- By J.J. Wray

One of the highlights of the Grimmfest 10th anniversary special 2018 (4-7 October) opening day in Manchester, was the unique film Await Further Instructions. HAUNT Manchester’s J.J. Wray sat down with its writer Gavin Williams for an interview, and later caught up with the producer Jack Tarling for a few further comments. This interview section begins with Gavin Williams…

What is your favourite horror film, and why?

“It is always difficult picking your favourite, it’s a bit like picking your favourite child, but the one that instantly springs to mind is, I guess, The Thing by John Carpenter. Just because it’s both kind of stripped down, as well as very, very attenuated. The cast and environment are very bleak, but it has these incredible, extraordinary scenes of transformation. The special effects are unparalleled… and haven’t been matched.

“I don’t want to do down CGI, it can be useful for creating things whole-cloth or helping practical effects, but monsters or things that characters interact with directly, I think you can have a sort of ‘floatiness’ – the actors know it’s not there, the audience know it’s not there… but The Thing hasn’t got any of that. It’s just full blood. I teach screenwriting as well, and talk quite a lot about the idea of ‘escalation’ where the audience should always be moving forward and kind of getting higher and higher. The Thing has that in shades, and almost keeps topping itself in all sorts of extraordinary ways.

“But fundamentally it’s [The Thing] also a story about paranoia and how you can’t trust people, and you can’t really trust your colleagues, and that being the underlying thematic aspect to it really appeals to me. This kind of idea that it’s not just a horror film on the surface, but that it’s got other things it’s speaking about, that are also active in the drama. The paranoia of The Thing is stitched into The Thing, it’s all a part of it, every layer is it, and I think that is amazing. It’s what you’d hope to do, that every level of it is working to the same purpose. So yeah… The Thing is a good place to start.”

How did the film come to be on the Grimmfest screen?

“My film Sleep Working played at Grimmfest 5 years ago, and I know Simeon the festival founder and Rachel his partner - I’m not sure her exact title but she is heavily involved. When we finally finished the film, as it’s taken a long time, we always knew we wanted to play at Grimmfest. It’s great that it’s worked out to be during their 10-year anniversary: opening night, British premiere, so it’s one of those things where all the kind of dominoes lined up. We get to play with our friends on their anniversary… it’s very special.”

How would you describe Await Further Instructions?

“Our protagonist Nick is in his early twenties. Of all his family he is the black sheep, the one that went off to university, went round the world, and his family are… kind of local, they keep to themselves. Nick meanwhile is the one who’s read the fancy books and stuff - and he particularly doesn’t get on with his dad Tony, who is this sort of ‘rules obsessed’, pétite tyrant. But Nick’s new girlfriend Angie says ‘it’s really weird I’ve not met your family, we should go and see them for Christmas’ - Nick says ‘it will be terrible, please don’t make me’, but they do.

“They go, they arrive on Christmas Eve, and it is terrible. Everyone rows, it’s a terrible disaster. Nick and Angie decide to get up at the start of Christmas day itself and sneak off without anybody knowing. So they open the front door and find this black metal sheet, this strange kind of substance blocking the door. They open all the windows, and see it’s surrounding the house, the rest of the family get up: everyone freaks out. Check the internet, there is no connection, no Wi-Fi, phones won’t connect, they turn on the TV, there’s no programmes… but there is this one text message that says: ‘Stay indoors, and await further instruction’.  

“Throughout the film these messages get updated, and they start quite sane/rational disaster management, so ‘all of your food has been infected, don’t eat anything’. Very gradually they become more and more strange, disturbing, unsettling. One of the messages is ‘one of your party has been infected - isolate them’. Yet it doesn’t say who, it allows the family to decide for themselves, and Nick’s girlfriend is British Asian and they turn on her as the outsider. So it’s basically a Lord Of The Flies in this one house, this claustrophobic place… and it’s the ultimate version of being trapped with your family at Christmas.”

What year did you start writing this?

“Well, it’s one of these things where it depends where you want to stick the first pin. I first had the idea literally 10 years ago. Travelling home from a New Year’s Eve party 2007/2008, and I was travelling home with my then girlfriend, I bought her The National album Boxer, there’s a track on that called Apartment Story. There’s a lyric that goes:

‘Stay inside till somebody finds us,
Do whatever the TV tells us.’

“Sometimes ideas come from different places, and you just put them together and assemble them. This was one pure, gem of an idea by itself. I thought ‘that’s interesting.’ When you are an independent filmmaker, you are looking to make something that is manageable, something that is not going to be extensive in terms of lots of locations, and if people are trapped in one environment then that’s great from a cheap, financial point of view. And it also had this implicit idea of conflict. You know, if the TV is giving orders, do you follow or not?

“At the time, the financial crash was starting, and it was in that time that the first runs on the bank would happen, you had this weird feedback loop where there would be this bad news in the media that the banks weren’t safe, so people would go and queue up outside banks to get their money out, then it would be on TV, so other people would go and queue up outside the bank… and like I say, a weird feedback loop. It’s this idea of media and authority. So there’s this idea that if you have this one source of information in a disaster telling you what to do, do you follow it or do you not? A lot of the drama is predicated on this.”

