When lockdown began, British director Rob Savage intended to make the best of his isolation — digging out classics by the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and all the rest. Ten minutes into the latter’s 1972 epic Solaris, though, Savage gave up and turned on Halloween 4.
“I wanted something that was a bit removed [from reality],” he tells Rolling Stone. “A fun roller-coaster that you can watch and forget about what’s going on for a bit.”
The urge is understandable; as months pass by in quarantine, sometimes we just want to watch something scarier than what’s outside our window — especially when, like Savage, you live in a metropolis like London whose denizens have forsaken masks and social distancing out of sheer boredom. A horror director by trade, though, it wasn’t long before Savage felt the need to bend his current reality into an even greater nightmare.
After playing a Zoom prank on friends in which he was attacked by an attic-dwelling zombie — which then went viral — the director teamed up with writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd to write a movie for the pandemic age. The result was Host, a Shudder original film in which a group of friends (Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward and Edward Linard) gather over Zoom to conduct a seance during quarantine. (All actors use their real names in the film.) Things go predictably awry, giving viewers a nightmare-inducing look at loneliness in the pandemic age — a time when most of our social interactions come courtesy of our laptop camera.
Since its July 30th premiere, Host has become a runaway hit, scoring a coveted 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and nabbing glowing reviews from even the most hardened of horror fans. Like found footage classics Paranormal Activity (2207) and Unfriended (2014) before it, Savage’s film melds technology, human foibles and the supernatual to stunning effect. It’s also one of the only horror movies that’s better on a laptop.
Rolling Stone spoke with the director — over Zoom, of course — about quarantine, demons and just how he managed to film an entire horror movie on a conference call app.
I heard the movie idea came from a prank you played on your friends. Can you elaborate?
Basically everyone in the movie and [the folks] behind the scenes were just the people that I was hanging out with anyway on Zoom when lockdown began. We were doing Netflix parties and Zoom Happy Hours and all that good stuff. Before lockdown started, I had just moved into this new apartment and I had genuinely been hearing weird noises coming from my attic — like footsteps above my bedroom. It was the one room that I hadn’t checked out. I figured, OK, I probably should check it out just in case it’s like an ax murderer living up there.
So I went up and [there] wasn’t an ax murderer living there, but it was like creepy as shit. It reminded me of the scene from this great Spanish found-footage movie, Rec, where somebody gets their face eaten off by a zombie in an attic. So I was like, “OK, maybe I can do something with this.”
I built this weird contraption out of cardboard that allowed me to basically prop my phone right in front of my laptop and fill my screen without anybody being able to see the transition. I got all my friends on a Zoom call, told them I was hearing noises in my attic, and that I needed them there for emotional support while I went up there. I sneakily started filming my screen and played them the scene from Rec when I got to the attic so, for a brief moment, they thought that a zombie kid had jumped out and into my face.
I cut it together, put it on Twitter and it ended up kind of blowing up. Lots of TV companies started calling and being like, “Is there a longer version of this?” My friend Jed Shepherd texted me two words: “Zoom seance.”
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
Why did you decide to work with Shudder on this one?
They were the only company that really got on board with how we wanted to make it — the fact that we wanted this to be out super quick for people in lockdown. All the other companies basically just wanted to copy and paste the normal structure of making a movie. It was never going to work that way. It was always going to have to be something where we figured out how it worked as we went along. Shudder let us find the movie as we went.
You didn’t have a script, right?
I think we had like a 17-page outline, just like a beat sheet. But we were shooting it chronologically. A lot of that was just figuring out what the movie was as we went along. The contract we made with Shudder — I tried to barter them down to as low a runtime as possible just in case we couldn’t get any decent footage, you know? They agreed that it could be anywhere between two hours and a half an hour.
