‘Host’ Director Rob Savage on What It Was Like to Make a Horror Movie During Lockdown [Interview]

I reckon there won’t be many good things that come out of our country’s current pandemic reality. Maybe only one good thing, if we’re honest. Luckily for horror fans, that one good thing is a terrifying Zoom-based horror movie that the Shudder streaming service commissioned and dropped rather rapidly. Rob Savage’s Host has been the talk of Horror Twitter these last few weeks, and with fantastic reason. It’ll undoubtedly be one of my favorite horror films of the year once 2020 finally releases us from its unforgiving grasp.

After the credits rolled, I knew I had to talk to Mr. Savage about his experience. He created an authentic, scream-worthy screen life horror film, but he did so while battling lockdown stipulations. How do you make a movie when no one should be within six feet of each other, let alone trapped inside flats and houses? There are seventeen-thousand reasons why Host shouldn’t work, but it does. Too well. 

Let’s dive into all the challenges that couldn’t stop Rob Savage from delivering above-and-beyond what I’m sure even Shudder expected.

Let’s start at the beginning. You’re asked to direct a film under stay-at-home COVID restrictions. What was your first gut reaction? Was it along the lines of, “Fuck no!?”

Nope. It was the opposite. We figured that if the film was rubbish, we’d have a free pass because we were making Host under lockdown. The way we looked at it, if the movie sucks, then people are going to ignore it. We can come out the other side and pretend it never happened. 

I mean, it sounds like a really bad idea on paper. We were aware of that going in. We were fully prepared for Host to be a disaster, but I was allowed to make something with my friends and the one thing I did know is that the experience would be a fun one. Plus, it would keep us busy during lockdown. That was enough.

You just mentioned, “keep us busy during lockdown.” How long did you think it was going to take before you could actually get back into filmmaking outside lockdown orders before this opportunity presented itself?

Oh, God. I was two weeks away from shooting on a big series when we got shut down. They were talking about maybe a September return, which it looks like is when productions are going back? So it might be as soon as September that I’m on a real set, but when you’re building up to shoot something, you’ve got all this momentum and then suddenly everything hits a brick wall. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Luckily, I’m always up for a challenge. Anytime you’ve got restrictions like this, there’s always some creative solution around regulations that is actually going to make your movie better.

Has the completion and success of Host been a revitalization, then? How much have your proverbial tanks been refilled?

Oh, massively. I think this is the most fun and creative process that I’ve ever been through in my life. I feel so revitalized on the other side of it all. There are so many lessons that I’ve learned that I’m going to take onto a proper set when I start filming “for real” again.

In the after times.

In the after times, absolutely. 

One thing that I loved about Host is, the way that people usually talk about films, it’s always as though there’s a sole author. It’s auteur theory, all that nonsense, which is bullshit. This film, throughout the creative process, totally hammered that home. It was about investing trust in every single collaborator, every person who made this movie from the cast to the writers to the producers, we’re all collaborative co-authors.

It was nice to know that from the outset, I’d be working with people who I love and respect. All we wanted to do was make an excellent movie. Everyone was throwing in ideas. Everyone wanted this to be as good as it possibly could be. Everyone had unlimited time on their hands to sit at home and think of cool shit we could do. There’s nothing to stop people bringing more of that input onto bigger productions. Collaboration always gives you the best result.

I’m still curious though, how hard of a sell is it to convince people to be part of a screen life movie? Even to friends? It’s a different type of filmmaking. What was the hardest part of the pitch, saying, “Listen, we’re going to do this screen life horror movie. I want you to be in it. Here’s why?”

All the actors were game, I think, because they had one another to rely on. They’re actually friends with each other, so a large part of Host’s success was going to rely on their banter and chemistry. Since we knew we had that, and we knew a majority of the film was going to be semi-improvised, the actors knew that they could lean on each other throughout that process. 

I know the girls had a separate WhatsApp chat where they’d debrief each day and blow off steam, plus probably bitch about me [laughs]. That, I believe, was something they relied on because it was quite a tough shoot for our actors. They had to spend days crying and screaming at the top of their lungs, watching these horrible deaths play out. Having one another kept the mood light and stopped anything from being too traumatizing.

