What did you do while in lockdown earlier this year? Well, while this particular writer decided to watch all seven seasons of Mad Men (true story), the cast and crew of Host made what the poster boasts is ‘the scariest film of the past decade’.
Now, that’s saying a lot during this particular year but the film’s popularity is clear. Originally commissioned and shown on the horror subscription service Shudder, word of this Zoom-based found-footage horror soon circulated and the movie will now be available to watch on the big screen this December.
“I don’t think any of us really expected it to get to the cinema. I think we thought it would be something fun to do with our friends,” says Emma Louise Webb, who plays Emma in the movie (all of the characters have the same name as their actors) “[Then] if it works then it would be great, and if it didn’t we still had fun. So the fact that it’s actually going to go to the cinema is bizarre and amazing!”
Host tells the story of six friends – Emma, Teddy, Caroline, Hayley, Jemma and Radina – who, while bored in lockdown, decide to take part in a séance over the popular video chat programme, Zoom. However, what starts off as a laugh (and an effective drinking game) soon turns sinister when the friends start to experience events much more frightening than awkward Zoom silences.
For our six actors, the project also started off as something of a laugh: “We’re in the Quarantine Movie Club group, and it’s basically all of our creative friends,” Jemma Moore explains. “The whole crew I think is pretty much in that group. So we were watching movies on Netflix and we were doing quizzes. Then [writer and director] Rob [Savage] planted the seed that there was something in his attic and so we were all like ‘whatever, just don’t go up there you’ll be fine’.
“Then one day he got us all on Zoom and was like ‘shall I go up there?’” she continues. “He’d made this incredible contraption on his laptop where halfway through he’d switch from the phone onto the laptop, which was sort of cut in with his attic, and he scared the living daylights out of every single one of us! He recorded it all, cut it all together, and then put it out on the internet. Then this video just went viral!”
“I think it was then that Shudder and a bunch of other production companies got in contact with Rob, [co-writer] Jed [Shepherd] and Doug [Cox] our producer and were just like: ‘Hey, we saw what you did with no budget, what could you do with a budget?’” Haley Bishop explains. “I think the story goes that they picked Shudder in the end because Shudder was just ready to be like: ‘Yep, here’s the money. You can do whatever you want. You can use your friends. You can hire whoever you want for all of your crew and deliver it to us ASAP.’ Essentially, whereas a couple of the other companies I think were like: ‘Sure sure, we’ll give it to you and then after lockdown you can shoot,’ Rob and Doug were like: ‘No, no, we’re doing this now we’re making this ASAP.’
The timing really couldn’t have been more perfect – a low-budget indie horror movie filmed over Zoom, while many of us felt like we were living a real-life horror movie and communicating with friends and family mainly via Zoom? Yeah, we’ll be watching that.
“When we actually received the news [that the film was being made], it was hilarious because Rob, Jed and Doug were like: ‘Oh hey guys can you please jump on a Zoom call with us? We just have something to tell you’ and we were all like: ‘Nope! Not another prank! We don’t wanna!’” Radina Drandova laughs. “Then they asked us: ‘How do you feel about making this movie? This is what’s going to happen and we want you guys to be in it.’ We were all very excited to do something. First of all, to do something during lockdown, second of all to do something with our friends, and third of all, the group really trust each other creatively so we always knew that whatever they make is going to be good and we just wanted to be a part of that.”
Indeed, though the movie has been made on a low budget by a group of friends, what really stands out about Host is that it doesn’t feel like a cheap horror movie made by friends – the characters, the story and the scares are all top-notch, delivering a story that is truly affecting and truly terrifying.
A huge element in delivering those all-important scares are the impressive stunts, an element that brought in Edward ‘Teddy’ Linard, who has one of the more intense stunts in the movie: “Basically Nathaniel, the stunt coordinator, just rang me and said: “How do you feel about being set alight?” And the rest is history!” Teddy laughs. “I think Rob looked at my showreel and that was it, I got involved and met the girls and then filmed it all. It was wonderful. It was a great process, it really, really was.”
Being set on fire is one of many stunts seen throughout the movie. As with any good haunted house story, things need to go bump in the night – a requirement that needed some initiative during a nationwide lockdown in a global pandemic.
“It was different in each of our houses because we all had different things going on,” Caroline Ward explains to us. “So for example in my house, I live with my parents and my dad is shielding. So for me, everything that happened in my house was solely in my house. For my prosthetics, Dan Martin the SFX Makeup Designer, made the prosthetics, they were couriered over to my house, and then I was taught by Dan on Zoom how to apply them. Which was a really awesome, really fun thing to do.
“The guys knew the limitations that we each had at our houses when they were writing the script. So they wrote different things in. Like they wrote my dad into it because they knew my dad was downstairs. But then, for example, at Haley and Radina’s house, when they came to doing their stunts the [country’s Covid-19] restrictions had been lifted slightly so they were allowed the stunt team in the house.”
