A Malady in the Bones: An Interview With Jack James
In 2017, I wrote that Jack James’ debut feature, Malady, was one of the best horror films of the year. Revisiting the movie for this interview, I can definitely say that my opinion on the matter hasn’t changed. For my money, Malady should be a household name in the horror world (and you should definitely check it out on Amazon Prime as soon as you get a chance). James’ second feature, Wild Bones, will be released sometime around April, shortly after finishing up its festival run. Both films are masterpieces of arthouse psychological horror.
Malady and Wild Bones explore similar themes. In each, the internal workings of the characters’ twisted and lonely minds are reflected in the homes that they inhabit. These little spaces are places of safety, comfort, alienation, terror, loneliness, and isolation. The home blocks out the outside world and becomes a nightmare world of its own.
Adding to this nightmare is that homes are filled with families and families are fucking complicated. Malady concerns a couple who have only been dating for a short while. Matthew (Kemal Yildirim) and Holly (Roxy Bugler), temporarily move into Matthew’s mother’s house, staying with her as she lives out the final days of her life. We witness the love, hate, and inappropriate relationship dynamics in this complicated triangle that takes place over a few very strange and intensely emotional days.
Likewise, similar estrangement, rage, and misplaced love exist as a centerpiece of the family and social dynamics in Wild Bones as sisters Fay (Roxy Bugler) and Alice (Mary Roubos) navigate family traumas in very different ways.
Gorgeously photographed, expertly edited, and filled with some of the best performances you’re likely to see anywhere, these are films that lodge into your flesh long after they’re over. I’m very proud to present this conversation with one of the most fascinating writer/directors that you might never have heard of.
Dread Central: So, your bio says you started out in fine art. What were you studying and how did you transition over to film-making?
Jack James: Yeah, I did a fine art degree. I started as a painter. And then partway through the first year, I started to really get interested and excited by film. Or, at least I always was, but I was that little bit more because there are other people you can kind of speak to and start to discuss things and introduce each other to stuff as well. So halfway through the course, I got bored with the paintings, because I wanted them to move. I started animating the paintings and filming myself doing them and doing all that kind of stuff. And then gradually, as the course went on, I started doing stop motion animations and doing these sorts of mad textual odd stop motions.
DC: Cool. Did you do any live-action shorts before you went on to Malady?
JJ: No live-action shorts.
DC: Just jumped in.
JJ: Yeah, just dived in. It’s discipline more than anything. I can’t wait to shoot. So I just jumped straight from doing the stop motions and the shorts to go into the feature.
DC: What was the initial sort of seed behind Malady, the initial thing that inspired you? What sets you on the road to writing Malady?
JJ: Probably the biggest thing was looking at really private kinds of worlds. But it was what went on behind closed doors, having these two people from very different backgrounds and very different upbringings collide and being brought together and seeing what would happen. So obviously behind the one you had Matthew, who was in this very strange relationship with his mother. Then you had Holly who had a very warm, cozy upbringing but obviously is just trying to deal with her grief and with having lost her mom. And yeah, just exploring that and traveling with those characters really.
I’ve always been really interested in family dynamics, the power and impact of family on the individual, and the fact that every family in some respects is its own kind of cult. They’ve all got their own kinds of rituals and their own routines and their own ways of thinking and their own approach to stuff. Obviously, you know, people split off as they meet other people and share ideas. Sometimes they start to push away from what it is their family brought them up on. I guess it was really just more than anything that cult-like, tight-knit, closed-off grouping of people, and what you can do within that space, the potential of that space, the dangerous potential of that space, just as well as how beautiful and wonderful a home can be is the other side of that, too.
DC: Does going into these very, very, emotionally intense sorts of stories and situations have any sort of effect on you, personally?
JJ: I guess so. The writing process is quite an emotional kind of journey. The whole thing is, really. Inside it, there’s a lot that’s written but never makes it onto the screen. And there’s a lot that was written for the actors and for the performers, rather than for the script. So there were reams and reams of backstory, which was then discussed and debated at length with different performers. So there’s a lot going on during those kinds of talks and those kinds of discussions because inevitably, you talk about the themes and the things that are going on in those writings with one another. It becomes its own kind of journey at that stage. Then when it comes to actually being on set and performing it and going through it, I think everybody there, from me, the sound guy, production designer, will go through that same emotional journey that the performance has. Maybe not to the same extent; obviously. They’re really channeling back. But you’re all in that room with the same goal of trying to depict this in the most effective and sensitive way that you possibly can. So to a certain extent, everybody certainly goes through whatever it is we’re playing out.