We’d start filming, we’d try a gag where somebody was dragged across the room or cupboards would pop open or something like that. And it would work in these lo-fi ways. As soon as we saw something working, we go, “Oh fuck, maybe this next scene would be cool if we did that.” It ended up being a much bigger movie than we’d initially planned. And that’s the benefit of shooting it chronologically. We were kind of able to write it as we went along.
How did you physically film the movie — in terms of social distancing and all that?
We started filming at the point where the U.K. was starting to open up, but 90% of it was just the actors basically being one-person productions. At the very beginning of the process, we made a big list of cool people that we knew who were in lockdown or furloughed who could probably help us out. One of the people we knew lived in this house with a bunch of stunt performers, a stunt coordinator and a stunt rigger — basically everyone you need to safely and legally do a whole number of crazy stunts. We sent those guys costumes so they could double all of the different actors. Then we found different aspects of their house that looked similar to the characters’. There’s a lot of trick edits where someone will turn a corner and suddenly she’ll be played by a stunt performer in their house.
In the film, the friends end up conjuring a demon when the Jemma character pretends to talk to a dead friend of hers as a joke. Why did you decide to use a demon and not a ghost?
I kind of wanted to subvert people’s expectations a little bit, because I think on paper, [the movie] sounds like a really shit idea. A Paranormal Activity ripoff where, you know, maybe a door moves a couple of inches — and that’s the scare. I thought people would probably have quite low expectations about what we could pull off. So I wanted almost like the first two thirds to feel like Paranormal Activity. It’s more about slow-building dread and these little scares where the demon is invisible.
Then, in the final third, I wanted to show that the thing is getting more powerful. This thing has a face now. I wanted to make the audience feel like they don’t quite have a roadmap for where that last 20 minutes is going. You kind of give the audience a frame for how to watch your movie. So it was kind of about getting people to lean in and look for little details and then throwing a demon in their face.
Our demon, James Swanson, plays a lot of demons. He has just a great physicality to him; he’s basically a contortionist. He was isolating with his mum in the middle of Devonshire or something like that. And so we basically had to find bits of his house that looked like other characters’ houses so I could do kind of trick edits to make it seem like he was in the same space with them. His mum filmed him on a mobile phone. If you watch the behind the scenes, he’s the loveliest, most polite man; he’s totally not demonic. Just hearing his mum directing behind the camera — it’s very cute.
Had any of you done seances before this?
I’ve done a ton of seances. I joined a spiritualist church for like six months [as horror movie research]. We actually hired a real medium to come on Zoom and do a seance with all of the actors, and a lot of stuff that happened in the first half of the movie actually happened in the seance. Like the medium who was on our original Zoom call, her internet cut out and we had to call her up. She had to tell us how to shut down the seance, which I’m sure we ballsed up. It’s probably still open, sorry. The ghosts can probably get to you now.
The actress Seylan Baxter, who played the medium, wasn’t a real medium, was she?
We did actually pretend to the cast that she was a real medium just to really freak them out. I said to all the actors, “We’re saying these words, we’re lighting candles. We’re calling out the spirits in essence, we are basically staging a seance every day and making this movie. So I thought it’d be better if we had a real medium here just to keep things safe in case anything goes south.”
Literally, at the end of every day, we’d pretend to shut the seance down so everyone could sleep at night. Later on, when all the shit starts going down, I stopped bringing the actress in to shut it down. I just said we couldn’t get in touch with her. So the cast got really freaked out. It was a little mean in retrospect, but it worked a treat.
This is technically the first horror movie made and released in quarantine. Why did you decide to focus on a haunted house trope rather than the virus?
We just felt that it was a bit icky [to focus on the virus]. We were very adamant that it was not a pandemic movie. It was a lockdown movie. It was more about isolation. We wanted to play on was this idea that video conferencing gives you the impression that you’re with people, but actually you get these stark reminders that you’re not, that you never are. You’re very separate. And you’re very isolated. When the characters start to see their friends in trouble, they’re basically just passengers along for the ride and having to watch at a distance. That was more the thing we were interested in.