Evoking the twisted eeriness of classic folk horror but with a contemporary twist, Joseph Brett’s Stones is the story of a brother and sister whose family reunion at a stone circle becomes interrupted by an uninvited guest. Realised through the medium of stop motion animation, Brett’s film embraces the uncanny nature of the form with silicone-style puppets that bring a childlike yet unsettling sensibility to its tale of nostalgia, home and the connections we share with our local landscapes. DN is delighted to premiere Stones today on the May 1st, the day used to commemorate the pagan festival of Beltane, alongside a in-depth conversation with Brett about his journey creating the film across lockdown, the creative marriage he sees between folk horror and stop motion, and the desire he and Writer Bec Boey (the other half of their Production Company Jackdaw Films) had to alter notions of representation within popular folk aesthetics.
What drew you into making a folk horror about the nostalgia of home?
The initial idea for Stones came from conversations I was having with the writer about home, belonging and the connections we feel to place, specifically ancient landscapes like stone circles. Bec, the writer, and me have been collaborating for a long time, and our work tends to focus on heritage and what I guess you’d call folk culture. With Stones I think we both wanted to try and explore that nameless feeling we all have when connecting with something that exists beyond all that. Anyone who visits ancient sites will be familiar with this weird sensation that is both unnerving and calming at the same time. It’s a kind of awe. That’s the feeling I really wanted to capture with Stones.
What about the format of stop motion made you think it would be a good medium for that conceit?
The film was very much a loose idea when lockdown hit. Covid really put a hold on anything live action happening for us, so we realised it would be a good time to make something in stop motion. Although Stones had originally been a live action idea, it seemed like a story that could work in stop motion, and I think developing the idea with that medium in mind really helped inform the story itself.
There’s a lot of folk horror that popped into my mind when watching Stones. Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas by Lawrence Gordon Clark. Were you drawing inspiration from any previous iterations of the genre?
We drew a lot of inspiration from mid-70s films like Penda’s Fen, Stigma and Picnic at Hanging Rock. But there’s also this whole world of kid’s entertainment from that time which seems to sit adjacent to folk horror cinema without actually being horror. I’ve always been a huge fan of Cosgrove Hall’s stop motion work, and we wanted to reference the textures and aesthetics found in their productions of Wind in the Willows and the Pied Piper of Hamlin. There’s a nostalgia there, but it’s not an entirely comfortable one.
We’re not only addressing the gaps in representation that often go with British folk aesthetics, we’re also making a statement about who we see as part of the British landscape.
There’s a danger when reviving this stuff that we also replicate the artificially white society they present. The writer Bec is British East Asian, and it’s important for that identity to be given a voice in our work together. By making Jon and Nora East Asian, we’re not only addressing the gaps in representation that often go with British folk aesthetics, we’re also making a statement about who we see as part of the British landscape.
You mentioned that you and Bec began creating Stones during lockdown, did that necessitate you taking on multiple creative roles in its production?
Bec and I were both living in a warehouse throughout lockdown, which meant we had the space to build the set, but Covid meant that we couldn’t bring in anyone to help on the build. So once Bec had the script in a good place, we started work on making all the puppets, props and set by ourselves. We had a very specific aesthetic we wanted to achieve for the film, which meant a lot of learning processes outside of our comfort zones. I’ve got a background in stop motion, but I’d never made the silicone style puppets we wanted to use, so that was a real learning curve to take on. There were a lot of those curves.
Did you bring in any other collaborators during the film’s latter stages?
We re-recorded the vocal performances with Bec and Andrew Leung, who’d recorded the temp with us over WhatsApp way back at the start. Hector Plimmer created this otherworldly soundtrack, which just elevated the whole film. Mirren Kessling from Wessex Projects made us this great font inspired by an old folk rites book. Jon Clarke at Factory created the sound design that breathed all this life into the space. It just felt like everyone who came on board really understood the film we were trying to make, and what we were tapping into.
How long were you in the warehouse constructing everything?
I don’t think we realised how long the entire process would take and it definitely felt like we were going a little crazy at points. We’d have these Zoom meetings with our producer Chi, which I think must have been like opening a window on some long-running performance art. It was just the two of us living with this stone circle for months, so when we finally finished the shoot and were able to start working with other people it was such a joyful moment. I think the entire project was completed in just over a year.
When it comes to writing and working together, how would you describe your process with Bec?
The process is incredibly collaborative, and there’s a lot of back and forth at every stage of production. We’ll start with the kernel of an idea which we’ll take to a story outline together, working out the beats of the film. From there Bec writes a rough first draft, which we’ll pick over together.
I think developing the idea with that medium in mind really helped inform the story itself.
Redrafting can be a long process but I think we’ve figured out a language that allows us to be quite brutal without being too destructive to our own morale. When we have the script in a good place I’ll start storyboarding the film, which sometimes throws up issues that we hadn’t noticed in the script, so Bec will update the script then as well. Often when we work together the lines of our roles are quite blurred and we wear multiple hats, and actually, on our next film, we’ll be co-writing and co-directing.
What’s in the pipeline for yourself and Jackdaw Films?
I’m currently animating a micro-short horror in a similar stop motion style to Stones, and in the summer we’re shooting a live action folk horror short.