DC: I read in another interview that you insisted, at least for Malady, that people stayed in character even when you weren’t filming. Is that true?
JJ: We did that. And we did it to an extent on Wild Bones as well.
DC: How’d that work out?
JJ: It’s a process, it’s not for everyone.
DC: I imagine it could have been pretty psychologically taxing.
JJ: Yeah, definitely quite draining. It’s certainly something that you have to kind of warm up and build up towards, and then build down afterward. That’s certainly something that we were very conscious of going into it and making sure that everybody felt happy and safe and liked doing it. There was always an open line of communication to drop straight out of it if something wasn’t right.
There was a lot of preparation and a lot of discussions about figuring out the exact right process for everyone on approach. Roxy, who played Fay in Wild Bones and Holly in Malady, was very fiercely committed to that way of working. So during Wild Bones she stayed in the house. In the evenings, when she wasn’t performing, she did come out of character, obviously. But she definitely wants to be in her surroundings, and very much surrounded by everything that made up Fay in that place. That comes with just wanting to give the character, and give people who will relate to that character and to the themes in the film, as much justice as we possibly can. It’s to try and give as honest and effective a performance as we possibly can. It’s also from a low-budget filmmaking point of view, it’s actually really beneficial to the production because you prepped and you’re ready, and you’re kind of charged and ready to go in that.
DC: [Roxy Bugler] is just so good. Where did you find her?
JJ: She auditioned for Malady and straightaway she was shortlisted immediately because she was fantastic. There’s something about her that really set her apart from a lot of other people who came to audition for that role. I had my big concerns because she, in real life, is so sweet and chipper. I was really concerned. She kept talking about how beautiful Malady was, and I kept thinking, “You know, like, when we get to the end, though, it gets just so horrible.” I had to keep reiterating that. And she was like, “No, no, it’s fine”.
After we finished Malady, and we went to the festivals and everything, Roxy came with me to a lot of the festivals, so we became really good close friends ever since. We always kept in touch and always bandied ideas back and forth about collaborating again. When I wrote Wild Bones I only really had her in mind for Fay. I sent her the script, and we spoke about it, and immediately we just started working. She’s just an amazing performer. And so lovely and easy to work with. She gives everything. She’s just fantastic.
DC: There’s also not a weak supporting actor in Wild Bones. Did you have to go through a lot of auditions to get them?
JJ: Yeah, there was a lot there. But it was one of the fortunate side effects of COVID because I’d set up the casting call and everything but then COVID hit and couldn’t see anyone. But it meant I got to spend a lot more time on those initial applications. I actually gave everyone a lot more time than they would ordinarily be given if we were doing just run-of-the-mill auditions, one after the other.
DC: You couldn’t start filming Wild Bones until after COVID?
JJ: Well, we didn’t do it till after the lockdown. We were meant to start in October 2020. We managed to shoot it in January 2021, so it was not pushed back that much. And in actual fact, because [the movie is] all very desolate and isolated and lonely, it kind of worked to our advantage. Doing the actual screen tests was really tricky and nerve-wracking and kind of horrible. Then obviously, in the weeks leading up to the shoot, you were just praying that nobody was going to ring up and say, “Yeah, I’ve got it”, all that kind of stuff.
Actually, getting to the location was tricky, because the area we would shoot most of the filming was known in the UK for having very angry police officers who were fining people on the spot if they didn’t think they should be there. But, we managed to get it made and done. Thankfully, film production became something that you could do during lockdown. So that was very lucky for us.
DC: I noticed that you did all your own cinematography on both films. Did anybody help you out? Like with the lighting, or did you do all that yourself?
JJ: I shot it and I lit alongside our art director production designer Gareth [Haynes]. So, he was with me as well. And he worked extremely hard to make sure everything looks the way it did on set, and, set dressing-wise and everything. That was all him. He knew what he was doing there. We’d collaborate and work together when it comes to lighting the sets and yeah, making it look the way it looks.
