Combine an obsession with Gamekeepers, frustration with society and a deft hand with horror and you’ve got The Thing That Ate The Birds. We chatted Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham Sketchbook Pictures about their award-winning short
D&CFilm: Tell us about The Thing That Ate The Birds and where the idea came from?
Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham: The Thing That Ate The Birds was born from our frustration with society. At the time of writing, BREXIT was at the forefront of the media. We were acutely alarmed at the divisive nature of the debate and the blame and criticism of ‘the other.’ It felt like everyone was losing their heads. As parents too, we were, and still are fearful of the kind of society our children are going to grow into.
We are also horror filmmakers and have been obsessed with Gamekeepers for many years, born from a sojourn living on the North Yorkshire Moors and getting to know their way of life. We shot in a beautiful place called Swaledale (where Sophie is from). Historically it was home to Lead Mining, meaning there is a rabbit warren of tunnels beneath the moors that stretch down to the bellows of the earth. This environment ignited our imagination and the concept of ‘THE THING.’
The marriage between Gamekeeping, our fear for society and our love of monsters really created this cautionary tale.
D&CFilm: It’s picked up plenty of awards – including a screenwriting prize at the Cornwall Film Festival – what’s the reaction been and how do you go about creating a horror short that touches people?
Sophie & Dan: We have been really pleased with the films festival run and we’ve had some great responses from reviews and audiences who really dug the approach, vibe and character nuance.
If we have any advice (and take this with a pinch of salt) it is to write what you are passionate about. Write from the heart and trust your gut instincts. Film is universal so if you dig it, someone else will too.
D&CFilm: How would you describe your filmmaking style?
That’s a difficult one. We are quite classical in our approach and favor long lingering shots and zooms. However, we are learning and honing our craft, so our style is continuously evolving.
D&CFilm: How important is sound in making a horror film, and how did you incorporate that in the script for The Thing That Ate The Birds?
Sophie & Dan: Sound is as just as important as the visuals, maybe even more important when creating suggestion and anticipation.
Whilst writing and in prep, we began gathering sounds and moods that we liked. We worked incredibly closely with our Composer and Sound Designer to create the final work. We probably spent as much time on the music/sound as the editing/grading/FX.
D&CFilm: Does horror reflect the time in which it’s made, and if so (or not) how does that play out in The Thing That Ate The Birds?
Sophie & Dan: As mentioned The Thing That Ate The Birds was written during Brexit and definitely echoes our fears for society especially in themes like lack of communication, how actions have consequences and the feeling we were losing our heads.
Horror can often reflect the time it is made whether that is deliberately or subconsciously. Many of the classics like DAWN OF THE DEAD or THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT are direct responses to society at the time and these films are still talked about today.
In saying that it’s a balancing act as a film needs to work first and foremost as a cinematic experience that tells a good human story and subtext is where the reflections often lay. We wouldn’t want to make a message movie but subconsciously or not a good horror will usually reflect the time it is made.
D&CFilm: What’s the role of the filmmaker / artist in society?
Sophie & Dan: We don’t know whether we are equipped to answer this one. For us art transcends society and its constructs. Contextually we are a product of our generation and our environment. So naturally the work we put forward will reflect our concerns.
D&CFilm: Horror is really healthy, how does the genre allow you to say what you want to say?
Sophie & Dan: We are pleased you view horror as ‘healthy’ as we agree. For us Horror has always been cathartic, a place to exercise one’s fears, demons and the other. It’s confrontational, contextual and relevant. It can be zeitgeist, historical or futuristic. Horror is a place to examine the truth through the fantastic and the abstract you can really get to the heart of the human condition or universal fears.
D&CFilm: Where can we keep up with your films and filmmaking?
Sophie & Dan: The Thing That Ate The Birds was co-financed by BFI Network and Gunpowder & Sky, which own the horror platform ALTER. You’ll be able to watch The Thing That Ate The Birds on ALTER sometime this year. We have a couple of shorts ‘And The Baby Screamed’ and ‘Ella’ already available on their platform.
D&CFilm: Thank you!
The Thing That Ate The Birds is at Two Short Nights at the Exeter Phoenix on Friday, 4 February.