Mum & Dad: Interview with Writer/Director Steven Sheil
By: Craig Villinger on August 10, 2009  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
MUM & DAD, a shocking portrait of a bizarre British family, focuses on Lena (Olga Fedori), a young Polish immigrant working as a janitor at Heathrow Airport. One evening, after missing her bus, Lena is invited home by Birdie (Ainsley Howard), a friendly co-worker, who lives nearby. Not long after arriving at a strange house Lena is drugged, and awakens to find herself imprisoned - trapped in a nightmarish world of torture and abuse, all dished out by "Mum" and "Dad" (Dido Miles and Perry Benson) - two psychotic overlords who want Lena to become a part of the "Family". If lena behaves she'll be Mum's favourite girl - if she misbehaves she'll have to face Dad's wrath...

Digital Retribution caught up with MUM & DAD's writer/director Steven Sheil, who was recently in Australia to present his debut feature as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, to talk about demented families, controversy, and making a nasty shocker on a tight budget.

Digital Retribution: "Mum & Dad" is a quaint title for what is a fairly gruelling horror pic. Were you hoping to take a few viewers by surprise?

Steven Sheil: I guess I liked the idea of having a horror film that didn't have a horror film title, yeah. The initial idea for the title came from a book I was reading about exploitation cinema, which mentioned an American film of the 1940s called 'Mom and Dad', which was a film about a teenage pregnancy, and which featured, unheard of for the time, footage of a live birth. It wasn't a horror film at all, but seeing it in this book alongside loads of other horror and exploitation films gave me the idea that a film with that title could be a horror - I really liked the idea that a film with such a supposedly benign title could be something quite provocative. The other element that fed into it was the famous poem by the English poet Philip Larkin, which begins "They fuck you up, your mum and dad, they don't mean to but they do". The idea of having a film called 'Mum & Dad' and trailing it with the line "They fuck you up" (which is a quote that a lot of people, especially in the UK, are familiar with) seemed like quite an exploitation-film thing to do - plus I liked the idea of having a tag-line that was simultaneously quite highbrow, but also really blunt.

DR: In low budget cinema we often see first time filmmakers telling personal stories about their upbringing. There's nothing autobiographical about MUM & DAD I hope...

SS: Actually, I'm under strict orders from my Mum to make sure that people know that I was brought up in a very caring and loving environment. There's nothing directly autobiographical in the film in terms of the action, but the setting and a lot of the details of the story have a lot of resonance for me because I grew up next to Heathrow airport and it's where my parents still live. They both worked at the airport - it's true that it's pretty much all you can do around there - so I guess there was some influence in terms of me knowing what jobs people would be doing, but there's nothing in there that has any relation to what it was like for me growing up.

DR: It's becoming a clichéd description, but MUM & DAD really reminded me of the sort of exploitation movies that were being made in the 70s...

SS: Seventies exploitation films had a definite influence on the film - it was a conscious decision to try and make something that had the feel of something from the 70s or early 80s video nasty era, something that didn't feel glossy or polite - I wanted the film to have a real feeling of wrongness about it. Specific influences would be the films of Pete Walker - Frightmare, House of Whipcord etc, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jack Hill's Spider Baby, a film by Freddie Francis called Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girlie - all of which are films about fucked-up families. I tried not to rip them off too directly - although there is at least one accidental TCM 'homage' in the film - but to try and have them feed into the tone and atmosphere of the film. I wanted the film to be disturbing and blackly comic, making the audience unsettled and unsure whether to laugh or wince at the perversity on show. I guess that was one of the key ideas behind the film - less politeness, more perversity.

DR: Normally these demented cinematic families are kept wall away from the general population, in the mountains, or on an isolated backwoods farm, but Mum and Dad were carrying out their deeds right under our noses, and were even interacting with society on a daily basis...

