Steve Isles Interview

Steve IslesSteve Isles is the co-director of British horror film The Torment (A.K.A. The Possession of David O’Reilly). Gorepress’s Boston Haverhill spoke to him on the release day of the UK DVD, Monday 9th August – Steve was in America at a fresh 10am, while Boston was in London at a tired, post-work 6pm. Both places, however, shared impeccably crap weather…

Happy to chat to Gorepress, Steve discussed horror, accidental comedy, his own personal paranormal experience and why the loss of the UK Film Council doesn’t particularly matter. Friendly, chatty, honest and sharp – and despite the Skype connection being a little dodgy, Steve was a pleasure to chat to.

Steve has also given Gorepress access to an exclusive alternative / extended ending to The Torment. Watch the film first, though, otherwise it’s a little bit of a huge SPOILER (and wouldn’t make a speck of sense anyway…).

He explains more in the interview below… so read it. Now.

Gorepress: How did you get involved with The Torment?

Steve Isles: It’s a bit of cliché but I was down at my local video store, where I used to live in Battersea in London, and there was this guy that runs the store and we got chatting about horror films, as you do. His name was Andrew Cull and it turns out he’d written scripts and was an aspiring writer, and he’d been working on a little YouTube series called In The Dark with another local bloke called Steve Smith, who was an established writer. This In The Dark series was basically about a young girl who’d come to London and was blogging about these supernatural things that were happening to her, and I did some soundwork on it, because my original background is lighting and music and doing sound. It was like this sort of Lonely Girl, but supernatural, and it did really well. So I asked Andy if he had any proper scripts and he gave me a couple. One he gave me was called Inside, which ultimately turned out to be The Torment. It was one of those ones where I read it and hairs pricked up at the back of my neck and I realised it could be really super-scary. It was also set in one location, and when you’re trying to make a film you’re thinking about the budget and because it was one location with a few actors it seemed very doable. So that came about because of a video store!

How was it working alongside Andrew Cull?

It was great. We spent quite a long time developing The Torment. This was my first film and Andy has done a bit of writing – he’d done an episode of Urban Gothic – but this was the first bigger thing either of us had done. We worked on the whole ideas of it, and working on the creative elements of it – we collaborated closely on everything. We both had a shared vision – we wanted to go old school on it and avoid CGI and use real prosthetics and creatures in the room, so the actors had something to react off. And our influences came through films like The Thing and The Shining and The Omen. With the whole emotional, documentary style, we liked the idea of shooting it with a handheld camera, with quite a lot of point-of-view shooting – that sort of first person gaming experience can be quite intense. You never feel it’s a documentary per-se, however.

Was there never the temptation to go down the full-blown documentary route?

It was interesting, because it was always about the story and the narrative features, and it would be very hard to keep the conceit of having the camera there. Like in [REC] it’s a TV crew and Paranormal Activity it’s a couple investigating their own house and Blair Witch and so forth. But how you get that made convincingly, it’s very hard and it’s always with hugely varying success. We wanted to go down the route of films like Hidden or even Gomorrah

Hidden especially seems relevant, as there’s a lot of still shots in The Torment focusing on a wall or window rather than a person. Is this also an influence from Andrew’s work on In The Dark?

In The Dark was more “found footage”, filmed as if it was real and put on the internet. People were commenting on it online and even advising the girl what to do. She’d wake up in the bed and find one side colder than the other, checked with a thermometer, and people are telling her “Definitely a haunting, love, you better get out of there”.

A lot of people believed it.

It was definitely done to get that reaction. So the point of view stuff in The Torment is to vary the dramatic points of the film. Most films do have some point of view shots in them, cutting from close ups to P.O.V. shots. I think the idea here was to shoot a lot of it that way, but there’s quite a fine balance, because some of the most terrifying things are in seeing people’s reactions in the room. Their fear makes your fear.

