Romain Douchin’s short ghost story 21 is a great example of utilising your surroundings to create gripping horror. As mentioned in our interview below, Douchin set out to make 21 to test his own filmmaking ability. He created his short entirely in the office block of his production company Hiroz, with Producer Sandrine Chapuis as his lead, and sole, actor. The result is a gripping and sharp horror short which is proof that you don’t need million dollar budgets or expensive visual effects to create something effective. You can watch 21 below and follow it up with our interview with Douchin on the execution of his short and how it caused him to reappraise the horror genre.
What inspired the idea for 21?
The idea was to test my new gear even before I thought about a story or a genre, but also I wanted to test my partnership (Sandrine and I have been owning a video production company for a year now. Six months at the time we shot this short) and finally, to test me as a director. So, with these three directions in mind, and the fact that the short will be very low budget (our time was our only investment), I tried to think of something and very quickly I thought about making a short horror film. It was kind of a challenge with low light, etc. but it was perfect for equipment testing. Sandrine never acted before so, it allowed me to write for her a mute role, it would be less difficult for her to play. For me, I’ve never directed in the horror genre so that was a challenge too. Then, I wrote three shorts. This one is the first and I’d like to shoot 21 part two and three by the end of February. Each film should be more challenging and hopefully more fun to watch than the previous ones. As for the inspiration, I’m not a master of horror, I’m not a fan of torture porn but, I do love the more fantastical side of the horror genre like ghost stories. From there, the influences kicked in.
The location feels integral to the tense atmosphere, what were you looking for when location scouting? What made you decide on this particular cellar?
Honestly, the production budget helped me to make my decisions there. I am lucky, the building, where our office is, is creepy. I noticed the cellar and other places in the building so I went for them. It was not laziness but just production logic. Even if it could be frustrating sometimes it was a good challenge. The time and money one have to spend on a project like that, give you a frame and we just had to be smart to bend the boundaries at our will if I may say. Like for 21 there was Sandrine, who never acted before and me for the rest. So shooting in our building was way simpler for the equipment, for us, for everything. As I said, we were lucky, we barely touched anything. Everything was spooky material as it was and with light, framing and a good performance, it became cool I think!
Definitely. I think it’s a sign of a good filmmaking instinct when you take advantage of what’s immediately around you and adapt to it. Like the location though, the sound design is also crucial for the unsettling ambience. What was your approach in developing that?
So, this was the tricky part. As we all know the sound is so crucial in horror movies. I didn’t want to make bad VFX shot (Been there on old projects. It can be quite disappointing and ruin a film). I decided to not show everything on the first part and more on the sequels. This choice meant that the sound needed to be as good as it could be. I watched scenes from movies like The Conjuring, Insidious, Occulus and The Exorcist, and TV shows like Hill House and Bly Manor. I was even listening to the score of old games like Silent Hill just to feel out where I’d like to go. From this point, I knew that I didn’t have the time, the material and skills to record my own sound effects so I bought a library (Boom construction kit) online with like hundreds of sounds and I mixed some of them to do the trick. For some effect there can be six layers of different sounds.
The post-production was the longest part of the making. I know the basics but I am an image guy. So, I can hear all the defaults and I don’t really know how to fix them. I am sure a pro sound designer would kill me for the job I did on this short but I did my best! So, again, the production budget and my lack of contacts in this domain forced me to do this alone but I’ve been working on finding crewmates for the future projects, sound pros being at the top of my list.
What conversations did you have with your Sandrine on how you wanted her to play and explore the space?
It was a first time for her. She was a bit stressed but way more enthusiastic. The fact that she didn’t have lines made it more comfortable for her. We discussed how she needed to focus on her body language, to be as natural as possible and just forget the camera. She often said that for a first experience it was the most comfortable as it could have been. There were just the two of us so no shame because we know each other. When we shot, we always used the first take as a directing take. So if I show you the first takes, you will hear me talking almost all the time. As if I were narrating what her character was doing. And after this take we did the second one in silence. It was the best way we came up with that.
Since making a horror short, have your perceptions on the genre changed?
As I said, it was challenging for me but also adapted to what we wanted to do. Production logic and challenge aside, horror is a genre that I like and respect. It’s a genre that keeps evolving, with our society, our fears. When you watch older movies like The Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street or Texas Chainsaw Massacre and you switch to the recents Midsommar it’s mind-blowing, especially about how rich the grammar of the genre is. There are no boundaries for the writers, DPs, editors, actors, directors, etc. It maybe is the biggest sandbox to tell your story. Every genre can live in a horror movie: love story, action, drama, comedy… and as Romero proved it, the icing on the cake, a full critique of our society. Even if I had my preferences, as I said, I really don’t like some kind of horror movies, I truly respect it, and with internet the small budget horror shorts we can see are just amazing.
That’s what we like to hear. Lastly, when can we expect the 21 sequels?
I hope I will shoot the two sequels of 21 in February or at least just one. I will do my best to release it by the end of March or maybe April. After that, we will try to fund our next short which will be a comedy or a drama, so it will be quite different!