Director Ryan Mackfall has been developing his filmmaking craft within the worlds of documentary and music video for over ten years now, racking up an impressive slate of clientele that includes some of the biggest alternative and heavy metal bands of recent years such as Slipknot, Mastodon, Deftones, Letlive and even the recently disbanded Slayer. His talents in capturing the darkened and mystic iconography that often accompanies these artists make him the perfect candidate to adapt the phantasmagorical world of H. P. Lovecraft, a feat Mackfall has undertaken for his debut narrative short Backwoods. Backwoods is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short tale The Picture in the House, a story set in 1907 in Massachusetts about a scholar encountering a beguiling book that he finds in a seemingly abandoned house. It’s a tense and mind-bending short film which DN is delighted to premiere for our audience today. We’re joined by Director Mackfall and Screenwriter (and occasional DN contributor) Neil Fox, who also penned the micro-budget feature Wilderness, for a conversation in which the pair discuss the allure of Lovecraft and the challenges of adapting his work for a contemporary audience.
Where did the idea come from to adapt Lovecraft and specifically the short story of The Picture in the House? Who approached who?
Ryan Mackfall: The whole process of coming to adapt The Picture in the House came through a kinda glorious coincidence. I was at my parents’ place one day and overheard my mum listening to a BBC audiobook of The Shadow Over Innsmouth and it reminded me that when I was 19 I had been given a Lovecraft book by someone while I was at work one night. I had put the book in a box and it had stayed there collecting dust for around 16 years, but hearing the audiobook was enough to wake me up to the potential of H. P. Lovecraft as an idea generator. The mix of hearing Richard Coyle reading the The Shadow Over Innsmouth story, next to an incredible sound design, just opened up possibilities in my mind. I retrieved the book from the box and spent the next week reading all of the stories. As soon as I reached The Picture in the House I knew I had found a story that I could regard as my first real short film.
We wanted to make sure that we could create something that would remain truthful to the original horror text but remove anything inappropriate or racist.
Previously I had directed a script written by a friend and actor I had worked with on other projects, but it never really felt like ‘my film’. H. P. Lovecraft’s dark stories spoke to me in a way I hadn’t really felt before. As I read TPITH I could see the film version and honestly, it just felt like it had all been laying in wait for me to discover. Massachusetts has played a huge part in my life in many ways so it really did feel serendipitous. I then reached out online for a writer who might be interested and Neil answered the call. I’d always really admired Neil professionally, especially after seeing Wilderness, so I previously hadn’t considered him as I thought he might be busy. So when he offered to work with me on it I jumped at the chance.
Neil Fox: I saw Ryan was looking for a writer to work with via social media, and from knowing Ryan I thought it would be something different to what I normally do and write, so I reached out and said I’d be up for it. I thought it would be fun, even though I had no idea what he wanted to do.
RM: I also knew that I could trust Neil when it came to refining the story and dealing with some of the racist connotations within it. He’s got similar political and social views as myself and we wanted to make sure that we could create something that would remain truthful to the original horror text but remove anything inappropriate or racist. We both felt very strongly about this and he’s someone I continue to look up to as we move forward in our respective careers trying to create better works that inspire everyone.
Neil, what are the challenges of adapting Lovecraft’s language for a contemporary audience?
NF: In some ways it’s really easy. He’s a great writer. Much better than me, so for the most part I was just trying to get out of his way and take his words and transcribe them. In terms of structure, I thought it would be more cinematic to end the film before the story ends because I thought the audience would be with us only so far. I didn’t think the story’s coda would translate to the screen.
Some of the language was a problem. Some of it is down to a different age and different times but some of it is also Lovecraft’s particular problematic view of the world and nasty language. We never wanted to include the offensive material we didn’t agree with, so the challenge was in referencing the figures in the book in a different way than he did, but ensuring audiences would understand the story context. We landed on something that was a phrase Ryan said that I overheard and thought sounded suitably Lovecraftian. I won’t say what it is. I’ll see if anyone can guess it.
Ryan, you have a wealth of experience in both music videos and documentary, how has your experience in those fields aided your narrative filmmaking?
RM: I entered into music videos and documentary originally to gain experience as a filmmaker, I viewed the music industry a bit like a training ground. I wanted a place for my creativity to flow in a way that was unhindered, and this was how I came to start working with punk bands who often gave me unlimited freedom to create. Directing is a job that relies heavily on clear communication and the relationships formed around the people you work with, so there’s no better way to hone that than being in a van or on a bus with anything from seven to 20 other people for a long period of time. Documentary was the first place really to inform my style, and turning up to a venue or a city where you know nothing forces you to find the bounties around you to tell your story. I think this skill is invaluable in filmmaking because despite the best laid plans we make there are always changes and situations which require you to turn on a dime at a moment’s notice.
