Short Film: Dylan Holmes Williams on the Tormenting Horror of A Cappella in ‘The Devil’s Harmony’

I caught Dylan Holmes Williams’ The Devil’s Harmony at Encounters Short Film Festival in Bristol last year. It was one of the very few films at the festival that simultaneously inspired scares and laughs, making it a real talking point amongst the audience members who saw it. It’s a strange and alluring short film set in a British high school, following a social-outcast as she brings destruction upon the campus via the hypnotic frequencies of the school’s A Cappella group. I couldn’t recommend it more. I caught up with Williams amidst the festival circuit (and right before The Devil’s Harmony is set to play Sundance) to talk high school, the supernatural and the difference between audiences in the US and UK.

Where did the idea for The Devil’s Harmony begin?

The idea for The Devil’s Harmony came to me when I was editing a music video for an a cappella club. I watched the rushes on disorientating repeat and found myself confused between two conflicting desires; I wasn’t sure whether to click along or vomit in disgust. With their sugar-sweet smiles and well-moisturised foreheads, a cappella clubs may appear harmless, but don’t be fooled. They mean ill. This seemed like a good starting point for a horror film. 

I was reminded when watching TDH of Carol Morley’s The Falling, which is also takes place in a school and deals with a mysterious collective happening, what do you think it is about this environment and young people that makes it such an interesting subject for a film?

Schools are a hotbed of neuroses, because everyone’s young and insecure and trying to figure things out. When you’re a teenager, there’s lots of rules imposed upon you – both from authority figures like teachers, but also from your friends and peers. Many of them are arbitrary, contradictory and difficult to understand. 

I think this feeling is pretty universally relatable. Millions of men wrap long pieces of cotton around their neck every morning before they go to work. There was probably once a good reason for this. Today, nobody can remember what it is. 

In my film, many of the characters are trying – and failing – to make sense of arbitrary rules, and because they’re hot-blooded teenagers, and not greyed-out automatons worn listless by the soul-crushing mundanity of adult existence, they respond with impassioned hysteria. Hopefully, this is amusing and unsettling to watch. 

Also, were there any particular films or filmmakers that inspired you?

In terms of aesthetics, I was very inspired by films like Rian Johnson’s Brick and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. I wanted the school to have a heightened, fluorescent-lit, ‘boring spaceship’ aesthetic, rather than to feel parochial (as British schools often do on-screen). We adopted the hero colour of the school we found – light green – and replicated it in our other locations to try and create an overall unity; for example, the squash court stripes are light green, and there’s light green stripes in the shower and bedroom scenes. 

In terms of tone, Yorgos Lanthimos and Roy Andersson were big inspirations. 

How did you work with your actors to help them understand the mood of TDH and what you were aiming for stylistically?

I was very lucky to work with incredibly committed actors on The Devil’s Harmony. On the first day of rehearsals, Patsy Ferran turned up with a script that was blacker than it was white – she had absolutely covered it in scribbled notes. And I think it really shows in her performance; what she delivers is so nuanced and delicate. She’s not just this kick-ass superwoman embarking upon an action-hero revenge spree; instead, you can read layers of uncertainty, dissatisfaction and ambivalence on her face as she executes the singing attacks.

Likewise, Leo Suter really went for it. The main note I gave him was to play every line as if there was a nuclear bomb swirling around the school, about to drop. I wanted him to go for a heightened, anti-naturalistic performance, which evokes the nuclear anxiety you can experience as a teenager. 

Could you talk about working through the sound design process and developing the sound of the a cappella choir? 

The main melody for the ‘Devil’s Harmony’ popped into my head out of nowhere when I was on a flight, and then the extraordinarily talented musical director Bobby Goulder arranged it into an eight-part vocal harmony. Bobby recorded all the voices himself and then we had our a cappella club lip-sync to the song during filming, like you might do on a music video shoot. 

Sound design was by Josh Campbell, who works at the magnificent Factory Studios in the UK. A fairly significant portion of the storytelling takes place off-camera and Josh did some incredible work to sculpt this. For example, in the scene where the curly-haired boy is cowering in the squash courts, we tell the story of the a cappella club moving slowly towards him down the adjacent hallway entirely through sound design. 

Have you found different reactions between audiences at genre-specific film festivals like Fantastic Fest and more broadly independent ones like Raindance?

I’d say the biggest difference in reactions is actually between audiences in the US and the UK. This is a British film but it’s heavily inspired by an American cultural trope; the high school movie. I was worried that this might feel jarring and alienating to an American audience, but in some ways they have embraced it more readily than the Brits. Having said that, there’s a few jokes within the film that I think are very British and I have noticed that those land more effectively at UK festivals, which is interesting. 

Do you see yourself continuing to work in the horror genre?

I think so, yes – although not straight ‘horror’, I guess. My favourite ever horror film is probably Lanthimos’ The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. That sort of grounded supernaturalism is the sweet spot for me. 

What’s next for you?

We are developing The Devil’s Harmony into a feature film with a production company in the UK, so that’s a big focus. I’m also attached to a really cool TV project in the UK and we just finished shooting a taster tape for that. I’ve also just finished a new short film for Channel 4 programmed by Film4 called Stilts, which tells the story of a surreal dystopia where everyone wears ginormous, inconvenient metal stilts.

If you’d like to send us your film or contribute to Twelve Cabins, contact james@twelvecabins.com for all the details.

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