Horror has long been a genre used to explore much darker and more sinister themes than may immediately be apparent on the narrative surface. And so, when filmmaker Max Lincoln – who first came to our attention with his dystopian graduation short Thyme – was deciding on the direction of his next project, he found himself inspired to explore the conflicts within the creative world through a horror-fuelled lens. A collaboration with writer Alex Moran whose meticulously written rhyming dialogue deftly reflects the traits of each character vying for survival, Rhyme or Die gleefully presents a literal bloodbath that comes from fierce creative competition, all masterminded by a delightfully quirky, merciless puppet master. It’s a film that is as inventive as it is shocking and one that immerses its audience with escalating tension and some very satisfying spurting SFX. Ahead of Rhyme or Die’s online premiere today, we invited Lincoln to return to DN for a chat about the intricate design of his murderous collars, the practical SFX employed for each gory death and the creation of a demented lead whose sadism hides a deep-seated desire to help.

You have a varied background as a filmmaker, what drew you to examine the themes you do in Rhyme or Die through a horror lens?

I have always loved the art world and been fascinated by its inner workings, particularly regarding conflict and creativity. It’s a world I had explored through drama in my short Pineapple, but I was curious to examine it through the lens of horror. Alex Moran, writer, and I had been discussing ideas for projects during the first UK lockdown, and this idea of cutthroat creativity was something we couldn’t shake. As artists, we are encouraged to compete against one another for views, likes and awards. This can frequently have destructive consequences that will affect our artistry and, more often, our mental health. The pressure to be the best or ‘die’. Alex had the idea for Rhyme or Die and it seemed an obvious choice to develop. I am a massive fan of Battle Royale, which was the perfect tonal cornerstone to examine our theme. While lots changed throughout, an idea that stuck was that as one weaker character’s strength/self-belief grew, they must sacrifice one of their peers to be rewarded.

What processes, techniques, or new methods did you employ in the making of this film?

Rhyme or Die had been developed during the 1st UK lockdown and we expected to shoot it during similar constraints. With strict social distance rules in mind, we developed the film’s creativity to suit the social distancing guidelines at the time. For example, the contestants can’t leave their spotlights (2m apart) or face execution. We illustrated this early on, and it was a great way to keep things contained. The short was filmed over the last weekend of the third UK Lockdown, utilising The Cause, Tottenham (a now former London club) just before it reopened to the public. We had two tight days to shoot it, and our limitations, like the fixed actors’ placements, became assets as they meant, for example, we didn’t waste time relighting shots. We instead had fixed spotlights.

I prefer one-two takes generally, but with COVID tests taking a portion from day one, this became the only way we could make the film. The cast jumped to the challenge, with Bethan Cullinane (Dynamo) only having two takes for her entire performance! This became even more extreme for the finale. Olumide Olorunfemi (Eve) and Victor Alli (Colin) had one take per shot for their end battle. They would perform a section of the final fight with a buffer on either side and then we would go in closer for the next part. It was a wild way to work, but with only an hour to shoot the last fight (ex SFX), it was how we had to work.

One of the key technical processes during the prep was ensuring that the rhymes worked. Alex had been testing the rhymes and had sent them to a games designer friend for further scrutiny. Dynamo is an aggressive wordsmith, so our rhymes had to be perfect. In particular, Nidal needed to use an unrhymable word. “Purple” and “orange” came to mind, but during his deep dive, Alex discovered that purple did have something it could rhyme with “hirple” – the Scottish for “walk with a limp, hobble.” With orange rhyming with an old botanical term for sporangium, “sporange”. While these words are hardly in most people’s vocabularies, Dynamo would have accepted them. So consequently, we chose the lesser known, unrhymable word, “warmth”. Retrospectively, purple would have been faster to understand, but warmth is technically correct.

Were you specifically looking for actors who had musical backgrounds when casting and how did you ensure they would be able to deliver the rhymes?

