Birthed from a nightmare, Finn Callan’s Guest is exactly the kind of short you hope to catch at FrightFest. It’s swift, lean, and features a genuinely disturbing antagonist. Callan’s film follows a young woman on the run from this otherworldly force, who’s descending presence causes her to take to extreme measures. We caught up with Callan ahead of this year’s festival to chat catharsis in horror, working with prosthetics, and creating narrative tension through ambiguity.
How did you come up with the idea for Guest?
It was birthed out of a need to expel something I had within me; a serial bad dream I’ve been having for most of my adult life which the film’s plot mirrors closely. I hadn’t made a horror film in quite some time and needed something that really stuck in my head. Basing the film on the dream just made sense.
Several other pieces that I had at the time factored into the creation of the film too. A friend of mine turned me onto an album by Daughters called You Won’t Get What You Want while I was trying to conceptualise the plot. I listened to the record in full in the early hours of the morning and was moved profoundly. The music fit to the images in my head and worked as a good ground layer for the feeling of what I was going for. It acted as the ‘gas’ that I fuelled myself with during writing.
The look of The Guest is so disturbing! Who did you work with on creating it? and how did you decide on the look it would have?
The first person I spoke to about creating The Guest was our Prosthetics Artist Francesca Giacovelli. I didn’t have a clear image for what The Guest would look like but I remembered the feeling and the emotion of the dream quite clearly. I gave her a few pieces to work with on what I wanted the face to look like. It was a series of internet cutouts of various sources for the eyes, nose, mouth, ears, skin texture and so on, features that would have conjured the same feeling from the dream I had. After she was finished Francesca brought them back, assembled like a demented jigsaw concept art sketch. That sketch was what The Guest eventually became. The design owes itself to some unexpected influences because of its unconventional assembly, for example, the Fishermen from Balance, the Draags from Fantastic Planet and Christiane from Eyes Without A Face.
The prosthetic special effects, which were entirely practical, took six hours on set and by the time it was finished the crew were tired and really beginning to wind down. When Anna Fraser, who plays The Guest, walked on the set in full costume and makeup the atmosphere changed. When I saw the look on everyone’s faces I knew that Fran had done her job properly. I can’t describe the feeling I got when I sat down in the room with Anna once it was all finished. It was just me and her talking through her directions in the dark; it was beyond unsettling. Those eyes stared straight into my soul, just like in my dream. Guest represents something we have in all of us. We’ve all got one. I don’t recommend looking for it.
Could you walk us through developing Mary with Melania, was there anything specific that you both talked about when creating the character?
Casting Melania was an interesting sell. We couldn’t find anybody who fit the bill in our casting sessions so I looked through a headshot catalogue from a previous film I made and there she was. I found her on Facebook and told her I wanted to cast her in Guest as the lead. I told her “I want you to play a mentally-ill 20 year old on the brink of suicide, you have no lines and at the end of the film you pour bleach over your face and stick a knife in your ear”. She thought it sounded quite cool.
There was almost no preparation between me and Melania with her character. We met once in an underground coffee shop a few days before shooting to get to know each other but there wasn’t any real in-depth discussion because there were no lines for her to memorise, no complex elements for us to digest or work out. Most of the talking came on set when she was in the moment, so much of it just relied on performing physically in order to bring the character to life. One of my favourite things to give her notes on was her eyes. I always wanted her to keep using her eyes to involve us and portray just how broken and disturbed Mary was. It was all just about capturing a women, in her moment, broken. One of my favourite things that she improvised was in a scene where Mary is closing her eyes repeatedly in a failed effort to get rid of The Guest. As the takes went on Melania added slapping herself in the face along with the eye closing which I thought was a lovely touch.
How much of the tension in the film is in the script and how much do you create during the shoot?
I wanted the feel of the film to walk a line between grim, oppressive reality and a Kafka-esque dream state. I think that a lot of the tension in the film comes from just how ambiguous the film itself is about which of those realities it exists in. There had to be a tangible feel of both of those ideas in every single scene and every shot of the film in order to feed that idea in people’s heads wether “is she really seeing this or is it all just a bit strange?”. You can owe that to the script.
During the shoot there wasn’t any shortage of the feeling of being in a dream either. The landscape of the countryside we were shooting in was almost completely deserted, devoid of life and was really flat on the whole, there weren’t many trees at all. The sky was also a perfect grey the entire time during the day. Everyone in some way fell isolated and claustrophobic when we shot everything, especially at night and even more so when The Guest came out.
How smooth was the shooting process?
We managed to shoot the entire thing in a farm in Suffolk over two days in March which was on the whole pretty smooth. I was working with some very talented people who all wanted to see the film be brought to life and it couldn’t have been a happier experience for everybody. Even though the shooting conditions were less than pleasant we all had a good laugh. We were about an hour away from the nearest town, there was no phone reception and it was freezing cold. So, all in all, we had a blast.
Your work tends to be centred around dark and nightmarish themes. What attracts you to work with these themes and, specifically, using them in film?
I consider myself a rather vanilla human being but I feel that I do have ‘dark and nightmarish’ thoughts existing somewhere inside me. Films are my primary way of exorcising these things out of my system. If anybody thinks they can hide who they are in their work they’re insane because it always comes through in some way. In relation to Guest, this film is very personal to me. It’s not a subconscious darkness at all, it was fully conscious when I was writing it. I knew exactly what I wanted to show and what to not show. I’ll leave it to the people to fill in the blanks.
What’s next for you?
A feature length Guest. I will birth that film if it kills me.