By MICHAEL GINGOLD
To the list of directors making strong feature debuts with slow-burning genre movies this year, add Britain’s Joe Marcantonio. His brooding psychothriller KINDRED, which opens in select theaters and on digital/cable VOD this Friday, November 6 from IFC Midnight, hinges on a few different kinds of familial anxiety, and Marcantonio discusses those and more with us below.
KINDRED, which Marcantonio scripted with Jason McColgan, stars Tamara Lawrance as Charlotte, who’s planning to move to Australia with her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft). That doesn’t sit well with Ben’s domineering mother Margaret (veteran actress Fiona Shaw, from KILLING EVE and the HARRY POTTER films), especially when it turns out that Charlotte is pregnant. Charlotte soon finds herself a virtual prisoner in Margaret’s remote manor house, under the guise of Margaret doing what’s right for her and her unborn child. Originally titled CORVIDAE, after the crows that appear as ever-present harbingers of doom, KINDRED is a quietly gripping study of emotional manipulation that eschews traditional fright gambits to deliver a more gradually unnerving experience.
I read that you and Jason McColgan were both new fathers when you conceived KINDRED–pardon the expression–so how did that inform the story?
I had the idea about 10 years or so ago, and had kept it in a folder somewhere because I didn’t know the right approach for it. It seemed a bit too dark, almost, and I didn’t have any parenting experience at that time. But then after I’d done short films and was looking for a feature to write, I had a 3-year-old at the time with another child on the way, and Jason had twins due, and we developed it at that time. Then when we actually came to write it, Jason’s twin boys were in the hospital because they were born almost two months premature. And then my daughter was born a bit too fast—I delivered her on my bedroom floor, so we had a rather traumatic couple of months! So the script was very much informed by what we were going through; that mix of happiness and absolute terror affected how the film ended up.
One thing I found intriguing about KINDRED is that in most horror films and thrillers of this type, the heroine is fighting to protect her unborn child from the start, whereas Charlotte is ambivalent about her pregnancy and considers terminating it.
This is not necessarily from personal experience, but I do believe that if you haven’t planned to have your child, you go through a period of, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?”, you know? Your life plans are suddenly sent off in a crazy direction. And in films, almost all the time, when people find out they’re pregnant, it’s a champagne-popping moment and everyone’s really happy about it. And I don’t think that’s the reality for an awful lot of people who just need some time to get used to the idea. They need to work it out in their minds and have a bit of space, and when you have a partner who’s buying you balloons and a teddy bear the second they find out, it’s probably going to freak you out slightly.
The storyline hinges on gaslighting, which has become a hot topic recently. Was that kind of cultural relevance on your mind when you conceived and were writing KINDRED?
Well, that term comes from the stage play [GASLIGHT] and then the film that came out in the ’40s, which was Angela Lansbury’s first screen appearance, so it’s been a topic for a long time. You could have made KINDRED in the ’80s; there were ideas about manipulation and gaslighting around then as well. It feels very prescient to now, but I think it’s a timeless idea, really.
Throughout KINDRED, nature seems to be against Charlotte, particularly the crows that are a recurring, threatening presence. What’s the significance of that motif?
The film toys with perspective. Most of the time when you see a movie–and this is the way it “should be done”–it’s from a single character’s perspective. You only see things from, say, Bruce Willis’ point of view in DIE HARD, you know? Whereas, we liked the idea that when KINDRED starts, initially it’s about the couple facing off against the mother-in-law. And as the film progresses, we see Charlotte move away from that relationship, and then she’s on her own. And from that point on, we bring in the visual reference of the crow family of birds, with the idea that in a lot of art and literature, they’ve always represented menace and dark omens and mystery and murder. That’s what we were going for; visually, I find them quite evocative and arresting.
The script and its conflict revolve around class rather than race, so were you looking for a black lead, or was Tamara Lawrance simply the best actress for the part?
