Interview: Charlie Lyne talks BBC iPlayer’s Fear Itself
Ivan Radford | On 31, Oct 2015
Fear Itself is one of the more interesting – and unique – horror films of recent years. Not only is it BBC iPlayer’s second feature-length original commission, it’s also the second film from Charlie Shackleton. The young blogger, journalist and filmmaker’s first film was Beyond Clueless, a documentary about teen movies. This follow-up does something similar for the horror genre, stitching together clips from spooky movies to create something that questions how horror movies scare us, but also why we let them do it again and again.
We sit down with him on a cold, dark night – ok, a warm, day-lit cinema – to talk horror and how his movie came about.
You can listen to an abridged version of this interview on our podcast.
How strange is it to be an interviewer rather than an interviewee?
Do you know what? The main thing that’s weird is this is the first interview I’ve done about this film. Everything I’m saying is fresh, even if it’s kind of rambling! This is the fun part – possibly less good for you – as I’m feeling my way to the answers…
The final film is creepy. We went into it not sure how creepy it would be.
Me too. I think that was the first aim when I was thinking about it was trying in vain to achieve something like that. It’s a hard balance to strike, especially when for, like, critical reasons, you want to deconstruct the reasons behind a lot of these films and the way they’re made. To do that and maintain the gut impact they still have, it’s difficult to maintain. So that’s very flattering to hear. It’s something that, to me, was always missing from any discussion of the horror genre. It always seemed to stray towards the kind of goofy, slightly arch, slightly ironic look, which there’s room for, of course, but nothing so emotively driven.
What’s your favour horror movie?
You know what? I’ve never been asked that because this is the first interview, so I don’t have an answer to give! What is my favourite horror movie? It slightly depends what you count as a horror movie. Probably The Lost Highway, which features in the film, obviously, which I suppose sways between horror and other genre. For me, those are the moments when horror gets me, in those movies where it’s not the prevailing mood.
One clip that does stand out is from Enduring Love, which is not at all a horror film. Was that intentional, to include films from outside of the genre?
Orignally, that was a very intentional thing. I wanted to get fear wherever it could be found in movies, not necessarily horror movies. So I thought there would be a lot more that would fall outside of the genre of horror, but in the end, the majority is firmly horror, Enduring Love an obvious exception.
It [the clip in Fear Itself] is certainly the best bit of Enduring Love.
I agree, it’s the scene around which everything else hinges. A lot of those bits in Fear Itself are moments that have stayed with me, searing moments of fear, even in unlikely places. Even the clip I used from The Exorcist of Linda Blair lying in the operating room having blood taken, I had completely forgotten about that scene until I re-watched it for this film. It’s weird how that’s almost the most unnerving scene, a moment that’s notionally a respite from the horror, you know. There’s nothing untoward going on in that scene whatsoever. But there’s something so visceral about that violation of her. Her reaction is so vividly real. It probably helps that you haven’t seen that scene so many times, so it retains a potency that, say, her swearing or vomiting doesn’t.
It’s interesting that so many different things can scare different people. If you ask someone for their favourite horror movie, you can get very different answers.
Yeah. It does depend how you phrase it. If you say name a horror, people probably go to The Exorcist or The Shining or something famous, but if you say what scares you in a film, I doubt those would be the ones you get.
How much research goes into something like this, both re-watching films you know and new ones you don’t?
Quite a bit – although less than with the previous film I made. That I did just blast through everything I could think of and probably watched 300 films over six months! But that felt like what I wanted to do: have a sense of everything and distil it down. But I wasn’t interested in doing anything definitive or comprehensive at all [with horror movies]. There are so many people better equipped than me to do that. I did want to make something much more kind of, if not personal then at least idiosyncratic, so it was less a case of ploughing through everything and looking for stuff that had a particular significance to me when I first saw it, or what other people said to me would be interesting for various reasons in the narrative. It was mercifully a lot more selective as viewing process! I got to watch a lot of good films whereas last time round, I just got to watch a lot of films.
You start with a clip from Blow Out, which shows a horror film being made – was that always the plan?
No, it actually came in later on. And again, it’s a film I’ve seen many times, but never quite recalled that sequence. What I liked about it was that I wanted the film to be this quite visceral experience but I wanted people to be hopefully making the kind of links and connections in their own minds that allow it to be a critical experience. So that while you’re watching these sequences you can still take note of what’s happening and piece together how it’s working and how it’s working on you, but without having to chip in with the narration. And so my hope with that Blow Out clip was that you introduce people to the concept that is something so blatantly manufactured that you’re literally seeing it being manufactured! Not even then, on top of that, thinking that scene itself is being manufactured. Hopefully, that jolts people into that way of thinking and they’re then training themselves almost to see things on a slightly different level – or on multiple levels, I suppose. That’s what I always wanted: to create a piece of film criticism that would encourage people themselves to be critical. Just to save me the time! (Laughs)
The narration by Amy E Watson is part of that creepy effect
Yeah, it again comes down to what I felt was less travelled territory. I loved with Beyond Clueless that no one was really talking seriously about those films, for understandable reasons, so to talk seriously about them was at least a different approach… And so with this what was missing was the opposite and that everyone was talking seriously about this films, so it would be more fun to do the opposite and have a more fallible voice. So I didn’t want a horror icon to narrate it or someone that would feel like a horror authority.
