Folkestone-set Brit flick Seagull mixes revenge movie tropes with moving family drama. Boasting strong performances and some striking imagery, the film is likely to stay with audiences at this year’s Grimmfest long after the credits have rolled.
We had the pleasure of catching up with director Peter Blach to talk about the movie.
Tom: Please can you briefly summarise Seagull and what people can expect from it at Grimmfest?
Aaron: Seagull is a story about a young woman who disappears at the age of fourteen from her family. Eight years later, she turns up again and starts embarking on an antisocial campaign and harassing people in the family. So the question is “Why is she doing that?” We get slowly drip-fed information with flashbacks that tell the story of what happened eight years previously. It’s then slowly revealed, like a jigsaw puzzle, where the viewers begin to put it together. It has a dark theme, so it’s not a happy story.
Tom: That’s certainly true. I understand that before you made Seagull, your first feature-length film, you made quite a few shorts. Is this a story that had been gestating for a long time?
Aaron: The story has been kicking around for a while, as it takes a long time to make a low-budget film without any sort of financial backing. I’ve always used where I live as a backdrop and as inspiration. So when I used to live in London, I was working on an idea for a feature film set in the Turkish community in North London. Coming to Folkestone – for anyone who is familiar with Folkestone – it has a very dramatic landscape around the town, and that landscape really inspired me. So I guess, knowing that you can sort of get that for free, the question then is can you come up with an engaging story that utilises all the fantastic locations?
There are still a few people who live off-grid on the seafront between Folkestone and Dover. In particular, there was one person, who is no longer with us, called Mungo. He had a shack out there on the beach, which he built there, off-grid. I often passed his little shack when I was going for walks and runs along the seafront, and I think that gave me the initial idea. I asked myself “Why would somebody live off-grid? What would make them go out there and live in a remote place?” And that was the beginning of the main character in the film, and from there it was a case of answering that question, and then I came up with the character.
Tom: I was going to ask about Folkestone as a setting – it’s certainly very visually striking. I understand it became quite a community effort as well and a lot of people pitched in?
Aaron: One of the things that happened was Jessica Hynes came on board. She lives locally in Folkestone, and she heard about the project and asked for the script. She liked it, and she came back and said that she would like to get involved. And so I guess her being in one of the rules, that character did change to suit her. All the locations were sourced for very little money or for free, and so we ended up shooting where we could, where we were allowed to. But the main thrust of the story didn’t change, it was a story about a damaged person who was coming back to set the record straight.
Tom: One of the things that was particularly striking about the film was that you had this very realistic sort of kitchen sink setting, quite a claustrophobic setting in a lot of ways, but you also have these flashes of quite surreal imagery, particularly in the look of your antagonist. How did you go about balancing those two elements, the realism and the fantastical?
Aaron: The antagonist existed from the beginning, as a real person. It was someone that had helped this character to survive. As she ran away from town, she came across this person, who helped her and gave her tips. The script was going through several rounds of re-writing, and it probably took at least three years to finish the script. And in the final stage, we decided that that character was going to be part of her imagination. So then, once that had been written, we were more free to visualise how this character was going to look. If it had been an actual person, that person would have looked different. If you haven’t watched the film, that probably won’t make much sense.
Some people have asked me whether I had looked into and researched the idea of schizophrenia. The answer is actually no, we hadn’t, because it was very late in the stage that that person became a visual of her imagination. Initially, that was a real character.
Tom: We open on white cliffs, which are very synonymous with Britain as a kind of island nation, and there are some references to immigration in the script. Shot in 2016, with Brexit and Trump, etc., I was just wondering if you were conscious of there being a potential political allegory to the story?
Aaron: I think that’s up to the individual to decide what to put into that. It wasn’t conceived to be a film with political undertones. I can see why people might feel that. We were using the landscape to make it feel like the end of the world, and very dramatic and derelict. There’s something very dramatic about the white cliffs of Dover, and, depending on what music and tone you depict it in, it can be so stunning to look at. So, making a film in Folkestone, it seemed crazy not to use that scenery. But no, there weren’t any political undertones when we initially conceived the story.
