Steven Sheil is a British writer and director of independent horror films Mum and Dad and Deadmine. He talks about that infamous “liver” scene, shooting on a budget and his horror film festival Mayhem.
Why do you think horror is such a brilliant genre to explore other issues?
When you approach horror as an audience you approach it with an idea that you are being told a story. There’s something about a horror film that harks back to fairy tales and folk stories. You know that you’re being told something on that kind of level – there’s a level of story. I think with horror films you can explore a lot of things to do with quite fundamental questions.
Things like what happens when we die? Why do people hurt one another? I think people know that when they’re going into a horror film they are going to be confronting those big kind of questions.They also know they’re going into an arena where there’s going to be supernatural elements potentially but also elements that are out of the ordinary – elements that are uncommon.
I think that means when you go into a horror film you already have that kind of expectation, you already know that this is a different world from the reality. It’s akin to the world that we live in but it’s slightly separate from that as well so I think it works very well on that kind of metaphorical level.
I loved your film Mum and Dad. I thought it was excellent. When watching it I felt as if it subverted the idea of the nuclear family. Was this intentional?
Thank you. There’s a lot of different things it came out of. One thing was that I knew that it was kind of a tradition in American horror films to do these types of fucked up families. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is one of my favourite horror films, is a great kind of example of that. There’s been a few British versions of that in the 70s, films like Frightmare by Pete Walker and Mumsy, Nanny,Sonny and Girly which is another one where you have these kind of messed up families.
It really intrigued me and I like that idea of the conventional family and what is underneath that. One of the things that sparked off that kind of thinking was actually a quote from Margaret Thatcher. I remember in the 80s she had a famous quote “there’s no such thing as society” and the next part of that quote was “there are only individuals and families”. That way of thinking, that idea that as an individual or as a family you don’t have to concern yourself with the ethics, morals or responsibilities of a wider society, that you just think about yourself, was a very damaging thought to me.
I thought if you had a family where the parents just didn’t care about a wider society, didn’t care about any kind of wider morals, didn’t care about anything beyond their own desires, then what would that look like? So, it was playing with that idea I guess. What would happen if you had a family that just didn’t see itself as part of that kind of society? Just saw itself as just this inch of the unit where they could make the rules.
I’d recently became a parent when I made Mum and Dad. Obviously being a parent is something that brings up a lot of those questions for you about what it means to have that responsibility towards a child. What it means to bring up a child and how big a responsibility it is. So, I guess all of that kind of fed into it as well.
I have to ask you about the liver scene. What was the significance of the shot?
First of its interesting you say the liver scene.
I love it! It was my favourite scene in the film.
I’ve had different people describe it as a liver, as a heart, as a piece of flesh…
What is it then? I don’t think anyone knows.
It was, in my head, my sick brain, supposed to be a hunk of flesh – maybe a piece of thigh flesh that he’d cut a hole in. It was actually a piece of pork which is repulsive. It actually repulsed me when we shot that scene. There’s a big close-up in the film and when that lands and the fake semen oozes out everybody who was watching the monitor just went “eurgh”, including me. It was just repulsive.
The reasoning behind it was that I was trying to, very quickly, set up the idea of the different attitudes that Mum and Dad had towards their victim. I always had this idea of Mum being like a knitting needle and Dad being like a hammer. The idea that hers was a much colder form of sadism, hers was much more about this lingering, psychological torture. It’s smaller physically what she does but it’s also in a sense more horrible because it’s much more lingering – much more about teasing out that moment. Whereas Dad – his attitude towards the victims is that they are meat. They are literally meat. He will fuck and kill anything.
I guess that’s something that comes out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where you had a cannibal family who saw their victims as meat. This was kind of a similar idea. To Dad it doesn’t matter, if he’s fucking something, what it is. It could be a liver or it could be a thigh – it doesn’t matter. All that matters, for him, is control. All that matters is that it’s him doing it. This thing is utterly a victim and that carries on in the film right to the end where he’s talking about Lena being a pet. That’s how he sees her. He doesn’t see the victims as human – a pet is the best you can hope for. It’s as close to a human as you can get in his eyes.
Definitely. For example, the scene at the dinner table when he is watching pornography. Humans are quite literally being dehumanised.
Do you think that having such a low budget didn’t restrict you but enabled you to be more imaginative?
Yeah. I knew going into it what that budget was going to be so it was always written for that budget. The budget was 100 grand so I knew going into it that was the case. Previously, I’d worked on shorts that have been quite low budget so it didn’t really faze me. It does make you think about how you’re going to get across horror without having a lot of effects. I knew there was certain effects that I wanted, so for example the knitting needle scene. It’s a really effective moment, I think, and a really effective visual effect but it’s not that hard to do. It’s not that expensive to do. It just takes a bit of time to set up.
