Playhouse is the debut feature from filmmaking brothers Fionn and Toby Watts. Set in a remote Scottish Castle, it follows aloof horror writer Jack Travis who seeks to embrace the castle’s looming architecture and troubled past for his next play – an interactive theatrical experience set within its very walls. Whilst developing this project, Jack is going through a troubling patch with his daughter Bee. The pair are both being scoped out by their neighbours, who also have a disturbed history with the castle and seek to confront Jack’s artistic intentions. It’s an impressive debut which makes good use of a really strong, atmospheric setting. Fresh from the festival, Twelve Cabins spoke with the directing pair about making their first feature and the important lessons they’ll take forward into future projects.
How was the premiere for you both?
We were a lot more nervous on the day than we thought we’d be. Knowing your film, this creature you’ve nurtured for years, is going to be seen by so many people and ultimately judged for better or for worse was very daunting, but also exhilarating. It was awesome to be a part of something bigger though, rather than just the film showing on its own or something. Being in a festival programme with such a variety of interesting movies from around the world was really cool, and made you feel part of this incredible community of passionate filmmakers all working hard to entertain people and strike a connection one way or another.
How lucky for you two to have grown up in the castle! Was it a no brainer to use it once you’d developed the concept?
Absolutely! The location of the castle and the grounds were a given from the start. It was obvious to us that this was going to add huge production value to our debut, so it was a no brainer. We worked backwards from the location and crafted a story around what was there on the site, right down to pre-existing props in the castle and whistling pipes in the courtyard, all these atmospheric things we remembered from our childhood.
What inspired you to tell a contemporary gothic haunted house story?
A lot of it ultimately came down to the location itself. We knew we were going to film at the castle as we’d decided that early on. So, it was really a process of working backwards from that and asking, ‘Who would live here? What would plausibly happen here?’ We also drew a lot of inspiration from many local myths and folklore, stories passed down the generations about tyrannical lairds and so on, so that helped sketch out some characters and a backstory. As for the tone and genre itself, we’ve always been a fan of slow burning psychological horror and the haunted house genre, so our natural inclinations were feeding into the story development all the time. We loved the idea of doing something that had the look and feeling of a traditional gothic story but somehow set in the present day, as though time has never moved on. This is how it often feels in the far north of Scotland so it felt right to take this approach.
I thought Jack’s mental descent played through really subtly and smoothly throughout, how did you work with William to achieve that?
We met with William some weeks before the shoot to create a language and system of references to use during the shoot itself. We needed a way to communicate what level Jack was operating at in each scene. This was incredibly important, as it turns out, as we ended up shooting much of the film out of sequence, but the cast handled this very well. William was great at tuning in to where he needed to be emotionally and mentally, and our job was just to push him this way or that way to fine tune, depending on what was needed. As directors we had to really be on the ball with knowing what level of intensity we needed, not just for William but for all the cast, so this was something we worked on a lot in pre-production.
You mentioned in the film’s introduction that you faced a few challenges on the shoot, what were they and how did you overcome them?
Yeah, we faced all sorts. In the first few days we kept having power cuts in the castle so had to call an electrician out late at night to upgrade the electricity in the entire building! We had our second assistant director back into some lit candles and set her jacket on fire when we were filming in a very tight cellar room of the castle. Thankfully, she was okay and we could laugh it off. Our sound recordist sprained his ankle and was in a lot of pain for a while, but thankfully recovered pretty quickly. It was also really cold at times, particularly shooting outside, so we had to keep time out there to a minimum. Add that to very limited hours of daylight and most of the cast and crew sleeping in a dark and creepy castle and you’ve got a recipe for a tense and dramatic shoot! But, we’re pleased to say, everyone seemed to have a blast. The euphoria at the wrap party on our last night in the castle was huge.
How has the pandemic affected the film’s journey? And how are you feeling about the future of filmmaking in general?
Good question. It’s hard to say. In some ways, because VOD streaming has increased a lot this could work well in our favour. VOD was always going to be the main way people are going to watch the film and so the fact that cinemas are barely open for the foreseeable future shouldn’t affect us too much, if at all. If there’s an impact on DVD sales because of the pandemic then that might be something we feel. In general, there’s some trepidation about getting back out there shooting, so in a way we’re really glad we’re in development at the moment as hopefully by the time we’re shooting next year things will be a lot simpler and less risky in terms of people’s health. The thing that could really stifle filmmakers getting their projects off the ground is lack of investor confidence at the moment. If potential investors are holding back from making riskier investments, such as in film, this could create some issues for those trying to fund films through private investment. But it’s too early to say whether this is happening yet!
Reflecting back on the film’s journey from concept to premiere, what lessons will you take into future projects?
There’s so many! Making your first feature is a massive film school in itself so naturally there are so many things that we’ve learned. Some of the headlines for us are: plan to have more shooting days so you’ve got more time to shoot everything you really want to, have some more rehearsal time with the actors to establish good relationships, rapport and ways of communicating and understanding how each of them work, get some extra help in pre-production so you’re not have to do all the production management yourself. The big thing, which I think is true for any filmmaker after making a film, is to never compromise on crafting the best story you can. This is something we’ll be working hard on to make sure our standards and expertise only get higher!