The Torment aka The Possession Of David O’Reilly

Those people in the room you mention – the cast – how were they to work with?

They were brilliant. We literally had a couple of thousand people apply to be in this, we auditioned maybe a hundred and fifty, and these four or five people who ended up in the film were an absolute success – they were brilliant. We were so happy we got such great performances from them.

It must have been a pretty gruelling shoot – at night, lots to tense emotions flying about. How was that to deal with?

Giles had just come from an emotional split-up himself –

Wow, that’s proper ‘Method’.

Yeah! So he was able to bring a lot to his character, and he put a lot of work in, really really pumped it up and a huge amount of energy came off him and everyone raised their game to match that. We talked to him about key performances we’d liked – like Jack Nicholson in The Shining – very intense roles. We also chatted to a psychiatrist about the experience of schizophrenia, and found that schizophrenics actually believe what is happening in the room is real, so their reactions to it are totally normal. They’re seeing a little army of people, marching towards them, and they’re jumping out of their chair yelling “there’s tiny people!” and expect you to react in the same way. And they’re confused when you do it. It sounds quite comical, but it’s not at all. So when Giles is seeing these monsters and he’s reacting completely appropriately and his friends are just thinking “he’s having a serious breakdown here”.

You mention the comical side of how people can react to schizophrenia – there were moments, during the screening I saw, where people laughed at Giles’ descent into mania. Was there any intention to make it comical?

Interesting you say that, actually. I talked to Giles after the premiere and he said that people laughed in some places, and I thought it was quite an interesting reaction there. Were they laughing because he was genuinely comedic or were they laughing because he was so freaky? He’s got quite a high pitched voice and a high pitch scream at one point, so some people may have found that funny, but there was no intention to make it funny. In any of those stressful situations people react in different ways.

It’s odd to see a man break down in the way Giles does, as it’s normally reserved for women in horror films or Hollywood in general, as clichéd and sexist as it sounds. Perhaps that’s why people laughed.

He’s at the end of his tether and it’s a strange thing to see, especially in a man. You’re right.

What was your biggest challenge working on The Torment?

The same old thing – the time and the money. We had a very tight schedule and we literally did it in three to four weeks and we were lucky because we had a big old house there, so we could put people up there in different departments. With a little bit more time we could’ve done more shooting and had more options, but I think it was really that. Also we were trying to avoid all the usual horror clichés and references that might present themselves.

Well, you didn’t have any cats jumping out of cupboards, thankfully…

[LAUGHS] Or the shadow under the door – the usual things that spring to mind. We also wanted to play with the colours, to create a dirty street-lamp yellow rather than the green of Dark Water, for example, or the blue of Paranormal Activity – we wanted something different thrown into the mix.

It did have a real feel of being set in London, with the dirty yellow and browns – was this intentional?

Totally, yeah. We wanted it to feel like a typical London suburban flat, Victorian house, and that colour pallet was supposed to be particularly unglamourous. You see a lot of films with lovely moon-lit houses and rooms and you think “I don’t know anywhere like that!” We definitely wanted it to reflect on it being slightly documentary-like, more realistic. It does feel like people could live there, if you suspend your disbelief.

As this is your first film, what one piece of advice would you give to any budding film director?

I just think, given the journey we’ve had on this film, I think you need to be very passionate about the film. It’s a very long journey to write the story, raise the money, make the film and then get it out to distributors. I went to Cannes 2009 to get a sales agents and then the American film market in November last year to start selling the film and getting distribution for it. We’d started talking about this in 2007 so it’s been a really long journey and you have to have a lot of passion for it. You have to feel it in your heart that you’re creating a great movie and you want to get it out there. Also get as much feedback and advice as possible – don’t necessary take it all! Often some people want to change it entirely.

The creatures were fantastically created and realised. Who came up with the designs, and who made them?