Sometimes filmmakers hide plot points from their cast to get unscripted reactions. Did you try any of that trickery on Host, where the cast didn’t know something was going to happen and you surprised them?

Oh yeah. Most of Host played out like a prank video.

We didn’t have a conventional script. We ended up with, I think it was ten pages or about as much? A ten-page outline with all the beats that the characters needed to hit throughout? 

We redacted a lot of information in those treatments that we sent out. Each actor only knew what was going to happen to them. One thing that we did schedule-wise, is we put all of the big stunts, all of the big set pieces, all of the big scares, right at the very start to production. We went individually with all the actors and filmed their scares, their deaths, without telling the rest of the group.

I was able to take that footage, edit it together, and add all the spooky sound effects. Then when we started working with the whole group, I could pump that footage into Zoom and have them react in real-time as though their friends were dying in front of them or getting dragged around, all this stuff that they had no idea was coming. A lot of what you see on-screen is genuinely the first take of actors witnessing these horrible narrative moments unfold. They’re all massive scaredy cats as well, so the reactions are totally unforced.

Can you talk about some of your favorite improv moments, then? Some of those scenes that stuck out like, “Wow, where did that come from? I’m so lucky I got this?”

In the scene where [the girls have] Saylen on the phone and must close down the seance, in the script, it basically just says, “They close down the seance and start to relax.” That’s a hard thing to sell as actors, after you’ve seen all this craziness go down, the lights have been flickering, and so on. We needed to find something that would allow the audience to laugh and take a breath before the roller coaster started picking back up again. We couldn’t quite figure out that transition. So we did the first take, we got to the end of the seance, they shut it down, and then [Haley Bishop] couldn’t stop sneezing.

That addition gave the others permission to start laughing, and then the conversation turned to, “I think it’s over.” It felt so natural. Little details like that. When you watch back through the preceding scene, you can tell that Haley wants to sneeze the whole time. It’s written on her face. 

That example, plus every so often the cast would come up with a totally brilliant line like “Happy Spookies,” which is my favorite line in the whole thing, and was just [Emma Louise Webb] messing around.

I mean, you’ve created an eternal hashtag with #HappySpookies.

Yeah, I know!

It’s true, because Host’s biggest accomplishment is how natural it feels. That’s coming from someone who’s only been socializing over Zoom calls for the last five to six months. You hit all the funky things that happen. I’m curious, were there any Zoom gimmicks that didn’t make the final cut but you wanted to include at one time?

I didn’t want this to be “The Zoom Horror Movie.” I mean, it is “The Zoom Horror Movie,” but I didn’t want to make all of the scares specific to Zoom if they didn’t feel like something we’d been noticing throughout our own lockdown Zoom meetings. 

A lot of people skim the surface of Zoom and they’ll maybe muck around with a fake background or something. We wanted to include that. The main point was always to only show actions that felt authentic to everyone’s experience. We’re in this weird time where everyone is basically going through a version of the same situation and we needed to make sure it felt real.

[Emma Louise Webb] can’t help but toy around with the Snapchat add-on in Zoom. She was naturally just putting those masks on when we were doing our Zoom happy hours. The fake backgrounds, of course, everyone has somebody in the group that messes around with those.

I’m not going to spoil this because we might use it again somewhere else, but there was a gag we wanted to include about things playing out in the background of different Zoom windows. It was the one thing that we weren’t actually able to pull off without breaking the lockdown rules, so we weren’t able to execute. I mean, it’s kind of “stolen” from Insidious, but with a bit of a Zoom twist. I think you know which moment. That’s the only one I can think of where it’s like, “Fuck, that would have been great.”

The facial filters gag is my favorite, no contest. The one we see when Emma encounters the demon, is that a reference to Alice, Sweet Alice?

Yeah. One of my favorite slashers.

I had to confirm that. I assumed as much.

I spent so long making sure the reference via filter was just right. It needed the glossiness that the original mask had, that translucent quality. It’s so scary.

How hard was it sticking to stay-at-home orders? There are multiple scenes where it seems like you need other people in the room with actors. Was that ever an option?