How did she get involved?
Amy was someone a friend recommended, who just came out of the blue really, right at the end of the process. It was an incredibly quick turnaround, really. We were really lucky. She lives in Glasgow and we did most of our auditioning over the phone and she just seemed to really tap into it. I also like her voice… she lives in Glasgow but she’s from Canada originally, so she has this interesting twang of both places.
You wonder what it be like if the voice was different. If Alan Partridge was saying things like “I never see fear coming, until it swallows me whole…”
It’s all on a knife edge! So hopefully she tips it into bearable!
She refers to a vague incident in her past, which makes her want to watch all these horror movies, but we never find out what it is…
We had so many discussions when making it what should the tone be, what’s their agency, or whatever. That register of the voice does seem to be something so exclusive in a documentary to the writing of a narrator. You and I don’t talk solely in one register. If I told you a piece of information, you wouldn’t be like “I thought you were a subjective character why are you now a teacher?” Had the narrator gone “In 1945…” that would feel weird. I wanted to create something that would feel multi-faceted and inconclusive in certain ways, although that’s probably a bad word to use. We had discussions about those moments when you tend to fixate on certain things. In my experience, it’s at those moments when you’re at a juncture or something stressful has happened or you have a reason to find solace. It’s useful when crafting a documentary to have that kind of anchor of “why”. I can think of periods in my life where I’ve watched an excessive amount of films like that. You know, I still watch them now and then, but you have those kind of intense moments. I’ve done that with music and everything else. I always wanted there to be a hint of motive for someone to be so invested in a subject, but not to be so definite that it felt inhuman.
Do you find the narration or the images come first?
It kind of, for me at least, probably because I’m not good at planning, it fell into a spiral of back and forth. I’m writing a script and in that I’m describing the clips I’ll use and writing the narration, but the second you put it up on screen and get that juxtaposition, anything you think will work on paper is just completely jarring when you watch it unfold! I think the pictures tend to lead. You’ll say “Oh, I have the perfect bit of narration and all I need to match it is a scene where this happens…” and sometimes you get really lucky and find that scene, but more often than not, the world doesn’t exist perfectly as you’d like it to.
You can change the narration, but you can’t change what films already exist.
You can’t change history! Although in that respect, it’s kind of nice in that it’s the opposite of normal filmmaking and script-writing, where the script dictates what images are created. We have this massive limitation of what images exist, which I think is a really creatively encouraging limitation, because it does mean you have to constantly go back. The script was written six months ago, but there were bits that were re-written the morning we recorded it! It’s a blessing and a curse. If we didn’t have a deadline, I would still be changing things, for sure!
There are some nice cuts between shots where it looks like people could almost be in the same place. How much time do you lose trying to line up those matches?
So much time. The original rough cut, every cut was a genius pairing of two images! But then logic gets in the way. That scene does nothing for you so you have to lose it. Most of those got destroyed. But some of my favourite of those moments were completely accidental. One of the producers would say: “Oh, I love the way you paired that with that because it alludes to this!” And I’d just go: “Mmmm, yeah, that was clever of me…” Because inevitably, these films all share their own visual language anyway, so I think often accidental juxtaposition can pull out interesting things.
And, of course, our brains do that anyway, looking for logical leaps between shots.
Yeah, you’re the one actively doing it anyway, you’ve been taught enough about how cinema works to make those leaps without being told to. Did you ever see The Clock? One of my favourite parts of that was they were sharing a universe, not a literally universe, but a temporal space… the bleeding between the worlds I liked. They are different worlds. You’re not trying to sell an idea of coexistence.
It’s not a Pixar fan theory
No, although there’s space for that… It’s nice that there’s some kind of psychic bond between them rather some literal one.
It also gives it that experimental feel, a lot like Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake
Totally, yeah. That was the thing that introduced me to the concept of feature-length iPlayer stuff – obviously, as it did with everyone, because it was the first one! I was already a huge fan of his, but one of the things I found frustrating with his work was that it was – which is no comment on him – still subject to scheduling and programming. You have the kind of [episode breaks] and even if they’re cut out, you still have the sense of a break… flowing into where one episode ends and begins. I was interested in how much he dove into losing that and instead allowing that flow to be more organic and find itself through the images. Some of those shots where he just lets those run for minutes – you almost start to get bored and you can sometime slush through that as the shot goes on and on.
As their second feature-length commission, how did this come about?