Initially Andy did the description in the script and then we found this brilliant concept artist called Sharon Smith, who’d just done some of the creature work on the Harry Potter films and we thought “There’s no way she’ll do horror – why would she?” and she came back with these most incredible designs. So we went back-and-forth with her and came up with these really great drawings, and some of them you get to see in the diary in the film. Then we found these two guys – Paul McGuiness and Alexis Haggar – and they’d done some work on Outpost and Sherlock Holmes. Paul has been doing this for years and years, back even on the original Doctor Who, and a lot of BBC stuff – if you go to his workshop there’s corpses hanging everywhere like a horror fan’s dream! These guys were fantastic. If you get the DVD with the Making Of, Paul shows how he does that nine foot, huge creature, which chases them around the apartment. It took them two months to build it, sculpt it, mould it, and get it in there. And it’s actually Paul in there, and he’s six foot four and has three foot stilts. The creatures were so good I said “keep them in the cupboard for a possible sequel!”

The moments of shadows and suggestions of something horrific lurking in the dark provide the greatest scares, for me personally, and I felt perhaps that showing the monsters in such clarity wasn’t actually necessary. What’s your view on this?

I agree. It was a real battle. The original script was much more terrifying when reading about it than when showing the creatures. Again, it all depends on the budget – take in a high budget movie like Alien where the creature is realised in such incredible detail, and it’s so iconic you want to see it, and it’s a main character. Here [in The Torment] it’s not supposed to be and you’re questioning whether you’re actually seeing them, so it was a real balance with how much we showed and how much we didn’t. But then again there’s a balance on how you plan a movie, and a lot of marketing people are like “you’ve got to have the money shot, with all these big creatures running around”, and those sort of things can excite interest. The intention here was to do a very supernatural movie where the intention was to build it more slowly, and get glimpses of the creatures to begin with. I hope we achieved that balance.

The Torment aka The Possession Of David O’Reilly

The film poster claims the age-old tag of “Based On True Events”. How factually accurate is this statement?

When Andrew wrote the story several years ago he’d basically been looking at various stories about events that had happened, and the various episodes within the film are actually true, and if you care to Google the various things you’ll see there are elements we’ve cobbled together to create the story. I think a lot of people ask what it‘s based on, and it is based on real events, but they’re so shocking you question how it can actually be true. They really did happen. So we created a vaguely fictional story based on these events – breakdown, murder, even the scene with Anna – which are based on real events. When he scans up the wall you see the headlines on newspapers, all of those are true. It’s testament to the fact that real things are more horrific than fiction. That’s where it comes from, and that’s what it’s stuck to, the origins of the story.

Are you a believer of the paranormal – possession, ghosts etc…?

Well, you know, I had a freaky experience once when I was fifteen and staying at a friend’s place. I was woken in the middle of the night by this rustling noise in the bedroom of this old house, I think it was Tudor, and I listened to this rustling going around the room. Then it finally stopped. In the morning I told my friend about the really weird rustling and he said “Oh, I haven’t heard that for ages. It’s supposed to be from an Elizabethan woman who walks around that room with a long dress”. Whether that was a cat or something I don’t know, but the night before he was telling me about this Cromwellian soldier that walks around the corridor and walks into the kitchen, and that was the main ghost in the house, so I was all set up for a Cromwellian ghost, but not a Elizabethan lady! I think it’s one of those things that is open to question and interpretation, and in a way I hope it is real, from the point of view of having an afterlife and so forth. I know other people can be pretty sceptical. I mean, Andy is very sceptical of it, even though he’s fascinated by it.

The film has two different titles; The Possession of David O’Reilly in the USA and The Torment in the UK. Which title do you prefer?

