Father of Flies is a psychological horror that invites us into the home of a family struggling to reconcile with their traumatic past. As the friction between characters grows, the film makes us aware of just how easily fear can leech off of those in vulnerable states of mind.
We caught up with director Ben Charles Edwards to discuss the movie.
Skye: For those who haven’t seen your film, how would you summarise it?
Ben: Well, I would say it’s a horror, so go and see it if you like horrors! I run production at Goldfinch Entertainment, an independent but very large production company, and we get a lot of movies pitched to us every week. As a result, I’ve come to learn that the best way to get someone excited is through that elevator pitch. For Father of Flies, it’s essentially ‘a haunting tale of family life’, which I think works as a really great headline for the film!
Skye: How did the idea for this film arise?
Ben: I’ve always loved horrors because you’re making someone feel deeply about a particular thing or emotion. It’s like being on a rollercoaster ride. There are ups and downs, with bits where you want to hold your breath or close your eyes. I like feeling as much as I can, and you don’t get that when you’re watching a drama as such. So, bearing that in mind, that’s why I wanted to make a horror. I’ve made four or five features already, but this is only the second one I’ve directed. I wanted to direct a horror, and I’ll certainly do more.
A good writer and friend of mine, Dominic Wells, who was the editor of Time Out for many years, told me to write about things that you know and can relate to. Childhood, therefore, appeared to be a great place to start. Myself, like many other people in the ’80s, had a family who went through divorce. It was a very unsettling time, so it seemed like a natural starting point for a horror. I believe that the foundations of a horror should lie in uncertainty. It’s something we all feel vulnerable towards, whether that be a monster under the bed, mummy and daddy breaking up, or a weird new alien stepmother in the house. These fears are things children have. They are innate fears, and like any good horror, they shouldn’t try to be too clever. Instead, they should just scare the shit out of us. At the end of the day, we’re animals, and animals are scared of particular things. Take my cat, for instance. His senses are more alert at night when things are dark. It’s the same with us; when it’s dark, our senses are on edge, and it’s the perfect time to feel scared.
Skye: Yeah, I was definitely getting ‘house of horrors’ vibes! How did you manage to balance the horror elements with the familiar frictions throughout the film?
Ben: It was definitely something that I was aware of. In a way, it’s a film with two halves. There’s the horror vibe to the house, which makes it almost like a classic gothic horror. Then, in another sense, half of the horror comes from the family itself, and from the emotions and trauma that divorce, separation and scared children can create.
This was hammered out in the script quite early on, which I originally started to write as a drama. A journey of a child wanting his mummy back after a strange new woman moves in, and whose dad goes away to work leaving them to fend for themselves. It then provided a structure where you could weave in the horror elements. It followed the premise of what would happen to a vulnerable young child left alone at home and afraid of his stepmother. This was then paired with the child’s sense of suppressed memory, of not actually allowing the brain to commit to what the truth is. Memory and truth are strange things, and can also be very scary. Like, did we remember things correctly and will we remember things correctly?
I think that’s the conversation that Mrs Start, the old, batty, witch-like neighbour, is having during the middle act. When she is in the garden speaking of her ex-partner, she says that her biggest fear is having no-one next to her to ask, “Do you remember when we did this?” or “Do you remember when we did that?”. You can make it to 70, 80 or 90 years of age, but what value does it have if there’s no-one there to acknowledge that it ever even happened? So everyone has these fears in the film, and that was Mrs Start’s deepest fear.
This woman seems to have already been in touch with the spirit world, regarding herself as some kind of clairvoyant or witch. So she’s clearly not afraid of the other side, as she’s made peace with it. However, there are things within our nature as human beings that are terrifying nonetheless. One of
these is loneliness, and I think that’s what she fears. The film just tries to hint at the different things people may be scared of.
Skye: It brings to mind a quote from another movie you’ve worked on where a character says, “If we’re not reflected in someone else’s eyes, do we even exist?”
Ben: It’s really good that you’ve picked up on that. It’s from A Bird Flew In with Derek Jacobi, and it was Jeff Fahey from The Lawnmower Man who says that. In fact, it was Dominic Wells who wrote that movie, and he was the one who inspired me to write Father of Flies. When we were in conversation, that was actually one line that I fed into the script. It read, “If no one’s there to laugh at a joke, is it even funny? If we’re not reflected in someone else’s eyes, how do we know we even exist?”. I mean, it’s something that’s an innate fear of mine!
