Interview: Rob Savage talks Host, filming in lockdown and working with Sam Raimi
Ivan | On 30, Aug 2020
Ever since the start of the coronavirus lockdown, there has been talk of what cinema might do in response – not only in terms of reopening theatres or films released straight to digital, but also in terms of filmmaking during the pandemic. Host, a film announced by Shudder just weeks before it premiered on the streaming service, has emerged as the surprise contender for the best horror film of 2020, a definitive take on the isolation and fear of lockdown. (Read our review here.)
The online chiller follows five friends – Haley (Haley Bishop), Jemmy (Jemma Moore), Emma (Emma Louise Webb), Radina (Radina Drandova) and Caroline (Caroline Ward) – as they take part in a seance via Zoom. Since its release in one month ago, the film – which began as a viral short – has become a phenomenon in its own right. As we sit down with director Rob Savage, who helmed the whole thing remotely from his bedroom, he’s just been chatting to ITV’s Good Morning Britain about – a sign of just how much this low-key horror has broken into mainstream consciousness.
Between a growing UK fandom and expanding attention in the US, Rob’s burning the candle at both ends to keep the conversation going – a mad ride for a young filmmaker who made his debut, Strings, on a shoestring budget back in 2012 (it’s available for free on BFI Player here). In the years following, he and regular collaborator Jed Shepherd (who co-wrote Host with Savage and Gemma Hurley) have struck gold with short films such as Salt and Dawn of the Deaf.
We chat to him about making a smash hit in 12 weeks, his horror influences, how Host pulled off its practical effects and the project he’s got in the pipeline with Sam Raimi.
Warning: This contains spoilers.
Did you ever expect Host to take off like this?
It’s kind of still blown my mind a bit! We thought – especially going on Shudder – we thought the horror community would get into it, but the fact that it’s gone so mainstream is amazing.
This all began with that viral short you made in April…
It’s crazy. Pretty much everyone who made Host was in that. I’d been telling my friends that I’d been hearing strange sounds from my attic for a while before lockdown – and I was, I’d moved into this house and the attic was the one thing I didn’t have access to. So lockdown happened and I was still hearing noises so I borrowed a stepladder from a neighbour and there was nothing there, but my attic is creepy as shit, so I thought “I can do something with this”. It really reminded me of the attic in [REC], so I thought if I can find a way to trick my friends into thinking this bit from [REC] was live on a Zoom call it could shake them up. I made this contraption out of cardboard and sticky tape that meant I could be filming the call on my phone and then slot my camera into this contraption so it was perfectly framed on screen and so everyone was none the wiser that they were watching this pre-recorded clip. That was the aim, there wasn’t any longer film version in mind. We honestly thought that would be the one cool thing we did in lockdown. And then it blew up!
I’ve been hearing strange noises from my attic, so I called a few friends and went to investigate… pic.twitter.com/CxmJAf44ob
— Rob Savage (@DirRobSavage) April 21, 2020
So were you thinking about the idea of making something in lockdown?
Not really. I had all this creative energy – I was two weeks away from shooting on a TV show and then we got shut down and I got furloughed, but I kind of funnelled that into just watching movies and playing video games and not getting a lot done. We were doing these Zoom happy hours, basically the people who made Host and all the people I hang out with anyway. I don’t know if you remember but at the start of lockdown, there were a lot of people sarcastically saying “Who’s going to be the first to set a film on Zoom?” It wasn’t really something I was entertaining, but then the video went viral and we thought “OK, it kind of works. It’s not annoying to watch something in this format.”
So are you now sick of Zoom?
It would be nice to see more people in the flesh, I’ve forgotten what that’s like, but it is what it is. To be honest, it’s just become my daily routine, and that’s the weird thing. I’m still sort of locked down because I’m afraid of the outside world, and I directed most of the movie sitting here in my bedroom, so I haven’t really moved from my spot here, even with the movie’s success!
“We used very low-fi techniques, a lot of fishing wire…”
How hard was it to direct all the practical effects remotely?
I think we were really lucky because all of the cast, being friends, were totally game to keep trying until we got it right. I think the hours and commitment anyone put in is unmatched. If we were to film this in the conventional way with actors I didn’t know, I don’t think they would have put up with me! We used very low-fi techniques, a lot of fishing wire, that if done right can pay off really big. The bit where the cupboard explodes in Haley’s flat is just a lot of fishing wire tied to a lot of different things. All that required was the patience of Haley to tie fishing wire to everything in her kitchen and do that four times.
