. The shots of the town is actually a village about 20 minutes away called Hemingbrough.
Thanks to IMDb, I can tell you that Await Further Instructions is the only film to have ever been shot there.
JT: [Joking] Maybe I’ll use that as part of the marketing…
It’s testimony to the writing that, although there are all these current issues swirling about beneath the surface, it’s not too on the nose. It brings to mind the films of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg.
GW: It’s all those things – it’s about a range of issues, which will give it more of a shelf life.
You shot the whole thing in five weeks?
JT: Yes, and a week of that was the end sequence.
It’s hard to talk about without spoilers but this very much focuses on Tony…
GM: How much can we talk about it without spoiling it?
JT: Well, the sort of techno-Hellraiser transformation is up there on the poster. There are certain things we really don’t want to reveal, but if we don’t let people know that there is going to be some juicy horror, then the audience might not buy a ticket. The poster lets people know to expect some Cronenberg-style body-horror, but the wider story, why they’re locked down in their house, we don’t want to give that away.
The film boasts some very effective in-camera visual effects which adds to its 80s vibe.
JK: The Fly is very much an influence – the transformation. But all that Eighties horror, yes. Using practical effects, before CG. Everything you see on screen here is practical effects – we’re using puppeteers, wires, prosthetics – it was physically all there.
GM: Dan Martin did the effects – all the stuff on me. He came in and put it on me every day. And we had technicians on set and a puppeteer for some sections. He’s worked on stuff like Ben Wheatley’s High Rise and A Field in England, and he was working on something massive at the same time and he kept coming to our set and saying, ‘I much prefer doing this’.
In this era of bland 12-certificate so-called horror movies, there are some refreshingly horrific scenes. The in-utero baby and the skeleton, for instance… But it’s still only a 15 – what do you have to do these days to get an X-certificate?
JT: Well, to be honest, I wouldn’t want it to get an 18 as that would limit its commercial potential.
Tony, how was that last week of the shoot? Gruelling?
GM: I’ve worn extreme make-up for a few stage jobs before, but this was the first time I’d done it on film. I had to be on set for 4am for a week – different layers of the prosthethics had to be put on. The worst thing was the contact lenses – constantly having to drop water into my eyes. But, really, I loved it. What actor wouldn’t?
JK: The last film I did had 25 effects shots and this has more than a hundred – and most of them practical effects. I loved the fact that, in the script, you really don’t know where the story is going to go. So many scripts you get to read are samey and wouldn’t be a challenge to do as a director – this was the opposite.
JT: But it’s the characters first – they’re real and three-dimensional. That way the situation, the horror, has more emotional impact. Mike Leigh meets David Cronenberg somebody said…
GW: I’m very, very happy with that description.
Await Further Instructions is available to buy and rent on VOD.