SS: The airport setting came from my background, growing up about a mile from Heathrow. When I was planning the film, I knew I wanted to set it in London and that area is the area I know best. It's also one of the parts of London that doesn't get shown on screen too much - it's all roads and airport hotels and industrial estates and these small villages in between which pre-date the airport but which have subsequently been swamped by it. There was something about the location that really appealed to me as a setting for this type of film - like you say, normally these types of demented families in films are shown to be in the backwoods, but I wanted to place them more in the heart of things. There was something about the irony of someone being held prisoner in a place that was surrounded by roads and symbols of escapism - the relentless planes overhead - that I liked. Also, I guess it really emphasises the 'normalness' of the family to have them hold down jobs and interact a little bit with the outside world - I guess it implies that the veneer of normalcy can actually be quite thin.

DR: You were clearly working on a tight budget. Did the production run smoothly?

SS: The production was pretty smooth, really, considering the budget. I had a great producer, Lisa Trnovski, and we both worked really hard to make sure that what we wanted to achieve with the film was going to be within our means. We also had great heads of department - Jonathan Bloom, the DOP, Jess Alexander the Production Designer and Claire Finlay the costume designer all worked miracles with tiny, tiny budgets and their efforts gave us a look for the film that I think is way beyond what you might normally expect on a microbudget. I guess there were a few hairy moments in the scheme of things - we were only scheduled for an 18 day shoot, but then we lost a day early on due to Olga, who plays Lena, getting ill. There wasn't really the option to easily reschedule another day - all of the crew were working for reduced wages, so we were asking a lot of them already - so we just had to pick it up during the shoot. One of the knock-on effects of this was that we lost a location the day before we were due to shoot in it, so had to find and dress another one overnight, which caused Jess no end of headaches. The thing is though, going into it we decided that we couldn't ever moan about the restrictions of the budget because we knew the situation from the start, so we just had to get on and adapt. It was a good experience, like a real film-making boot camp.

DR: Did working with a low budget hamper your efforts at times in any areas, or is necessity really the mother of invention?

SS: Again, we knew the budget from the outset- even whilst writing the script, so I tried to be realistic about what we could achieve in terms of SFX, while still delivering enough blood and gore for the film to work as a horror. Some things were pretty cheap - the tooth scene for example - but are effective because they trigger a big disgust-impulse in a certain section of the audience. I'd say that for us, it was a case of necessity being the mother of invention - without an endless budget for prosthetics and CGI, we had to be more inventive about where the horror might come from.

DR: One of the things that made MUM & DAD work so well for me were the performances. So often low budget genre movies are hampered by poor performances, but everyone was in top form here. How did you manage to put together such a talented cast?

SS: Because of the microbudget nature of the film and the fact that it would be quite contained, I put a lot of work into the script and trying to create strong characters. I like working with actors and thought that if we cast people who really 'got' the film, then it would have a good chance of working. We worked with a casting director to find all of the cast - the only one who I had in mind before we started was Perry, who plays Dad. He was recommended to me by a couple of filmmaker friends from Nottingham, so he was high on my list. For everyone else, we just discovered them through the casting process. I really tried to look for people who who go with the tone of the film, and not flinch (too much) at the demands of the script. I also wanted to try and get people who would play the parts with a certain sense of emotional realism - I didn't want typical 'horror film monster' performances, there always had to be a sense of the relationships in there.

DR: MUM & DAD is a confronting, and at times disturbing movie. Considering Britain's censorship history – particularly the famed "video nasties" era - were you ever concerned that the movie might incur the wrath of the BBFC?

SS: To be honest, I always thought we would be okay. Although there's a lot of strong themes in the film - murder, torture, abuse, incest -a lot of it is implied. There's graphic stuff in there, but a lot of the horror comes from the tone and the atmosphere of the film, and those elements are quite hard to censor. The BBFC watched the film three times I think, before passing it uncut, which was a relief, because I don't think we had the money to be able to re-edit it.

DR: The BBFC didn't appear to have any problems with MUM & DAD but some of Britain's tabloid newspapers expressed their outrage, and one politician (Tory MP Nigel Evans) even said it was a "sick film". Did this reaction come as a surprise?

SS: No, not really. I kind of expected it, to be honest. The film came out at the height of the recent BBC-bashing by the right-wing press in the UK, and because there's a BBC logo on our film - BBC films was one of the funders behind the initial scheme - it was a bit of a sitting duck. What I found really objectionable about one of the articles was that they made a big deal about the film being 'based on' the story of serial killers Fred and Rose West - which it isn't - and then phoned up the brother of one of their victims to ask him what he thought about a film exploiting the circumstances of his sister's murder. That seemed much more insensitive than anything I did. I don't think any of the press harmed the film though - I'd have been more disappointed to get a good review from the Daily Mail.