We started shooting during the full-on lockdown, where we weren’t allowed to move from our houses. Then towards the end of the process, conditions over here started to loosen up a bit. For a couple of the biggest stunt moments, we were able to get fully hazmat-suited stunt coordinators in there just to make sure conditions were safe. There are lots of stunts that just wouldn’t be safe for actors to do on their own.

One way we avoided having multiple people in the same room, and I think it works quite well, is there are moments hidden [by cuts as we jump] from one person’s house into, say, a stunt performer’s house. They’d dress up as the character, perform a stunt, and then we have a hidden cut back to the real actor, so it feels like you’re watching something that’s happening in real-time to a recognizable face, but it’s actually a composite of lots of different performers in lots of different houses.

I think that, right there, highlights what you might be coming back into when productions reopen. When all of this gets “better and back to normal,” because I still feel like “back to normal” is going to be a far cry from the normal we used to know.

Everything was done by the book and we wanted to make sure that nobody was put at risk and it’s a slow process, making sure that you’re not cutting corners. We were lucky because there’s less faff shooting on Zoom. You don’t need to spend ten hours setting up the lights and the camera, it’s pretty much all there for you. We were able to eat up that time elsewhere. Schedules are going to have to change, the way that sets are run is going to have to change. It’s going to be a whole new world for a little while.

As a director who is directing from afar, do you get that same sense of control over Zoom?

Oh yeah, more so.

Oh, really?

To be honest, if you’re any good at your job as a director, you have to use your words to paint a picture for what you see in your head. That’s the job. I like to be quite hands-on normally, though. I’ve got some bad habits that I lean on when I’m making conventional films that I wasn’t able to employ here, using slick camera moves to cover up inconsistencies in the story or missed performance beats or whatever. Every director has their bag of tricks that they always use, and I couldn’t use any of them here.

This process was about being direct with the actors. Trying to be as clear about what I wanted as possible. I was able to sit on all of the Zoom calls out-of-sight and I’d just unmute myself and throw in an idea or say, “Run that line back,” and really be able to shape all the moments and performances, just like I would on a normal set. 

We didn’t have the huge machinery you’d find on a professional set, that ends up eating a lot of time. The hair and makeup, the camera, the lighting. None of that. It meant we had much more time to work with the actors, which was great. We were able to find these moments that would have just passed us by, I think, on a normal shoot.

Was it difficult to get the actors to also be cinematographers? I mean, the shot with Emma’s eye and the blanket. It’s perfectly centered. Everything is right where it needs to be…

That shot was honestly a total accident.

Get out.

I mean, a lot of the cinematography was set. If I wanted something specific, I would film it on my phone in my flat and send them the video and explain why I was moving the camera in the way that I was. So I basically acted out the film on my phone here and then sent it over to them. They knew how I wanted the camera to operate. I worked with them a lot in advance of the shoot to pick out the scariest angles in their houses.

The shot with Emma’s eye came out of her not quite knowing how to work the camera. So many things came from beautiful accidents. 

I was able to monitor via a Zoom call, but we were very scared of the internet cutting out during a good take or an expensive stunt. There’s not a single Zoom recording in the final product. We got the actors to velcro their phones behind their laptops so that the camera was poking over the top. But Emma, for some reason, always positioned it way too high, which is why she spends most of the movie [lower framed]. It also meant on Zoom, I was seeing her full face. Then I got the footage back, and it’s just her eye, right at the bottom of the frame with all the negative space. I wouldn’t have even thought to do that, but it’s these amazing miracles that happen when you’re shooting something so off the cuff.

I feel like outsiders think screen life horror is perceived as easier because you can, for instance, hop on a Zoom call and record a film. I’d argue, if anything, it’s more challenging. In the beginning of the interview, you mentioned lessons that you learned while shooting Host. What were some of those lessons?

It’s easier in a practical sense maybe because you don’t need professional cameras for screen life horror, and you can record in your own home, but it’s also a very exposing medium. 