I tried to work in that way, so for example there’s a scene with the tooth and there’s the scene where she has to kiss the toe. I almost tried to find these little things that make people feel disgusted – these little kind of disgust triggers that people have. I knew that teeth was one and I knew that feet was one. I just tried to hit those things and also think about what could be done on that budget. The suitcase scene, for example, is such a kind of cheap way to get quite a brutal scene. Having someone climb into a suitcase and then get battered is hopefully effective but at the same time it’s ridiculously cheap to do because you don’t have to do any special effects for it.
I did find it a challenge, an interesting challenge, to try and find ways of keeping the horror in the film without having full on gore effects all the way through but just having these kind of little triggers. Another thing I will say about the earlier scene with the liver is that having that so early on and having that be so full on meant that I didn’t have to go back to that. I didn’t have to go that far again all the way through the film because the audience knew I could go that far and the film would go that far. It meant that I didn’t have to. There’s always a fear that he’s going to do something like that again. It was just trying to keep the audience a bit on edge I guess– that’s the trick with it.
I think it worked because there wasn’t too much of the shock value. If there’s too much it can take that horrible feeling you get when watching a horror away.
You get a bit inured to it – you get a bit used to it. I didn’t want the audience just to see it as some kind of gore fest. Like I said, it’s just trying to find different ways to tweak that little disgust gag reflex I guess.
I find Mum and Dad hilarious. I think this is the beauty of British horror to be able to blend the grotesque and comic together so well. What is your view on British independent horror? Modern horror especially.
It’s funny because when I started making Mum and Dad there wasn’t a lot of other horror being made. In that time, which is only less than ten years, there’s so much more being made which is great. It’s great to see because there were decades in the 80s and 90s when there was barely anything getting made. I run a horror film festival here [Nottingham] and when you try and find archive films in that era it’s really hard to get stuff because there was a lot of stuff being made in the States but hardly anything over here. So, it’s great to see so many filmmakers now embracing it and making new stuff.
There’s some great stuff coming out. For me, there is a real kind of British sensibility and I think that when you embrace that sensibility instead of trying to do something that is similar to an American market then I think it works. In a way, I think there’s also been a resurgence in European horror- there’s been great French horrors, there’s been great Spanish horrors, there’s been great Scandinavian horror – and I think all of that has kind of fed in to British horror as well.
Talk to me a little bit about your film festival.
Well, we’ve been running a horror film festival called Mayhem in Nottingham at the Broadway cinema for ten years this year. It’s a four day festival over a Halloween weekend where we have new films, previews, premieres plus archive films plus guests plus special events. I run it with a friend of mine called Chris Cooke who’s also a filmmaker. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s great.
Audiences have been growing year on year. We’ve had some great stuff. We had Nicolas Roeg come a couple of years ago and do a screening of Don’t Look Now in a gothic church just down the road. We did a Q&A for that and that was amazing. Last year we did a special ten days of mayhem where we did a thing called Teen Mayhem for young people and horror. Certificate X which was all about films that have been given the X certificate. We had the Astron-6 guys who came over from Canada with The Editor. It’s worth seeing – very funny. We had a lot of good comedy this year actually after last year where it was very dry and not funny at all. We had a lot of good horror comedy this year.
I was going to ask you what your favourite horror film is but you’ve already said – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but there are others I love like The Haunting, The Innocents, Eyes without a Face. We showed Texas Chainsaw Massacre again this year, we had the new 4k restoration of it, and I was kind of wondering how it was going to stand up. Especially because there were some people there who hadn’t seen it before. It’s still so brutal and horrible – it’s just amazing, it’s just such an amazing film.
When people ask me about my favourite film I always say The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s not just my favourite horror film, it’s my favourite film in general.
Absolutely, it’s a masterpiece. Nicholas Winding Refn calls it one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century.
What’s next for you then? Are you working on anything now?
Yeah, I’ve got a new script that I’m in the process of trying to gather finance for. I’m working with a woman called Jen Handorf who did a film called The Borderlands last year and the Devils Business the year before that. She’s a really good producer so I’ve got a script that was financed by Creative England that is kind of finished and we’re now going out to try and get a finance package for.
There’s a couple of other scripts that I’m working on that are in various stages of development. That’s the main thing really – this new script with Jen.
What’s it about?
It’s about teenagers and ritual murder
It’s interesting because it’s not got a lot of laughs in it. It’s not similar to Mum and Dad in that kind of way. It’s very sort of dark drama rather than full on horror but it’s still quite kind of grim as you might expect.