In the film, the characters have wildly varied musical and rhyme abilities. Colin loves a simple rhyme, Kaye likes to show off her skills, delusional Nidal thinks he’s an undiscovered rap God, Eve lacks confidence, and Harry doesn’t get it. As quite a lot of the cast was supposed to be imperfect, I focussed the casting process on finding the best performances. However, Kaye played by the fantastic Racheal Ofori, had to feel like a natural rapper and it’s a role that she really brought to life.

Dynamo was a tricky character for us and one we had been quite nervous about. Could they believably do this? Are they unhinged enough? Why do they want the contestants to believe in themselves?

To then ensure the rhymes worked, I did a test run on Zoom with a bunch of actor friends before casting began. It was a lot of fun, and Bethan Cullinane, who had been in my graduation film Thyme, completely stole the show as antagonist Dynamo. Dynamo was a tricky character for us and one we had been quite nervous about. Could they believably do this? Are they unhinged enough? Why do they want the contestants to believe in themselves? The casting process is one of my favourite parts of filmmaking, and we had the brilliant Charlotte Chapman as our casting director. I had called Bethan back and she absolutely killed it again. The rest of the cast was all new to me and completely elevated the film. It would always be an extremely tight two-day shoot within full COVID rules, and they smashed it.

Can you talk to us about the design of their collars and, apart from the macabre, what they represented for each role?

I’d watched a lot of murder game films for research and having exciting deaths always felt like a critical component. As mentioned, Battle Royale was a main reference. The general action and story kept things fresh in their film, as their collars all had the same function. With our limited screen time, the deaths had to be limited to things the collars could do. We were going to do all the deaths practically and so I wanted to choose techniques that were achievable but as memorable as possible. While there were many discussions about what each device represented, I’d prefer to leave those ideas to the audience. However, I’d love to talk about the collar design.

The neck twist was by far the simplest and most effective. We sold the idea by having one of our crew play Harry’s reversed hands. Sadly, we couldn’t see much of the fantastic prosthetic Rebecca Birch created, but I think having a bloodless first kill was a stronger way to pull the rug out and set the game’s rules. This also meant that Kaye’s neck slice and all its blood took things up a level. Her collar was the most technical. It’s a technique I tried myself during my short There Can Only Be One, but Carl Ryan, who made the collars and did our SFX, took it to the next level. The idea for Nidal’s metal bar collar came from a chat with Carl. We’d talked about making something that the audience would be excited to come to fruition. Regarding the finale, I needed both collars to feel similar but have apparent differences. Colin’s end felt appropriately nasty but also reflected his betrayal by Eve, someone whom he saw as an ally and had looked out for. As Eve’s collar would never turn on, I had to ensure it was a death the audience wouldn’t miss, so it was covered in electrical transformers.

How did you work with Carl Ryan to develop your SFX and those delightful post-kill splatters of blood?

Apart from some of Colin’s death, all the deaths were done as practical SFX. I had hunted around for a headless body at Trading Post (a brilliant prop house), where they have a pile of rubber bodies that are largely used in war movie backgrounds. The best option happened to have half a neck left. Sawing that off was up there as one of the weirdest things I’d had to do for a film (and I’ve spent 11 years in the art department)! With Carl Ryan (SFX), we concealed a pipe through the body and, using a fire extinguisher, sprayed the blood through its neck. Like the rest of the SFX, we had one-two goes, and we did need a bit of VFX to up the level of blood in the end. There was also a bit of VFX required for Colin’s solitary head.

Mohammad Amiri’s (Nidal) bar collar was the most visually exciting (for me), but there was no way we could fire them. So, the solution was to create a second version with short bars. In the edit, we stayed on Eve’s performance as she’s certain she has lost. This allowed us to swap collar types before a blood-soaked Nidal crumples to the ground. The sound carried most of this idea. For Kaye’s, I loved the idea of a miniature circular saw. It felt like something Dynamo could have created and also felt different enough from the others. It was a fairly simple idea of a lever that meant the one-sided saw moved past her neck, while the blood attached to the saw sprayed out.

