Miranda Bowen, director of the award-winning 'Gozo', had a fantastic chat with us about her wonderful collaborative project and her love of psychological horror.
I really enjoyed the film, I think it captured that isolated feeling really well – but to start with, how did you get the idea for the film?
So it came about through very collaborative means, and I think we all brought something quite specific to it. Joe, who’s the main actor, Joe Kennedy, as I think you know, went off to write some music in a lighthouse and discovered this pretty disturbing history to the lighthouse. And it was about these two lighthouse keepers who hated one another, and then one of them died under very ambiguous circumstances and the other one just became completely… was driven mad by this corpse and there’s no one else on the island, boats only came in once a week or once a month or something. So I think this idea really lodged in his head and that became the beginnings of a mood film, which then went on holiday to Gozo with Leo, who’s the editor, they started talking about filming something using those ideas. And then Steven came on board. Leo thought he’d ask Steven to write a screenplay and so Steven wrote a screenplay using those ideas but around the idea of a couple who were trying to remove themselves from a hectic, fast-paced lifestyle and live the idyll in a far-flung place and that was very much a horror film at that stage. It was very much genre horror. And Leo always wanted me to direct it, and when I came on board I sort of said that I was really interested in the ideas but I wasn’t so sure about the horror. So it was quite a sort of jigsaw the way it all came about, and it was all those elements played their part so it was no one particular person’s idea – it was a sort of happy evolution of lots of ideas. And then actually being in the place is so inspiring, because it’s such a visceral and vivid place and it really does feel like somewhere that time has forgotten. There are horses and carts in the road, and there’s great big fennel bushes that just grow literally by the side of the road which tells you how little traffic there is – because fruit and veg don’t grow by the road where there’s lots of cars going past! So, it really was very inspiring just to be there and also there was no pressure of other people particularly in that the communities that live in Gozo are fairly contained within the towns. There are of course rural houses or whatever also but you don’t really get a sense of being impinged upon if you’re filming, you can pretty much go where you want and film where you want and that’s incredibly liberating – very freeing. So, the story evolved and we always knew that Joe was going to be the lead character so he brought stuff to the table as well in terms of what he thought the character arc and evolution might be. I was really sure that I was really interested in the idea of an island being an escape, and it being liberating, but then slowly it becoming an incarceration. And just the idea of how you can’t run from your past really, and if there’s something that you’re trying to escape you can’t ever physically escape it just by moving you have to actually confront it. Which is what happens in the course of the film, obviously he becomes eaten away at by the guilt of what has happened and the fact that he’s never confronted it. But hopefully set against this very idyllic backdrop it becomes all the more monstrous somehow because its at odds and he’s so isolated and so alienated. And once their relationship begins to crumble there’s really no respite, nowhere to go to, nowhere to run to further. So he sort of becomes locked in this very myopic, sort of solipsistic, world that has no air – which has increasingly less and less opportunity for any kind of respite or escape.
You talk about how you wanted to see what was possible to film at Gozo, where there any scenes that you wanted to have but you didn’t because of restrictions, or couldn’t find the right place?
No I think we knew that we had the opportunity to film in a couple of houses – Leo had friends there. One which was luckily Riley’s house belongs to this artist called David Russell – who was a pop artist in the 60s and had these walls, they’re a lot of his paintings actually on the walls in that house. You can pretty much film where you want in Gozo, even the big vista of the – it’s called the Azure Window – which has been used a lot in Jason and the Argonauts, lot’s of biblical epics. I think we paid 15 euros for the day – you know! Get these amazing sunset shots of this world renowned UNESCO heritage site. So, there was no question of being inhibited in any way. In fact I’d say that if we tried to make that film here, say in rural England, it would have actually been impossible because of the restrictions of what you’re talking about – either financial, or logistical, locking down roads – all those things. None of those things figured at all in that instance that we shot on roads in the middle of the night without a license – you know you don’t need any the bureaucracy that surrounds you having to shoot here that you have to get in place. So it was very liberating just to know that you can rock up somewhere and pretty much shoot what you want and go home again.
