In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
FEATURE ARTICLE - CHANNELING DEAD PEOPLE ON A STRANGE JOURNEY:
HOWARD FORD DISCUSSES NEVER LET GO
With Howard Ford already looking towards his upcoming project, NEVER LET GO has perhaps settled into place as a past chapter or just one building block of a filmmaking career still under construction. Such a sentiment would no doubt strike a resonance with Ford who openly expresses the need for an eventual disconnect from his work. “At the end of the day you've just been in that relationship for so long and you've seen everything, and it's no longer a mystery to you. You no longer see the wood for the trees and you have to fall out of love and move on.” But for the British independent filmmaker, this is all part of his process. “Perhaps for me I have a desire to tell a certain story and once I've told that story then I have scratched that itch, and I feel that I have to do something else. It's almost like there are things inside of me trying to get out and each time I’ve done them I don't necessarily need to revisit.”
Most closely associated with the horror genre after co-directing and co-writing THE DEAD and its sequel, both of which played at FrightFest, NEVER LET GO sees Ford break away from horror. It is a move that can be seen to echo his sentiment of scratching an itch or letting something from within him out, as he turned his attention from the undead to the tale of a mother's race against time to find her abducted baby.
In conversation with FrightFest, Ford revealed the personal origins of his action thriller and the obsessions that have shaped his filmography. He also reflected on the prominence of the journey as a narrative device within his films, while also discussing the process of filmmaking as a multi-staged journey that sees filmmaker and audience enter into a collaborative partnership.
How do you personally perceive the way in which NEVER LET GO fits into your body of work?
Perhaps the most personal influence over me is the sense of adventure, and whether it's cursed or interesting, I don't know what you want to call it, but I'm going to call it a cursed sense of adventure. I want to go to places that I want to see or experience and when I am thinking up plots for movies, no matter if they hate, like or love the film, I want to take audiences to a place they wouldn't normally see. So I am always looking out for that journey.
Look, I love horror, but my DVD collection is very strange because it is made up of all genres, everything from the arty side to the obscure. It would probably surprise anyone knowing the films I've made or have been involved in. But NEVER LET GO came at me because I was on vacation and I lost my son. I thought he'd been abducted from the resort in Malta and shouting out his name I thought: Oh my God, someone's taken him. There was a big busy crowd and he wasn't there, and I was gripped by dread and fear. My heart was going and I am not a violent person, but I was looking at all the exits thinking I’d do anything to get him back if someone had taken him. I realised the whole time he'd been on the bottom of the pool drowning and I just didn't know, and I only saw him by chance. I was running around to another part of the resort thinking he was in another pool and then I saw this glint of light on the water and bubbles, and I dived in and there he was.
I was going to do other types of movies, but after this experience of what I felt losing him, and thinking I am just a father, not a mother, and why have I not seen a movie that has a mother who's carried a child that has played this out, I thought: Well can I do it? Can I turn my energies and negative experience into something positive? So in a way it's inspired by a true event, but luckily I didn't have to go through the whole horror that the lead character did.
Filmmaker and artist Rebecca Miller told me: “If they are made honestly, all pieces of art are self portraits of the person making them. Even though film is such a collaborative art, if there is a real auteur behind it, then that person imbues the film with who they are, and what their concerns are at that moment.” The audience are unlikely to consider the personal roots of the film, owing to the fast paced thriller narrative, with shades of genre throughout that is more attributable to escapist cinema. But true to Miller’s belief, NEVER LET GO is imbued with your personal and creative identity?
There are definitely genre influences, but there are a mixture of things. I perhaps wouldn't have made it had I not had that personal story, but I realised that I needed to and I also realised I couldn't just tell such a simple story. You have to entertain people for an hour and a half and so I had to embellish that personal story with the types of things that I had enjoyed in other movies like TAKEN, and even TV series’ like HOMELAND. I felt if I was going to watch a story like this that I would need more than just entertainment, and so I brought these things in. I was very aware of my track record in horror with THE DEAD movies, and so I also wanted some nod or reference to them, which you picked up on, and it's also that journey movie. I don't know where the obsession comes from, maybe it's reincarnation, I don't know… I'll try to figure it out. But I do have a bit of a strange obsession with the journey and the need to get from one thing to another. I used to have these nightmares as a child and I'm sure we have all had these kinds of things where we are trying to reach something or someone. But I couldn't get there and I was going to lose them, and this has been in my psyche since I was very, very young. So that's perhaps my horror and I guess with THE DEAD movies for Jon and I it was always about death creeping upon us, and no matter where you hide or what you do, eventually it will get you. I think all these horror things, even in the thriller works that I do are always there and are influences.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Could we say that film is a journey for the filmmaker that is not all that different to the journey of the audience, where for both the ending is an uncertainty?
