Director Marcus Anthony Thomas, speaks with Christina Brennan about his short film, The Retreat, and the impact of online platforms...
Short films were hard to find in days past. Now, with YouTube, they’re only a click away. YouTube offers a way for horror filmmakers, unaffiliated with major studios or television networks, to release horror shorts and fundraise for longer feature films. Every film starts at the same level and can garner attention through word of mouth or dedicated channels like Short of the Week and ALTER.
Fans of British horror have always embraced short-form horror through television and anthology films. British television is the home of celebrated adaptations of M.R. James’ ghost stories, including Whistle and I’ll Come to You (BBC, Jonathan Miller 1968) and The Stalls of Barchester (BBC, Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972), as well as anthology series Dead of Night (BBC, 1972), Hammer House of Horror (Hammer Films, 1980) and, most recently, Inside No. 9 (BBC, 2014-).
Yet, with the rise of online entertainment, directors have found new ways to create eye-catching, free-to-view short-form horror. In the US, box-office successes, including Lights Out (US, David F. Sandberg, 2016) and Slender Man (US, Sylvain White, 2018), were viral shorts or YouTube series before they were cinematic adaptations. Britain’s up-and-coming talents are also showcasing their talents online through horror shorts, including The Quiet Zone (UK, Andrew Lonides, 2018) and Snapshot (UK, Matt J Blakley, 2020).
Marcus Anthony Thomas’ short The Retreat (UK, 2021) is a striking example of an effective online horror film. The film is brief and simple, offering a nightmarish scenario in its fifteen-minute running time. Mia (Iniki Mariano), a bereaved young woman recovering from her child’s death in a car accident, arrives at the eponymous Retreat, which promises her closure. She is treated by the polite and seemingly pleasant counsellor (Charlotte Palmer) who runs the Retreat. Armed with her deceptively sweet smile and soothing reassurances, the counsellor offers Mia a one-off opportunity to seek revenge – with no consequences in the outside world. Chilling in its horror, The Retreat still maintains a sense of realism on a human scale, half horror film, half-startingly realistic drama about personal grief.
Proof-of-concept films have been a consistent part of filmmakers’ careers as they seek funding for longer feature films. In Horrified’s interview with The Retreat’s director, Marcus Anthony Thomas speaks to Christina Brennan about influences on The Retreat, including psychological horrors Kill List (UK, Ben Wheatley, 2011) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (UK, Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017). He also talks about the practicalities of producing and editing a horror film in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other horror directors, Marcus quickly adapted to new circumstances and COVID-19 caused unprecedented disruption to the film industry. In this interview, he discusses The Retreat, YouTube, and new opportunities in the post-COVID film industry.
Christina: You describe The Retreat as a ‘revenge film’. Can you talk about the key influences upon The Retreat and its relationship to the wider revenge genre?
Marcus: When I was creating The Retreat, the films I was initially thinking about with my producer were international, especially South Korean films such as Old Boy (2003), I Saw the Devil (2010), and Blue Ruin (2013). They were my entry-point into the revenge film genre, and I loved the way that they combined realism with emotion and violence. I can also think of films that focused on the emotional effects of violence and the physical effects. These include Funny Games and the sense of ‘wrongness’ it has – cheerful, polite perpetrators inflicting graphic, relentless violence. Other films include Kill List (2011), which I liked for being a claustrophobic family drama that generates a slow-burn tension that dramatically unravels in the final fifteen minutes. I think films which flirt with the conventions of horror films are interesting like, most recently, Calibre (2018) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). The horror is psychological in these films and that sense of creeping unease is something I wanted to generate in The Retreat. As well as longer feature films, I also see The Retreat as having a close relationship with contemporary short films, including Robert Eggers’ proof-of-concept film Brothers, released one year before his debut The Witch (2015). Eggers’ short has sparse, economical aesthetic, which generates a sense of dread. It also has a parable-like quality, showing the grisly realities of characters’ lives while also depicting their journey as they discover the harsh rules of the world.
C: Can you tell me more about the development of The Retreat? Was the final film the film you imagined when you were drafting the screenplay?
