Recently there is only one movie the horror community has been talking about, Host, a British indie film with a difference – it was made and filmed on Zoom during lockdown.
Whilst the film industry grounded to a halt, director Rob Savage and his team got to work making Host, a terrifying and fun movie which will be sure to put you off video calls.
Released on streaming service Shudder last week, it quickly became a viral hit and is being described by many as one of the best horror films of recent years, a remarkable achievement especially considering the low budget and unique production.
Zavvi chatted to director Rob Savage about how Host became a reality, the challenges of making a movie in lockdown, and how found footage films can play on the anxieties underlying the pandemic.
Zavvi: So how did this project start? I understand its origins came from a prank video?
Rob: Before lockdown I had been hearing weird noises from my attic, and my friends were teasing me that some serial killer was up there or something.
I investigated it, there was nothing up there, but I thought bored during lockdown it would be a good opportunity to scare my friends, so I got them on Zoom and played this scary clip.
It ended up blowing up, going viral, which was really fun.
I’ve been hearing strange noises from my attic, so I called a few friends and went to investigate… pic.twitter.com/CxmJAf44ob
— Rob Savage (@DirRobSavage) April 21, 2020
Zavvi: I remember that video – it was fun. How did it go from prank video to movie?
Rob: A lot of people found it tense and scary, which surprised me as I thought it was just funny, but the main thing was filming that, using different views like grid and speak as different shots, I found you could do a surprising amount with the format and it wasn’t annoying to watch.
Also, you could still use the same tools of narrative storytelling to build tension.
It did feel like somebody was going to make a movie eventually, but a couple months into lockdown there was nothing yet, so we felt after the prank video we were in a good position to do it. And if somebody was going to do it, why not us.
Zavvi: When the movie was announced, a ‘Zoom horror’, there was a backlash online against the idea. Did that concern you?
Rob: No as we were counting on that, as it does sound like an awful idea, but we rallied together all these people from the industry sat at home bored, who can do all these cool specific things like stunts or gore effects.
We had this great arsenal and were prepared for people having low expectations, so we wanted them to go in with that, so we can blow that out of the water.
Zavvi: Did you revisit films like Unfriended for inspiration, movies that use similar techniques?
Rob: Yeah I did. I really like Unfriended, it’s great how it uses the whole desktop, jumps around and is really clever with like the disembodied cursor.
I wanted to do something more visceral though as in Unfriended those techniques are quite distancing, the audience doesn’t feel as much there is a real person behind those graphics, so I wanted to use that sparingly.
Zavvi: There are plenty of Easter eggs in this movie, from foreshadowing to film references.
Rob: Yeah, I put them in to amuse myself but also because we knew it was going out on Shudder, and horror fans are always interested in spotting hidden details.
Zavvi: And have people spotted all the Easter eggs yet?
Rob: I would say they have spotted about half of them, there are a good amount of clues, especially in the first half.
Even though it feels quite improvised there’s lots of specific clues as to what happens next, the fates of all the characters are all signposted within the first five minutes. We had a lot of fun putting that in.
Zavvi: I love the visual clues. Like there’s a clown puppet on a shelf early on and I thought that is going to come back!
Rob: So I just cast all the people on the original prank call and the first thing we did was we got them to film tours of their houses, and tell us where they feel scared and what are the creepiest details so we could work those in.
The puppet was something in Teddy’s house, I saw it in the back and was like that has to be in the movie. It was the same thing with Caroline’s attic and Haley’s creepy hallway.
Zavvi: You mentioned earlier there is improvisation. The actors use their own names, but are they playing themselves?
Rob: Yeah, they are kinda playing versions of themselves with objectives they wouldn’t have in real life.
Rather than having a conventional script we had bullet points for each scene, so each actor had an objective for their character. Each morning I would do workshops over Zoom with them and we would arrive at something, find the shape of the scene as we were shooting.
I think their reactions are all very authentically them, especially since we kept the scares from them until filming, that was important to me.
Zavvi: And how long did it take to shoot?
Rob: I think we got most of it in the first week. We did a couple of days of stunts, then we did a week of the group stuff, then it was picking up bits so about two weeks total.
Zavvi: Very quick then.
Rob: Yeah, the nice thing is on a normal film set you have to wait around most of the day for like the lights to be set up etc, but here there was none of that, it was filmed in the actors homes and they just came on ready to go. So we could shoot for most of the day.
Zavvi: One of the things I really enjoyed was how it tied into experiences we have all gone through during lockdown. There are little quirks such as Caroline’s pre-recorded Zoom background, which I know lots of people did.
Rob: When we started out it was me and writer Jed Shepherd, and we put together a big list of things we could do with Zoom, from fake backgrounds to people being muted.
It’s such a weird thing as I can’t think of another time where people are so connected by doing the same routines, and using the same platforms, it feels really specific so we had to play on that.
Zavvi: What would you say was the most challenging part of the whole process?
Rob: I think it would be post-production. Once we shot everything we wanted to get it out fast, whilst everyone is still living in this strange reality. But there were hours of footage with each actor filming constantly, so it was a huge amount to go through.
And finding the shape of the movie was hard, but rewarding. When we saw the first cut it felt like it had been designed that way, and that is what I was worried about, I didn’t want it feeling like a patchwork quilt. But the editor found the moments that drove the plot forward.
Zavvi: You must be delighted at the reaction it has been getting?
Rob: Oh it’s nuts. Its nice that we seem to have captured something, and that it is speaking to people. We wanted to create something fun, take people’s minds off the madness of the world right now, and it’s nice people are taking it as a ride, but also that they are resonating with it on a deeper level.
You can’t plan for that, and it’s gratifying to see.
Also Shudder is a niche genre specific platform, and we made the film on no money with friends, so it’s great that word of mouth is bringing people to it who might not have seen it otherwise.
I’m not sure if it was because I’m so close to it, but I really didn’t realise it was scary. I just thought it was fun, until I showed it to my girlfriend the night before and she was so scared. So then I thought, maybe we are onto something.
— Rob Savage (@DirRobSavage) July 30, 2020
Zavvi: It is a lot of fun, but also scary. Would you do another Zoom movie?
Rob: Yeah, well maybe not Zoom, although there is plenty you can do on the platform, but there is a lot of mileage in found footage movies at the moment because there is a lot to be mined from the tensions underlying the pandemic, the way we are together but isolated, there is a real anxiety to that.
And I think horror is great at finding those unspoken anxieties. I would love to do more in this space.
Zavvi: And before the success of Host, were you concerned about the future of indie filmmaking following the pandemic?
Rob: Like everyone there is so much uncertainty but I knew filmmakers would find a way to navigate restrictions, and I think horror is naturally the genre that is prime to rise from the ashes because the best horror is a few characters in an enclosed space, and these are the movies that will get through the gate earliest.
Zavvi: And what is next for you?
Rob: It depends upon how the response to Host continues to go, it is opening a lot of doors and there is an appetite for this thing, and we would love to jump on that and make something to follow it up.
At the same time I’m developing a lot of stuff, for example we just announced a project I’m doing with Sam Raimi – he is producing a movie me and Jed came up with, we just got the script in and it’s really exciting. It is a contained, single location piece and hopefully touch wood we can shoot next year.
Zavvi: Working with a horror icon like Sam Raimi must be cool?
Rob: It’s mad! Growing up Evil Dead 2 was the movie that crystallised the idea of becoming a filmmaker in my head. The way he made the series inspired me to pick up a camera, and it’s great to be working with him.
It’s a trip and I’m still pinching myself.
Host is available to watch exclusively on Shudder now.