It was a case of just trying to find the right person. We never wrote a racial part; we conceived it as being any which way, and then when we went to casting, we saw people who were Eastern European, English, black and white and Asian and all kinds of things. Tamara was just the best person for it; she’s such a good actress, and she’s captivating on screen.
And beyond that, I think our relationship with race in the UK is very different from how it is in the States. I feel we have a very intrinsic, embedded issue with the class system in this country that isn’t the same in America. There’s a lot of political wrangling and problems with class, and that was a more relevant point that I was interested in exploring.
Fiona Shaw is real force of nature as Margaret. How was it working with her?
That was a how-lucky-can-we-get? situation. My casting agent suggested we approach her, and I was like, “Would she do it?” and she said, “Maybe…” So I met Fiona for a cup of tea, as you do, and we had a chat; the day before, she had just got back from the Golden Globes or Emmys or whatever, and she seemed interested. So she invited me to her house a couple of weeks later to have another cup of tea and a chat, and it was kind of a nervous moment, knocking on Fiona Shaw’s front door and wondering what to expect. But she’s one of the nicest people in the world, and so talented. She’s a real collaborator, she’s inquisitive, she has ideas but doesn’t force them through; she’s a dream to work with.
How did you find that perfect mansion where you shot KINDRED?
That was luck more than anything. We had to shoot in Ireland for a number of production-based reasons, and most of the big manor houses over there are boutique hotels and spas and things like that. And they’re a very unionized country–compared to Britain, where the unions got destroyed in the ’80s–which means that if you shoot a certain distance out of Dublin, you have to put crew up overnight, you have to pay overtime, and it’s hard to get equipment out there. So logistically it’s very difficult, but when we saw that house, it was like, it’s definitely going to be worth all the hassles, because it was just remarkable. I could stay in the house instead of in a hotel, which made my life a little bit easier, and it was big enough that we had hair and makeup, the art department, the green rooms, etc. there. We were all in one space, which gave us a real feeling of community spirit. Funny enough, the guy who lives in the house is named Thomas, the same as one of our lead characters, so that was either a very clever bit of writing or just blind luck!
Did any odd or scary stuff happen while you were filming there?
Constantly! Thomas’ elderly dad had just moved back into the house, so I’d be halfway through a shot and see something out of the corner of my eye, and I’d turn around and see an older guy with a white, bushy beard, wearing his dressing gown, going to have a shower! I went there a couple of weekends on my own to shoot some 2nd-unit stuff, and that was a bit spooky. It’s not a good place to be on your own.
The film is very quiet and measured in the way it builds tension and suspense. Can you talk about your approach to that?
I prefer films that are like a kettle: You put it on and the temperature builds up, builds up, builds up, and then all of a sudden it starts boiling. That’s what I wanted to go for; I was trying to avoid jump-scares or anything too traditionally horror-ish. I was keen to make it more of a psychological thriller than a traditional horror film. The obvious comparison people keep making is ROSEMARY’S BABY, which is clearly a massive influence; a lot of early Polanski films are quite relevant to this. But I think people are surprised when I say that GET OUT was never a reference, because as I said, it was never supposed to be a movie about race. More of an influence were South Korean films, like THE CHASER and Bong Joon-ho’s work; I’m a massive fan of MOTHER, and MEMORIES OF MURDER is amazing. And then Park Chan-wook–obviously OLDBOY, but even his English-language film STOKER. Those guys are masters of mixing genres; their movies are not just one type of thing, they’re not just scary, they’re not just funny, they’re not just melodrama. They have this amazing way of weaving between genres, and that’s what I was aiming for.
Do you have any other genre projects in the works right now?
Yeah, I’ve got a pile of finished scripts to try to work out what to do with. I’ve got one that’s just gone to cast called UNCLE, which is not horror; it’s more of a road revenge movie. Beyond that, I’ve got a couple of others I’m trying to work out what to do with. Watch this space! This is my first film; it’s getting my name out there, so we’ll see what happens.