An interview with
Ellis Reed interviews Michael Fausti, director of the psychosexual thriller, Exit…
For connoisseurs of lo-fi indie horror, there’s a definite buzz around the name Michael Fausti. After a series of award-winning shorts, he brought his feature length début to the 2020 Horror-on-Sea Film Festival, where it played to a crowded room of happy punters. The film in question – Exit (2020) – was written by his long-time collaborator Mathew Bayliss, who also acted in Fausti shorts like Z.A.F. (2015) and Dead Celebrities (2018).
Inspired by the EU referendum, Exit is variously described as a psychosexual puzzle , an intoxicating erotic nightmare , and – to quote French star Christophe Delesques – ‘a crazy film, really crazy’ . The drama begins when two different couples arrive at a flat in London, only to find themselves the victims of a double booking. The owner sweet-talks them into sharing while he sorts the mess out, offering to deduct the price of the first night. After some initial awkwardness, they progress to booze, then drugs, then sex, then violence. Ultimately, as per the tagline, leaving will be harder than they think.
It’s clear from the trailer that Exit has been shot in a seedy art house style, with hypnotic use of light and colour. More than one reviewer notes the influence of Argento, and Fausti has said he used ‘colours not traditionally associated with the palette of the horror film’ . Some of the scenes resemble neon fever dreams, and he describes the indoors action as a ‘Technicolor nightmare’, contrasting with the ‘colourless, wintry aspect’ of the exteriors .
The reviews have been uniformly positive, including the usual suspects – Search My Trash , Dark Eyes of London , Voices from the Balcony  – so make sure you check it out when you can. Filmmakers like Fausti have been the backbone of British horror cinema for some time; for every His House (UK, Remi Weekes, 2020) or Saint Maud (UK, Rose Glass, 2019), there are countless lo-fi gems made by passionate auteurs, testing the boundaries of what can be achieved in low budget storytelling.
We had the opportunity to ask Michael Fausti some questions, which you can read below.
Ellis: Your influences include British films like Black Narcissus (UK, Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1947) and Performance (UK, Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg, 1970). What distinguishes British films from Hollywood fare, and what do you think of modern British cinema?
Michael Fausti: What distinguishes British cinema from Hollywood, is often a sense of certainty. Hollywood knows what it is and what it wants to be. It first and foremost is commercial. British Cinema is actually a more nebulous industry to try and define. I only really feel qualified to talk about British Cinema from the Indie perspective. But I guess British Independent Cinema is driven more by passionate individuals, often with very singular artistic visions. People who are film fans first and business people second. Whilst the need to make a profit is obviously important, British Cinema seems to fall somehow between ‘Commercial’ and ‘Art Cinema’.
I’m a huge fan of British Cinema, particularly British Horror. I love its quirkiness, the weirdness and darkness that has often been found in its output over the years. I also love the many maverick directors it has spawned, like Ken Russell and Alan Clarke. Ken Russell’s The Devils (UK, 1971) is an incredible film and still has the power to shock, even in its cut and truncated version. Alan Clarke’s Elephant (UK, 1989) is brutal, compelling viewing and audacious in its execution. It’s one of a handful of films that I watch on rotation. I re-watched Clive Barker’s Original Hellraiser film (UK, 1987) the other night and I’d forgotten just how ‘British’ that film is!
I guess the most tangible and obvious difference between UK films and their American counterparts is the size of the budget. From this stems everything. When you are dealing with Hollywood budgets, not that I ever have of course!, there are obviously more hands controlling the project and the idea of ‘total creative control’ is a myth. Added to this is the marketing process that the American studios have, no British film is ever able to compete with this. We certainly have the talent in this country, but often to see projects realised we have look to the US or overseas financing.
Many of the British films that have influenced me were made by the outlanders or outsider artists of British cinema. You mention Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell) and Performance (1970, Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg), for me I think that between them these two films encapsulate a sense of what it is to be ‘A British Film’. Michael Powell, who directed Black Narcissus, had been seen as something of a pillar of British Cinema by the establishment, the darkness and subversion in many of his films seemingly not being picked up upon. Black Narcissus is a fever dream of a movie, exploring repressed desire and madness. Powell eventually found himself having to leave the UK for Australia after his 1960 film Peeping Tom, a Slasher film that predates Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), was reviled by the British Press. Powell’s career never really recovered from that and it took Martin Scorsese to remind the British what they had in the films of Michael Powell.