Tom: What was it like to work with that cast, and how did they take to their characters and respond to the script?
Aaron: I think one of the aspects that attracted Jessica Hynes to the role was probably that it was a very different role to what she normally gets offered. I remember, the first time we met, she wanted to talk about the character and how she saw the mother in this story. I think she was probably looking to do something a bit different.
Adam wasn’t that experienced and didn’t have that much screen experience. He had more stage experience. So he was thrown in the deep end but was very excited about it. He did very well, considering the conditions we were shooting under – you know, a typical low-budget film, and there’s hardly any time to do anything.
Gabrielle also did really well. We were really happy with all the performances, if I’m honest. Jessica Hynes was by far the most experienced person compared to everyone else, though. Some of them had done short films, but none of them had done feature films and main roles, really. So it was a fantastic combination.
Tom: Were there any particular film influences that you can point to, especially in terms of the look of the film?
Aaron: There was one main film that was a big inspiration, which was Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes. It’s a revenge story, and during the writing process I kept coming back to that. I’ve studied that film many times and tried to work out why it’s so powerful and what it was that made it work so well, then, taking inspiration from that, using some of those things. The aspect of the flashback telling the story, trying to get under the skin of the characters. And also trying to set it in as real a world as possible, which maybe people can relate to.
Tom: Having made this leap from shorts to feature-length productions, what would you say are the biggest lessons that you learned, which maybe other filmmakers might benefit from if they’re thinking of attempting something similar?
Aaron: Making films has always been a rollercoaster, even more so when you’re moving from short films to feature films. You think short films are exhausting, but feature films are ten times that. When you’re writing, you have these ideals of what things should look like, and how it could and should be. But then, when it comes to making the film, you just don’t have all the time to get all of the things you had in mind, so you’re having to do with much less.
I remember, coming into the editing process, I’d hit quite a low because I was just looking at this footage and thinking “This just doesn’t look anything like I had imagined”. So I had to just leave it for a couple of months and focus on my own mental health and wellbeing, and then come back to it with an editor and start putting it back together again. It was in that process that there were a lot of aspects that hadn’t worked out, but then at the same time, these other aspects had worked out much better or differently to what I had expected. You often hear filmmakers talking about how the film is sort of finding itself in the editing process, and that was very much the case with ours. In the beginning, I could not see how I would ever put this together in any meaningful way, but with the help of the talented editor, suddenly it discovered itself. It became a different film than I had visualised, but it became as good as, if not better, than that. I was very happy with the end result.
Expect it to be a rollercoaster, and expect to be a bit depressed about your own work, especially when it’s your first feature [laughs]. But don’t give up, because there’s usually a way through it. Also, I initially had the idea that I was going to edit the film myself, and I’m so glad that I didn’t do that. Because we were working with an editor who came from outside, who hadn’t been involved and didn’t realise how hard things were to make, he was able to cut things out and add things in in a way that I couldn’t have done, as I was way too emotionally involved with the making of the film. Don’t despair in the editing process, and find a good editor!
Tom: Is there anything that you’re currently working on that you’d like to talk about?
Aaron: Yeah, I’ve been working on a horror film for a while. I thought it was ready but realised it wasn’t. So that’s still in progress. At the same time, I’m also experimenting with improvisation at the moment. Over the summer, I was running some improv groups with some actors, and I’m trying to establish a way of working with actors where we’re developing the story with the actors. I think I’ll probably do that for the next year, before getting involved with another feature.
Tom: Thanks very much, it’s been great talking to you, and congratulations on the film. We really enjoyed it. Good luck with your future projects – hopefully we’ll get to see you take on another horror film!
We’d like to thank Peter Blach for taking the time to talk to us and wish him all the best with Seagull and his future projects!
Seagull is screening at Grimmfest in Manchester on Saturday October 9th at 10:40 AM.
Tickets are available here.