A fascination with horror is often considered macabre and perhaps slightly misaligned, but by combining his passion for the genre with a diverse career and a well-chosen MA, Robert Dee brings us his visceral short ‘The Devil’s Harvest.’ The film offers a haunted dive into identity and childhood trauma. Whilst exploring themes some might feel are better left alone, Dee delves back into his youthful discovery of the uncanny by Freud. An unsettling sense of psychological vertigo provoked by an encounter with people, places and things that are both familiar yet strange at the same time, which forms the basis of his deliciously dark folk horror. He speaks about the influences he has garnered from some of the great directors and names in movies and the sometimes conflicted application of film theory in developing the spark of an idea into the production of an intense 11 minute short film.
“The focus of my creative work is on psychological horror as it enables me to marry my interests in the uncanny, the occult and psychoanalysis with my love of film.”
With an intoxicating mix of religion, identity and mythology how did you come to write the ‘The Devils Harvest’?
I have a large reference library full of weird, macabre and counter cultural subjects that inspire me and I love horror in all its forms and directors such as Lynch, Strickland, Kötting and Deren among others whose works are both intensely personal and irrational. I rarely remember where my ideas come from and I often wake up at 4am and write them down on my phone before I forget. It’s not a reliable method but I think the most important thing for me is filling my head with the stuff that interests me and eventually something rises to the surface. A sort of a guided intuitive process rather than a commercial approach and ‘The Devil’s Harvest’ was one of the ideas and that became my short film in the first year of my Masters.
How did your Masters degree enable you to actualise all of the ideas you have?
I decided to undertake the Masters in Filmmaking at Raindance Film School which was very much self-directed, so I was able to design my own pathway and focus it on developing a way of connecting the ideas I was gripped by to a working practice. During my undergraduate degree I read Freud’s essay on the uncanny which really spoke to me, touching on subjects I found fascinating. Leading on from this I decided to explore the subject and write/direct a short film with folklore overtones. I also started exploring art and photographic references and building a lookbook for the film. It was an intuitive process but guided through the course structure and the support of mentors like Kate Shenton and Ruth Paxton
The MA program at Raindance seems to have fitted perfectly to your needs – is it a course you would recommend for others trying to move into directing?
I definitely would not be where I am without it. I’m not a very good blagger and I need to know what I’m doing and I’m also a bit of a theory junkie. On the first day I was told ‘you are now professional filmmakers and you need to treat yourself professionally’ – an empowering thing to hear. I am vastly different now than I was before in terms of confidence and knowledge but, mostly, in terms of approach. I now have a proper way of working. I don’t feel ashamed of saying I’m a director, modest though my track record is. During the MA I researched directing in depth and now I feel I know what I am doing when it comes to directing dramatic work as opposed to a thirty second viral. As long as I can use the theory I learnt to support the films I want to make rather than shoehorn the films into cookie cutter theory templates I’ll be happy.
What challenges did you find in the jump from post production and advertising to film writing and direction?
I was struggling to find an artistic practice that helped me create the films I’ve always wanted to make and found the experience frustrating. Whilst I gained a film degree at university my learning was mostly on the job and technical rather than artistic. In post and advertising there’s a division between the directors and the technical artworkers so I knew how to realise the work of other people, but not my own which was very frustrating.
I also was dealing with a weighty dose of imposter syndrome. Alan Moore has a writing Masterclass on the BBC and he talks of the Wand suit in the tarot and its relation to will. You can have great ideas but you need will to see those ideas through to completion. A great idea in a pub can be the most amazing film if it’s never actually made and that, a little painfully, resonated with me. You have to earn everything so putting down the bottle and facing up to the fact that no-one was going to do it for me was an important personal step.
How did the script progress from the aforementioned ‘unreliable’ method of jotting down ideas at 4am?
I initially wrote the film as a short story and then screenplay and directed the short in the summer just before lockdown. As it was part of my MA my timings were very tight and I worked on the script for about 3 months, looking explicitly at visual subtext as the language that sits underneath the film and helps convey all the elements below the plot. I was looking into themes, visual motifs and symbolism and how to add weight to a film which is a tricky balancing act. Robert Mckee talks about image systems in his book ‘Story’. What you really want to aim for is generating your own symbolism within your film rather than relying on external symbolic sources. You also need to strip back anything that doesn’t have a loaded meaning so you don’t weaken your thematic message. Don’t hit your audience over the head with a message, they want questions, not answers.
In terms of writing I used Dan Harmon’s ‘Story circle’, a lot of people hate story structure methodology as they think of it as constricting and/or commercial. However I found it helps to be aware of it, then write organically, returning to it during rewriting to see if it helps fix things that aren’t working. I don’t buy into the ’you need to hit this beat on page 3 and the midpoint has to be page 8’ but I do think knowledge of these models can help fix things that aren’t working.