I was saying a little before that if you’re putting a film together in a conventional way, there are lots of tricks and shortcuts you can use to paper over things that aren’t quite working in performances, or aren’t quite working in the script. It’s much harder to do that if you’re playing things in real time. The actors need to take a lot on their shoulders. The performances need to be authentic. The decisions they make need to feel authentic. Everything that you would normally buy in a movie, the character making a stupid decision, you don’t get away with in the same way when you’re making a found footage movie, specifically one that’s so recognizable as a Zoom call.

One of the lessons that I’m going to remember is if something’s broken, it’s worth taking the time to work with your actors to fix it. If there’s a logic problem, if there’s a moment that’s not quite landing, to not gloss on over. There has been a lot of backlash [against Host] or comparisons made to films like Unfriended, but I love those movies. I think screen life gets a lot of negative press, but these films are really smartly done. It’s a lot harder to manage than people assume.

There’s a reason why Timur Bekmambetov says screen life is the next big thing in horror. That’s for a reason, because I love those movies too. The Den is fantastic. Unfriended is awesome. You can go down the list. Were there any specific inspirations you took from those films that you wanted to either recreate or stay away from because they’ve already done something so right?

We wanted to stay away from having too many windows popping up and too much of the characters interacting with the interface. It felt so fresh when Unfriended did it, but I think it also can be quite distancing. We were keen to rely more on the performances and real-time escalation than having too many gimmicky interface clicks. We didn’t want to pull the audience out. 

But also, I mean, I’m not going to lie. I went back and watched the Unfriended movies before we shot Host, to see how they did their sound design, for instance. Obviously you can’t have a conventional score, so they did some really clever things with integrated sound and glitching and interference usage. We learned a lot from those movies.

Plus then you have to obtain the rights to use brand names. Blumhouse has the money to nab YouTube, Google, and more. But then you see the other indies that pull up janky knockoffs like YouSearch and SearchMe…

None of that.

I have a lot of friends who aren’t too excited about the reality of post-lockdown cinema, where every script is probably going to be about the pandemic. Did you think about that while conceptualizing Host?

We were very clear about our intentions. Host isn’t a pandemic movie. Host is a lockdown thriller, very much about the specifics of being isolated, of being virtually together, but actually in a state of exposed isolation. When push comes to shove, you’re on your own and your friends can only witness what’s happening to you. That was the fear we wanted to tap into.

I think anything that leans too much into being specifically about the pandemic had a bad taste in our mouths and we didn’t want to go that route. I don’t think people are going to really want to see pandemic movies in a post-pandemic world. Everyone’s sick of it already. Nobody wants to see those narratives when we’re in the after times, like you said.

Is screen life horror a space you’d like to explore even further? Host has been on my Twitter feed since it premiered. Are you ready to take on more screen life, if the opportunity presents itself?

Yeah, I’m not against it. It would have to be something different from Host, but more broadly speaking, I’m really excited to do more found footage. Host has really got me fired up about doing more in that space and whether it’s something that’s leaning more towards screen life, or if it’s something a bit more The Blair Witch, there’s so much you can do in this format. If you get it right, they’re always the scariest horror movies. They have a level of realism to them that gets under your skin. I’m really keen to harness that, to be able to push further.

I always say found footage and screen life are the same in the way that when they’re done right, they’re cutting edge. You’re doing something new and you’re doing something that hasn’t been seen. Versus when they’re done wrong, you see filmmakers take the subgenre for granted. “Oh, all I need is a camera to make the next Paranormal Activity.”

You need to work harder. It’s not easier, it’s more difficult.

You’re going to work with Sam Raimi on a project and that’s something that’s in your future. When you look at that project in the context of Host now being a smashing success, is there any kind of reality where it becomes screen life? I saw a quote that says the film is “similar in space to the supernatural elements, but obviously in a way different direction than Host?”

I think it would do a disservice to that project’s specific idea if it took place as a found footage movie or as a screen life movie. Who knows how we’ll be making movies over the next few years, but one of the questions you need to ask when you’re making a found footage movie is does this need to be a found footage movie? Would this be better if it was shot in a conventional way? 