When I sit down to write I have the first journey. I think I'm going to write about this child that is taken or whatever it may be. I have a thousand things I am going to write, but when I sit there in the room I am kind of channeling something. It is very, very odd because sometimes when I am writing a character, I’ll think of this person or I’ll be influenced by something and I’ll start to write them, but they kind of write themselves. I speak to other writers that go through this journey and so I wonder if I am almost telling stories from dead people. I know that probably sounds crazy, but I don't know where these ideas come from because I sit down to write them, and I might sit an hour and nothing happens, and suddenly, wow, I feel like I'm in the zone. I'm writing about this and I want to say that, and I start to feel this character could be hiding something or have this agenda. I don't even know who these people are. I've started to write about them and they are revealing themselves to me. As I was writing Lisa in NEVER LET GO I realised she wasn't just a mother, she was postnatally depressed and it wasn't all black and white in the way that I thought I was going to put it down on paper. These things start to come at you in the writing stage and they completely take you off on a tangent. A couple of the twists before the end of the film just came at me and three quarters of the way through the writing process I went: Bloody hell... Really? Okay, let's go with that. So it's very odd and that's journey number one.
Journey two is actually making the film. I wasn't going to shoot it in Morocco, I was probably going to shoot it in Malta and I was going to do a bit in Almería, where Sergio Leone shot some of his westerns because I wanted to go there. Then all of a sudden I needed a scene about the trading of flesh, but I wanted a strong visual on it, and I found these places called Tanneries. In Morocco they are particularly visual, but they also smell… They are horrendous.
At the beginning of the movie after the opening title sequence you see these Tanneries where they were processing flesh (leather) for sale, and I started to realise there was a theme in the trade of lives, of flesh. When that theme then came to me I thought: Okay, that's a story I want to tell, but I am not going to tell that story directly. I am subtly going to weave that in as a layer. Having seen the visual of the Tannery I wanted to do it in a part of Morocco called Fez. Now as the situation would have it, with the schedule and all the difficulties we had out there, I never made it to Fez to capture the very thing I went to Morocco for in the first place. I also thought the quiet alleyways looked great. But what I found in Marrakech was a practical solution, a Tannery that was closer and which was visually amazing. So you come with these things that you want to do and suddenly you are not doing it where you think you were going to do it, and as a result you use different people and different places. So the practicality issue comes in, and look, making a film in a room with three actors is not easy and any filmmaker will tell you that. But trying to make an epic thing, I am my own worst enemy really because that part of the journey I make difficult by wanting to take people to places they would not normally go. I don't know if people overly notice it or appreciate it, I think some do, but that journey does become difficult.
Then once you get back to the edit suite that journey is very strange because you'll sit there with everything you've gathered, and you are alone again in a room like you were when you sat down to write. These people you made up in your head have been performed by actors and hopefully most performances you are happy with. It's really quite spooky to see that, remembering what you did in the beginning when you sat down in your room with a coffee to write, and then seeing these people say the words you made up, or did I channel them from dead people? I'm not sure [laughs].
So to stop me rambling you are absolutely right, there is a journey. You make the film in reels and so you don't see the film as one piece because depending on the length of your movie the post-production process breaks it into reels. Only at the very end of it all after the sound mix is done are the reels put together. You then see it for the first time and my God it's really, really weird. You obviously feel great about some parts and not so great about others, but you've done what you've done and there's nothing you can do.
In speaking with filmmakers, I've seen the idea emerge of a fourth version that is created by the audience through their own experience.
Yes you are right, and I like that idea of the fourth journey because it is absolutely true. I try my best to put my camera there with that lens or to try to get this type of performance or that type of edit to get a certain feeling. But you are trying to control a puppet with a really long arm that has so many twists and turns that you can't quite control it. You just try to influence it this way or that, if that makes any sense? Then when you see it with an audience you suddenly start to feel completely different because the audience see things that you didn't think of. They reveal things to you and sometimes you think: Ah well, they have got something out of that, but I really didn't mean it to be there. Sometimes it is a bonus and sometimes it's not. But I think you are right that it becomes the audiences film and they are entitled to say what they want about it, and with the online world now people do [laughs]. There is nothing you can do and so you have to give it over and see it like you've brought up a child: Okay, I've tried to educate it, feed it well and give it all that it needed, and now I have to wave goodbye, whether it's going off into the school gates on its own, I cannot be there next to it to influence it anymore. I just have to wish it well and it will be what it will be.
NEVER LET GO is available on digital download and on DVD courtesy of ICON Film Distribution.
Read our interview with NEVER LET GO lead actress Angela Dixon who discusses her journey FROM HEROINE TO VOYEUR