DC: Did it help to have a second pair of eyes?
JJ: Definitely. He’s an incredible collaborator. We actually went to university together, so we were all on the same Fine Arts course. We share a lot of similar ideas and ideals with regard to cinema and what we want cinema and film to be. So yeah, it was amazing, being able to have him there working alongside and collaborating to make it look that way and bring it back to the screen.
DC: It’s hard to believe that you went from doing animation to Malady, which would have been the first thing you shot, really, as far as [live-action] movies.
JJ: Yeah, I did a little bit of filming on some behind-the-scenes stuff for people and little bits and pieces like that. Animation to live-action is actually a really nice transition, because you’re bigger than the world, but it’s all there. So you get a real understanding of what does and doesn’t work when lighting a space. It works as a stepping stone. Obviously, it becomes very different when you have a whole bunch of people there and a whole new set of obstacles that aren’t just—when I was making the animations, I was downstairs in my cellar making them. The main thing I had to contend with was just the mold and the spores.
In Darby, we were contending with the elements. We were stuck in snowstorms. Because we were in the peaks, we had like insane wind coming through the valleys. And we had lights outside or strapped to go in and stuff like that. So you get new challenges. But essentially, you’re still trying to do the same thing, which is painting with light and painting a picture that moves. Again, I think coming from a fine art background and having a keen interest in art probably helped with that as well because you’re always striving towards trying to make things look not always necessarily beautiful, but certainly like a specific way.
DC: Yeah, I mean, I think it is beautifully dark. Wild Bones is just a gorgeous movie to watch, especially a lot of the scenes where Fay is by herself in the house and it’s kind of dark and she’s dancing alone.
JJ: I really hurt my back doing it as well. So thank you for saying that. Makes it worth it.
DC: But you also did the editing yourself. Did you have anybody as another pair of eyes for that or just you?
JJ: No, I edited. My main job is as an editor. So I love editing. Editing to me is always basically your second opportunity to tell the story and to make the film what it is you want it to be. So in my eyes, editing and directing are one and the same thing because you’re essentially just trying to tell the story in the most effective way. Also, I get to sit down for an extreme length of time, and I don’t have to see anybody or leave the house or go out. So it’s like a treat to myself after having been worrying about filming it. I get to lock myself away. It’s a little gift to myself.
DC: What attracts you to writing films from a woman’s perspective?
JJ: I think I’ve always been more interested in female perspectives and women’s stories. I’ve always probably been friendlier with women throughout my life and had more friends that were female than male. I don’t know, from a storytelling point of view, you just got to look at it kind of coldly, like, women are amazing. They’ve got a perspective that I find far more interesting in exploring than a male perspective.
It’s learning, isn’t it? It’s like discovering, exploring, and learning. I guess I find that a more exciting way.
DC: What’s next?
JJ: Hopefully it won’t be another eight years before filming the next one. That’s the main thing I’m hoping for.
DC: Oh, if you don’t mind me asking, what happened there? Were you developing Wild Bones the whole time?
JJ: I was trying to get other films going off the ground. It’s funny. There are some interesting statistics about people who actually go on to make a second film, and a lot of people don’t. I think I understand one reason why that might not happen. On the festival circuit, you meet lots of other filmmakers and producers. Obviously, they’re there with their film, and everybody has a different idea of the right way to make a film.
I think you get told an awful lot about how you should be doing this and how you should be doing that. I got very much hung up on that, that I found it difficult to launch into just doing another project. It took me a long time to realize that and get over that and say, well, this worked last time. So maybe I should just do this again; which is what we did. And, you know, eight years, an awful lot goes on in that time. So that wasn’t just sitting there thinking, “Why isn’t this happening?” It’s also finding the right story to tell because the thing that I was working on and writing for ages after Malady is just completely unfilmable. It’s one of those—you just go down these holes, and really spiral out of control.
DC: I think that’s the artist’s problem, so many ideas and not enough time.
JJ: Yeah. That and also, making a film, you’re going to be with it for a number of years. So, it’s got to be the right film and the right thing. Wild Bones felt like the right film and the right thing, and something I could sit with for a few years. Those things take as long as they take.