There’s got to be something innate in the concept that lends itself to being a found footage movie that gives you more tools, not less. Otherwise that’s when it starts to feel like a gimmick, when you’re just saying, “Let’s take Poltergeist but make it found footage.” That’s not an original idea. That’s just a cash grab. That movie you’re referencing is really our love letter to Sam Raimi movies. And I think it’d be a real shame if we weren’t able to shoot it with the kind of array of toys that you expect from a Sam Raimi movie.

Raimi’s films are so darkly comedic, but they’re also so over the top in practical effects, so yeah, if you’re doing that found footage, you lose a little bit of the magic so to say. I get it.

Although a lot of Raimi’s movies were a big influence on Host, the pace of them, how extreme he always pushes his scares. We took a lot of that from the Evil Dead movies.

Well, talking about the pace, that’s a great segue to one of my last questions. Since Host came out, I have a lot of friends who are now tweeting “Normalize sixty-minute horror,” because Host hits the ground running and doesn’t stop. You cut out all the fat. Do you think Host could finally blur the terms “feature” and “short” together, or at least change our approach over how run time can dictate creative choices?

Absolutely. It’s the nice thing about streamers, like Shudder. They don’t have to impose these archaic rules onto the films that they commission. Any filmmaker will tell you that while you’re making and editing a film, the movie tells you how long it wants to be. What the best length is. I’ve been working in television for the last ten years and in that world, especially, it’s really painful to know that there’s a better version of something in the rushes. That a shorter version is going to be more impactful, or the opposite, sometimes. When you know that you’re having to cut out some golden moments to try and get to a run time, or to hit the first ad break you need to chop a scene in half and cut its legs off.

It does a disservice to the work. The editing process needs to be much more organic. Also? Normalize shorter movies. There’s a tendency to overindulge these days. If you’re going a second over ninety minutes, you really need to earn those minutes. If you’re shorter than ninety minutes? Even better.

It’s a great lesson for, say, Blumhouse’s Into The Dark series. You mentioned streamers being the perfect place for these kinds of films. Into The Dark is a great concept, a month by month horror anthology of feature films. I’ve liked some and I’ve not liked some, but they all push that ninety minute barrier and you’re kind of like, “They’ve never, ever earned it. They never have.” You have the opportunity. You’re Hulu. Just go an hour.

When you’re editing something, you should always be pushing to see how compact you can make the movie. Then if it feels like you start to miss out on stuff, you can let it breathe a bit more, but brevity should always be the aim. It should always feel like “What’s the fastest way we can get this information across and have it land without stifling it?” I’m a big fan of the original Twilight Zone, and they’re so economical in their storytelling. In twenty minutes, they introduce you to a world and a concept and a twist. I look to those kinds of episodic anthology shows as great references for the feature film space.

It’s my motto as a writer, too. Say the most in the least amount of words, that’s exactly what you should always be doing.

The big example that I always go to is, do you ever watch Adventure Time?

I am two seasons in at this point.

They’re ten minute episodes, right? The amount of story and invention that they pack into ten minutes, it puts films to shame. They do more in ten minutes than most films do in three hours.

Say the most you can in the shortest amount of time, without the overindulgence as you said before. Just say what you mean.

Yeah. Exactly. Be direct.

On a closing note, I have seen you express interest in a Host sequel. With the way Host has taken off, does that put more pressure on a sequel – should it happen – to go above and beyond?

For sure. Most sequels suck. It’s really got to be a concept that can stand on its own two feet. We’ve got an idea for something that’s sort of a spiritual successor in the same world. It’s hard to say because it’s not really what people are expecting.

[Our sequel idea] has the potential to be even scarier and even crazier than Host. We’ve set a high bar. Host is only what it is because of the very unique circumstance in which we made it. To do a sequel without that same creative energy would be a mistake. People would respond in a different way. That said, we have another idea that we’re just as excited about as when we went into Host. I think fans will really go for it, and might even take them by surprise

I won’t push too hard, but are you talking more like an Unfriended to Unfriended: Dark Web jump, where they are two very different films, under the same namesake umbrella? Almost like an anthology feel?

No, it’s not that big of a jump. It’s in the same world. Same style and everything.

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