“you hope that no one’s going to rock the boat too much because there aren’t any lifeboats! It’s sink or swim, unfortunately”
What do you think was the hardest part of filming?
I think schedule is always the… you know you get there in the beginning of the day and see the number of bars on the… each bar is a different scene and you think goodness that’s a pretty stripy day! [laughter] And thinking at the beginning of each day I just don’t know quite how we’re going to get through all this, and somehow you do. It’s like a sort of undertow or current isn’t it, when you get to the actual film making everyone gets swept up in it. And whatever the problems or dilemmas are you somehow, as a force, overcome it in whatever way you can. Everyone’s accepting of the fact that – particularly when you work in a very small, tight cast and crew, you hope that no one’s going to rock the boat too much because there aren’t any lifeboats! It’s sink or swim, unfortunately. And possibly because it was so short, if we’d done another week I think things might have started to go Gozo – we might have started to crack up! But it was kept quite short and sweet – it was just all hands on deck, everyone’s good for the job.
Having the character of Joe as a sound engineer, I thought that worked really well in creating very tense scenes – especially that scene in the derelict building. Was that always part of the plan?
What, that he was a sound designer?
It was there in Steven’s script. I think I really like the idea of somebody being quite closed off to the world through their earphones. Or only hearing selective things, which is what he does in life as well. He only chooses to hear what he wants to hear really, and so Lucille’s badgering him about not wanting to sort out water problems – he doesn’t really hear any of it. He decides to lock himself off with that and I think I was quite interested in the idea of a character who in a way doesn’t have surround sound. He just has where his directional microphone’s pointing to and that’s how he perceives the world. And he’s not visually engaging with it, he’s only using this one sense. The jingle he’s creating, and I don’t know whether it comes through, and some people get it and some people don’t and it’s sort of not really that relevant but it’s meant to be an advertising jingle for a commercial, but it’s very repetitive and you don’t quite know whether he’s stuck on it or whether that is what it’s meant to be but either way it’s the same sort of cycles. The sounds going round and round until it becomes quite maddening. And in an earlier draft of the script that was sort of reflected in Lucille swimming round and round the swimming pool and the idea of the island being, you know, them driving round and round and everything was contained within these cycles and circles that could never be broken but kept on sort of self-perpetuating circles. Deep down and down into the vortex until you hit the bottom. So, I think sound… also I think so much of one’s experience of another country or another place is through the shift in sounds and it’s not something you’re necessary so alert to or aware of but you arrive in a new country and I think smell hits your nostrils first and then visually you became aware of the differences – if it’s sandy, dessert-y place or if it’s humid and hot and jungle-y. But sound is a sort of much more unconscious perception somehow and quite often we go around in our lives automatically filtering out a lot of sound and I was quite interested in what happens when that’s all you’re experiencing and how that, on the one hand, opens you up to a different sort of perception of the world, but then also can close in on you. So in his case, his memory is sound. It’s less the idea of this woman and who she was or what she felt like or her hair or whatever, it’s the last words she said or the sound of her voice that comes through the sound recordings and that’s how he is haunted. It’s literally through the graded voice which becomes his pivotal memory of her that kind of takes hold of him and won’t let him go.
In the film I thought it was interesting how the expat community and the couple are very separate from the island – they don’t seem to speak any of the language or anything like that – did you want to make a comment about expats when making the film?