They approached [me]. They were looking for the net feature-length thing they wanted to do. All they had in mind was something to with film and something for around Halloween. Around the time they were doing that, my film Beyond Clueless had just come out in cinemas, so I was just in the right place at the right time. Because of the stripped down commissioning process for iPlayer, it was amazing – I think, like, I went and talked to them in the loosest possible terms if I had any ideas one week and about a week and a half later, it was more or less happening. It’s bizarre. Had I known in February or March that I would now be here, that would’ve seemed impossible!
It’s amazing how much BBC iPlayer has changed over the years. Five years ago, people were just using it to watch EastEnders.
You still can! (Laughs) It’s weird. It’s so new, the idea of original content on there, especially feature-length content, they still don’t know quite what it’s going to be. To me, it felt like an amazing possibility. There are so few settings where you can have state-funded original content free of ads with no scheduling or programming limitations. Basically, a blank canvas onto which you can create something weird! I think I would have been skeptical if it wasn’t for Bitter Lake, which was [such an] utterly unique and outspoken piece of work that wasn’t in any way a safe option. So that yeah, felt like a good footing to get started on. And I don’t know, I hope it does feel very singular? For better or worse, whether people like it or not. I don’t think it’s what they imagined it would be six months ago, but I love that. I love that people will go on there to watch EastEnders and it’s just there for a year or so and hopefully people will stumble upon it!
Beyond CLueless is on Netflix now and that’s my… it’s obviously amazing to show it in cinemas and have it be on this huge screen and be showing to hundreds of people in a single room, but my favourite part of that whole process is having it on Netflix and then anyone could find it! Put aside that hundreds of thousands of people have seen it more there than anywhere else, it removes any sense of demographic or [you having] to be in a certain place at a certain time. The number of people who have seen it on there and knew nothing about it – or knew nothing about me, obviously. I’m a big streaming fan and I would be quite happy if everything I made had its main life in that world.
It’s interesting to hear that. A lot of older filmmakers say they want their work mainly on the big screen.
Half the time, these people who say these things… you know, unless they’re Quentin Tarantino with a home cinema, they probably watch a lot of stuff on Netflix. You’ve got to have your viewer hat on. I feel the constant frustration as a viewer of how I’m allowed or not allowed to watch things. I don’t know why people forget certain things the second they are an artist.
I’ve got friends who are filmmakers that the worst thing they can imagine is someone pirating their film but all that would bother me about that is whether the version on there is any good! (Laughs) As long as nobody puts a really crappy rip of my film on The Pirate Bay, I don’t mind it being on there as long as the bit rates good!
Does being a filmmaker change your perspective on that? You presumably want to make money from your work?
Obviously, yeah, I want to make money from being a filmmaker. I don’t think piracy is morally right or anything, but I do think there’s a pragmatic side of it and the film industry in so many ways is falling far short of giving people easy ways to watch something, that actually I think it is defensible on many levels at the moment. Not as an ideal, but as a practical thing. I hope that I’ve now made both of my films easily available that there isn’t much impetus to do that. People may or may not have a Netflix account…
But everyone can access BBC iPlayer.
Yeah, everyone can! It’s not a simple case of right and wrong. I think you have to be competitive with these things. Torrenting things is so easy – it’s ridiculous how easy it is. It can take more effort to find a DVD on a shelf than it can to pirate the same film. We need to keep up.
I know it took the music industry a long time to get to the point where Spotify and iTunes – I know there are still massive problems in terms of rights and money – but it does feel like the music industry has got to the point with its relationship with the customer where it’s very easy to listen to any song now. But with film, that is so far from the truth, even in just trying to track down movies for research for this film – I’ve ordered films from 6 or 7 different countries, got stuff on iTunes, got stuff on Netflix… It’s hard work! To find a film that isn’t a smash around the globe, it’s so much harder than it should be.
Have you watched much else from BBC iPlayer’s original library?
Before I’d started it, the main I’d seen was Bitter Lake and the short Matt Berry guides. I like those a lot.
There’s a nice collection of poems called Women Who Spit.
That was made by the same little team inside the BBC that I worked with on this and those are great.
BBC iPlayer is great for that kind of non-mainstream content. What kind of appeal do you think Fear Itself will have?
Streaming platforms are such a god-send for difficult sells. Any difficult sell is so much easier if you don’t have to pay anything to try it. You’ve already paid through the licence fee or a Netflix subscription for being able to see whatever you want. I think you can credit the brilliant wave of success documentaries are having at the moment to the fact that people previously would have said I’m not going to spend cinema prices to see a documentary but now it’s as easy as anything else to give it a try. Documentaries are typically an easy watch, even on difficult subjects. It’s the same with essay films. If you give people an easy way in, they might like it, they might not, but hopefully they’ll get a sense of it pretty quickly. I’m already unable to describe the film in any succinct way!
Which leads us to our final question: can you describe Fear Itself in a succinct way?
I wish! I’ve taken to saying “It’s called Fear Itself and it’s about fear…
That’s as far as I’ve got. But it’s true! It doesn’t feel very attention-grabbing, but maybe that’s enough…
Fear Itself is available now on BBC iPlayer until October 2016. You can read our review of it here.