“At the very initial point I thought it would be a horror about teenagers, but I very soon realised it needed to be about family and hierarchies. It has this complicated hierarchy with Nick and his dad Tony, and also Tony’s dad played by David Bradley from Game of Thrones, a great character actor. So how things are passed down the generations is also a part of the package as well.”

A few questions I have later are about Brexit so it’s interesting to hear you started the idea 10 years ago.

The poster is very striking and almost supernatural, while the trailer is very domestic. Was there a process in why they contrast in that way?

“There is and there isn’t. It’s one of those things where marketing a film is a challenging beast. There are reveals in the film, there are things that happen later on that you wouldn’t necessarily want to put in a trailer and make sure people went in without being spoiled. But also when distributors and sales agents come in, they know how to sell a film, they know how to get it to the right audience. So they came up with a poster that sort of sums up where the film goes – and there are aspects that are metaphor and deal with the themes.

“But what we are pleased about is it starts in one place and gradually becomes stranger and more bizarre, and it has this arc that keeps on moving, keeps on escalating and metamorphisises, and that’s certainly what we hoped to do. People often complain about films: ‘I liked the first half, but the ending let it down’. Our ending certainly is big and explosive – and people won’t see it coming, I hope.

“There is also something to be said, though, of being patient with the set up. The first half hour is about establishing this family and their interrelationships - Nick’s sister Kate, played by Holly West, and her husband played by Chris Sadler… he’s kind of a meathead but really a beta-male and gets pushed into situations. It gradually builds up all those interrelationships and sets them out in almost a drama, so when the shields come down, and the house is locked down, they bounce off each other - and they start to fight and turn against each other, allegiances ebb and flow. In a sense there is a villain and antagonist. But to an even greater extent, the family are doing it to themselves and what they do to each other is as much the horror as what is outside or giving them instructions. I think that was important to us to get those character beats right.”

I think the worst horror films are the ones that don’t take time to develop characters, they just have the tropes then kill them off. In my opinion.

“They tend to deal with archetypes. Jock/cool kid, final girl - whatever, and there’s room for that, there’s lots of amazing films with that as their structure and how they put things together. But for us it was important to undermine some of those clichés, to play around with things. And since we had this guiding principle - it’s all about authority, and this family with dysfunctional makeup - it helped us to move forward. It just about holds together when there’s not an apocalypse, but now they’re trapped and everything is going to hell – how can they deal with it?”

The premise seems to be a sort of Get Out or Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, perhaps even with an inversion with it being a female outsider, what is it about meeting the parents, particularly when race is involved, that is a universal fear?

“There is something about being on your best behaviour, trying to impress people, you want to be accepted. Again, families and family units… and you’re coming in as the outsider. And certainly, in this film, so much of it is about paranoia and othering, people seeing danger in the outsider. We turned the screws on that and magnified it. And I think that’s really fertile for a dramatic setup.

“What you want when you sit down and write a horror film is to have these really ugly emotions bubbling under the surface, and it’s almost like it’s under pressure, and you just prick it and it all fountains out at the most inappropriate time. Obsessions, prejudices, and definitely paranoias, are all the more raw, when you think you are in these fight or flight situations. It seemed the right choice to make, to have someone who is from a different ethnic background to come in as the partner of Nick, and the simple fact of the colour of her skin brings out all these ugly, racist feelings that are under the surface of our society. So it is hopefully a reflection of what’s worse in society and show we should be talking about these things.”

Did you choose purposefully for her to be a woman as an inversion?

“No, it was just one of those things, as we were developing it for a long time. Get Out came out after we had finished shooting. People were watching the trailer and comparing, and it was a good film and we’re very happy, but it wasn’t anything we could have anticipated for. Happy accident I think.”

You said you came up with the idea when you were with your girlfriend at New Year’s Eve. Was the main character ‘you’ in some ways?

“That’s an interesting question. I would say Nick is probably not that similar to me, though incidentally he was more similar to me on the page. Sam Gittons who plays Nick has kind of taken it in quite a different direction, and was cast kind of different as he was against the page. The guy on the page was more diffident, more nerdy, and kind of a more low key character. Whereas Sam’s physicality and his more powerful figure, makes him less nerdy than he was on the page, to sum it up.”

What significance does setting the film around Christmas hold, is it another way to ‘otherise’ the girl who could be perceived as a ‘non-cultural Christian’?

“It’s certainly a part of it. It has satirical elements. It’s about people who get together, then get trapped. The intent with the film is that Angie was secular and wasn’t from a particular religious background, but the fact of her being ‘an outsider’ even though she is as British as anybody in the house turns up those tensions.

“Then, though there is explicit racism in the film, certainly from the older generation, what happens in this country is their ugliness under the surface.”

You mentioned Lord Of The Flies. I’ve been reading The Inheritors, Golding’s following book about a conflict between Neanderthals and a group of aggressive Homo-Sapiens who are fleeing other Homo-Sapiens.

“I think all of these things are using the same text underneath, it’s about tribalism. Which is something really affecting the world at the moment. And that’s the other strange thing, again, the idea came about a long ago, and yet, all this seems to play into Brexit, into extremism, bipartisanship, all these things are so current at the moment. I would say happy accident, but I’m not so happy about it!”

This film has been described as having a cast of characters reflecting the current state of Britain. With right-wing ideas being popularised, and the uncertainty of how Brexit will be implemented. How do these characters express the state of fear and anxiety in our current society?

“Again, it was written and shot before Brexit, but these things are eternal themes. And sadly, they are becoming exacerbated in more recent times, and whatever you think of the EU, the rise of ‘strongman’ leaders and authoritarian leaders around the world show that these things are not going away.

“When you work in these fields of horror you have to take on these themes, it’s fun to run around, but whenever horror is at its best (i.e. Get Out, The Babadook etc. of the last few years, The Witch as well) …they are getting at something that is an eternal theme, the worse elements of our personalities and how our societies have been structured and grown, and sometimes we haven’t structured them consciously. It was exactly these themes we started with, it’s just sadly these themes became more relevant as the process went on.”

The central line ‘Stay indoors and await further instruction’ - does this mirror what the government are saying at the moment about Brexit?

“There is something about how authoritarian regimes, or just governments, deliver these kind of pacifications. Giving the public just enough to operate, and a lot of the film deals with and investigates how certain people can’t function without those instructions.”

It reminds me of ‘keep calm and carry on’ - saying in some way the future is yet to be determined?

“There is something very interesting in the language that public bodies and governments give us…it’s very neutral, knocking all the edges off, prettiness almost, the way signs and press releases are written - it’s almost English but not quite.

“The way the TV ‘speaks’ is using that mode. Just follow Daddy, follow the rules. It’s the lexicon of rule books. It’s trying to train you not to challenge. The family are called the Milgrams, which is a nod to a very famous psychological experiment. [An experiment to see how far people will comply with an authority figure telling them to electric shock someone].”

What exactly is the black substance, and what does it represent?

“There’s an aspect to the imagery of the film that calls back to the Cold War, brutalist, industrial… and it’s in contrast to the design aesthetic of Apple. I see it as metal… but everyone has a different way of referring to it. I referred to it to ‘blast shieldings’ in the script, but Johnny Kervorkian (Director), who has done an amazing job, and Niina Topp our designer, had to work out what it looked like.

“This was my first feature film, the first time an idea of mine has been realised, and there was something kind of amazing about having had these characters and house in my head and walking round on the set! So it was like walking through your own brain but filtered through other people’s skills and imagination, and what they’d done with it was seeing the next stage.”

J.J. Wray also managed to speak to the film’s Producer Jack Tarling just before the showing. According to Jack…

Was has been your experience of the film from concept to completion?

“Gavin and I met in Newcastle through some networking. We sat down with some ideas and this one caught my imagination. We devised it as an ideal first feature film because it was so contained, and I thought it could be made on an incredibly small budget. It became clear it was far, far more complicated than we originally thought. And the process of trying to finance it took years and years and years.

“I nearly financed it a couple of times, but it kept breaking down. It’s something I really believed in though, there is a lot of my DNA in it as well through having developed it with Gavin from a rough 3 or 4 page draft that he had at the time, through multiple drafts. So it’s something I could never put down, I wanted to see it made. I felt it was going to offer something we don’t see very much. I persisted and finally saw it get made.”

Now we know from Gavin’s words, it is not in any way analogous to Brexit - but how has what has been going on in the world changed your opinion of the themes of this film?

“Because it took such a long time, post production also took a long time, I feared at times it had missed its moment, but the thing is, things are actually continuing to snowball, so actually the themes are becoming more and more relevant, which is great news for us as filmmakers, but not great news for the world!

“Trump in particular and the use of the media, has been an interesting comparison. Brexit, absolutely, but the thing is, the sentiments around Brexit have been with us since the beginning of time really, so Brexit has crystallised it in a nice way saying: ‘you’re in or you’re out’. More of us are out than in, and that is a scary realisation for some people, but clearly those tensions and prejudices and so on have always been there. The themes have become more current, but have always been current.”

How would you describe the story?

“It’s a dysfunctional family who wakes up on Christmas morning and find out they have been locked inside their house by a mysterious black substance, and there’s a line of text on the TV saying ‘Stay indoors and await further instruction’. You can take it further and say it’s about a family that in some way act as a microcosm for our society and it’s about how the family breaks down when the only source of information they have is devices messaged from the media… and we took that to the most extreme conclusion we can build from.”

Does the film say much about how we have to co-operate?

“It’s a Sci-Fi horror, but again, it’s a film that has more. Sci-Fi can be very optimistic, or can be thematically-centred on our better angels... this is definitely the other side. Hopefully people can take it as a cautionary tale.”