Similarly, I think Performance is an example of how British Film has the power to surprise and push the boundaries in terms of both themes and style. Ironically Performance, like Ken Russell’s The Devils, was funded by an American studio who hated the film.
In terms of contemporary British cinema, I love Peter Strickland’s films, again a director who is operating outside of a studio system and producing very personal films, with a unique vision. I’m also a big fan of Jonathon Glazer’s Under the Skin (UK, 2013), a really effective film that rises above its budget restraints.
E: On the surface, Exit is a psychosexual thriller, but it’s also inspired by Brexit. Do you want viewers to experience it as a political fable?
M: I guess the short answer is no! Brexit and its machinations were something of an influence in the writing and Pre-Production stages, but it is one of a number of themes and indeed influences on the film. I dislike ‘Issue Films’ that seek to preach at, or tell their audiences how they should think. Political and social issues can rarely be broken down into simple binary oppositions that fit neatly into a feature film’s running time.
E: Do you think the global pandemic will influence your next film in the same way?
M: In truth, I think that it’s going to influence many films in terms of the practicalities of film production. I’m sure that there have been a lot of ‘lock down’ style movies, shot in people’s homes and made during this period.
From the stand point of my own writing, I’m actually making a conscious effort to avoid anything related to the pandemic. However, I do acknowledge that, as with Brexit, it can be difficult to completely avoid being influenced by events around you, particularly during writing and Pre-production.
E: Exit had a year of pre-production, followed by an intense eight day shoot. After such a long build-up, and with it being your first feature length film – were you nervous? What was it like, filming with a full cast and crew in an enclosed space?
M: Debut films are notoriously difficult and you learn so much from the process. Both the Production and Post-Production sides of EXIT were stressful, tiring and nerve racking. When you work on something for a long time, it’s difficult to maintain any kind of critical distance and inevitably, as with any creative venture, you find yourself dealing with doubt.
Fortunately, during Post-Production, I was able to continually ask for feedback from Producer Lou Nosbod and our Composer and Sound Designer Nick Burns. Both of whom now know every single frame of the film! When working on something as big as a Feature, you need people around you whose opinions you value and trust. You also have to be receptive to criticism and feedback. When you direct and edit your own film, you’re painfully aware of how much effort went into a particular shot or scene. So knowing it took you hours to set up a shot, you may find yourself deciding to keep a shot or scene in your edit because of the amount of effort that it took, even though it may not be right for the flow of the edit. This is when you need to step back and ask someone else to take a look.
When we were casting and looking to crew for EXIT we really took our time. We needed actors and crew who were not only suited to their roles but who also would be able to work in some pretty challenging conditions. We filmed late Spring in 2018, during a freakishly hot week at the end of May. We shot in an apartment in London and at times there were upwards of fifteen people in that space. Even with these challenging conditions, everyone pulled together and despite some long days, we finished our principal photography on schedule. I do think that some of the claustrophobia during Production does translate to the screen. I am really happy with what we managed to achieve with EXIT.
E: As an independent filmmaker, you have to look at what’s available, which led to you making your bathroom-based short called Dead Celebrities. Do you feel constrained by budget limitations, or is it more a case of necessity being the mother of invention?
M: When writing and storyboarding, I’ve always got one eye on what can be achieved, in regards to not only our projected budget, but also within a particular time frame. Whilst you can always do with more time and money, a lack of budget is the challenge of Independent Filmmaking. Learning to maximise budget, and ensuring every penny ends up ‘on screen’ is a vital skill. I think during the writing and Pre-Production of any film project you have to be practical in terms of your resources and what you can reasonably get access to. I always start from the stand point of what do we have, or what can we realistically get? Sometimes the things that you think are going to be major challenge, can be achieved through a few phone calls. In one of our early shorts, Z.A.F. (2015), I’d set the film on an airbase, without any thought about whether this would be achievable. Ironically, we were able to secure access to an old World War 2 Airfield for filming quite easily.
