Brothers Fionn and Toby Watts produced and directed the supernatural chiller Playhouse, which premiered at London’s Frightfest in August. The film is now available on DVD and Digital in the US and Canada from Devilworks.
The film centers around a notorious horror writer, who moves into an ancient castle with his teenage daughter, to work on his next play; only to face terrifying consequences when his daughter falls prey to a Supernatural evil lurking within the castle walls.
Playhouse stars William Holstead (Shudder Original Christmas Presence), Grace Courtney, James Rottger (BBCs The Break), and Helen Mackay (BBC’s The Miracle Maker).
Dread Central was lucky enough to snag an exclusive sit-down with the Watts brothers! Give our conversation a read below.
Dread Central: Is it fair to say the film isn’t strictly a horror movie?
Fionn and Toby Watts: Yeah that’s fair to say. We’ve always seen it more as a supernatural thriller with moments of horror. In the end, though, we pushed some of the jump scares and horror make up and special FX more than we planned, which is interesting, but it was always our aim to create an atmospheric, brooding suspense thriller that was built more around actors’ performances and the power of suggestion than shock and gore, for example. As we were shooting, and even in the edit, we saw some opportunities to heighten things and create more of the horror that certain fans might expect to see, so we were excited to do that and see how it came out. But ultimately, as our thinking developed during the development of the story, we realised that the film that we wanted to make – the film that we would love to watch ourselves – was a kind of hybrid supernatural thriller/horror that is chilling and tense for the classic thriller fans and yet has some frightening and shocking moments for the horror fans. Needless to say, we’re delighted with the final result we have in Playhouse.
DC: How much did the classic supernatural suspense thrillers of the ‘70s and ‘80s influence the script?
F&TW: A lot! That period of cinema was hugely influential for us in terms of story and the execution. Broadly, 70s and 80s horror and thriller films like Rosemary’s Baby (late 60s), The Shining, The Omen, Don’t Look Now and even the sleaze and noir films of the 80s like Fatal Attraction and Blue Velvet, were films we were drawing on. We love the thrilling adventure of these films, and the plot twists and turns that often lead to a dark and debauched, or ironic climax. The story of Playhouse and the location we filmed at suggested a gothic aesthetic to us and that became important too, so earlier film adaptations of Nosferatu, Dracula and Frankenstein all became inspirations. Our central character, Jack, had a real Dracula feel to him, being somewhat nocturnal and having a thirst for people’s fear, and his twin personality of father vs horror showman are a kind of contemporary vision of Frankenstein.
DC: I believe the germ of the idea actually started with a grandiose parent… and you went from there?
F&TW: Haha, you could say that, yeah! Our dad is a writer who has always had grandiose schemes and plans in every direction, including renovating an old castle and inviting lots of artists from around the world to hang out there. Add to this the fact that our mum is an actress and is always full of great stories and doing impressions for us. We had a lot to draw on when we were developing this idea of a playwright acting out cursed history in a haunted castle!
DC: But you didn’t know whether you wanted it to be a genre film, comedy or drama – right?
F&TW: Years ago before we landed on the idea for Playhouse, we were looking at all kinds of different films set in that particular location. We wrote treatments for sci-fi, drama and comedy films, all set there. But something never quite clicked with these genres. We liked the ideas but we knew at some level we couldn’t make sense out of the location for these stories, and we thought that audiences would be confused as to why the film was set in this half-renovated half-dilapidated tower house by the sea. We sat down and took the best ingredient out of all these ideas – namely, a strained father-daughter relationship – and then we started exploring why this duo might live there and what might happen to them. At some point, we realized the story we were telling was in the thriller/horror genre and we knew exactly where to go with it.
DC: You both co-wrote and co-directed. How difficult was that to pull off?
F&TW: It actually felt pretty natural for us and we can’t remember ever even discussing how we were going to break up the work — we just have this fluid process as brothers. We’ve been making films together since our early teens and we’ve evolved a way of working and communicating together that makes sense for us. In fact, developing the story for Playhouse was really just the logical conclusion to what we sit around doing most of the time anyway: ranting about our favorite movies! In terms of the writing, as any writer will admit, most of the writing is “thinking’ time”. And having the two heads rather than one really helps with this. It’s a really quick way around writers’ block. Directing together was great, and we just found a natural rhythm to it all. But this could change depending on how strongly we felt about being hands-on in a particular scene.
DC: What do you believe are each other’s strengths?