What was the trickiest?
We did a lot of planning upfront and tested VFX, like the footsteps in the flour, and we were able to outsource so many of the gags that nothing really didn’t work as we planned it. We put a lot of prep time in. What was great that anyone with a Zoom account could help us out. So we had stunt performers who were all isolated together and could do amazing stunts and double for our actors, and we had pyrotechnic people who could blow shit up. It was really about outsourcing to experts rather than trying to do the complicated stuff ourselves and making it look shit. So there was a lot of stuff where a character is walking in their house and then there’s a sneaky transition and the stunt performer in their own house will be dressed as them performing a crazy stunt. I shot a chunk of it – my kitchen and hallway doubles for Emma’s, so it’s me dressed in bunny slippers throwing flour around. I didn’t want to ask Emma to douse her parents’ house in flour!
That must have been a whole other challenge for actors renting flats
My landlord hasn’t seen the movie yet… I’m dreading that! [Laughs] I’m still finding flour in everything.
How did you do the flour footsteps?
It’s super simple! Well, my VFX supervisor Steven Bray will give me a slap on the wrist for that. But I basically just filmed myself throwing the flour. Then I put the camera down, so we had a locked off shot and I took my shoes off and stood in the flour, went back to the camera and Steve was able to chop out the bit where I did the footsteps and make it all appear in real-time.
— Rob Savage (@DirRobSavage) August 7, 2020
What about the bench fall?
We did that like an old Hong Kong action movie. We weakened it – I say we, I was sitting in my flat – but the stunt team, Lucky 13 Action, got a saw and cut it in all the right places. But it also meant it was very precarious. We had four benches, the first night we tried, the first bench collapsed when it was being sawed. The second, literally a leaf fell down, and it collapsed. The next night, with a different stunt performer and a whole different rig, we got both benches. But if it had fallen over again, we would’ve had to cut it from the movie.
Will you be releasing a full making-of at some point?
Yes, we’ve got something up our sleeve!
“If I’m trying to think of something that’ll creep me out, I go to the movies that creep me out”
The film’s stuffed with Easter Eggs – how many of those were planned from the start?
A lot of it, you know, there are some scares that are unique to this movie, but a lot of them are just us nicking them from other movies. The sheet scare was stolen from a great film called Satan’s Slaves and the camera flash is taken from Wait Until Dark. We had all these homages and a lot of them were just for fun. And, you know, if I’m trying to think of something that’ll creep me out, I go to the movies that creep me out.
The mask is particularly creepy…
When we were trying to think of what the mask would look like, we went through so many ideas and we looked at real Instagram filters but they all felt a bit on-the-nose. Then I was browsing through Shudder and saw Alice, Sweet Alice was on there, which is a slasher movie from the 1970s that I love. And it’s got this great, really scary mask they use in that, so we designed it off the back of that. There’s lots of that, just because we’re huge horror fans.
When writing, did you structure it around the stunts?
Absolutely. We worked backwards. We had the idea of the Zoom seance, that was what we sold the movie to Shudder on, and then it was a question of what was achievable and what were the moments where people would sit up and go: “How the fuck did they do that?” We wanted to have a few big moments and worked on the script from there, making sure we allocated each death to the right characters and teed it up in the right way. We worked on the foreshadowing – you can basically see how they die n the first five minutes of meeting them. Their lockdown experience informs their demise. We had a lot of fun with that!
“A lot of what you’re seeing is them reacting in real-time with shock”
The timeframe was crazily tight
It was also great writing and developing something knowing that it would get made, because you can spend so much time developing movies and not know whether they’ll get made and a great script that never gets put on screen. Knowing that at the end of the two-week writing period, we would be filming and two weeks after that we would have it shot and within 12 weeks of starting the whole thing, we wanted the movie to be out. It was great because you had to trust your gut. There weren’t rounds and rounds of notes, it was just fun and intuitive and super-collaborative – everyone felt comfortable to throw in ideas. I asked the cast what parts of their houses scared them when all the lights are off. We saw Caroline had a creepy attic, we saw Haley had a creepy hallway, we saw Teddy for some weird reason has a bunch of puppets on his wall…
How did you balance the filming of the group scenes and each individual’s story?