“[The stunt team] came at eight o’clock in the morning and started building this rig,” Radina remembers. “It was super exciting because nobody knew what they were doing still and we were just like: ‘Oh my gosh it’s the beginning of a film, it’s so cool!’ It was incredibly hard work, a really a big shout out to Lucky 13 Action because they were incredible.”
“Lucky 13 had riggers with them and they came over to all of our houses individually. They actually built a massive rig over the swimming pool,” Teddy explains. “They’re incredibly talented guys and they make you feel incredibly safe. So it was kind of a testament to them, really, that we got everything that we needed to, and certainly, there were things that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing had it not been with them!”
“We had the stunt team who was able to do everything. Jinny [Lofthouse, who plays Teddy’s girlfriend] was a stunt double for Radina and Emma, and then Anna [Thornley] was one of the other stunt doubles,” Haley explains. “Then on the other side, we’d be setting something up in the house and Steve Bray, who’s the VFX supervisor, would pop on the Zoom call and we’d be like: ‘Steve, is this possible for you to fix in post?’ and he would just be like: ‘Yep, no problem!’ Then we sent all the footage over him when it was ready to be edited and he painted all the rigging out. He painted Nathaniel’s entire body out in Jemma’s wine bottle scene. Yeah, him and the stunt team are the real superheroes of the film.”
Another challenging element while creating a movie during a time when people aren’t allowed to be physically near each other is communication – Zoom again to the rescue!
“We met every morning with a cup of tea on Zoom and we’d have a chat and then we’d go into the takes,” Jemma remembers. “Also what is brilliant about Zoom is that you have the chat function. So [when we were watching the takes], Rob would type something like: ‘Okay, cool Haley’ and then Haley would write something back. So it’s almost like live commentary. It was quite amazing. Even with the stunts, everyone would mute themselves – Haley would be pulled back on a chair and then she’d just swing a thumb around the corner to be like: ‘I’m alive!’.
“The shot would happen, like Teddy would be set on fire, and then there’s the silence. Rob talks about it a lot in his interviews where he was like: “I did not know if we just killed one of our actors” because you’re so removed. But then as soon as the shot was done, you’d be able to see it really quickly. So it was kind of like having a portable studio village.”
While on a normal film set the actors would have time to work with the director on their character development, for Host, Rob really trusted that his actors knew what they were doing and gave them a lot of freedom when honing in on their characters’ reactions. Besides, with plenty of mobile phones being their own mini recording studio these days, the cast were able to try and test some of their scenes in the comfort of their own homes.
“There were moments where we’d be directed, or we’d be given instructions to go away and do something,” says Emma. “So I’d have Rob and Doug on the call and they’d be like: ‘Call us back in ten minutes, try and do this and see what happens.’ So it’s just me with an iPhone, lying on the floor, filming myself and then sending it to them! So I had a sense of freedom that I’d never had before on any shoot, where I can just make what I want, and if it sucks, it sucks and I can just try again. There was no pressure because it’s just me in my house and my phone. I can’t mess this up that bad!”
“It was a really collaborative process, which made it unique,” Haley tells us. “Normally as an actor, you get your script and you learn your lines and you show up on set after you’ve been sitting in a trailer for two hours and then go through the scene. But this was actually us being able to figure it out. We actually improvised all the dialogue – we would get a Point A to start with and then a [Point B] of ‘this is where you have to end by the end of the scene’. Then the dialogue was all up to us to make up and play with.
“Also, we were in our homes, so we could figure out what was scarier. It would be a case of ‘we want something to happen here, what about this?’ and you say ‘okay, let me jump off and play with some fishing wire and then I’ll come back in 20 minutes and see what I’ve come up with’. It was always really nice to jump back on and they’d be like: ‘That’s awesome! Yes, let’s do it!’. So it was a real team-building exercise.”
2020 has been a year of great changes, prompting plenty of people to look at things in a different way and perhaps changing our perception of how many things are done. With cinemas and film sets being closed down, the movie industry has been hit incredibly hard by the pandemic. So it’s heartening to see those in the industry finding new ways to bring movies into our lives and more importantly, that these new ways are both challenging and effective.
“Obviously it was a new way of making a film. We’re all so used to being on set and the usual process of being on film but with this it was a bit like theatre in a way,” Caroline explains. “Especially in the early scenes of the film with the happy Zoom call stuff and the séance; we were filming that stuff for like 45 minutes or an hour in one go and we’d just keep filming, keep going. It felt very theatrical in that sense where we’re reacting off of everybody. It was really organic and it was a nice process as an actor that you don’t necessarily always get in film. Just because of the nature of film – cut, reset, reposition the camera. We didn’t have that as much. That was a nice change of pace which is interesting.”