The more films you make, you not only become more efficient in your filmmaking, but you also learn that an essential ability for any filmmaker is to become a creative problem solver. Again, it’s not always a case of knowing the answer yourself, but more about knowing who will know the answer. For EXIT we had an excellent make up artist, Rachael Painter, who took care of all of our VFX. The script called for a number of gory scenes and Rachael’s expertise came into play in terms of how to solve these. As an Indie Filmmaker you end up wearing many ‘hats’, but that doesn’t mean that you have to do everything yourself. In many respects, the mood, tone and narrative premise of your film, together with relatable and intriguing characters, are what will win your audience over. Within the Horror genre particularly, big budget doesn’t always equal success and many of the most effective horror films were and are made with meagre budgets.
E: You’ve left a lot of room for the viewer to reach their own conclusions about Exit. You’ve resisted spelling things out in interviews, and you like the fact that even members of the production team have their own theories. Is this a key part of your style, or is it specific to this one film? Have you ever heard an interpretation that made you think, ‘Argh, that’s not what I meant at all!’
M: I don’t believe in making things deliberately obtuse or weird for the sake of it. There is always a logic and a path to the approach I take. Whilst some of the short films I’ve previously produced may seem more rooted in realism, I guess I do like ambiguity as a style. I dislike films that over-explain to their audiences or sign post the stages of the narrative, or labour ‘themes’ or moral judgements.
A key influence in terms of both writing and visual style for me is dream logic. Dreams are both personal, emotional and deeply rooted in individual experience, yet also can defy easy interpretation. Something that I wanted to explore in EXIT was the blurring of past and present and reality and fantasy. Many of the filmmakers that I admire, such Luis Buñuel and Alain Robbe-Grillet, through their work cause the audience to re-evaluate the narrative experience, by questioning at which point the fantasy begins and reality ends, particularly in films like Belle De Jour (France/Italy, Luis Buñuel, 1967) and Trans-Europ-Express (Belgium/France, Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1966). Dead Celebrities (2018), deals with a character who has a skewed vision of the world of celebrity. Again, I left it up to the audience to make their own mind up about this guy and his beliefs.
In regards to EXIT, I saw the apartment as representing a space in which memory and feelings become uncertain. I also wanted to steer the audience away from making simplistic value judgements in terms of the characters. Beyond that, I’m happy for the audience to see whatever reflections or interpretations that they perceive to be there. As far as differing readings of the film are concerned, firstly I’m appreciative of anyone who takes the time to watch our film and express their thoughts. I’ve heard many interesting theories and interpretations of EXIT, and who or what particular characters represent. However, like a magic trick, I think if you start to explain the minutiae of your film, it then ceases to be interesting. Film should always have some mystery. I also think as a creative, that once you put your film before your audience, they share a degree of ownership with it. Films have been likened to collective dreams and far be it for me to tell people what their dreams may or may not mean.
E: The premiere got a packed house at the 2020 Horror-on-Sea Film Festival. Since then, we’ve seen a lot of festivals go online due to the pandemic. What do you think of virtual screenings? How do you see cinema changing in the future?
M: Yeah the Premiere at Horror-On-Sea was amazing! For me Horror-On-Sea is one of my favourite festivals and I think it is the UK’s Essential Horror Film Festival. Nothing really beats the experience of watching films with an audience in a darkened auditorium. There is also the social aspect of meeting fellow filmmakers and friends and catching up and chatting about movies. However, from the point of view of our film EXIT, the virtual festival experience has been an extremely positive one. We got to connect directly with audiences all over the world via Zoom based Q & As and shamelessly plug the physical release of our film in ways we couldn’t have done previously! We also got to hang out with other filmmakers in online Filmmaker Lounges and connect personally with Festival Directors. Moving forward, I can see some film festivals going down a hybrid route, part online and part physical and if it increases audience size and access to Indie films that can only be a good thing.
E: Lastly: what’s next for you? Do you have any more horror in the pipeline…?
M: We’re currently self-distributing EXIT, which is a whole job in itself. I’m also in the process of writing several feature films scripts concurrently! Both could be seen as fitting broadly into the Horror/Thriller genre. Whilst each of the projects are very different from each other, they again follow something of the dream logic approach that I’ve spoken of. However, no spoilers yet, so watch this space! Support Indie Film!