I’d like to think that my debut feature, Caveat, taps into a lot of fears.
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Lone drifter Isaac (Jonathan French) accepts a job to look after his landlord’s niece, Olga (Leila Sykes), for a few days in an isolated house on a remote island. It seems like easy money. But there’s a catch: he must wear a leather harness and chain that restricts his movements to certain rooms. Once Olga’s uncle, Barrett (Ben Caplan) leaves the two of them alone, a game of cat and mouse ensues as Olga displays increasingly erratic behavior as a trapped Isaac makes a series of horrific discoveries in the house.
First, the film explores the inability to trust other people. The three main characters in Caveat are all completely unreliable narrators. Isaac—our protagonist, played by Jonathan French—agrees to look after a woman named Olga (Leila Sykes) for five days. Barret (Ben Caplan), the guy who convinces Isaac to take this job, tells him, “I need you to go to Olga’s house and look after her…” But everything he says is a lie. The house turns out to be on an island, and only when they get there does he add, “Well, you’re actually gonna have to wear a leather harness and a chain…” You can’t trust him at all!
Throughout the film, Olga hunts Isaac around this abandoned house. Olga has some serious psychological issues and has clearly lived through a lot of trauma in the house. Her only human contact is with Barret—a liar—so she’s not all that reliable, either. And then, of course, there’s our protagonist… he suffers from partial memory loss. Between these three characters, things are confusing for the audience: “Well, where do I stand?”
Aside from the physical threat of being hunted, Isaac faces other threats that are psychological, or perhaps even supernatural. In one scene, he sees a toy bunny pounding a drum as if it has a life of its own. But since he’s alone in the house, there’s nobody to turn to and ask, “Do you see this, too? Is this really happening?” He may be losing his mind, but has to work through these fears on his own, and I find that quite frightening.
People are the Priority—Not the Plot
So far, I haven’t heard much from people about being unable to follow the plot. There have been a few times where someone might say, “I’m not sure why this character did this…” But that doesn’t bother me because I don’t think it matters.
I’ve seen Memento—an amazing film about an unreliable narrator—so many times, and there are still parts where I’m not entirely sure what’s happening or why. But I don’t care, because the film is entertaining, Guy Pearce is brilliant, and I like following his character around. The film holds together without you knowing every little detail.
All that really mattered to me is that the character of Isaac would be likable. All an audience member needs to know in terms of plot is, “Once Isaac gets to the island, do I want him to get out of there?” Isaac has so many opportunities in the film to save himself with violence, but he doesn’t take them because that’s not true to his character. Jonathan is a nice guy in real life and his character is a pacifist—that’s what makes him sympathetic.
Playing Horror Straight
While directing Jonathan, the main thing I told him was to play the horror straight. When dialogue is driving the plot, I told him to play it with a little bit of distrust: “Don’t believe what you’re being told, here.” When we got to the more absurd stuff—like the scene with the drumming bunny—I told him, again, to just play it completely straight.
Playing it straight as these absurd things are happening can make horror quite funny! There’s a frightening scene toward the end of Caveat where Isaac is trapped in this tiny space with this dead woman’s corpse. She looks horrifying, and you’re unsure: Is she moving? Scenes like that make me laugh because I can see that Jonathan—the person, not his character—looks so worried. What he’s doing with his face and his eyes… that’s all him!
No Scares Without Sound
So much of horror is in the sound design.If you’re if you’re watching a horror film and it starts to scare you, don’t cover your eyes—just turn off the sound. Then it’s no longer scary. I don’t think anybody notices sound design consciously, but it’s there and it adds to the viewer’s experience subconsciously.
One of my favorite films with some of the best sound design is Hideo Nakata’s Ringu. The sound design of that film is just weird—it’s out there, and there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t match what’s on screen. The Shining does a lot of that as well. The score doesn’t always match with what you’re what you’re watching—or, nothing is happening at all, and suddenly there’s this random, strange noise that puts you on edge. Those films were definite influences for Caveat. A film like Evil Dead II, on the other hand, has over-the-top sound design that’s almost comedic, but it absolutely works. I thought of that as I made Caveat as well—whether it’s the drumming bunny scene or the sting of a jump scare. These are classic (and maybe even cheap) tricks, but they work for a reason. They keep the film alive.
All of the short films I’ve made have no dialogue in them, so they completely relied on sound design. That gave me good training for when I made Caveat. When it came to all of the horror sound tropes in the film—creaking stairs, a spooky door opening up, howling and whistling wind—I spent about a year and a half sitting down and going through sounds I recorded to incorporate them in.
For me, sound starts with storyboarding. I storyboard everything, so I might say, “This scene is going to be scary because we’re going to hear this here,” or, “When he steps here, we’re going to hear this…” I like that old Robert Bresson quote: “A film is born three times—first in the writing of the script, once again in the shooting, and finally in the editing.” So, by the time you get into the edit and look at what you have, you’ll find that some ideas you had for sound design no longer work. That’s something you have to be aware of the whole way through.
Scouting (and Sneaking Into) Creepy Houses
In West Cork, Ireland, where I’m from, there are a lot of abandoned houses. These are houses that people would have walked out of in the 1960s when they left to immigrate to the States. What was left of their breakfast plates, and even the calendars on the wall, are still there in some houses.
To scout for our abandoned house location, I climbed into every window and snuck into every house that I could find in the area. The houses are very creepy, and a lot of inspiration for the kind of decay you see in Caveat came from being inside them and photographing them.
One house there is like a tourist attraction—a big, beautiful, stately old home called Bantry House. We couldn’t film there because it’s so well-kept, with all these antique paintings. But at the back of this house, there are smaller buildings with dilapidated rooms that fell into disrepair, so we were able to shoot in some of those rooms.
Still, for the majority of the film—about 70% of what’s on screen—we built a set in a big, open warehouse at the back of the back of Bantry House. I used what little experience I had building sets for short films, and once we got the flattop made, it was quite easy to make the wallpaper look old and decayed.
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Our production designer had experience on larger budget films and used these tricks to dirty everything down. Even if we bought something new for the film—wallpaper or floorboards—we would age them to make the set look like a truly abandoned house. Where we could, we’d raid a landfill to find old timber, rotting wood, or any rusty pipe we could sneak into the production design. There’s nothing shiny and new in this film. That really helped to sell the idea that the house is falling apart… like the people in it.
Cater to More Than One Type of Horror Viewer
I get disappointed when I see a horror film that leaves things so ambiguous that you say, “Well, I guess it was all in the character’s head, because you never see anything…”
With Caveat, I tried to have enough in the film that suggests that what’s happening could be in our protagonist’s head. But I had to show something as well. I think the last 15 minutes of the film do that quite well: There are images in those last 15 minutes that are definitely unsettling, but they still raise the question of whether or not there’s anything happening to the character.
If there’s somebody watching your film who has no imagination and they need to see something to be scared, you have to have to play to them. But you also need to cater to those people whose imaginations are going to be scarier than anything you could come up with as a filmmaker. Horror filmmaking is about trying to find that balance.
—As told to Max Weinstein
Caveat is now available to stream on Shudder.