[Review] The Thing That Ate the Birds, plus filmmaker Q&A

The Thing That Ate The Birds (2021)

Dir. Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham

by Ellis Reed

The Thing That Ate the Birds is the latest short movie from married filmmakers Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham, aka Sketchbook Pictures.

Thanks to the involvement of Alter, you can watch it for free online – but, if you do decide to skip the review, make sure you return for our Q&A with the directors below…

Abel (Eoin Slattery) is a gamekeeper with a drinking problem. Isolated on the lonely moors, he barely communicates with his wife Grace (Rebecca Palmer) or assistant Jake (Lewis Mackinnon).

Visibly exhausted, Grace is on the verge of packing her bags. Unfortunately, instead of working on his relationship, Abe becomes obsessed with his grouse – or rather, the question of what is slaughtering them. ‘It’s killing for kicks,’ Jake observes, holding up a dead bird. Given that this is a horror film, it’s hardly surprising that his pedestrian theories – a fox, a stoat – fall wide of the mark.

The Thing itself turns out to be a humanoid, played by genre veteran James Swanton. In a nice touch, he makes his first appearance very early, in broad daylight, in a way that inspires as much pathos as horror. The effect is quite uncanny, making the scene a real standout. In a different context, it could have been a case of a film showing its hand too early. However, here, the horror comes less from the reveal, which is understated, and more from Abe’s reaction, which is primitive – Grace would say ‘neolithic’ – and the terrible consequences that follow.

The Thing… is co-presented by BFI Network, whose logo promises a certain level of quality. The good news is, the film delivers. The moors are superbly shot; the performances are strong; the sound design is tense; the payoff is chilling. Even small details, like Grace getting glass in her foot, are impeccably executed. The film looks fantastic throughout, especially (but not only) in the outdoor scenes, which make exceptional use of muted colour and dying light. Mair and Gitsham also deserve high praise for the way that, with a few deft strokes, they suggest a huge amount of narrative depth, implying far more story than can be shown on screen in eleven minutes.

The film had its 2021 premiere at SXSW and was selected for more than sixty festivals, including Sundance London. It picked up multiple awards, including Best Short Film Screenplay (Knoxville Horror Fest, Horrible Imaginings, and Cornwall Film Fest) and Best Horror Short (Indy Shorts and Vortex Horror Festival). Too many short movies dazzle at festivals and then sink into obscurity, so it’s great that The Thing… now has a platform on Alter. Go and watch it now, and then come back to read our interview with the filmmakers…

ELLIS: First of all, The Thing That Ate the Birds looks and sounds fantastic! How did the creative team come together, and what were the shoot and production like?

SOPHIE & DAN: Thank you, that means a lot. The TTTATB film family are a mix of trusted collaborators and new members. We owe a tremendous amount to our eternally supportive producers Jude Goldrei and Becca Wolff, who moved heaven and earth to enable it to happen.

We met James Oldham (DOP) at a BFI Network Script Reading Event (where we also met Eoin who plays Abel) and found out he shot our pals Paul Holbrook & Sam Dawes’ amazing film HUNGRY JOE. Costumer designer Rose Bennett has worked on all of our films, the composer KRANTZ is our neighbour, the editor James Taggart is also a regular collaborator. It was a real mix of new and old and as we were shooting in Yorkshire (but we live in Bristol) we targeted most production crew from the region.

Logistically the terrain of shooting on moortops etc for only 4 days culminating in a night shoot was intense but the weather gods were thankfully on our side and the shoot ran well thanks to a collaborative effort. The crazy thing was that about a week after shooting there was a cataphoric flood which reconfigured the landscape we were shooting in. We were very lucky to have got the film in the can when we did.

E: The Thing… builds a lot of dread and then delivers a big horror pay-off, which is something I know you both enjoy in films. Do you have a playbook or “bag of tricks” to achieve this feeling? When you’re watching a film, what makes you tense?

S&D: We love films which build a sense of dread, films which favour character and mood before a great big sucker punch. We adore long lingering shots and being allowed to follow the nuance in a protagonist’s journey. Our issue with more mainstream horror is that there are almost too many horror scenes or jump scares and this (for us) dilutes what comes after.

We often talk about audience expectation in relation to building suspense. It relates to the old Hitchcock bomb analogy where the audience knows something bad could happen and the suspense comes from when (as opposed to the sudden shock of the bomb going off).

There was some risk in the structure of THE THING THAT ATE THE BIRDS in that we meet the creature in daylight in the middle of the film, which is somewhat unconventional as often horror shorts end at the reveal, but our narrative keeps going which we hope destabilises the audience into knowing something else is on its way. It’s that idea that something (else) bad is going to happen but when?

Do we have a bag of tricks? We’re still learning on the job so that’s hard to quantify but music and sound design are an enormous part of our process when building mood and dread. We spend just as much time with the composer/sound designer as we do in the edit.

There is one thing in particular that Sophie cannot handle in a film, which we have yet to use… She hates being chased.