As I became more at home in documentary it was a natural progression to start creating narratives for music videos. It’s worth noting though that my directing approaches in documentary are often very different to those on set, so it’s interesting to consider that when one followed the other. Now I’m in the place where I’ve pushed my music videos more towards high concept short films, and this is something more bands are coming to me for. I love it because it feels like an honour to be given money by a label to make a short in a short space of time, opposed to the usual short film funding routes which can take much longer. It’s all practice for me and the team as we wind up towards making feature films, the ultimate goal that has been inside me since day one.
Similarly, how does your experience as a cinematographer inform Backwoods’ visuals? How did you achieve the film’s darkened and macabre tone?
RM: A lot of my narrative work has a dark tone to it, it’s just what I’ve been drawn to over time. But I feel like Backwoods taps into a lot of what my photography has captured on landscapes. Photography is just a pastime for me and it keeps me connected to the reasons why I became a filmmaker. Taking photos without expectation or a client helps me stay fresh and gives me a lot of inspiration. I photograph a lot of trees because I feel drawn to their personalities, and this is clearly a factor in the opening scenes to Backwoods.
The Picture in the House felt incredibly dark when I read it, and because I could see the story in my head visually I began to tie down what the key factors should be and how those could be drawn out to create that sense of dread within the viewer. For example, I could see an eagle’s eye view of the scholar riding his bike through the woods as the story began, and naturally this was something we managed to achieve in the film. My cinematography is heavily influenced by the kinds of work you see in the more recent releases of David Fincher. I like calculated and specific shots that give the viewer time to take in what’s happening; a lot of Backwoods was shot on a tripod with simple panning or dolly movements. There is one complex dolly and track shot that I saw the first time I read the story and even went as far as to stop reading it and to draw it out in my notebook. It’s the moment where the old man walks from upstairs to the downstairs room. But generally, I want the movements and the cinematography to flow as part of everything that’s happening on the screen. I want viewers to be drawn deeply into that world, so I knew Backwoods would need to be carefully planned as a single camera piece.
I like calculated and specific shots that give the viewer time to take in what’s happening.
One of the main factors with the characters was I wanted to play on the curiosity of the viewer and bring in a sense of frustration and dread as the facial identity of the second character is constantly withheld. I originally wondered about withholding both their faces but this seemed like a step too far especially considering we didn’t have very much to make this period film work and already faced a number of other difficult hurdles.
The cinematic devices of each character are very different; with the scholar, we’re shown his micro reactions throughout the story which reveal that his words are possibly not as genuine as he makes out, he’s there to steal the book really. But with the old man, we’re not shown any of his expressions and it’s more a case of his verbal language, body language and shadowy presence that gives us the foreboding. He moves around the room in a cat and mouse style, playing with his victim until the eventual ‘sealing of the deal’. As we progress further into the story the angles become closer and more skewed which shows an altering sense of reality as we’re pushed backwards and forwards from the present moment on the screen to times long past, through the illustrations in the book and some flashback shots of the old man’s life.
Finally, I wanted to frame both the characters in the pre-sacrifice moment at the end, a sort of portrait shot of each of them from the POV of the other. This was a very clear idea that formed early on and played on the concept that the old man could be somewhat deformed from years of unnatural life within the house, performing sacrifices for the book. So in the final moments the horror of his disfigured forehead is revealed as an extra bit of terror for the viewer. We did nod to this in the early part of the story when the scholar stops at a deformed tree in the woods, which has a similar looking deformity as the old man. This was something Lee Evans, my art director, found on the day of the shoot, serendipity strikes again.
I have to give huge credit also to my Colourist Katie Dymmock who was an integral part of turning the story into the dark and shadowy world we see. She worked closely with myself and the art director to really get things spooky and we were blown away by her talents – she is one of the most important people in our team.
How did you approach production/set design and shooting in Cornwall? Who did you work with in replicating both the era and location of Massachusetts in 1907?
RM: A major factor in this film was working with my art director. Lee and I have a very specific way of working which is extremely fluid, even on set. He comes from a cinematography background but also is an accomplished professional colourist and art director, so all these skills together mean he looks at a set in a different way than others might. I’m keen to work with people who look at things slightly differently than me so we can bend and grow ideas.