DR: Let's just suppose for a minute that in some sort of parallel universe MUM & DAD inspired a whole new wave of video nasty style censorship hysteria in the UK. Would you secretly be proud of the notoriety?

SS: I think notoriety is fine and I have no problem with making a film that courts it to some extent - like I said, the film came from a background of exploitation film influences, so there's always an element of old-school hucksterism in there, but I'm not sure that I'd like it if we had any more censorship in the UK - we're having enough civil liberties eroded as it is.

DR: Speaking of controversy, the movie also set something of a precedent by being released in cinemas and on DVD in the UK simultaneously. I understand this ruffled a few feathers?

SS: There were some people who were unhappy about it, particularly the UK Cinema Exhibitor's Association, who weren't pleased about the idea of closing the window between theatrical and DVD releases. I can see their point in a way - but the idea isn't to draw people away from the cinema, it's more about adapting a release strategy for the film to an ever-developing audience who are used to seeing things on demand. With a film like Mum & Dad, which is a low-budget exploitation-style horror film with no real stars and no name director, there was only ever going to be a limited cinema release and we didn't want the audience for the film to be reading about something that most of them wouldn't be able to see for months. So Revolver, the distributor of the film in the UK, decided to try this day and date strategy. I don't think it's going to be the norm for most big-budget Hollywood movies, but I'm sure you'll see it happening more and more for smaller films.

DR: Moving away from the UK, those of us in Melbourne got our first chance to see MUM & DAD recently when it played at the Melbourne International Film Festival. When you first sat down to write the movie did you ever think you'd be presenting it at international film festivals alongside guests like Quentin Tarantino?

SS: When I first sat down to write the film, I had no ambitions beyond actually getting the film made. I know how hard it is to get a film finished and sold and for it to get any kind of audience, so I'm massively grateful that the film has had the life it's had. We've played close on twenty international festivals so far, with screenings across Europe, in the US and of course in Australia, and to get a release in the UK, the US and now over there is terrific. I've travelled a lot with the film, including coming to Melbourne, and it's been great to see how the film goes down with different audiences and to meet people who are interested in the film.

DR: Considering the similarities to movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could you see MUM & DAD becoming a franchise, and perhaps even inspiring a Hollywood remake?

SS: Me and my producer have, when we've both been drunk, talked about the idea of doing a sequel to Mum & Dad based around the Birdie character from the film. It would be called 'Little Sister' and would see her get put into a children's home where she wreaks havoc. I'd love to see a Hollywood remake of Mum & Dad, if only to see who they'd cast. I'd go for Luiz Guzman and Jennifer Tilly I think...

DR: MUM & DAD is often referred to as a "Torture Porn" movie. What do you think of that particular phrase?

SS: I'd never heard it before until a journalist for the Times asked me about it when he came to visit the set of the film. I certainly didn't set out to make a torture porn film, but it seems to get tagged with that label quite a lot. I don't know what to think about the phrase - I think it's pretty meaningless really. I think there are films that treat torture and murder in a pretty pornographic way, but I don't' think that there's that many of them out there, and probably not the ones that get labeled with that tag. It's like some people have only just realised that horror films often contain scenes of people being brutally maimed. Christ, where have you been...? I guess one interesting thing about the torture porn tag is that although it is often used to dismiss horror as being unworthy of serious attention - "it's just torture porn" - it's probably also had a side-effect of making certain films feel more dangerous and edgy, the same way the phrase 'video nasty' did in the 80s. And that's maybe not a bad thing.

DR: And finally, now that MUM & DAD is finished what's next for you?

SS: I'm writing another horror film called 'Everything Dies', plus a kind of sci-fi noir film called 'The Beneath'. There's a few other projects on the boil as well, I just need to find the time to write them.

Mum & Dad will be released on DVD in Australia through Anchor Bay in November.

Official site - www.mumanddadthemovie.com

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