Even outsider filmmakers have clear structures in their work. It always amazes me that no matter how alternative any particular film is, you can still see the first major plot point happening around the 12 minute mark. I like to think of filmmaking theory as a toolkit that you can use if and when you need it. You can also challenge it. It’s the old cliche about jazz. Know the rules first before you throw them out.
You have mentioned various directors draw inspiration from – who do you look to as some of the greats in writing and directing and do you think they follow the theory you have spoken about?
I love most cinema and I’ll happily watch a blockbuster as much as an arthouse film. That said, too many blockbusters can feel like empty calories. I’m a big fan of David Lynch though I cringe a bit when I see too much influence of his stuff in my work. I also deeply admire Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarkovsky, Fulci, Kubrick, Park Chan-Wook, Andrew Kotting, Louis Bunuel, Mark Jenkin, Julia Ducournau, Argento, Peter Strickland, Roy Andersson, Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, Maya Deren, and Hitchcock and anyone whose work is psychologically driven. Overtly political stuff tends to leave me cold as I’m just not built that way. That said, the Zizek documentaries on cinema and ideology are great.
As for if they follow theories or not, I don’t know. I know Ari Aster is a student of Peter Markham who’s written a very good book on script analysis for Directors. Scorsese did a great three part series on Classical Hollywood cinema and Gilliam did a great series on Early Cinema. As I also love horror, Mark Gatiss’ documentaries on horror for BBC4 are outstanding.
We’ve heard a lot about your theory and writing, what about the more practical elements in the shooting of ‘The Devil’s Harvest’?
Production for ‘The Devil’s Harvest’ took 3 days starting in some community owned woods in Uckfield which saved us having to compete with dog walkers and joggers. As it was outside and we had a cast and crew of about 20, I organised hot food to be delivered thanks hugely to my partner Anne. I couldn’t pay anyone so I had to feed them well! My brother, Luke, is a games producer and an organisation whizkid so I pulled him in as production manager and he helped run the show along with Thom O’Driscoll, the First AD. After unfortunately having to part ways with my first DOP I put an ad on shooting people and found Jonathan Nicol who had a superb showreel and we both had the same vision for the film. Jonathan really upped my game, the Director/DOP relationship is a complex one as it’s never the same. I knew with Jonathan that if I stepped back or slacked off at any point he’d jump in and take over. I don’t mean that negatively at all. He was just super efficient, creative and professional. The sound recordist and mixer was John Valledy who I’d worked with on some corporate work. We’d bonded over Lynch. He did a great job, particularly with the sound mix. A very good and long time friend, Jeff Stonehouse, who is an ambient artist, created the music bed and we weaved that in with the mix to keep things organic.
When it came to the edit I cut the film myself in Final Cut Pro (sorry, Premiere fans) and, through an old contact of mine, Andy, was lucky enough to get it graded at The Moving Picture Company in Soho by Philip Hambi. We hit it off straight away and it was an amazing experience to be able to sit in a suite grading my film in the same building that worked on Dune, Blade Runner 2049 and other massive features.
Can you tell us more about your experience of working with the actors?
At the time I was less comfortable working with actors than directing camera so I consider myself lucky that I had such good talent involved. Fintan Shevlin and Cerys Knighton I’ve worked with previously and they are both very gifted and professional. I had them in mind from script stage. Matthew Jure who played the dad was a firecracker in terms of performance and gave me loads to work with. Dave Pepper revealed a green man tattoo on his arm at the audition so I knew he HAD to be my Rotten Man. I pay attention to those kind of synchronicities. The two boys, Sam and Monty, were absolutely superb – it wouldn’t work without them – and they handled the shoot day like professionals.
What do you hope for your film?
I feel that ‘The Devil’s Harvest’ is the first film I’ve made that really expresses who I am as a filmmaker. The process I developed on the course helped me join the dots from the initial idea through to the finished film. Of course, I see things that bug me about the film that I’d like to have done differently but there’s no point looking backwards. As a good friend of mine says, wipe your mouth and move on. I developed ‘The Devil’s Harvest’ idea into a feature script which became my final dissertation piece and I’d love to direct that some day and I’m trying to work out the finance now, how to step up to a feature. My plan is to keep my ideas complex but the practicalities simple and cheap. As I love the uncanny that’s not so tricky as it needs to be grounded in reality rather than involve huge CGI work. In the meantime I’m working on another short that blurs psychological realism with the supernatural and a micro budget feature that’s a cross between Funny Games and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’m excited about both of them and that’s a good place to be. It’s lovely to have the film in festivals but, as Alan Moore says, the important thing is to keep going and get the damn things made. I may have found my voice a little late but I’ve only just got started. Hopefully what I do will be good and other people will like it.