This new way of movie-making not only had a huge impact on the actors but on Rob’s writing and direction too: “It was really fun because Rob [co-wrote the movie] as well. They were calling it a ‘scriptment’ because it was a mid-script, mid-treatment kind of thing,” Caroline explains to us. “So in the scriptment, he had this rating system of your fear factor. He’d list all of our names at the start of each section and be like: ‘Caroline you’re at fear level 10, Jemma’s at 3, Emma’s at 5’ and it would progress. We all had our own notes. We were filming for 45 minutes and we’d make sure we were all hitting the right beats within the same time to make sure the story flows.
“I would have post-it notes all the way down the side of my laptop and highlighted in green was the fear factor, highlighted in yellow was the lighting state, highlighted in blue was the key thing you had to say. So you had all of that at the side and then also Rob sending us messages like Jemma mentioned. It was so much fun, it really was. I want to do it again. It was great!”
It is a testament to Host’s cast and crew that a film based during a time where the world is not allowed to be close, feels incredibly personal – bridging that wide gap between screen and person. A critical element to any horror film is that audiences need to feel part of the story to be scared and with Host, it really does feel like you’re part of a Zoom call with a group of friends.
“It really shows, especially in the opening gambit where it’s everyone chatting,” Teddy agrees. “That fluidity of conversation. The gags and the digs and the little nuances that you do get between friends. I think it certainly comes across really well.”
Though a séance doesn’t sound like it would be scary while sitting safely behind the shield of a computer screen, the cast and crew of Host can testify that, yes, in fact, Zoom seances are terrifying, as they decided to a real-life one to prepare for the film!
“Yeah we did a real Zoom seance with a real medium!” Radina remembers. “I personally hadn’t done anything like this before and I think the others hadn’t so it was good for research but also things happened during that seance. For example, the medium’s connection really cut off, she really disappeared. So we were like: ‘Oh my god what happens now? We didn’t close the séance, what the hell, what’s going on?’ But that gave us a really good base for the story. Then from there they just concentrated on… okay the characters are there, the chemistry is good, let’s put a little conflict here and there because we all get on really well it’s a little boring. Then the script was just bullet points of ‘this happens, then this happens, then this happens’ but how we get from point A to B to C to D was fully improvised by us and it was different every time.”
Okay, sure Zoom seances are scary enough to create the plot to one of the scariest films of the decade but surely you don’t experience things flying across the room like we see in Host… “It was a little bit in [to the real-life séance] and I was really scared but I was trying to be cool because these are my mates, and then a book just slammed off my shelf!” Jemma says.
She nods: “I’d had this old Beatrix Potter string-bound book that my dad had when he was a kid, it was his mums. We had our triggering object, and mine was that book and then a book fell off the shelf. I stood up like in the actual film, crying but trying not to. I reacted completely differently to Jemma [in the film] and freaked out totally! Then Doug our producer was like: “Okay guys we’ll just take this down now, we’re going to calm down,” and then the [medium] cut out and I was like: ‘Oh crap I’m going to have to sage the whole of my house, start a mini sage bonfire!’ Then she came back on like in the film, on the phone and she was like: “Oh yeah, sorry I got distracted by my shopping” and then just left us and was like: “You guys can just cut the rope if you want and that will hopefully stop anyone from coming to haunt you.” Which was terrifying for us all. So yeah, a book fell off my shelf. Don’t mess with spirits. I have sage’d my house so we’re all good now! I think I’ve been cured of horror and of fear now because of all of this happening!”
Jemma wasn’t the only one whose experience with the movie made them feel the need to protect their house from evil spirits. “I didn’t want any part of being in this fucking séance!” Teddy exclaims. “Then after the film was out we had to do a séance for a publicity thing. I was a bit nervous so I went to the local vicar’s house and I made him bless some Buxton water and I poured it round all the exits and entrances to the house. All the windows and stuff… I’ve probably got wood rot now in quite a lot of places which might very well be my fault… Then I bought ALL the sage there was in this one shop.”
“The sage that you bought was like the ones you get in the 99p Tesco herb selection,” Jemma laughs.
“I didn’t know! I wanted all my bases covered [haha],” Adam chuckles. “And nothing happened so there you go.”
“And you got to smell like a roast dinner,” Caroline points out.
“Win win!” Adam laughs.
Indeed, what becomes clear on our Zoom call with the cast and crew (yes, we did feel like we were also in the movie) is that not only are they great friends but there are plenty of similarities between the actors and their Host counterparts…
“I think we are similar to our characters in the film but we have certain traits of us toned up or toned down,” Radina tells us. “I think more or less we are similar.”