I suppose it wasn’t foremost in my mind, but I grew up in an expat child and so I lived in lots of different countries where I didn’t necessarily always speak the language – particularly in Africa – and I suppose I’m very aware of how those communities tend to cluster. And whether it’s out of comfort or out of fear – or maybe a mixture of the two. But also this kind of irony of escaping to another place only to try and recreate what you have at home, I always think is really fascinating and interesting. You flee because of the idea of a better, more enjoyable, sunnier life, and then you just try and recreate, you don’t try and integrate. And a lot of people don’t, they stick to their own because that’s what they feel comfortable with and that’s what they know and so I suppose there’s a tacit – less of a comment, more of an observation about particularly the Brits abroad I’d say. Alcohol seems to be play quite a large role in the hotter countries too. But yeah, so coming from that world I feel like I have a – I’m in a good position to be able to make those observations. But I think it’s also interesting just the idea of that displacement I suppose. They obviously are making those connections and are finding people to communicate with. But the fact that Joe particularly doesn’t even fit in with them, it kind of isolates him further even when people do speak the same language as him he’s still unable to really communicate with them.
“it was quite a sort of jigsaw the way it all came about”
What was your favourite part of making the film?
It’s really hard to say. I don’t… shoots are always really, with that little money – it’s actually less the money and more the time I sort of feel like money doesn’t matter, but then time is money so it’s always harder to say which is the greater evil. I really loved doing the sound. And Joe – who played Joe – Joe Kennedy, ended up doing the music as well, he’s a musician in his own right. He didn’t come on board until quite late and that felt like an extraordinary revelation because not only did he do the soundtrack, but he contributed so hugely to the mood and the feel of the film. And hopefully this registered – where the sound design ends and where the score begins is very blurry. Joe did a lot of soundscape work within the soundtrack, and Paul likewise was really aware of using sounds, I suppose, that came out of the diegetic soundtrack and then manipulating them into the score. So, for example, some of the music roundabout the marketplace where Joe sees the poster of the missing girl is actually using the bells that actually were everywhere on the island – the church bells, a very Catholic place, and starting to manipulate those so they go forwards and then they go backwards. And using the same sort of… permeating or reconfiguring the actual notes of the bells so they start to sort of, again, go in circles rather than peter out of a melody. So it was just using what was there already but then manipulating it – and that was really satisfying, it was really – it felt genuinely really creative and I suppose that at that end of the project you’re not under the same time constraints or pressures – not suggesting for a moment that there weren’t any but, it was definitely less pressurised as you can imagine and trying to get your stripy page ticket off!
With the rest of the cast, how did you find them? Was it easy or did you know in the beginning that you wanted all of them?
We found everyone else through conventional means really. Everyone was great – I mean you’re so reliant on everyone pulling their weight and just being available to you to do what you need them to do. And there were no divas, it was a very… I mean the cast and the crew just worked very harmoniously which is lucky, that doesn’t always happen. It just so happened that there was enough of a momentum, I think because it was smaller, everyone felt creatively involved and that helps gives people an impetus to try and work towards a greater common goal I think. But Daniel Lapaine was such a wonderful actor to work with. And quite a revelation because he’s so not like that in real life – and you always know that about actors don’t you that they’re not really like the characters they play, but sometimes they are and you realise why they get cast! Daniel just so wasn’t a sleaze, an American sleaze bag. Ophelia I feel I had only really seen her in comedies, so it felt like quite a revelation to see her doing drama, doing something more psychologically driven and she was just incredible to work with. I’m always very touched, and I shouldn’t be taking this personally at all an actor is just trying to do their best for themselves as much as for anything else, for the greater good of the project. But I always feel very touched when actors make themselves vulnerable, to bring something out of the character or find new depths to the character you weren’t aware of or probably wasn’t there on the page – that they managed to somehow borrow the essence of the character and bring it to the surface. And I always find that really kind of shocking and amazing, when it happens. So I think there are certain points in the film where she really excelled my expectations and really brought something quite poignant to it. Yeah it’s a crazy old relationship the whole thing, but I suppose there wasn’t that sort of… there was no hierarchy on set, it very much felt a genuinely collaborative thing which I think really helps, in this situation certainly, it helps bring everyone’s best to the fore. I feel, they might say something else! [laughter]
I definitely thought everyone was perfectly cast! I was really surprised because I haven’t seen Ophelia in that many films but I know that she’s obviously becoming quite a big name – so I thought it [the film] was going to be focused around her, but it was really nice to have it as a kind of even playing field throughout. What’s the response been to the film so far?
