Earlier this month, we had the fortune of interviewing Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, screenwriters of Netflix’s new horror film His House, which is set for release on October 30. The shared tidbits about the process of making this film, the story behind it all, and more! Check out Part 1 of the interview below!
Kevin Andrew Murphy: Hi Felicity and Toby! Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by Avaaz Media about your new horror film, His House. As I understand, you’re the screenwriters. Is this an adaptation of a short story or novel of yours, or an original screenplay?
Toby Venables: It began as one idea among several that we pitched to a couple of producers called Ed King and Martin Gentles at Starchild Pictures. We’d known them for quite a while, and I had had a solo project commissioned by them before. They’re both really into horror – but a smarter kind of horror – so the pitch we sent was kind of a smorgasbord of horror ideas, but His House (then called The Welcome) was Felicity’s idea originally.
KAM: Great! What can you share about the initial pitch of The Welcome without giving too many spoilers? How much did the story change in writing and revision?
Felicity Evans: I’d had the idea a year or so earlier, at the time rather abstract. I’ve written a short Medium piece, Kevin, if you’d like me to attach a link at the end as it explains it all!
KAM: Yes, I’d love to see the piece if you could attach it!
FE: Kevin, the Medium piece FYI: The true events that inspired the new movie HIS HOUSE.
FE: But to reiterate for the purposes of this interview: I’d read about a house in rural Essex, England, that was supposedly so haunted the owner couldn’t live in, rent it out or even sell it. It was ‘prime real estate’ sitting there refusing to fit the mould of a society that values properties above homes, investments above somewhere to live, and build a life. It struck me that the people who might end up being housed in such a place – that defied all attempts to monetise it or gentrify it – would be the people we’re also told, as a society, to disapprove of: immigrants, more specifically in this case, refugees. A house with a troubled past, a family with a troubled past – those issues joining together and reverberating off each other, amplifying each other, was an irresistible idea from a story point of a view, an emotional point of view and a subtext/metaphor point of view.
TV: As we talked about this and how it should go, it went through several versions. At one point it was a period piece set in the 1970s and involving Ugandan Asians. We quite liked that whole period thing – partly, I think, because 1970s England just has something weird about it… But also, there had recently been a TV dramatization of The Enfield Poltergeist, which was really atmospheric and affecting. In the end, though, we felt it had to be contemporary. It had to be about the current issue. The metaphor was already there, in the horror plot – it didn’t need a further remove.
FE: And, of course, it’s not simply ‘troubled’, because that’s been done many times. It was wanting to express a subject we feel strongly about through the heightened medium of genre, to put that issue front and centre in terms (horror) you don’t usually see. We knew it would have an impact and be an original take on the issue.
KAM: It’s a very smart premise, especially since I’m used to people in haunted house stories being idiots who decide to stay when something is very wrong when they could just move — or occasionally trapped by certain death, like a raging storm or a blizzard — but this is the first time I’ve seen the people trapped by bureaucracy and the prospect of being sent back to a current war. Are you the first to use refugees in a haunted house or is there some other book or film I’m not aware of that used this before?
TV: If there is another one involving refugees, we don’t know about it!
FE: No, original as far as I know. It came totally out of my head and musings!
KAM: I’ve seen one period piece years back called Eyes of Fire that was about settlers/immigrants getting into a haunted/cursed valley in the French and Indian territory, so there are some similarities there, but that was back in the 80s and a historic piece.
FE: Combining real-life horror and supernatural horror can be very effective. Horror as metaphor is really powerful.
TV: One key thing did change between the pitch and the script: initially, for us, the issue was absolutely about Syrian refugees. They were the big story at the time. So, that meant it was a story about Muslims – which made the whole thing interesting in a variety of ways, because this kind of story is so often very ‘Christian’ in the way it works. Ghosts, demons, etc. – all these (in western cinema, anyway) are very Christian in their conception, so we did quite a bit of research to make this work in ways that made sense. The ethnicity of those characters shifted when Remi came on board, however. It made perfect sense to do that; he wanted (and, I think, needed) to bring it closer to a culture he was familiar with, and to make it a story that resonated for him personally. So, they became Sudanese, but the story itself – and the core struggles of the characters and their relationships – all remained intact.
