Sophie Mair & Dan Gitsham Track a Spiralling Gamekeeper in Their Rural Horror ‘The Thing That Ate The Birds’

Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham have become welcome regulars here at Twelve Cabins. We first spoke to the Bristol-based filmmaking partners for their fairytale-inspired thriller Ella and then for their occult resurrection short Bill. Both films, along with the array of other horror shorts they’ve made, showcase the filmmakers’ impressive talents for capturing the uncanny. That continues with The Thing That Ate The Birds, the pair’s latest genre effort, which follows a gamekeeper as he battles a being that seems to be devouring his grouse. It’s a tense rural horror with inflections of familial drama thrown in for good measure. After debuting at SXSW earlier this year, the short is enjoying a strong festival run and is set to play Sundance London this week. Twelve Cabins caught up with Directors ahead the screening to chat the response they received from the SXSW premiere, the practical creation of their enigmatic ‘Thing’, and the challenges of shooting on the moorland.

How was the premiere at SXSW? 

Well, we were completely bowled over to be chosen to screen at SXSW. When you make a film (and especially with COVID post-production delays) you constantly question whether what you have made is any good. This is followed by months waiting agonisingly for festivals to make decisions. So to get accepted in one of the crown jewels that is SXSW was a major surprise to us all.

Having a platform such as SXSW showcase your work brings about so many amazing opportunities and connections. We feel truly fortunate that The Thing That Ate The Birds was part of it. It seems ridiculous to us that Jason Blum was one of the jury. We even did a Zoom Q&A with some of the filmmakers in the program at 4am which was a lot of bleery eyed fun and the SXSW app was great for making connections with industry and fans as it told you who signed up to your programme so you could connect which was very useful. 

What were the responses like from the audience there?

From SXSW we got probably the largest number of reviews we’ve ever had showing an amazing engagement with the festival. Although it was online we felt fully part of the it. Luckily they have mostly been positive but there’s a clear split between those who appreciated the suggestive elements of the story (the problems in the relationship, where did the monster come from, etc) vs those who didn’t. It’s amusing how some have praised the film’s many layers where others have bemoaned its lack of substance. 

For us we wanted to create a film where the audience fills in the gaps and the idea really is that the setting (isolation, Brexit) and relationship issues (drinking, poor communication) impact our protagonist’s decision making. 

Speaking of, where did the idea come from for The Thing That Ate The Birds?

We’ve been writing scripts set around North Yorkshire and Gamekeeping for a while as we were lucky enough to get to know some of that community back in 2010/2011 when we lived in the area. The combination of isolation and the friction between conservation and violence, beauty and horror ticked all our boxes. Up on the moors it feels like another planet or the bottom of the ocean.

We wrote the script around the time of Brexit, where it felt like the other was seen as a villain and divisions in our society were magnified. It truly felt like everyone was losing their heads, and it still does. So the two elements combined into a film about a self destructive. Gamekeeper who is losing control of his world (the moors) and his relationship.

Who did you work with in creating the ‘Thing’ and what conversations did you have with them when you were developing its look? Were you always set on creating the creature practically?

We toyed with puppetry and a CGI creature for a brief moment but quickly returned to the idea of an actor in make-up and luckily we found the amazing James Swanton, the Bela Lugosi of the here-and-now to play the ‘Thing’. He is an absolute gem and incredible talent.

Through friends recommendations we were put in touch with Yorkshire based GTFX (Graham Taylor and Mim Williams). We had a rough idea of the creature, which we had sketched on the front of the script and was inspired by the terrain of the location (Swaledale). Historically the dale was home to lead mining, therefore there is a rabbit warren of tunnels in and around the moors, which stretch to the depths of the earth and have been closed for many years. We articulated this to GTFX and they were great, we had lots of conversations on how the darkness would impact the skin texture and look. Originally we did have the notion of huge bulbous eyes but unfortunately on the budget, it was unachievable. 

As ever, logistics impacted a lot of the decision making and this is always a great lesson in resourceful filmmaking. For example, we prioritised the make-up detail in the areas we would see most clearly on camera (hands, face) and deliberately obscured areas within the environment and camera placement that had less detail. Bristol based Primary VFX were incredible too and helped with some invisible touch up work where you could see a seam in the make-up and we were really impressed with what they were able to pull off. 

What were the challenges you faced when shooting in such a rural location like the dale?

Fortunately Sophie grew up in this part of the world and comes from a wider farming family so had all the connections and foresight on the best places to shoot. We also had access to an off road buggy which as you can imagine is essential in helping cart crew and kit. That said with all of this…

We had only one day in the schedule to shoot the moorland and initial ‘Thing’ section and this directly impacted our decision making. The key was to find an area of the moorland that provided variety yet was all within a short walking distance of itself and including parking access etc. So we basically started at the top of the moor and shot the scenes in order as we made our way down in to the gulley. It was still hard work, because of the terrain, there was no mobile reception and walkie talkies kept failing and we ran out time and had to cut a bunch of shots from the encounter with the ‘Thing’. 

Can you tease us with anything you’re working on next?

We’ve just finished a treatment with BFI Network for a horror feature called Ginger which we are hoping to begin scripting in the next few month and have ambitions to make another short in the next twelve months. The Thing That Ate The Birds is still doing the festival circuit and will have its premiere on ALTER at some point so watch this space.

The Thing That Ate The Birds was programmed by the Twelve Cabins team. If you’d like to see your film on our pages, submit here.

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