By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Premiering on Netflix this Friday, October 30, HIS HOUSE immediately takes its place among the year’s best horror films. Seamlessly and scarily combining supernatural and societal tensions, it follows Bol and Rial Majur (Sopé Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku, giving superb performances), South Sudanese refugees who are placed by the British government in a rundown London flat under harsh living restrictions. While dealing with being strangers in a strange, often inhospitable land, they must also contend with frightening, unearthly forces within their new home–spirits that seem born of their traumatic past.
HIS HOUSE is the feature directorial debut of writer/director Remi Weekes, a rising talent on the UK filmmaking scene. With this one film, he secures a place of prominence in the screen horror field, demonstrating an assured talent at making you deeply feel for his characters and their social plight, while scaring you just as deeply along the way.
How did this project first come to you, and how did the script change once you took it over?
Before this, I was doing commercials and shorts and whatnot, and the production company I was signed to shared offices with two producers. I would see those producers whenever I was in the office, and I always used to tell them I was interested in making feature films. They mentioned one day that they had a project; they wanted to make a horror film about the immigration process, but it wasn’t quite coming together at the time. So they asked me if I wanted to pitch my take on it, and I pitched them this very intimate story about a married couple and the psychological horror of them having to come to terms with surviving after surviving. They liked it, and we went from there.
Was any of the story drawn from personal experiences that you or anyone you know have had?
A lot of the scenes and ideas in the film were based on my reflections of growing up in London. I grew up in a very mixed and diverse community of many different cultures, and when you’re not originated from England, you often feel self-conscious and anxious that the culture you live in doesn’t fully want you there. I tried to mine those feelings and use them in the writing of the film.
Are any of the supernatural elements based on actual folklore?
Yeah, one of the fun parts of making HIS HOUSE was the culture clash between Western or British horror stories and tales of South Sudanese folklore. So what Rial talks about in the dinner sequence, the night witch, is based on an old Dinka legend. I really enjoyed melding those kinds of stories with more European ideas.
The merging of the occult themes with sociopolitical concerns is also brought off very well throughout the movie.
That was definitely a balance we had to develop through the writing, production and postproduction. We were always trying things out and trying to find the right balance of both moods and genres. And we ultimately settled into a place that felt right while I was watching it.
Your two leads are terrific; how did you find your cast?
Yeah, they’re awesome, aren’t they? It was a really serendipitous moment where we were auditioning for ages, and Wunmi isn’t living in the UK–she’s based in the U.S. now–but she just happened to be in town, and Sopé was on the stage but happened to have some time available to audition. We were able to get them both in at the same time, and that was the easiest decision I had to make on this film. When you saw them together, it was obvious that they were perfect.
What did they bring to their characters, and what did they contribute to the script?
They were both incredibly thoughtful and intelligent. Sopé is a very analytical person, so he really mines the material, tries to break it down to its core and work out and understand what his job is, in terms of the character he’s portraying and how to portray it. Wunmi is such an emotional person, she truly understands the best way to not just perform a scene, but guide an audience through a moment. The two of them together were truly exciting to watch day to day.
One of the most powerful parts of HIS HOUSE is the contrast between Bol, who’s determined to assimilate, and Rial, who increasingly wants to return home, even as they also struggle to stay together.
Like I was saying before, growing up in Britain, you often feel pulled in two directions. There’s one side of you that is eager to assimilate, to disappear, to become part of the culture and not draw attention to yourself. But then there’s also the other side of you that wants to own your history, your past, and be proud of your difference, and almost rebel against the norms of the culture. Those two sides are always at war with one another, and so I felt it would be interesting to see that dynamic play out in a married couple, and how these two polar opposites try to make sense of their situation.
When it came to the house itself, how much was an actual location and how much was done on sets? And how did you find that great location?
RW: We found it in a little community in the southeast of England, in Essex. We shot in a house there for a week or two, and then we recreated that, both floors, on a soundstage in southwest London, and shot the rest of the interiors there.
What were the challenges of filming on location?
When you shoot in an actual community, you have to be cognizant that you are essentially interrupting other people’s lives. So you have to be respectful and thoughtful about how you shoot things. For example, you shouldn’t really shoot night scenes when people are trying to live their lives in the estate, so we needed to do those on the soundstage. Luckily, we worked with a locations manager, Georgette Turner, who was amazing in her work with the community. She went and spoke to them, she spent time with them before and after the shoot, to make sure we were all in it together.
Can you talk about filming all the horrific scenes that take place in the house?
Shooting that stuff was fun, and also very technical; I see filmmaking as a craft, something that I try and train myself in. I spent most of my time before HIS HOUSE in commercials and art films and some fashion films, and I used that time to hone my craft and my abilities, and to study film and technique. When designing things like the horror beats, they were storyboarded and we really went through, as a team, what we were trying to achieve, how certain shots would be used to convey certain emotions. It was very important to me to build those moments up properly, to give the right kind of spooky effect.
I wanted to talk specifically about my two favorite scenes in the film, one of which is very realistic and the other of which is more surreal. The first is Rial trying to find the doctor’s office, getting lost and encountering the street kids. The tension in that is so well played out.
We shot that scene in the community. A lot of the extras were actual people from the neighborhood; we asked them to get involved, and they were awesome. We also built a lot of things like fake walls into the real location, to create a kind of mazelike structure throughout the sequence. An inspiration for that was Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING; I love the hedge-maze sequence. I thought this would be a fun kind of nod to that, to use such a cornerstone moment in horror filmmaking, but put it in a completely different environment–to make it about an African woman walking through suburban Britain, and finding the horror out of that, as opposed to the horror of an old hotel and its grounds.
Bol’s nightmare is equally striking; how was that put together?
Making my short films, something we always found important was understanding how to create interesting visual moments out of not very much. I think I developed as a filmmaker through a DIY ethos, so with a sequence like that, it was always about, how do we transition from a dinner scene to a dream, but in a way that doesn’t feel big and loud and showy, but more underplayed and subtle? So it was exciting for me to reveal Bol in the ocean with just one simple camera move, just a track out, the transition being almost invisible. We shot the kitchen scene on the set, and then we took the kitchen wall out and put it in a shallow pool of water on another soundstage, where we completed the sequence.
You had some great talent helping out with the horror material: PAN’S LABYRINTH Oscar winners David Martí and Montse Ribé on the makeup effects and Javier Botet ([REC], CRIMSON PEAK) as your lead creature performer.
The effects guys were amazing. They didn’t have much time and didn’t have much money, and they came up with brilliant stuff and worked so hard. It was very important that the creatures feel real and not too fancy, not too magical. I liked the idea of them being embryonic, like something having just been born. Those guys were a lot of fun on the days when they were putting everything together, and Javier is a really cool guy too. He has a lot of fun on set and really gets into it, so it was a great casting moment getting him involved to play the witch.