Myself and Lee work closely together on set, working with the actors and camera team to make sure each shot has the right vibe. Lee hid so much in the background of the short I can’t even begin to tell you. We both are in the school that films should offer more than what is there on the surface, and in Backwoods there are many details that sit on the screen as nods towards something more. Clues to the characters are hidden in plain sight and the keener eye can start to get drawn into the world a little more if they’re patient. For instance, the easiest one for me to talk about is the small cloth the Old Man gets out when he’s stood at the window, contemplating his life and teasing the scholar about some of his previous acts of murder. Lee gave it to Kev right before we shot the scene and goes “here you go Kev, this was a piece of skin you’ve turned into a little rag, you can put it in your hand and play with it as you’re talking”. Ideas like this are worth so much and Kev dived right in.
There are also some initials carved into the side of the table the book is on which were the initials of a famous cannibal from a certain point in history. The table also looks more like a butcher’s block which was an idea I loved because when you realise this it makes your skin crawl. The whole time the characters sit looking at the book the scholar is unaware that he’s peering over his place of sacrifice. There are so many other things like this, for instance, the wood on the windows which is broken and snapped in a way which makes it look like a mouth when both the panes are in view. The way the scholar is positioned in the shot when the old man is away at the window therefore looks like a mouth eating him. These are the levels of detail Lee goes into for a film, and this is why so much of my work has such depth in terms of mise-en-scène. We bring in these ideas and build out the background world. We bring in different ideas but together these create something unique, dark and very deep.
To top this all off we’re very lucky that Cornwall looks very similar to parts of Massachusetts, so it wasn’t too much of a push to position the characters in that world. The house could be considered to not be ‘period correct’ for the time and place, but I felt this acted more as a positive, something out of the ordinary to lure the nosey scholar in. We also picked a wood that was very eerie. I wanted it to feel like the house was buried deep within a cursed woodland and the scholar was pushing his luck just by venturing into such a place.
Could you talk about working with Ciaran Clarke and Kevin Horsham, who both have such presence in the film, to establish their characters and the challenge of helping them deliver Lovecraft’s language?
RM: I met Kev on my first short film South of Here and was blown away by his talent. To me, I would coin him as a natural because the roles he takes on he just ‘becomes’. He’s also amazing at putting on an American accent. I saw him as the old man in the film immediately upon reading the original story. In fact, I think after I finished reading it for the first time he was the first person I hit up saying “I think I’ve found our next film”. No surprise that his talents have recently been picked up by Robert Eggers for his next film The Northman.
Ciaran was a suggestion that came through Producer Kingsley Marshall. I’d never met Ciaran prior to Backwoods, but he’s another perfect example of a natural talent. He managed to nail the role so perfectly and embody all the micro mannerisms we needed to define the scholar as the secret snob he is. I’ve worked with Ciaran on a number of projects since Backwoods which says all you need to know on how I feel about his collaborations. Kev and Ciaran made this film what it is in terms of the characters on the screen. I wanted to let them bring their own nuances to the roles, even though there were a lot of things I knew I wanted. We did the table read for the film in Kev’s wife’s hairdressers which was great fun; I knew at that point we were onto a good thing from what they both were creating on the spot.
We’re very lucky that Cornwall looks very similar to parts of Massachusetts, so it wasn’t too much of a push to position the characters in that world.
My take on the story to them was thus: At the start the viewer joins the journey of the scholar as he navigates the woods and is drawn to the house, it feels like we’re with him, just your average guy out and about. But when he breaks an everyday boundary and enters the house uninvited we are dragged into the act without choice; a sense of worry creeps in but we are intrigued. However, the moment where we’re made aware of a second character whose inside the house, then things change. The crime of being caught becomes very real and we feel almost as guilty as him. There’s something not quite right about this person. The exchange then begins to shift as we are made aware that the scholar isn’t as nice as we believed and is in fact a thief. We are torn between wanting to switch sides with the two characters but are still unsure on who and what the old man is in terms of a safe bet.
So when the dialogue opens up we step back to become more of a witness to both of the characters and see more of their personality layers unravel through small actions. Ultimately both of them are bad and it’s a case of one trying to outdo the other. That realisation for the audience, along with the constant looming pressure, just compounds the overall dread of everything. We are as much trapped with these people as they are with themselves.
I told Kev that as we moved through the scene I wanted him to start moving closer to Ciaran and get more ‘touchy’ with him; we wanted spaces to be closed down between them. At one point the old man moves away from the scholar to the window to try and compose himself before the big kill as when the book is being read there’s almost a sexual tension in him hearing the words. The act of the book being read is almost a form of erotic stimulation, like a lover whispering sweet words into his ear, taking control. Then finally there’s a feeling of Ciaran being forced to sit and stay where he is, like someone putting pressure onto a chunk of meat before they cut it into pieces. This is the moment where the claustrophobic tension between the characters is at breaking point because there are no longer any boundaries.