You know what, the original story was called Inside and when we went to the market, we were told we couldn’t call it that because too many films were already called that. We had a little problem with the title clearance, so we went with a name that reflects the events within the story, which said what it was all about instead of being something obscure. So we came up with that name – The Possession of David O’Reilly – which said exactly what it was on the tin. Then we brought it to the UK, and they said they wanted a shorter name. It’s very normal for English films to have different names to American films, so we said “let’s talk about what we can call it” and we went around a few different ideas there and came out with The Torment. I think it’s a strong name. In terms of my preference, I’ve always been quite fond of The Possession of David O’Reilly. I like the imagery it creates, but then again The Torment is really strong and a lot of people like that name.

How come it was released in the USA before the UK? It is a very British horror film.

Yeah, it’s interesting. The sales agent we got – I mean, the big Hollywood studios distribute their films themselves, but the independent filmmakers need sales agents – was an American one, and they took it to the American film market in November and sold it to IFC Films, who are part of the Sundance Festival. They were very keen to release it quite quickly, I think as there was a lot of interest in Paranormal Activity and they wanted to push it as a British version of it, and they would sort of jump in on the wave of that. Which is fair enough. We had a little trouble in the UK, as things got pushed to the end and then the World Cup came along and we couldn’t do it then. So it got pushed to August.

What with the government recently killing off the UK Film Council, how do you view the British film industry at the moment?

I’ve always had a view that they’ve [the UK Film Council] always had a specific idea of the sort of films they wanted to make. I read somewhere recently that the music and book publishing industries don’t have their own councils. If you let filmmakers go out and make films that would genuinely interest people, people will turn up for it, and then you can start building from there. You look at the American way – and I’m not saying Hollywood is great, by any means – but they make films without government subsidies and they dominate. I do feel that filmmakers should essentially make something that’s going to put butts on seats, and interest people, and you’d get a more vibrant film because of it. If you go to a council, they’ll decide what sort of project it should be. You can still make local, cultural stories without it, but as long as it travels. Why can’t we have very successful films? I’d love to see what happens now.

Talking of which – what are you working on now?

There’s a few things; depending on money, and seeing how The Torment goes so I can do something off the back of it. I have a couple of supernatural films, which I’m developing, and also another script which is a thriller and another script which is actually an action film.

Interesting. So we’ll be seeing a lot of you in the future.


What’s your favourite horror film?

I think it has to be The Shining. I love the book, I love the film – it’s a great adaptation. What’s yours?!

Oh, blimey, erm… I think it’s got to be John Carpenter’s The Thing.

I was going to say The Thing or The Shining. It’s a brilliant film. I was a little nervous to hear they’re doing a remake of that.

So was I… but luckily they’re not carrying it on. Or remaking it. It’s a prequel set in the Norwegian base camp you glimpse in the original. I don’t know how that’s going to work or how it’ll be any different, but we’ll see…

It won’t damage the original.

I hope not. Now, you’ve also given us some exclusive footage from The Torment [accessible above] – can you tell us a little bit about it?

Yeah, absolutely. In the original story you’re left to conclude what actually happened, and you’re left wondering. I don’t want to give anything away, but this exclusive gives a more definitive ending.

I rather liked the ambiguous ending, actually.

Oh yeah, but this still isn’t on-the-nose. It let’s you go “okay, so that’s happened and that’s happened, so…” – it gives you more of a nudge.

Is that how it was released in the States, or is it exactly the same over here?

It’s never been seen anywhere. This is the first anyone would’ve seen it. It was shot and then cut out for various reasons. It’s not an alternative ending, more of an extension of what’s there already. It gives a slightly different conclusion, nudging you in one direction.

Thanks for talking to Gorepress, Steve, all the way in not-so-sunny America.

Great talking to you, Dave.

Have a good brunch. I’m going to have some dinner.

[LAUGHS] Cheers, Dave. Thanks.

4 Comments on “Steve Isles Interview”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by The Torment, The Torment. The Torment said: Exclusive Interview w/ Director Steve Isles about 'The Torment' and a SUPER EXCLUSIVE HIDDEN ENDING!! [...]

  2. Chris Isles says:

    Hi Steve.
    I just watched your movie, and thought it was great! Loved the music.

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