FW: Toby has a degree in Biological Natural Sciences, and so has a good range of left-brained skills with numbers and technical detail. He can focus on intricate problems for a long time and so is a very good problem solver and never gets flustered. He has the cool-headed rationality of a scientist!
TW: Fionn, on the other hand, has an arts background and has always been much more of an abstract thinker. He definitely brings a fresh and original perspective into everything, as well as a strong passion and energy that you need as a filmmaker to persist, particularly when it comes to producing. Anyone who has been around Fionn for long will know that this passion and intensity is infectious, so he’s a great motivator and the kind of person people want to gather around and take an interest in.
F&TW: Together, we like to think we make a well rounded kind of obsessive “Terminator” filmmaker: we can’t be reasoned with, we can’t be bargained with, and we absolutely will not stop until we’ve made that film and everyone is dead! (In the film, at least…)
DC: How easy is it to write scares?
F&TW: Not easy at all. What can seem scary on the page isn’t necessarily so when you turn the camera on and frame up the shot or rehearse the scene. You have to have a strong vision when you write so you can see why a moment might be scary. Jump scares are the easiest in a way, and are a lot about execution. But the timing of a jump scare within a film is key to making it the most impactful – is it occurring at a moment when it’s not expected and yet when audiences are on edge, ready to burst? You have to place scares carefully lest they fall flat, even though they might work well somewhere else in the film. It’s a lot about what you write around the scares, and how identified with a character an audience is so that they really feel it. It’s also easy to fall into cliche, so this is something you have to think about: how to give audiences what they want but in an unexpected and fresh way.
DC: Sound is pretty important, too, to a genre film. Can you talk about the ways you use it here?
F&TW: Sound is key, absolutely. We wanted the castle location to feel alive, like it had its own breath and spirit coming alive as the film progresses. Our sound designer worked really hard to use the natural foley of the sea outside the castle, and the wind rattling around the corridors, to create a soundscape for the castle as a character. So whenever a human character in the film interacted with the castle itself, these sounds would emerge and intensify, and then when we needed a breather from the dread and suspense they would die down. Similarly, when characters argued or became afraid, again, they would intensify, and as characters visited the older, scarier parts of the castle at the top and bottom of the building, these breaths and groans would emerge. The sounds you get around an old building by the sea are unique to the location, and we were committed to making sure these were worked into the emotional states that the film required at any given moment.
DC: The lighting is a real star of the film. Who can we credit that to?
F&TW: Our director of photography, Andy Toovey, and his gaffer, Sam Olly, did a cracking job. We were blown away by what they managed to achieve even on such a tight shoot. We gave them a lot of room to create the feeling we wanted. We’re not the kind of directors who say, “I want a light there and I want this filter and that f-stop” and so on. We’re all about bringing in passionate and talented crew who know their stuff, and using language they can interpret how they want. For example, we might say, “There’s an oppressiveness in this scene, and this character is the most important. We need to feel this character’s anxiety”, and off they’d go to light the scene. We owe so much to Andy and Sam’s work together because so many of our reviews for the film have mentioned the quality of the cinematography and the lighting – deservedly so – and we feel we achieved a quality and an aesthetic for Playhouse that sits well alongside so many classic thrillers and horrors that we love, which is just what we wanted.
DC: Tell us about the film’s screening at Frightfest – I imagine that opened a lot of doors?
F&TW: Getting selected for FrightFest was great for us. The first thing it did was help us secure a sales agent. These are busy people and being able to tell different sales agents we were in FrightFest definitely added value to the film and encouraged them to take the film seriously and make offers to us. Beyond that, the FrightFest label has real value with fans and bloggers and reviewers, so we know that our film is getting more exposure and attention than we could have got otherwise. VOD platforms can also use the laurels on the artwork to help make the film stand out, so again, FrightFest will continue to open doors going forward as the film is released. The screening at FrightFest itself was a lot fun, but pretty nerve-wracking. We were both really on edge because until then only a few people in the world had seen the film. It felt like we were exposing ourselves and years of our lives to people with no idea of how it would go down! It was a great festival with a broad range of movies, and the organizers are so, so supportive of debut filmmakers like us. Having the First Blood label from the Horror Channel was awesome too, and we felt really valued by them as well. Cheers FrightFest!
Have you seen Playhouse? What do you think of our exclusive interview with Fionn and Toby Watts? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram! You can also carry on the convo with me personally on Twitter @josh_millican.