After nearly two decades of the being the premier special make-up effects go-to man for the likes of Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black, Eden Lake), prolific gore genius Paul Hyett is finally making his directorial debut with The Seasoning House.
Currently shooting on a disused Air Force base near Pinewood Studios just outside London, Hyett says, “The Seasoning House is a cross between Martyrs, Pan’s Labyrinth and Die Hard, a harrowing exploration into tense claustrophobia, hard-hitting action and rollercoaster suspense.” He continues, “I’ve been thinking about directing for a few years now. I’ve worked with some of the best directors in the world and have gained lots of experience from watching them filming. I’ve worked with some of the worst too and have also learned what not to do. So far being behind the camera has been like being on set with my prosthetics crew but having more things to think about. It’s a normal day at the office only I’m in control of everything for a change. What I’ve lacked in hands-on technique I’ve made up for knowing everything about every other department. Because that’s what you tend to do on movie sets if you are interested so I’ve been remarkably relaxed and stress-free about the whole career shift.”
Originally Hyett was going to make his horror feature debut with The Black Site, a Jacob’s Ladder-style supernatural shocker. “We shot a trailer for it last year but the budget was circling £2.5 million,” says Sterling Films’ producer Mike Riley (Scar Tissue, Deviation), “So I thought it would be more expedient for Paul to make a smaller movie to show investors what exactly he could do and how he was more than up for the job. Paul had two other scripts in good shape, one an organ-harvesting thriller, the other THE SEASONING HOUSE. The moment I read the latter I knew it was the project to show Paul’s strengths as an all-round director and we raised the money relatively easily. What mainly sold it to me was the originality of the ultimate chase, carried out inside the walls of the house.”
Written by Hyett and Conal Palmer, The Seasoning House is set in an unnamed Eastern European country where young girls are kidnapped by soldiers and sold to unscrupulous human traffickers as prostitutes. In the title run-down brothel, deaf mute orphan Angel is enslaved to tend to the girls in their drug-induced stupor. Unbeknownst to her captors she moves between the walls of the house, wriggling through vents, lurking in the crawlspaces observing, learning and planning her escape. Then the men responsible for slaughtering her entire family arrive to indulge their twisted appetites, and when she stabs one to death, the time has finally come to make her desperate moves.
“Once I had the concept I wrote the first 50 pages of the script in ten days,” recalls Hyett. “I couldn’t shake this image of a teenage deaf mute girl, malnourished with long dank hair, a birthmark on her face – the reason why she looks after the girls and isn’t one of them – kept by a vicious pimp. Founded on facts I researched from war-torn zones, I formulated the structure, characters and main action sequences. Conal is a colleague from my workshop who has always wanted to write and is excellent at dialogue. So we bounced ideas off each other, worked on the motivations, ironed out the problems and came up with a script that will have been written and shot in under a year”.
Producer Riley adds, “I met Paul on Boston Kickout (1995) when he devised a throat stabbing gore effect for me. After that I always went to him when I needed any prosthetic work done. I’ve always believed in his talent and instinct for storytelling and knew he’d become a director one day because he has such a good eye. What I loved about The Seasoning House script was it had an integrity to it that was heart-felt. Yes, there were the gripping thriller aspects, the startling violence and the horrifying nature of events. But Paul and Conal never lost sight of its innate humanity or emotional layers and there was an intelligence behind it that transcended the genre norm. It was a Holy Grail script in many ways as it balanced everything entertaining with a responsibility that wasn’t preachy or exploitative. The sexual content is edgy but it’s an expose of what the house represents in symbolic terms; I think you’ll learn something from The Seasoning House you weren’t expecting.”
Hyett storyboarded all the main sequences with his director of photography Adam Etherington because The Seasoning House had to have a specific look, atmosphere and tone as he describes. “Preparation is key to everything I do. We only have a four-and-a-half week schedule so it was important everything was well worked out beforehand. I’ve gone for a rich texture, not a standard horror film look, because I want it to be beautiful despite being about horrible things. Much is being shot using steadicam for a dreamy feel. Every day Angel goes through her cleaning and drugging routine and I didn’t want any distancing – you have to be with her throughout the whole experience. We’ve shot a lot in slow motion so you can be part of her unbroken point of view for maximum empathy. But once she kills the soldier a harsher reality sets in. The moment the knife hits his chest, the fairytale feeling shatters and it gets faster paced, very messy, extremely nasty and completely mad. Watching Neil Marshall direct The Descent has put me in good stead for the claustrophobic scenes with Angel being chased through the maze-like brothel walls. And I want to use sound design in innovative ways to put across Angel’s dislocating deafness.” (Expect Neil Marshall to feature in a cameo in the completed film too).