It was essential to minimise lighting changes as the schedule was so tight, so Cinematographer Jonny Flint and I devised a look to achieve this.

What did you shoot and how did you light the set to maximise production speed while capturing the horror aesthetic you were going for?

We shot on Alexa and used an Easyrig. I love shooting on the Alexa, and for speed and styling, the Easyrig made the most sense. Our key inspirations were the low-angled and disorientating frames from Seconds and The Manchurian Candidate. It was essential to minimise lighting changes as the schedule was so tight, so Cinematographer Jonny Flint and I devised a look to achieve this. The aesthetic was inspired by the high-contrast film noir look. Each of the contestant’s zones would be lit by a spotlight above. This would be their key light throughout. As they moved within their circle, contrast would be created and harsh shadows. Their faces would also be illuminated from below by their murder collars. This was to play with conventional horror lighting but in a way that suited the world of the film.

Dynamo’s booth was also designed to not require lighting changes. The silver fabric walled booth was designed by Sarah Asmail and inspired by the extravagance of prom night. It had integrated lighting to create a saturated and strongly contrasting look to the rest of the space. It was also important that the colours in Dynamo’s booth weren’t present elsewhere to elevate her further visually from the others. I’m a big fan of Black Pro-Mist, and while we used it throughout, Dynamo’s shots had a much stronger version of the filter.

What was your process moving into the edit to keep the audience swept up in the life and death momentum of this deadly contest?

Working with our Editor Manuela Lupini, much of the work tried to tighten the film wherever possible. I had felt early on that for this concept to work, the cut needed to be tight enough that the audience was pulled through the contest along with the cast. We couldn’t cut any lines as the rhymes wouldn’t make sense, so we had to cut from the opening and the moments between battles. For me, the greatest loss was cutting out many of Dynamo’s hilarious reactions. The early cuts were full of Dynamo reacting to everything (plus loads more dancing), but it slowed the film’s pacing and dropped all the tension.

For this concept to work the cut needed to be tight enough that the audience was pulled through the contest along with the cast.

As mentioned, my tonal cornerstone was Battle Royale, and I kept that in mind throughout the edit. It’s fucked up but still comedic and playful. My aim was to stop things being too nasty or vicious. Fundamentally, Dynamo wants to help these people. She wants them to believe in themselves and be better. She just has a messed up way of showing it.

Music is obviously a cornerstone of the film, how did you decide on your accompanying score?

We had two different composers working on the film and covering the two sides of Dynamo. On the one hand, we had the music for the rounds, composed by Joe Farley (half of the composer’s Father). My key references had been beats from 90s Hip-Hop. I loved how fun their backing beats were, but particularly, I needed slightly slower beats so that a novice contestant like Samuel Blenkin (Harry) could at least stand a chance rhyming too. I tried beats from a range of music styles, including Grime, but the beats were too fast or chaotic. Joe initially did some temp tracks for our script tests and they were perfect! The edit versions mainly were extended versions of these but with lots more character.

Sam McGrail, a saxophonist and composer who’d worked on my short Pineapple, created the lounge music and all the horns. I loved that Dynamo’s favourite music was an unhinged combo of lounge jazz and Hip-Hop. She fundamentally wanted the contestants to relax and unwind at the start before the competition started. Sam did an excellent job and captured the perfect vibe.

Are you sticking to horror? What’s next for you as a filmmaker?

For sure! While most of my early work is more heightened dramas, I’ve always loved horror, and I’m very excited to keep playing in the genre. I’ve got a horror feature, Harrow, in development with Rasp Films, which is looking for finance. It’s about a demon that preys on anxiety and is written by Rhyme or Die’s writer Alex Moran (story by us both). Also, another feature in early development that I’m writing myself (think teen zombies). I’ve also been exploring the genre through super 8 shorts as part of the Straight 8 competition. So far I’ve done a Highlander-inspired revenge film about murdering those with the same name as you (inspired by discovering a rival Max Lincoln who directs porn!), a 60s set sex sacrifice short and most recently, a psycho-sexual thriller about a bag: Bag For Life

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