M: The Retreat came about because I originally wanted to direct a thriller film. As a young director, I’ve worked across a range of genres to develop my portfolio of films. My first independent film, Bubzy (2015), is a documentary focusing on UK rap artist Lucas Walters, who suffers from bipolar disorder. My first film for the National Film and Television School, which I’ve just graduated from in May 2021, is a black comedy called Swing (2019) and is about the aftermath of a suicide.
The Retreat is a horror-thriller which goes into similarly dark territory and I developed the screenplay with Tom Van Overloop in response to a simple premise: if you could inflict revenge as cleanly as possible, with no repercussions, would you do it? This was the question which we used to imagine a range of different plots for a feature film. We then wrote the screenplay for a bare-boned thriller, with subtler moments of horror, which edited down to suit a short fifteen-minute format. Short films are distinct from feature films since directors need to create sympathy for central characters very quickly to push the story and film forward. I wanted to generate a claustrophobic feel in The Retreat with the focus on the central characters’ dark dilemma.
C: Can you describe The Retreat’s production and tell me about the experiencing of filming and editing the film during COVID-19?
M: We shot the film over four days, in February 2020, and we had just a few weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown. This probably the most rapidly produced film I have ever filmed and the first cut by my editor was very near to the final version which we released to festivals and promoters. We did music and sound design remotely. Editing remotely is usually very difficult but I was able to work with Lesley Posso very closely to create the film. We released the finished film in May 2020 and, after we showed it to a panel at the National Film School, I decided with my producer where we would send it. Since it was lockdown, we decided not to follow the festival route but to share it online. The film school still encouraged me to share it at a festival and we were listed for Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia. We created a trailer and submitted it to Short of the Week where it was selected for their channel. The Retreat is still travelling and we’re hoping it’ll appear on future platforms which appeal to a range of arthouse and commercial film audiences.
C: The Retreat is a fifteen-minute horror-thriller film. Proof-of-concept films have always been a part of filmmakers’ careers as they seek funding for longer feature films. What is your relationship to short form horror? Has it changed with the popularity of online platforms, including YouTube, and festivals moving online during COVID-19?
M: It’s a similar transformation to the arrival of VCRs in the 1980s. Streaming allows people to watch films at home, and a filmmaker might create a film with the awareness that people may watch it on a phone or a laptop. But I think this will always co-exist with cinema. Of course, the lines have been blurred by the consequences of the pandemic. A number of exciting festivals had to move online within a quick space of time. However, I’m looking forward to in-person screenings returning to the film scene. I love going to festivals and seeing audience reactions to my film. This is one of the main rewards of being a filmmaker. However, I think that platforms like YouTube, and their accessibility, can create a groundswell of conversation around a film. Festivals can be elitist. In contrast, grass-roots interest in individual films can allow them to bypass more restrictive selection processes by festival panels. Online stream has an exciting future but there still needs to be a space for communal screening – nothing can top being in a cinema audience at a film premiere.
C: How has the increase in online platforms informed and shaped your filmmaking process?
M: I think that there is more of audience interest in technical and creative processes behind filmmaking thanks to the Internet. Fans are able enjoy films together and share their insights. Anyone can make a film, even without formal training or just knowing the fundamentals of filmmaking. Filming kit and technology is cheaper than ever before – you can make a film on an iPhone. There is no better time to make a film outside of the studio system. As part of this, and as part of being transparent about how filmmakers can grow and change, I hope to share my earlier work online. You could say this is my ‘worst’ work, but I think that it’s important for audiences, and especially would-be filmmakers, to see other creatives’ growth and journey. It’s easy to put too much pressure on yourself as a filmmaker, especially in the early years of a career.
Marcus Anthony Thomas is an independent filmmaker and graduate of the National Film and Television School. He directed the documentary Bubzy (2015), which won a notable mention award at Let’s All Be Free Festival (2016). His films include 24 Hours (2018) and Swing (2019). The Retreat (2020) was an official selection in the New Vision section of the Sitges International Film Festival. His most recent short film and NFTS graduation piece, Caterpillar (2021), premiered at the British Film Institute. You can visit his website here.