Fresh off our interview for their countryside thriller Ella, Sketchbook Pictures’ Dan Gitsham and Sophie Mair return to Twelve Cabins to discuss Bill, their dark tale of a lonely widow who performs an occult ritual to reanimate the body of her deceased husband. It’s a simple concept terrifically executed with a gripping central performance and impressive practical effects. Gitsham and Mair join us below to discuss embracing creative restrictions, creating their very own movie monster, and developing a passionate and collaborative atmosphere on set.
Where did the idea derive for Bill?
Our eldest son was three months old when we bought a house that needed extensive renovation, which meant we lived on the top floor in the two bedrooms, whilst the rest was in disarray. One day we were all lying on the bed and we noticed that our child was staring towards the upper left hand corner of the room. At this stage he was only babbling. Then suddenly within the babble he said ‘Bill, Bill, Bill’ over and over again and was looking very pleased with himself. Confused, we tried to engage with him but his gaze was fixated upon the ceiling. He soon snapped out of it but needless to say it left us feeling spooked each time it occurred, and it occurred more than once. Interestingly, or alarmingly, our second child did the same. He was around the same age and stared at the same part of the ceiling. Meaning both their first words were ‘Bill’.
Two years past, our house was nearly finished, we now had two toddlers and Dan was stood on the kitchen table fixing a spotlight. He was far too tall to fit in the gap between the table and the ceiling, which meant he was angled. Immediately we stopped and Sophie took a picture of Dan looking rather strange, not for the first time. Weirdly, we only realised when a memory popped up on Sophie’s phone that this was Halloween 2018 and the concept of Bill fully came alive. We quickly wrote the three-page script and we shot in March 2019.
I read that you shot Bill with a crew of six over eight hours on a budget of £200, what are the benefits of working with those restrictions?
We did and working like this can be creatively liberating. For us it is important to understand these restrictions of the idea because they have obvious implications on the development of the script and shot selection. Our visual approach was to keep things focused and simple. The idea was that the film should start wide and gradually get closer and more claustrophobic. Once we found the eureka moment of the man standing on the table it really assisted in the script development and what our protagonist would do in this situation. She is deliberately playing with the occult so her character was driving the narrative forward, almost with excitement and anticipation. If felt exciting to keep the protagonist in one place, sat on the chair and the germ of this set-up was a mix of the creative and ‘how are we going to shoot in one day’. In reality we have taken the age-old low budget blueprint of two people sat at a table talking but filtered it through the supernatural.
This is the second time we have a shot a film in our house, the first And The Baby Screamed was completed a year earlier and will be release on Alter around Father’s Day. Shooting at home means there are no location costs, which is always a bonus. It also meant we could both talk and act out different scenarios whenever we had an idea. Normally we draw out our storyboards but since we had a stills camera and a simple idea we took photos of all the desired shots and provided a photographic storyboard to the Director of Photography Tomoi Summers. It was a great way to communicate our vision and plan the logistics.
Since the film was being shot in such a small window it meant we could ask local crew and cast if they were interested it getting involved for some food, coffee and a glass of bubbly at the end. It was a lovely collaboration between old and new faces and, in retrospect, was a rather enjoyable shoot. Even in such a small timeframe we try to gather key crew who understand exactly what they are getting involved in and we hope to create a family environment with people who share a passion for the script and understand everyone will need to do multiple jobs on the day – no egos. We’ve lived and made films in Bristol for a long time now so have connections, friends and collaborators all around us. If we don’t know someone for a role we can usually put out a call and get some recommendations. We are also very fortunate to be friends with the guys at Band Studios and they were kind enough to lend us some equipment and shooting at a weekend can make these opportunities more available.
Similarly, the effects are so good! How did you both manage that in the budget, and who did you work with?
Most of the effects are pretty simple, a bit of fishing wire was used a couple of times. An excellent local actor Chris Bianchi played the Demonic Ghost and he said he was happy to be painted grey. We shot the photo elements separately to comp on to what we shot on the day (green card in a frame, with and without the glass). We used VFX to enhance what we shot and we knew we needed some creative experts to help. The main bulk of the VFX were done by a dear friend and talented editor/filmmaker Matt Freeth. Matt did everything from wire removal, adding reflections in the photo frame, we shot a separate angle of Roxanna for this, and the cosmic juice. Due to the length of time it takes to finishes these kinds of things Matt collaborated with another talented friend and VFX whizz Neil Giles on the final demonic creature shot and we love what they did. Matt did the eyes and Neil did the mouth.
It must’ve been really fun to create your own movie monster, what were you looking for when constructing his image?
Like we mentioned we tried to imagine who our kids were talking to in the ceiling and then what we could do within our logistics. We were confident we could capture the key elements on the day but would need some help with VFX to enhance what we got. We went to a small local Makeup Company called Dauphines and had a chat with the owner about our budget (we may have said £20 max) and he talked us through some simple techniques and the benefits of body paint.
When you look at some of the great supernatural horrors, especially from back in the day, the ghosts are creepy but also very simple in execution. It’s all about lighting, shot size, sound design and body posture. This was our main inspiration. This monster, like every thing else, is born out of budget limitations and the want to make something classical and creepy. It wasn’t until Dan was cramped in the ceiling that we knew we had an image that was interesting to us. We really wanted a simple image that was recognisable but there was something off, like their posture or skin colour, which then pays off when it leans towards the camera and reveals it’s true face.
In all honesty big mouth creepy demons are fast becoming, if not already, a genre trope but it’s one that freaks us out and was feasible to do. When the camera is locked off and you are seeing what the protagonists sees there is something truly horrifying about a threat moving towards you and there is nothing you or the protagonist can do to stop it. That is what truly frightens us, the idea that something horrible is coming and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Hopefully viewers get a creepy kick out of the man in the ceiling too.
Last time we spoke you said you were putting the finishing touches on your next short The Thing That Ate The Birds? Will we be seeing this online anytime soon?
The Thing That Ate The Birds stalled in the final stages of post-production due to the pandemic so it’s 90% finished. We are hoping to submit the film to festivals later this year. It’s all a guesstimate right now so keep eyes on our website/social for updates. In the meantime, we hope people enjoy Bill and remember to keep an eye out for And The Baby Screamed sometime in June on Alter.
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