That’s the thing with filmmaking. It becomes quite cathartic. You learn so much more about yourself and the world by doing it, more so than you ever think you will. So yeah, you’ve actually just joined two dots in my head!
Skye: In terms of the location, right from the outset we’re met with this bleak and desolate setting with a house just planted in the middle. It’s quite striking! What made you choose this location?
Ben: I originally wrote the story to be set in the suburbs in the UK. It was actually going to be set within a terrace house, with Mrs Start in the adjoining house. As it evolved, however, I started to hate that idea, especially of Mrs Start being within reach of the family. That’s why we never really see her house in the film, mostly just her potting shed. All we need to know is that she lives near to the family, but we never need to establish that. That’s why I like this film – it isn’t one of those horrors where we felt the need to explain everything away. It isn’t a bunch of kids lost in a forest who can’t call home because all their phones are dead.
We didn’t need that problem to isolate the family. Instead, we had the luxury of using the house as a tool to do this job. When you’re at home, you should feel comfortable. However, this home is stuck in the middle of nowhere among gnarly trees and the snow, with no-one around to hear your screams. It worked well for the way that I’d written it.
We shot some of it on set in Tribeca, upstate New York, and some of it at that house in Suffern. There needed to be these places within the location for it to work. So the driveway had to be on the side of the house in order for the car to pull up at the end where Donna comes from the forest, as well as a basement, too. I loved the child’s bedroom having those two dual windows – it reminded me of The Amityville Horror. There’s something so bleak and plain about the house that’s quite terrifying in itself. It’s like this symmetrical bleak nothingness that almost doesn’t exist against the backdrop of snow, unless the lights are switched on.
Skye: Yeah, I noticed that the film played a lot with this idea of facades: the front of the house in conjunction with the creepy mask that the stepmother wears.
Ben: There were no trees near it either, so really it was just plonked in the middle of this landscape of nothingness. We were hoping for snow, hence why we were stupid enough to shoot it the middle of January in New York. When it did snow, I was just like “Oh my God, this is amazing!”. It blanketed
everything white, leaving this house looking absolutely lost.
A good horror doesn’t solely rest on this, though. You still have to build the atmosphere and a world that’s terrifying and uncertain in itself. Add a good few jump-scares, and it doesn’t need much more than that to set a tone.
Skye: What was it like working with the cast? I noticed that the movie was dedicated to Nicholas Tucci. What was it like working with him?
Ben: He was an amazing guy, he really was. He was a fun actor, and I loved him in You’re Next. When I got the opportunity to work with him, I thought he was terrific, since he loved the story and improvised through a lot of it. We connected and had some amazing conversations in the evenings
Overall, there was a lot of trust there between me and the cast. They weren’t afraid to put forward their ideas, and with a film like Father of Flies, it needed that human element to the characters. This wasn’t an overwritten piece. It was a piece that hangs together by its feet and by the twist. So you
build the scene, you build the situation, and you say to the actors “Knock yourselves out and go for it!”.
Nick was one that really embraced that. In fact, some of his best performances were things he came up with on set, including that end shot where he’s walking towards the camera.
The whole cast were really brilliant, and their performances were really solid. They all just seemed to connect, and I think that’s what happens when you isolate yourselves. It was creepy as hell out there – so much so that we even had the house exorcised by a Catholic priest because people felt that they’d seen things in the house. Everyone was on edge and terrified, so it really added to the performances.
Camilla Rutherford, who plays stepmother Coral, was fantastic. She is a friend of mine from London who has been in several projects I’ve worked across. In fact, I wrote the part with her in mind as a kind of steer. Donna referred to her in the film as a ‘fucked-up Mary Poppins’, so she fit the bill well. Colleen Heidemann, who plays Mrs Start, is a renowned fashion model and really interesting woman. She has a strange insight into life and what’s possible at any age. I really enjoyed reading about her years ago, and some of her philosophies for life. I’d previously seen a documentary that she had voiced and thought she was amazing, so I got in touch and she was keen to do Father of Flies.