Right before this though there was something I really wanted from Ciaran and this was as the old man closes the door to the room before sitting down. The open door is there because it antagonises the viewer to ask why the scholar doesn’t run? The fact of the matter is the book is too good to leave and this act from the scholar is the final proof the old man needs that this person is not only a worthy sacrifice but also a fitting meal, better than what lies above, bleeding through the floorboards. As the old man closes the door we see the final realisation of the scholar that it’s all over, his head drops and all hope is gone. Oblivion awaits.
Once we’d finished shooting I brought in Kev for some ADR and we worked on the grunts, groans and acknowledgements of the old man in the early stages of his encounter with the scholar. These brought a whole never level of ‘neanderthal’ to his performance which was all part of the act to inflate the scholar’s ego into thinking he could outwit the old man, a bit like a rabbit driving further into a poachers noose. I could go on and on about so many things but the fact of the matter is, like so many parts of this film, it wouldn’t be what it is without Kev and Ciaran.
Backwoods had its premiere at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, how was it received by die-hard Lovecraftians?
RM: This was something we really were nervous about because, for me, these are the people who are the first port of call to see if you’ve created a ‘real’ Lovecraftian film. Thankfully we were extremely well received, both screenings were sold out, and viewers made this known to Kingsley who was in attendance. I couldn’t sadly be there because I was in Chile with Slayer filming a documentary, but Kingsley and myself kept in regular contact over WhatsApp as things unfolded. One of the real cherries on the cake was how the accents were well received by Bostonian members of the audience, again another nod to how gifted our actors were. Then I think the thing that sealed the deal on the film being authentic was winning the HP Lovecraft award at Rhode Island International Film Festival – we had no doubt then we’d pulled off what we aimed to do.
The HP Lovecraft Festival screening was also followed by a BluRay release as a best of the fest, which led us to all kinds of interesting places, including the film being licensed as a clip and BluRay extra in the new folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched.
Although clearly much different from the tone you wanted to achieve here, did either of you see the recent Lovecraft Country TV series and if so what did you think of it?
RM: I’ve not actually seen it, I often have a very long watchlist of TV and movies which I can be slow to move through! But I pay a lot of attention to the reactions online that Lovecraft fans give towards new releases. From what I gather it was a mixed bag, and I feel like this is always going to be the case with any Lovecraft release, mostly because translating the stories from the page to the screen is actually a very tricky process. Lovecraft relies heavily on the reader’s own mind to fill in the deliberate blanks he places within his tales; pushing readers to place their own worst fears or phobias into the situations within the stories. This is often done with phrases like ‘it was too abhorrent for me to describe in full’ or similar lines which leave the author free of descriptive responsibilities.
When we enter into the realms of film adaptations we’re faced with a dilemma where revealing these monsters can be asking for trouble, as one person’s idea is placed against thousands of other Lovecraft fans and their interpretations. For what it’s worth I do think that Matt Ruff’s original idea around the book is interesting as it fits perfectly within the idea of ‘fan fiction’ which Lovecraft himself was apparently very encouraging towards; he wanted people to keep world building. Ruff’s book also ties Lovecraft directly with the dark Jim Crow period in American history which offers an interesting take considering Lovecraft was a xenophobe. On that note, it’s clearly time to dive into it!
NF: For shame, I haven’t seen it either, but that’s because I watch more film than television. Though it’s on the list, and what is exciting about it is how it’s taking on material that could be easily discarded or cancelled and retaining what’s good and addressing and wrestling with and taking on what is problematic. It’s an inspiration in that sense for how to reckon with the past. I think I’ve just talked myself into bumping it up the watchlist.
What is next for both of you in terms of future projects?
RM: I’m currently in pre-production for my next short The Birdwatcher which will be shot this April. It’s an original story by myself and my co-writer Lachlan Marks. Lachlan has written this script based off of the outlining idea. While this is going on I’m still working on various music industry projects, and continuing to develop our HP Lovecraft feature film. We’re hoping to shoot a proof of concept from the feature later in 2022 and then release it as a short to test the water before we go in for the big one. It might sound weird, but I feel like making a Lovecraft feature is something I was born to do, there have been too many nods from the universe/coincidences on the road so far to be ignored!
NF: I am currently finishing a book on music films for the BFI, and pushing my feature film Wilderness, which came out in April 2021. In terms of next scripts I’m working on a folk horror, Ryan has me hooked on it, and executive producing other people’s work, including Ryan’s next short.