E: James Swanton plays the Thing(s), wearing what looks like a full facial prosthesis. Was it one of those things where he had to spend four hours sitting in a makeup chair? Did the “creature feature” aspect bring any unique challenges to the production?

S&D: Graham Taylor and Mim Williams did an amazing job with a miniscule budget. The creature is very much designed around what we could pull off for very little, but we were very keen to use a performer and were beyond lucky to get James Swanton involved. His audition tapes are something else.

He probably spent between 6-8 hrs in make-up as well as a few prep days for making casts and moulds. James is glorious human being, very patient and understanding of the process and we couldn’t have asked for a more creative and considered collaborator.

Due to time and budget, we already knew that we’d only have the top half (and hands) covered so we’d planned the shots and framing around this. Once James arrived on set in full make-up it was clear his movements were going to be limited due to the nature of the prosthetics. Luckily James isn’t a diva and understood the technical aspects of filmmaking and was really easy to work with. The Thing had a lot more action in the script but once we realised our limitations it was clear we had to work within the confines of ‘less is more’ so we worked around what was feasible.

E: As filmmakers, of the plans and ideas you had for this film, what were the things that came together most perfectly? Conversely: were there any disappointments or missed opportunities?

S&D: This was our most ambitious short film both in production and narrative and with this we had a burning desire to explore the drama and really bring the characters to life without over egging performances. For this we are forever in debt to our incredibly talented cast Eoin Slattery (Abel) Rebecca Palmer (Grace) Lewis MacKinnon (Jake) James Swanton (Thing 1 & 2).

We knew that revealing the Thing in broad daylight/midway through the film was a little risky but seemed to work. We were chasing the last of the sun during the first monster encounter which meant we had to scale back and simplify some of the emotional/suspense beats that were in the script and trim a few of the planned shots.

In the original script Abel and Grace are under attack from multiple creatures in the finale but as we edged towards production it was becoming very clear that we’d need to temper our expectations and rework the scenes accordingly. We’re not sure if this was entirely successful but the Thing that arrives at the end is now a family member of the first creature yet it plays for some people as the same creature.

Expectation is high when a film is first finished and with that the initial feelings of either disappointment or ‘what could have been’ have dissipated into a feeling of contentment at what it is and an appreciation to all involved of what it has achieved.

E: The Thing… is a really good example of how you can use a small amount of screen time to suggest a lot of narrative depth. This is especially true of Abel’s demons, and his deteriorating relationship with Grace. Did you consider writing the same story as a feature, and do you think it would work as one?

S&D: Thank you. It was really important to find ways to build the characters lives through little visual cues. For us his alcoholism/deteriorating relationship are just as important as his struggles with the mystery predator on the moors. Each one builds on the other and go some way to explain his abrupt response to the Thing. The film is really about communication or the lack of and Abel’s actions are self-destructive.

We have toyed around with the idea of a feature version and think it could work. At its heart it’s a simple cautionary tale. Either way we love their environment of the moors and the world of Gamekeeping and we’re working on a feature script which is kind of thematically and spiritually linked.

E: It sometimes feels to me that short films don’t get enough exposure outside the festival circuit, which is a shame, because some of the best horrors I’ve seen have been shorts. The Thing… has a wider platform through Alter, getting nearly 60,000 views in just a few weeks. How did that come about, and how healthy is the market for shortform cinema? Do you see shorts as a stepping-stone to features, or do you enjoy them as their own thing?

S&D: We got to know Alter back in 2018 when we submitted our 10-year-old short ELLA to their channel which they really enjoyed. We’d heard their sci-fi channel DUST had co-financed some originals and wondered if ALTER might be doing the same. We took a punt and sent them the script for THE THING THAT ATE THE BIRDS with the knowledge that BFI Network were also onboard as co-financiers which we feel was key to our collaboration.

We love short film and for us it’s an art form in its own right but also, they can be a steppingstone to a feature but not always. We think as long as features are being made shorts will too. There must be thousands of shorts that are not online or in an archive and could be lost forever. However, with online platforms such as ALTER/DUST, Short of the Week, Vimeo, YouTube, Nowness, criterion, BFI player, Argo etc there are audiences out there.

E: The Thing… received funding from two sources: one public (BFI) and one commercial (Alter). From your points of view as filmmakers, how do the two types of organisation compare?

S&D: Both BFI and ALTER where really supportive and gave us the space to make the film we wanted to make. Having the BFI on board is like a comfort blanket. They are there purely to support you and to make certain the rights of the film remain yours, whereas Alter are a commercial organisation. However, in saying this they are also there for the filmmaker too. We were incredibly fortunate to have the two funders on board.

E: Lastly: what else do you have up your sleeve, that our readers can look forward to…?

S&D: As mentioned, we’re about to start writing a horror feature film set on the North Yorkshire moors. We’re also hoping to shoot our first music video in the summer which will contain horror elements and … who knows but we are very open to new opportunities or friendly mega rich philanthropists.

Many thanks to the filmmakers for taking the time to answer our questions!

Ellis Reed

Ellis Reed

Ellis Reed is the News Editor for Horrified. He also wrote some ghost stories during lockdown, which you can read for free on his blog.

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