Playing the lead role of Angel is Rosie Day. Although an experienced stage and television actress, the 17 year-old is making her feature debut with The Seasoning House. “I’d never seen a horror film before and knew nothing about Paul’s prior work“, she admits. “But it was the best script I’d read in ages, gave me chills and meant I’d being doing a lot of things I’d never done before, like major stunts and, of course, playing a deaf mute. The good part about that is I didn’t have to learn any lines. What a relief! The bad part is portraying key emotions without talking. It sounds bizarre but I kept forgetting I was supposed to be deaf and on quite a few occasions I’ve reacted to noises when I shouldn’t have done. I did learn sign language for another job I did and that has come in useful here for the scenes with my family before I see them killed.”
She continues, “When I got the job Paul gave a list of horror movies to watch and I went to his workshop to see how it was all done. Together we worked out who Rosie was and provided her with a nice back-story. We decided she was mute because her family never had enough money to send her to a speech therapist. It has been a collaborative process with Paul throughout and I would never have known he was a first time director. While Paul has naturally focused on the horror drama in Angel’s life, I needed her to be more a normal girl her age. So I wanted to see her in bed reading teen magazines for a clearer vision of just how grim her reality is.”
Angel’s birthmark is a transfer that is applied daily to Day’s face. “It tends to peel off halfway through the day”, she laughs, “But I’ve gotten attached to it now. I’m also eating the blood because it’s made out of sugar! What I’m not looking forward to is the body pit sequence we’re filming next week. That’s where they put all the girls who are used up. They are going to throw maggots at me for hours. It may sound weird, but this is really the best job I’ve ever had since I started acting at 6.”
Angel’s protector to some extent in The Seasoning House is Viktor. That character was written for Kevin Howarth, star of The Last Horror Movie, Cold and Dark and Gallowalkers, all of which Hyett worked on. Howarth remarks, “Paul had always told me about his directing ambitions and intimated there would be a part for me to play in that game plan. I read the script and loved it – a dynamic story, tightly constructed with great dialogue. It had a redemptive quality that I feel a female audience are going to go for big time because you really do root for Angel’s escape.”
He adds, ‘Viktor is a nasty piece of work. Does he love Angel? Probably but you are never sure if she’s just his sex slave, better that than the other though, right? He’s a Machiavellian wheeler-dealer type whose motivation is greed not the cause, unlike his school friend Goran whose a right wing ‘let’s cleanse the nation’ sort of guy. I have a light Balkan accent, nothing too heavy as you really need to listen to the dialogue not just the accent, and my introduction is a lilting speech about trust before making a point by turning sadistic killer. The Seasoning House is a darker than dark trip into sheer heartlessness because Viktor is a snake and a thoroughbred liar”.
Goran is the main villain of the piece played by Sean Pertwee, another of Hyett’s past colleagues. “If I remember correctly Paul has killed me seven times in all”, laughs the Dog Soldiers, Mutant Chronicles and Devil’s Playground actor. “Goran is a bully boy who mainly gets others to do his dirty work. I suppose you could see him in Arkan terms (the Serbian career criminal and paramilitary leader), putting on a vaguely respectable face but eventually reverting to brutal type. The scene we’ve been shooting today has Goran unnecessarily kill one of the girls in cold blood to show Viktor who the boss is. Because of Paul wanting to shoot as much as possible with steadicam to put across the immediacy and urgency of the drama, and the angle meant the girl was behind me, it was difficult to exactly aim the gun at her head. But we did it after a couple of extra takes and that was down to Paul’s confidence in the shot. The Seasoning House is two movies really – one is about sight, the other sound, and how those perspectives get married into one engaging whole with Paul’s taste, style and professionalism. I tell you, Paul really has taken to this directing lark like a duck to water.”
He adds, “You know something when I first agreed to be in The Seasoning House my agent called me and said, Are you sure? I assured him I was. Paul was a mate for a start but beyond that every element in this package seemed right on the money. I took a punt with Dog Soldiers for the same reasons I’m making this and that turned out to be an absolute gem, one that put Neil Marshall deservedly on the map. I knew from Day One that was going to work out and I’ve wanted to find another like that ever since. Well, with absolute confidence I can say, here it is.”