Really hard to say. I don’t really know at this point. A few nice reviews have come in, but not many people have seen it so… we’ll see! Watch this space! I think you can only really take what you… I’m so snow blinded by it I have no idea what it is really anymore and I know what the intention and there are certain moments in the film that really still grab me, that I really enjoy watching despite having sat through it for god knows how many edits and re-edits and prints and otherwise I just see it as an assembly of images and sounds, there’s barely a story there as far as I’m concerned [laughter], you know, so I have no idea really. Lots of people said some really nice things but, I don’t think I’d hear necessarily at this point about people saying not very nice things so!
“that to me is what horror really is, a psychological unravelling”
Are you hoping for a general release?
Of course, but I’m also realistic about the reality of that. So we’ll see. I think I’m kind of going to leave it in the lap of the gods a bit and come what may. I’m very thrilled that it’s come as far as – it’s been nominated for best UK feature at Raindance – because that feels like an important and very honourable accolade. So even if it doesn’t manage a release, which is really costly in real terms and I know that the actual economics of it may, well not tally up in terms of level of star and type of story and audience potential, and it boils down to charts doesn’t it really. Somebody in a room, kind of literally, with their calculator working out the value and worth of each component of it. And I know it’s not necessarily the kind of film that’s going to put lots of bums on seats so I’m being realistic about it. But if it does, it’ll be a nice surprise and if it doesn’t I also feel like just for it to have done what it’s done is very honourable.
Yeah definitely, well best of luck with the nomination! [Which they went on to win]
Thank you very much!
I was just going to ask, you were saying that the horror or thriller aspect of Gozo was not exactly what you’d anticipated doing a film as – for future projects is that another genre that you’d like to work with again?
I don’t feel like it is a horror! I don’t know, it’s interesting, maybe it is. I hadn’t thought of it like that – it’s got components, more psychological, more sort of Black Swan I guess –ish, in that sort of very interior, subjective, psychologically driven kind of end of horror I’d suppose. But I think horror fans of genre horror would be disappointed and I wouldn’t want to sell it as a horror for that reason! But I’ve always really enjoyed the more psychological end of horror so Polanski, Lynch, the aforementioned Black Swan – you know those sort of area of horror, The Babadook, that was amazing. And that to me is what horror really is, a psychological unravelling or where someone finds themselves in a position where they’re no longer able to really understand the difference between their perception and reality, and where reality frays at the edges. And you can no longer trust yourself. It’s more of a sort of condition I suppose, or a mental health situation which for me is what real horror is like. And then I suppose the horror is motivated by the person in the story, the story is then driven by the character rather than a group of teenagers going to a house and having horror done unto them, which can also be interesting when it’s used in a metaphoric way or whatever, but I think there’s a lot of gratuitous horror out there that’s really purely for kicks and jumps in the dark, and that has its place but I don’t think that’s where I’m personally not interested in going. But I definitely am interested in exploring the fringes of the genre, so that sort of world of psychological horror and character driven horror more. And I think there’s still a lot of opportunity for inventive and original stories in that horror seems to go through, fashions I suppose, and I think with something like The Babadook, it sort of inspired a new phase of maybe more female driven horror. And I think there’s still a lot of opportunity for original material to be engineered around that. So yeah, I’m doing a horror next hopefully! [laughter]
Fantastic. For future projects do you think you’d prefer to work collaboratively, or would you want to have full creative control?
I hope that I would always work collaboratively. I think there are limits to where collaboration becomes a power struggle, and I think that collaboration is something that has to be handled with care. It’s so important that you’re collaborating with… it’s important you choose you collaborators. When you don’t choose them that can send you down a wonky path. We were very lucky on Gozo that everyone was pretty much on the same side. But I think it’s also made me really aware that you have to understand that you need to be very sensitive about who you’re jumping into a filmic bed with!