The two kids Donna and Michael, played by Page Ruth and Keaton Tetlow, were both really brilliant, too. I still remember seeing Keaton’s tape that he’d rehearsed and sent to me, and I was honestly blown away. I kept thinking, “How is this kid not in a Spielberg movie yet?” So I was like, “Right, I’ve got to do it”. They were all just a solid bunch of professionals.
Skye: What would you say was the most difficult scene to shoot, or the most memorable scene?
Ben: During filming it was freezing cold there, -10 to -15 degrees at night, with the wind blowing and snow falling. It was so uncomfortable and dreadful to be filming outside in those conditions. So I had this kind of giant baby-grow snow outfit to wear to keep warm.
I think one of the most memorable moments was a night when we were filming the chase in the forest at the back of the house. The crew had done a great job throughout the day of putting up all of the lights in the trees in preparation for nightfall. The trees were illuminated and went back acres, because you wanted to create depth to the forest. They had really laden that forest with lights, and I remember seeing it at night as the mist came across and thinking how beautiful it was. It was one of those moments where you wished you could capture it forever.
I also fell in a frozen lake at night, which was my fault. It was before we started shooting, and I wasn’t looking where I was going. I mean, it was only a foot dee,p but when you’re freezing cold at -20 you don’t want to get wet feet! I then spent the rest of the time in the trailer trying to dry off whilst coming in and out to do shoots. But it was then that we also got some of the best stuff.
Shooting the scenes in the studio when the child’s room transforms was a really tricky thing for me to wrap my head around. I’m looking at the script and thinking, “Right, so we’re going to cut out this scene in the edit, and then, by the time we cut back, the room is going to be smaller again for the next scene”. So that part was really mind-boggling to shoot. The crew were great, however, and being over there with one of my production designers and cinematographer to take on this project as friends was lovely.
Skye: You’ve had past experience doing photography exhibitions. Did that come in useful when it came to the cinematography and getting the right shots?
Ben: My background of work has quite a strong aesthetic to it, both compositionally and in terms of the layout. When I was younger, I was a painter, and I think from then on it transferred into my photography, short films, commercials, music videos, and eventually on into the features I’ve
directed and produced.
Great cinematographers like John Bretherton, who shot Father of Flies, understood what I was trying to do and managed to execute it (just 50 times better because he’s a professional at it!). So I loved Father of Flies for that reason. It was a group of great minds coming together.
Skye: I see you’ve also dabbled in other genres with Quant and Set the Thames on Fire, for instance. What attracted you to the horror genre and what were some of your influences in terms of films and directors?
Ben: I think Jennifer Kent, who made The Babadook, is a genius. Even if it was the last horror film I ever saw, I would be happy. For me, it does everything a horror film should do. I also really loved Poltergeist as a child, and still do. I probably watch it a couple of times a year, and there’s some clear nods to it in Father of Flies with the television screen and so on. They’re probably my two favourite horror films. As a kid, I also loved the original Suspiria by Dario Argento. It’s not something you can pay homage to, because he’s too much of a genius. Just leave that alone or else you look like
an idiot trying to take it on. It’s like my GCSE Maths teacher trying to take on Stephen Hawking!
Skye: Do you have any other projects you’re currently working on?
Ben: As you mentioned, we’ve got the documentary on Mary Quant coming out in cinemas at the moment, which I produced. That’s been a really exciting project. It’s a story of female empowerment and how this young woman in the 1960s paved the way for so many people. A Bird Flew in, a black and white movie that Kirsty Bell directed, will also be coming out at small film festivals over the coming months.
Into the new year, Goldfinch Entertainment is set to do an announcement in the press about a really exciting and elevated genre slate of movies that we’re putting together called The Number 44. The Number 44 is the title I got from Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, and it’s the name he gave to the devil. It’s a series of films that are going to blow people’s socks off! There are horrors and thrillers with both a twist and an edge. There are potentially some remakes of some amazing old classic horrors that we might attempt to look at, too.
So that’s what the new year is going to bring, and we’ll see where we can go with it!
Skye: Sounds exciting! If you were to sum up Father of Flies in three words, what would they be?
Ben: Very fucking creepy, or: appreciate your family!
We’d like to thank Ben Charles Edwards for taking the time to talk to us and congratulate him once again on the success of Father of Flies!