KAM: From what I have seen from the trailer, His House is a ghost story about a refugee couple from Sudan who are given a large but dilapidated council house to stay in while their immigration status is worked on, with the stipulation that they must stay there or be deported. However, it appears the house is haunted and the couple are also dealing with flashbacks to the war in Sudan. There’s also some talk of a witch. Is this accurate and is there anything more you can tell without giving too many spoilers?
FE: In regard to the physical state of the house, I had done quite a bit of research about what refugees can expect when they are housed here, and spoke to some people who worked for refugee charities here in the UK. It’s really shocking, and anyone who thinks that refugees are coming here for an easy life is hugely mistaken. Not only are the houses very often incredibly unsanitary and neglected, there are many arbitrary rules that refugees don’t want to break because they are scared they’ll get sent home. Any complaints will also result in trouble for them, and of course, the government does all this at arm’s length through private security agencies, so they aren’t held directly accountable. This all compounds our characters’ terror – of an unknowable, unsympathetic system, and a house that’s incredibly unpleasant to begin with.
TV: With regard to what’s in the house… From the start it was a story about people coming with their own personal demons (not necessarily literal ones) and arriving in a place that had something bad in it, which wanted to exploit that vulnerability. That bad thing was ready to use whatever it could to break them down and break them apart. So there was always this balance between the interior, emotional baggage and this other exterior threat from the house itself. What it actually is, you’ll have to find out! Suffice to say, it’s not good, and it has plenty to work with in this couple. There is some deliberate ambiguity about what it is and even if it is real — by which I mean, whether it is a real entity, or whether it is in the mind. Of course, that’s a very old horror trope.
FE: It’s not just about the burdens these people are bringing with them, either, it’s about the burdens they encounter here in Britain – the suspicion and resentment from those they begin to live among who also have lives that are pretty crushed and troubled, too, in their own ways.
TV: For a long time it was very much about a lurking hatred for the ‘other’ – something from ages past that refused to go away. Something that kind of infected the bricks of the house and the soil itself. That became more subtle as it developed, but that element is still there. In essence, a metaphor for racism, which we saw growing in England at the time.
KAM: On to my next question: Your protagonists are a married couple and you’re a married couple yourself. How did this inform the writing? Did you write both characters together, take possession of the wife and husband respectively to write their lines, or gender swap and write that way?
FE: We’ve written together for a long time now, and actually have a very practical approach that I suspect unmarried writing teams have, too! In brief, we plot the story by brainstorming onto a whiteboard, type it up in detail, then divide up what’s called ‘the beat sheet’ into chunks to write the script. By then we are so familiar with the story and characters this is fine for us to do separately, at different times in different rooms, but always available for random questions when needed!
KAM: Remi Weekes, the director, also has a writing credit. Did he do a final pass on your script, or collaborate with you to write additional scenes to retailor the refugees from Syrian to Sudanese?
TV: There was a LOT of discussion before ever getting to the script stage. Having thrashed out various versions of the treatment with Ed and Martin, we then got into a room with Remi as well and developed it further. Lots of ideas and possibilities fly around. Some get woven in, some evolve as we discuss them, others get explored then rejected. There were far bleaker versions of the story, but also more uplifting ones. By this stage, they were completely Sudanese. That had actually happened through notes via email and Skype conversations before we even got in the room, but was smoothed out by that process and Remi bringing his own perspective to it. So, there was a lot of collaboration that led to a kind of definitive – by which I mean, universally agreed – treatment, from which we then wrote the first draft. At that point, Remi did his own pass on the script, stripping some of it down. His focus was much more on the visual side and matching the characters and situations to the images he had in his mind as director.
KAM: Where is His House set and where was it filmed? Were you able to watch any of the filming?
FE: It was filmed on location in Essex, in Tilbury, in a modern ex-council house (we had envisaged something a bit more gothic, an Edwardian villa or similar, but the modernity of this place actually contrasted really well with the subject matter). But Tilbury is a quite a deprived area, so it did fit in with the fact that refugees are housed in places that are already struggling with underfunding, deprivation etc. This was for exteriors and some interiors, then a facsimile of that interior was built at West London Studios, slightly bigger to facilitate action, and so various bits of damage could take place without upsetting the owner of the original house! The African scenes, I believe, were shot in Morocco.
FE: We did go on set – it’s quite a remarkable feeling to see something that was an idea in your head come to life in this way!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview!