In Haunt

Here in this retrospective interview feature, HAUNT writer J.J. Wray interviews Joanne Mitchell and Tracey Sheals, talking about their short film Sybil, which appeared in the Shorts Programme II at Manchester’s horror film and culture festival Grimmfest (4-7 October) 2018. Both women wrote the story and screenplay, and both acted in it, with Tracey playing the titular character, and Joanne directing the piece. According to J.J. Wray… 

Having come out of the cinema following seven short horror films, I did not expect to have such a relaxed and humorous experience interviewing these two dark visionaries. They were both full of smiles and laughter, which I unfortunately cannot translate well to a written page. Just know every exclamation mark (and more) … was followed by laughter. We spoke about their short film Sybil, and its future feature length film....


How was the story conceived, and what were your inspirations?

Joanne: “It’s down to Tracey, she conceived the original idea.”

Tracey: “Sybil originated when I was in an acting group, and they were all going off into little groups doing improv on horror. And I had this idea of a weird woman… and I looked at the group and thought ‘this might be too weird for them all’. So I didn’t do anything with it and moved onto another one, but when I got home I just jotted it down, and it just kind of grew from there.”

Was she (the character) always working at the Undertakers?

Tracey: “Yeah, yeah, always working for the undertakers. She doesn’t have any friends, never has anybody around her, and doesn’t communicate well with people… she’s comfortable with dead people. I don’t know if she wants to care for them, I don’t know.”

Undertakers are often portrayed as having a happy-go-lucky outlook on life: Hammer Horror being a good example of this. Was Sybil an intentional inversion, or did you always gravitate to a darker story?

Joanne: “We weren’t comparing it to anything really. It was Tracey’s original idea and we just developed it. I wanted Mr Sniffles to be very bumbly and very happy, like the name suggests; it’s almost like something out of a restoration comedy. You know, he’s happy, and big, and old and antique. I wanted that kind of softness about him, and then the complete contrast to Tracey’s character Sybil, who’s the new, and shiny, but sort of steely, enigmatic, not really sure what she’s thinking [character]. So there’s these two juxtaposing characters who collide within the undertakers. So that’s what it was really.”

Did you speak to anyone who works at an undertakers in the process of this story?

Joanne: “Loads of people yeah!”

Tracey: “We did our homework there!”

Joanne Mitchell

What did you discover in doing that?

Joanne: “Firstly, what lovely people they are; and how warm, caring, and considerate they are. And how passionate they are about their job. I was really blown away by them, and what they have to go through - but yeah, how caring they are. So… we had a chat with somebody, a friend of mine who is an undertaker, and she was very enlightening and told us what they do with the bodies and stuff like that.

“I also did a lot of research online, as Tracey did as well. And then I went to a couple of funeral parlours, which have the mortuary within… like a garage some of them. They are really small spaces some of them, inconspicuous almost, and it really surprised me that’s where we ‘end up!’

“When I spoke to them, they were lovely people of course, but they said ‘what is this for?’ They were happy for it to be filmed, but I had to tell them it was horror, and understandably, once I showed them the script they said ‘Absolutely no way!’ So you know, there has to be a lot of red tape, understandably. So I thought - ‘Oh God I’m going to get a studio and build a set which will cost huge amounts of money’. Then luckily, our location manager came across a hotel when she was looking for something else, and we found a location as a mortuary, and our funeral parlour is actually my house! We just moved it all around.”

I love that shot with the horns behind her head, that was perfect.

Joanne: “Yeah, that’s my favourite shot yeah.”

Tracey: “We couldn’t stop laughing when we did that, we really couldn’t!”

Joanne: “Those horns were actually there and I said ‘that’s the shot we have to have.’ That shot says so much about Sybil (Tracey agrees) She didn’t need to say anything, we just know there’s something so evil. A picture paints a thousand words.”

The scene where Sybil is with the widow screaming at her deceased husband, was that scene in the original script, or was it added after you learnt more about what undertakers do?

Tracey: “No that was always there. ‘Cause if you notice Sybil’s face, she gets really angry by the fact he was horrible to his wife and that he cheats on her, hence what happens to him, you know what I mean? But yeah, she is horrified by that. That was hilarious, Eileen O’Brien, it was brilliant. The way she did it, and everyone just kept laughing!”

How would you describe the film?

Joanne: “I think it’s a very sick, macabre love story. There are elements of horror in it. There are elements of love in it. There are elements of anger, fear. So many things involved, particularly fear, with death and dying, I think we just take it to a whole other level with this film. And we just turn it on its head, it’s a film, it’s horror, it’s got to be more than just the mortuaries, and bodies. There is a story there, and there’s more of a story in the actual script we had.”

Tracey: “Oh, so much more.”

Joanne: “But we had to cut it out, because, I knew as soon as it hits 15 minutes, it wouldn’t get into festivals, and it wouldn’t be seen. So you have to be brutal. I had to just slash it, for want of a better word.”

Tracey: “I think, another point to make, is Sybil is so professional. That’s why he employs her and lets her take over everything. So it’s showing funeral parlours are very professional and good at what they do. She’s just got this sick part of her brain that just goes in another direction.”

Joanne: “And what she feels is… that what she is doing is absolutely in the right. She’s in love with Mark, and she doesn’t like Tina because she’s jealous of Tina. There is another story there that we had to cut out with that, and then Mr Fisher she doesn’t like because what he’s done to Mrs Fisher.

Tracey: “So she’s a bit of a vigilante in a way!”

Joanne: “Her heart is in the right place!”

Tracey: “Kind of! But you do, as a viewer, still somehow feel sorry for her. There’s something seriously wrong with her for her to be doing what she does. We both wanted for the viewer to still feel sorry for her. But if it’s a feature there’s so much more you can do with it.”

Tracey Sheals (actress and writer) and Joanne Mitchell (director and writer) from SYBIL, being interviewed by Grimmfest festival director Simeon Halligan - credit Kenneth James

Without giving away the feature, what were the threads and themes dropped for the short film?

Joanne: “One of the ones was the relationship between Sybil and Tina. We want to build on that a little bit more. Then we had Lee Hardcastle’s character right at the end, he does lots of clay animation, but with horror. He’s been in a couple of our films. He plays Tina’s brother right at the end in the graveyard scene where the vicar talks to him. There’s a triangle thing going on there as well between the brother, Tina, and Sybil. She [Sybil] thinks Tina is with him, because she doesn’t know it’s her brother. It gives her more clarity to bump her off because she thinks she is seeing somebody else.”

Tracey: “She thinks she is seeing the brother behind his back, if you know what I mean, and ‘she’s got the cheek to bring him anywhere near the grave!’ - that’s what she thinks.”

Joanne: “It was another twist, but we thought with the short film we needed to keep it a little more simple. Even though we know the script inside out, back to front, I’m not sure in 15 minutes it would be clear enough. So we had filmed that, but we thought “keep it simple, keep it simple.”

What stage are you at to making it a feature film?

Joanne: “We’re writing it at the moment. Lots of ideas. It’s happening!”

Tracey: “Weekly meetings!”

Joanne: “I think it’s so important… as long as you’ve got the story, the script will come. It’s just getting the correct beats.”

So you’re very excited about it?

Tracey: “Yes we are!”

Joanne: “We are. Sybil has definitely got legs.”

Tracey: “Sybil was put to pen about four years ago, that’s when it started. The fear was that you’d see something that was similar, in that time. You don’t want people thinking you’ve seen and copied their ideas. But up to now, I’ve still not seen anything like that.”

Joanne: “It was funny because, obviously we’ve been working on this script and stuff, then I watched a film called The Autopsy of Jane Doe, have you seen it? (Tracey and I both say no) Oh my God it’s brilliant, I really enjoyed it! It’s all set in a funeral parlour, and I thought ‘Oh my God’! We’d already written ours… but it’s very very different. It’s American, got the really famous actor in Brian Cox. He’s British but does a lot of American stuff. And it’s from the director of Trollhunter André Øvredal and it’s really really creepy. It’s also another one where the dead body is kind of the main character almost. She doesn’t say a word.

“When I was talking to actors to be the dead body, I thought, I can’t just have anybody, it’s really hard to be a dead body! I don’t know how to explain this, but as I saw in the film The Autopsy of Jane Doe, even though she’s dead, because it’s a feature length movie… she sticks in my mind more than anything. It’s really fantastic.

“So, I think Garth Maunders is brilliant, he’s a professional actor, he knew what to do. There were so many things we had to do with VFX afterwards with blinking and heartbeats. When you’re that close, you can see the pulse going, so we had to get rid of that! Even the tiniest flicker… I didn’t see it on a small screen, it’s only when you get in the edit and put it on a big screen and I went (Gasps with hands over mouth) ‘Oh my God, we’ll lose the whole audience if they see his eyes flicker you know’! And there was about 25/30 that we had to sort out.”

Tracey: “Holly did well then, didn’t she?”
Joanne: “Holly was the only one we didn’t have to do anything with!”
Tracey: “Holly’s my daughter.”

Joanne: “She did brilliantly, we didn’t have to do anything! Unbelievable, it’s the hardest thing.”

What other themes would you like to explore for the feature film?

Joanne: “I’d like to explore Sybil’s background, and where she is coming from. How she is, what her real flaws are, and take her on that journey. Her childhood.”

Tracey: “We were developing that last week.”

Joanne: “She’s got to be three dimensional, otherwise you have a two-dimensional psychopath, or sociopath, and we don’t want that. There is heart to her.”

Tracey: “Yeah, and again, we want you to feel sorry for her. You know, has something gone on to make her the way she is?”

Joanne: “Because no one is inherently evil, are they? I know they are in some horror films, but there needs to be some heart there.”

Any last comments you’d like to make about the film?

Joanne: “It’s going to various festivals. Celluoid Screams in Sheffield, Telluride Horror Show in Colorado, America which is great. So it’s just starting to get a life of its own now.

Tracey: “And I still can’t believe I’ve been watching the film that we’ve put together! I can’t believe it! When I’m watching it, I’m thinking Sybil’s come from my head onto that screen, it’s really strange. Naïveté, I know you’re used to it (to Joanne) but I just feel blessed!”

Joanne: “And just, if you have a dream, just don’t give up on it. This has taken us 4 years, there have been huge obstacles along the way, setbacks, there always is. But if you decide to go on that journey you just have to ride the storm and keep going. It’s very simple advice but that’s the only way to do it. You just have to be determined.”

That final sentiment from both Joanne and Tracey is what will see Sybil made into a feature length film. I would definitely recommend watching the short film, and I am eagerly hoping to see Sybil as a feature length film at Grimmfest in the future.




  1. Bobby Greybeard
    Great to hear about how the dedication to an idea can come to life!?

    Interesting how the macabre stories can often come from humour

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