I kind of wanted to keep the prank approach from the original video, so we only gave the actors their own scenes and I ended up working with Douglas Cox, the producer, so we could film all the set pieces first. Then, when we went into the group stuff, which we shot chronologically, I was able to play them these scares and clips live so they could react in real-time to these things that they had no idea were coming. A lot of what you’re seeing is take one of them reacting in real-time with shock and horror.
Your editor is an absolute hero
Honestly, Brenna Rangott made the movie. She found it in the rushes. We recorded everything, the behind-the-scenes as well. Every day, she’d get 10 hours of footage – times seven, because you’ve got seven characters. It was really a case of her going through and being able to find those moments that felt intentional, so it didn’t feel like a patchwork quilt. A lot of time if you rely solely on improv, it feels like the scenes are directionless, but I had this beat sheet and did a lot of work with the actors beforehand on what each scene was about. It’s really down to Brenna that she found those concise moments. One of the things I’m most proud if that the movie feels tight.
One favourite moment is when Jemma goes to Haley’s house – that idea of wanting to connect during lockdown…
That’s Haley’s partner playing Jemma. But yeah, they do actually live five minutes down the road from each other, so Jemma was able to come to Haley’s place – we did a deep clean on the apartment and Haley stayed in another room throughout.
That’s an entirely different type of lockdown filming challenge
That’s all down to Douglas, who kept on top of these things and made sure everyone was safe. We were able to get a couple of moments when the stunt co-ordinators would need to be there to oversee, and we found ways to get the actors to have their partners rig up the stunt suits under the supervision of the stunt co-ordinators. So there was no physical contact and hazmat suits. It was a very surreal experience!
“I was worried I was becoming a filmmaker who sits around and waits… it’s been really invigorating.”
What’s going on with a possible sequel?
We’ve got something we’re really excited about. It’s not the sequel people will be expecting. It’s a spiritual sequel. It takes place in the same world, with the same style, it’s found footage. What can I say? If Host is about the paranoia and claustrophobia of lockdown, this new movie is about the fear of opening up an unsafe world and going back out into the world while it’s still unsafe. It’s not a go yet, but we’re hoping, if people keep talking about Host, it will happen sooner rather than later.
You and co-writer Jed Shepherd have collaborated together for a long time now
We’re bad influences on each other! We just throw ideas around and try to top each other. That’s the great thing about working with your friends, it’s collaborative and it feels like how you hoped making moves would feel.
On another scale, you also had a stint on Britannia’s second season – how was that?
That was a wild experience! Jez and Tom Butterworth who wrote the scripts are madmen and they throw these wild ideas at you day after day. There was such a level of trust as well – the producer on the show, James Richardson, from Vertigo Films, is the person who picked up Strings all those years back. I was basically just left alone to do my thing, which was great.
After Strings almost 10 years ago, this seems like your much-deserved breakout movie. How do you feel about it?
Who’d have thought it would be some stupid ghost movie made in lockdown?! It’s interesting. Last year, we sold a lot of movies – including the one with Sam Raimi that we announced recently – and it felt like there was real heat coming off Salt, the short film, and still from Dawn of the Deaf, so it felt like hopefully one of those would go soon, but you never know if you’re going to sit in development or what’s going to happen with those. It’s fitting the movie that’s hopefully going to prove to be a bit of a breakout was a spontaneous thing – that was my worry, after making Strings, where we just picked up a camera and went for it, I was worried after 10 years that I was becoming a filmmaker who sits around and waits. So I’m glad that this came about, because it’s been really invigorating.
You’ve been Zooming with Sam Raimi a lot – how’s that project going?
We’ve already got a script for that – it’s a great writer for that. I can’t say much about it, but I can say that we were working on this before Host and learning so much from him about making sure the audience is having the best possible experience. It’s amazing that we were able to funnel that into Host – especially the second half, which is essentially our Sam Raimi homage. That project is hopefully the thing we do next, presuming the world returns to some sense of normality.
Has Sam seen Host?
I don’t think he’s seen it, but he’s excited to see how well it’s doing. We’re chatting to him next week so I’m going to see – I hope it likes it, it’d be awkward if he doesn’t!
And finally, what have you been watching during lockdown?
I watched through the old BBC Christmas ghost stories set from the BFI. I’d seen The Signalman which is incredible, and I watched that again, then I dove into the rest of them. Especially the ones that Lawrence Gordon Clark, who directed The Signalman, he’s such a fantastic director. I love it when you see directors working on a TV budget and their creativity shines through the restrictions.
Host is available to stream online on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, or £49.99 yearly membership.