Four Ghost House Underground titles hit store shelves today including writer/director Tom Shankland’s The Children. While The Children has been making the festival rounds for a while (and has hit DVD in other countries) this is the first chance that US audiences will have to experience Shankland’s unassumingly creepy film in the discomfort of their own home. It’s a nasty little tale about a snowbound family with a group of kids that go very, very bad. The Children is definitely recommended viewing and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to sit with Tom and discuss his love of all things horror and what it’s like to tackle one of the most taboo cinematic subjects around. Hit the jump for our full chat.
FEARnet: How do you go about pitching a story like this?
Tom Shankland: (Laughs) When we were trying to get money from rather legitimate financiers in the UK I kind of pitched it as a film that's an "elevated film exploring parent child relationships." I get through the fact that there may be a little violence here and there quickly, but really it's your average English family Christmas. But if I’m pitching it to the fans, it's a virus and kids turning on their parents. It's total carnage, the beginning of the apocalypse.
Would you say that this film represents your vision of the beginning of the apocalypse then?
I've always liked the mystery of it. I've always been a massive fan of movies like The Birds, movies where you don't know what the hell is going on and it just unfolds in this sort of inexplicably brutal, scarily strange way. But that was always the debate you'd have with the financiers who would always want an explanation. And I would always tell them, “Yeah, yeah I'll shoot an explanation.” But I totally cut it out or I'd shoot it so badly we could never have used it (Laughs).
As a viewer going in, if you didn't know any better, you might just think it's a film about parents dealing with bratty kids. That is until you realize something is going horribly wrong.
Yeah and I've always loved that, I'm a fan of horror that grows out of something desperately familiar. I'm a big Hitchcock fan. I just think he's the master at taking these very ordinary people and then suddenly something vile springs out of them. You trap the audience in the reality of the film. And when you start bringing on the horror, my theory is that they're going to be much more susceptible to it.
Is that part of the reason why you chose to make the transformation due to a virus or infection rather than treating the kids as traditional zombies?
Yeah totally, because I always felt the kids would be scarier. I'm a fan of The Innocents, you never really know if the kids are possessed or if they're normal and it's all in the head of the governess. I think the minute you make the kids monsters, if you kill them and they come back to life and it's the rules of a zombie movie, I think it's much easier for the audience to have the bloodlust, rooting for the parents to kill the kids, and I felt emotionally that didn't feel quite as truthful. In the real world that’s pretty much the most taboo thing that could happen.
Psychologically what interested me was the mental gymnastics these parents would go through to avoid thinking that their only way to survive would be to kill their kids. That was very much the reason behind keeping the kids as real for as long as possible while being a little vague about the cause. I felt that if the parents switched on the television and a scientist was telling them there's been an explosion at a nuclear power plant and kids are turning on everybody that would be too easy. Let them have to work this out and suffer the consequences of their interpretations.
Was the kid that played Paulie a 40 year old man playing a child? He's too creepy.
(Laughs) He's the smartest kid. William Howes, he so loved his character, he really wanted to take his costume home (laughs) so he's been running around Brighton in character as Paulie. (Laughs)
Kids love to play bad when they know it's safe to do so...
Totally and I think it's empowering for them. We were inspected by the authorities like 3 times during filming, which never happens. The kids had the best time and we totally looked after them. But I couldn't agree more. That was my memory of playing games as a kid. It was always kill the invisible monster next to you. I once had a neighbor who threw a garden fork at me to kill the invisible monster in front of me.
That's how I sold it to the kids. It was the most fun version of a kid’s game like that. I don't buy into that argument that if kids watch that stuff they go and repeat it. There's something inherently violent about kids stories, kids games.
Tell me about it, I grew up watching PG rated horror films from Disney.
Have any of the kids in the movie seen it yet?
I'm sure that Eva Sayer (Miranda) has seen it. I tried to make sure that none of the kids read the script, but being the older of the young kids she sneakily read it and told all the other kids everything that happened. I was worried they would be ruined for life but they loved it, they were like “Wicked I die by getting my throat skewered' they loved it so I suspect Eva may have seen it. If I hear of loads of shootings at schools around England and it's the kids I cast I'll have to take responsibility, commit film director harry carey.
Nah, they'll probably just grow up to be horror fans.
(Laughs) You know what, I think so too.
At any point did you feel like you might be going too far?
The only one scene that I found quite difficult to shoot because we kept laughing and I thought this is so fatal. It's the scene where in the tent the girl is practicing the pregnancy game on her father in a grim way and I just thought that site of the doll coming out of Jeremy Sheffield’s stomach, and I thought ‘have I gone totally insane?’ But I got control of myself and we shot the hell out of it. I wanted the violence to come out of kid’s games, like a little girl loves a doll wondering where babies come from and that's how she’s going to express her violence. But this is just one of many examples in which I had to be careful that it wasn't unintentionally funny. But that's the fine line isn't it? Between something being very disturbing and twisted, because you’re turning the rules of civilization on its head. That's dangerous, that line between grotesque hilarity and deeply disturbing horror.
Why was snow setting so important to you?
Partly the isolation thing. Also for me it was a great metaphor for the innocence of children. Kids have got this cloak of innocence that society sort of romantically imposes on them. Because we need to believe that kids are cute, they're full of goodness. Underneath the snow is the violence in nature that’s been hidden by the snow. Also the visual texture of the film, the way the blood would interact with the snow. It was a visual treat the way blood and snow would work together.
What's your biggest fear?
Body horror fears. Tripping over and having something skewer my eye. Also being poisoned.