“My key attribute to ramp up was that I was just terrified of pretty much… life,” Caroline laughs. “We did do a lot of work on the back story of the dynamics of all of our relationships because I think that Rob wanted to have those subtle nuances. Even if it was just a slight moment. For example, me and Teddy had this whole back story that we were dating before and then Jinny came along and the girls didn’t like Jinny because of whatever had happened with Teddy. Me and Ted had like an hour-long phone call about the relationship and then in the film, it’s literally one look. But the amount of people who have picked up on it and mentioned that moment. I love that there’s a lot of little things like that in the film that just comes from the work that we did before. It’s really nice because we know they’re all there but when the audience picks up on them it’s really nice. It’s like welcome to the gang!”
The only two who aren’t quite like their characters are Haley and Jemma (“I’m not a knob!” Jemma exclaims when describing their lack of similarities), especially the moments when the two are in conflict.
“Jemma and I worked with Rob a bit,” says Haley. “When we did that first séance, [co-writer] Gemma Hurley was the only one out of the group who had never met any of us. So she watched and picked out archetypes of people from watching us interact with each other. So I think Jemma and I especially play more amped up (I hope!). Jemma, I and Rob had a mini rehearsal to figure out the controversy between us and build a little backstory about why our characters are butting heads. What is it about each other that really grinds their gears? So Jemma and I had a discussion to figure out what it is that makes these women tick the way they do so we could create that controversy because that doesn’t exist in real life.
“I remember us being in our group texting that the hardest thing about this film is not the crying, the sobbing and the acting scared but actually having to be mean to my friends! As we’re essentially playing ourselves it’s this weird dynamic where I’m calling Jemma horrible things and saying ‘I wish you were dead’ and that’s like… I don’t want to say that to her!”
The group’s friendship is not only clear on-screen, making the banter scenes easy and the conflict scenes harder, but it also enabled the group to really support each other during the filming process, an element which is all the more impressive considering they were never actually allowed to meet up with each other at the time.
“We have this actors [messaging] group,” Jemma tells us. “So basically we would message each other [throughout filming]. There was this one day where me, Emma and Hayley cried so much, it got to the point where we were so dehydrated that we were drinking lots of water and then we had to use Vicks vapour rub because I couldn’t cry anymore! My eyes were just little prunes. We would text each other ‘oh you’re doing so well’ then on screen I’m shouting: “Shut up Hayley I hate you!” So it was this contradiction all the time [haha].
“I don’t think I’m that antagonistic but there had to be some kind of tension in the group as a storyline. There had to be a build up in order for there to also be these amazing light moments, like Hayley sneezing. [That’s] the beauty of having improv stuff coming out where Hayley just sneezed in the middle of a scene and Emma was dead serious, [while] me and Caroline caught each others’ eye and we were gone. No one said cut so we just played this whole scene on and Radina was on the toilet having a wee, it was chaos!”
Speaking of chaos… “For me, there was just soooo much character work done to portray someone that cheeky and that naughty and a bit of a knob,” Teddy winks. “It’s really not in my nature whatsoever!”
“Something that was missed in the film was that when we did the polaroid we actually had another photo of us all together – it was Caroline, Hayley and Radina at Sundance and then [the rest of us] got superimposed in. And Ted sent us some lovely photos of him with a teddy… just in his boxers!” Jemma remembers.
“I’ll be honest I got carried away. I thought: ‘You know what, it’d be hilarious if I did this.’ And then as soon as I sent them, and no one replied in like 30 seconds, I was like WHAT HAVE I DONE?!” Teddy laughs. “I really rolled the dice on that one. It panned out well.”
“You’re lucky we’re not like any other group of people who might have been like ‘what the hell!’” Emma laughs. “I was like ten pictures in so I just flicked through and was like ‘oh cool’ and then everyone was like ‘what the hell Teddy’ and I was like ‘huh?’ and then I found it…”
So, seeing as the Host gang created one of the scariest films of the decade during a national lockdown, what do they have planned during the second lockdown? No pressure guys…
“I’m going to try and stay creative. I have ideas about scripts that I want to write,” Radina tells us. “There’s plenty of really cool challenges that are going on on the internet. There are little companies that are doing a monologue challenge where you get to be seen by some casting directors and casting assistants, casting associates which is really cool. It just motivates you to do something. Just stay creative. That’s my plan.”
“Me, Caroline and Hayley all have films that are on the film festival circuit,” Jemma tells us. “Both female-driven, female written, female created. So we’ve got that going on. Hayley’s producing something cool. And me and Caroline are pitching for a ‘time travellers lost in space, in a self-help meeting where they are trying to take down the patriarchy’ [project]. So we’re pitching that around the place.”
Whatever the outcome of the second lockdown, or how long we’ll be communicating over Zoom, what’s clear is that we won’t be organising a virtual séance anytime soon. We guess it’s back to Don Draper…