Making films in the post-cinema/post-horror age
Sarah MacGregor on the making of
The Fable of Isabella
The Fable of Isabella managed to squeeze in a public screening at the Chapel Cinema (Bethnal Green, East London) in time for the Halloween of 2019 and just before the world was hit by a pandemic predicted by the horror genre many times over.
The team behind the film were very grateful for that opportunity to see the film well received by its first (and hopefully not last) public audience. It’s difficult to describe in some ways the making of the film; it was a complex, elongated, financially insecure but also exhilarating experience, so here I try to explain the making of… through the lens of our film co-op who decided to try and pull off a folk horror feature.
RULE #1 Don’t say ‘post-modern’ but do it anyway
(whispers) Found footage genres are the ultimate here – doing away with the usual hierarchy of filmmaking camera wielded by characters themselves encouraging the audience to see the artifice of film. Found footage combines a variety of technology analogue and digital, collapsing the boundary between documentary, fiction, art and home-made film. The Fable of Isabella was conceived as a combo between a traditional gothic ghost story and social media /found footage, taking influences from traditional horror; so where better to set the story than Whitby, the home town of the famous vampire novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula?
Here, our main character, the cynical horror novelist Guy (Jonathan Hansler) struggles with his film script about teenage witch Isabella – at the same time shrugging off strange paranormal events that he appears to be witnessing. To make a bad stormy evening worse, Guy argues with the film’s producer Jerry (David Wayman) and receives an unexpected visitor, Svajone (Kris Darrell), an energetic and enthusiastic script researcher, a great fan of Guy’s horror stories and keen push him towards the script deadline, whatever it takes.
RULE #2 What the hell is ‘the final girl’?
Carol Clover pondered this in her fantastically-titled book ‘Men, Women and Chain Saws’.
That horror’s popularity relates to its championing of the underdog; often horror’s prime audience. Hitchcock knew the bulk of cinema-goers were women – classic Hollywood films were built around fascinating, strong and often tragic female characters, and arguably more than any other – the artistry of Hitchcock has informed the style of the horror film. When The Fable of Isabella was in its embryonic stage, it was always going to champion the underdog – the titular witch Isabella – and end up with a final girl character in the final cut of the film. Isabella does not actually appear but her influence is felt in every scene, the characters – the researcher Svajone and doc maker Hirsch – set out to ‘restore’ the reputation of a notorious witch. However, it’s really not a given that Isabella, a vengeful teen witch, will reward them for it.
RULE #3 Find and shoot on great locations!
With our micro-budget studio shooting, set building and creating convincing green/blue screen environments were not an option – on top of that was the knowledge that film making costs too much and wastes too much energy, leaving behind a massive carbon footprint and environmental damage. So to counter that we sought out and shot on a range of locations, from an amazing seafront beach house constructed from railway carriages and a fisherman’s hut to a forest occupied by an eco-camp, a freezing snowy shoot in an overgrown Victorian cemetery to the blustery streets and lighthouses of the Yorkshire fishing town of Whitby. The locations dominated the story and became part of the narrative. We also predominantly shot using natural lighting such as the headlamps of cars, torches, fires, candlelight, and the magic hours of dawn and dusk to get some of the most memorable visual effects.
RULE #4 Only use props that we find on locations
A rule made to be broken as the ‘Plague Doctor’ cults’ masks were ordered from a mask-making company in Italy! In the found footage part of the tale, a documentary team researching the last days of witch Isabella stumble onto a murky death cult who terrorise them in the woods. After trying a range of styles, the Plague Doctor mask stuck with its sinister phallic appearance and links to the medieval period. However, the documentary crew end up trying to defend themselves with branches of fallen trees, film making tools and tripods. Working with our low budget, we steered away from ‘gore’ effects – focusing more on psychological chills and disturbing sound effects – but given the opportunity to develop The Fable of Isabella into a long-form drama series, as has been suggested to us by audiences as well producers and critics (the first season has been written), I’d certainly be looking to work with a great horror designer to come up with some imaginative horror effects.
RULE #5 Ensemble filmmaking!
The film would never have been completed without our ensemble team approach. The actors gamely learned to use a range of cameras, shooting footage as they acted, and many of us multi-tasked combining Assistant Director skills, with editing, creating soundtracks, sound recording, boom, lighting design, designing costumes and make-up. The main camera work was created by Sarah MacGregor, Irena Dragic and Abel Tyler MacGregor, creating two distinct styles for the ‘story within a story’ scenario.
The beach house shoot was intended to follow the psychological journey of Guy, Svajone and their scriptwriting process in a more traditionally shot drama, whereas the documentary crew had a much more DIY aesthetic, combining black-and-white digital and phone camera footage, constantly handheld to capture their precarious situation. The documentary crew improvised around their characters and the plot-line over several weeks of demanding outdoor all-weather shooting – while the two-hander between scriptwriter Guy and research assistant Svajone was shot over three consecutive days by a tiny three-woman crew, juggling many off-camera roles between us.
RULE 6#: Making a film is never simple
The Fable of Isabella was inspired by a wintery walk on the snowy Yorkshire moors about six years ago when a friend was telling me about various witch-hunt tales of the area. As the sunset turned the woods and snow to burning crimson an idea that I thought was quite simple began to form, intended to subvert the tropes of typical horror; the titular witch Isabella, was to be ‘good’ (well sort of!) and the humans around her ultimately corrupt. The film would have a ‘final girl’, the tough woman who managed against odds to survive the monsters.
The initial storyline seemed ‘easy to make’ (ah, foolish me) – the log-line a ‘cynical horror writer, an enthusiastic researcher, a vengeful teenage witch, a deadline to meet ..what on earth could go wrong?’ suggested dark comedy elements to the film. Around the time I had scribbled my first draft of the feature script along with a group of other film-makers and artists I was attempting to set up a film making co-op which would become FilmCafe Co-Op London. We thought it would be an interesting experiment to try and get a feature-length film off the ground as a flat-structured co-operative production – eschewing the usual hierarchy of financiers and producers that had in the past driven so many an eager film-maker to the depths of cynicism.
Ok, we ended up with a complete feature running to three hours (which has since been chopped down to 93 minutes ) but shooting the entire feature had not been my intention and I’m still not 100% sure how that all happened. Originally, I auditioned for actors to make a pilot which would consist of a key scene and introduce the main characters. I thought it would be a quick shoot. After several false starts, and three re-auditions I was fortunate to get our wonderful main actors on board, Jonathan Hansler and Kris Darrell, who both had busy schedules in theatre and film but were able to fit in the three-day shoot at the beach house where we shot an astonishing one hour of footage.
The documentary crew scenes were re-shot three times and the doc crew continued with their scenes until they’d completed their entire scripts. I tend to agree now that, with the advent of digital technology, and if you are lucky enough to have a willing team of actors and crew, there’s no point making a short – you may as well shoot a feature. We were naïve, we were green behind the ears, but we had energy and we did it.
You can watch The Fable of Isabella which is currently streaming for free (via email signup) on reveelmovies.com
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