My interview with the director of “Host”, which could easily be the most important horror movie of the year.
Rob Savage is a very busy young man right now.
His new movie is the internet sensation called Host, which most critics are praising for the clever use of a platform we’ve come to be very familiar with during lockdown. It’s a horror movie that goes on during a Zoom meeting among friends. At a running time of less than an hour, Host is crashing down streaming servers due to the popularity it has gained in the last few weeks.
Finding Rob among the sea of praises wasn’t very hard. He’s the humble director you’d expect him to be. Fortunately he was able to find a spot in his schedule to talk to us. However, don’t expect him to reveal so much about Host. Believe me, I tried.
Please enjoy this, we certainly did.
Cinelipsis: Please tell us a bit about yourself. Your career is pretty prolific, but we want to know more about the “roots”. Who do you consider your greatest influences?
Rob Savage: I grew up in the middle of the countryside, with no connections to the film industry and nothing but free time. After I finished my high school exams, I decided to fill that free time by doing something productive – I decided to make a full length feature film. I was 17 years old and had £3000 that I had raised from paper rounds and other odd teenage jobs, and threw myself in headfirst. I wrote, directed, shot, co-produced and edited the film, named Strings, which went on to win a British Independent Film Award and be BAFTA shortlisted, as well as being bought and released by the BFI and Vertigo Films. From there, aged 19, I signed with an agent and have been working in TV and commercials ever since.
Cinelipsis: Is there any childhood experience involving horror films you would like to share? At what point in time did you know you would work in films, specifically in genre movies?
Rob Savage: I think I realised that I needed to work in film when I was 13. My dad put me in front of Apocalypse Now, which really blew my mind and made me realise that cinema was able to do more than just kill a couple of hours. From there it was Alfred Hitchcock and Dario Argento – I used to recreate sequences from their films as a teenager, before starting to make my own ketchup-blood slasher films. It always felt to me that the most interesting, challenging movies were being made in the horror space.
About the creation of Host.
Cinelipsis: We suspect the idea came from the video that went viral where you scared your friends. But did you actually plan this at all? Was the “quarantine” a decisive factor? Did you have a main influence for Host?
Rob Savage: At the start of lockdown, everyone was sarcastically talking about the possibility of a movie shot entirely on Zoom – we were all expecting it and nobody was looking forward to it. The video came out around a month into lockdown, and by this point nobody had risen to the challenge. All of my closest friends work in the film industry, and we were already hanging out over Zoom almost every day. We just felt: why not us? Our main references were REC, Ghostwatch, Lake Mungo and the final segment of V/H/S.
Cinelipsis: Regarding the script: Was Host heavily scripted? Was there anything improvised?
Rob Savage: I encouraged a lot of improvisation, and many of my favourite moments come directly from our amazing cast. We actually shot all of the stunts, scares and set pieces first, because I was keen to have the footage to play back to the cast in real time, so we would be able to capture genuine reactions. We kept details hidden from the cast so that they only knew what was going to happen to their character, and not to anyone else. Because of how technical every scene was, we shot in segments and would rehearse, improvise and shoot take-after-take until we had enough material, and would then move on the next scene – always working chronologically so that we could see the film play out scene by scene as we shot.
Cinelipsis: I think all filmmakers want their film to be seen in theaters. Do you feel this with Host? Or did you prepare it to be effective only in a home based setting?
Rob Savage: Nothing beats watching a horror movie in the cinema, sharing each moment with a crowd. That said, we knew that Host would be released while the world was still in lockdown and we built that into how we planned and designed the movie. Part of the tension we knew would come from the familiarity of the set up, and that if we could replicate the Zoom experience accurately enough we would have people feeling as though they were a participant on the call. This opportunity for greater immersion was really exciting to us, and I love hearing people have watched and enjoyed the movie on their laptops for that reason – turn the webcam on so that the green camera light illuminates if you want the most immersive experience!
About the movie itself.
Cinelipsis: The movie wastes no time. It’s a regular meeting of friends. But Haley seems like a central character for the tragedy that ensues. She’s upset from the beginning, the door opening by itself in her apartment, Haley actually did the whole séance thing before and we don’t know if anything happened. I guess what I’m trying to ask is if Haley has a backstory with this? If so, could you give us details or are you saving that for the sequel?
Rob Savage: I’ll never tell! All I will say is that there are some pretty interesting clues buried in the first three minutes of the movie!
Cinelipsis: It must have been challenging to do this remotely. Specifically, special effects seem to be practical all the time. Could you give us details on this? How did you manage to be effective without the use of digital effects?
Rob Savage: I was very keen that the special effects and stunts be as practical as possible. This movie had to feel grounded and real, or it would never work. It was particularly nerve-racking since we filmed all of our stunts and scares on the first three days of production, while we were still figuring out the intricacies of remote filming! The very first stunt we filmed, which involves someone crashing down from the ceiling and splatting on the floor, was particularly tough. Not for me – I was sitting at home in my dressing gown – but for our stunt coordinator Nathaniel who was performing the gag. He was suspended by a rope, having to hold a plank position for up to three minutes while a scene played out beneath him. Then, he would be released and would free-fall until, at the last moment, a mechanism would kick in to soften his landing. The very last take, the one that we used in the film, we dropped poor Nathaniel but the mechanism didn’t kick in. He slammed to the floor like a sack of potatoes, thankfully didn’t die, and absolutely made the shot.
Cinelipsis: The last minutes are gut wrenching. The shit hits the fan in an epic, disturbing manner. Thanks for that, and thanks for not using the clown to scare us. No questions are answered. The mystery goes on unresolved. Did you base this on something that has more “depth” and could be developed in some other variants? Or do you wish to remain silent about this?
Rob Savage: We always saw Host as being about a TULPA. A tulpa is a ghost or a demon that is summoned by groupthink. The idea is that if you’re all imagining the same person in your mind, they can manifest through combined psychic energy, even though they were never really alive and they were never really dead. Jemma, by creating Jack so vividly in her prank, makes all of the group see in their head while they’re in a connected state, which allows the demon to manifest using these images that Jemma has evoked. As the movie progresses, you start to see more and more of the demon in its real form. It becomes less Jack and more demonic. And then, in the final shot, you see part of a transformation happening where the recognizable figure of Jack starts to turn into something demonic.
Finally, a set of miniquestions:
Cinelipsis: A film that has marked you.
Rob Savage: The Innocents.
Cinelipsis: What’s your favorite movie score and your favorite movie composer.
Rob Savage: My favourite movie score is Heaven and Earth by Kitaro and my favourite composer is Morricone.
Cinelipsis: An american movie.
Rob Savage: 12 Angry Men.
Cinelipsis: A foreigh movie.
Rob Savage: Three Colours Blue.
Cinelipsis: Name the worst movie you’ve ever seen.
Rob Savage: Armageddon
Cinelipsis: Name an essential director.
Rob Savage: Sam Raimi.
Cinelipsis: Who’s the director you would like to work with?
Rob Savage: James Wan.
Cinelipsis: Name a TV show you love.
Rob Savage: The Girlfriend Experience.
Cinelipsis: Name an essential documentary film.
Rob Savage: The Thin Blue Line.