Thursday, 20 June 2013

Paul Hyett - Directing The Seasoning House - A Feature Profile


Paul Hyett (l) on set with Kevin Howarth

As The Seasoning House opens in cinemas this week, I caught up with director Paul Hyett, to find out a little bit more about this brilliantly troubling tale of independent British horror and also to learn out about the man behind the movie.

The Seasoning House tells the grim story of a typical brothel in war ravaged Bosnia through the eyes of Angel, an almost childlike waif of a deaf mute, who inhabits the ventilation cavities of the building as she attempts to tends to the needs of the working girls who are her friends. Whilst using Angel as a vehicle for telling this story may be novel, the historical research behind the story proves that such establishments exist today, wherever there is a warzone and Hyett bravely tackles a story with that has a massive social message and conscience, as well as a gripping and horrific plotline.

Whilst the production budget may well have been typically modest (though Hyett resolutely refuses to be drawn on the cost of making the picture), what is clear throughout is the commitment that he and his crew have endeavoured to ensure the highest possible production values. It’s a debut movie that packs a punch and unfalteringly suggests the assured vision of a director who knows exactly what his mission is and what he wants to achieve.

Rosie Day

At 39, Hyett has worked a long apprenticeship before this, his first feature. A novice director sure, but he is nonetheless a noted and respected practitioner within the UK movie industry, his skills to date having been deployed in special make up effects with an emphasis on horror and violence. In an industry famed for fickle and tough markets, this century has seen Paul's work consistently in demand with his contribution to those (terrifying) crawlers in Neil Marshall's The Descent firmly establishing his reputation. Other notable movies that have benefitted from his hint of the grotesque and gruesome are Liam Neeson's Unknown, and notable Brit flicks Harry Brown with Michael Caine and The Woman In Black starring Daniel Radcliffe. It is clear that Hyett evidently knows how to scare people through the medium of  a shocking or violent effect, yet speaking to him about the development of The Seasoning House, it is clear that he also has an admirable understanding of story construction . He states that what was most important about this movie were story, character and tone, recognising that to win the attention of a modern and discerning audience a narrative tale has to be credible and gripping, with visual shock effects coming last on the list of his creative priorities.

With so much movie experience under his belt, Hyett has had the benefit of seeing some of the best, along with some of the not so good of today's film makers. He is far too professional to name names, but he does not hesitate in acknowledging that along with some inspirational directors, he has also worked alongside some whose talents were less than obvious and where he simply did what was asked of him, as best he could, whilst quietly acknowledging to himself that he could be doing the director’s job far better than the helmsman in question. Hyett has boldly stepped up to this plate however and he has not been found wanting. It is the director's responsibility to tease the very best performances out of his cast, and Hyett has done just that with the quality of the acting that graces The Seasoning House being a tribute not only to the performers themselves but also to his artistic vision and his creative people management skills.

The world of The Seasoning House is lawless and gruesome. Human life could not be cheaper and given the true real-life backdrop to this ghastly tale of bleak hopelessness, Hyett has to tread a careful tale. This is not horrific fiction as in The Descent, a movie that is essentially just a very scary story, albeit one that is brilliantly told and one that whilst it terrifies us, we know deep down to be just make-believe. Hyett’s saga is drawn from a grim contemporary reality and he has been required to plot a path that needs to be convincing and at times horrific, but one that must also respect its sources and be neither sensationlist nor exploitative of the tragic events that underlie his story’s foundation. Hyett’s research into the collapse of society in a war zone has been thorough if not exhaustive. He speaks with deep sadness of the common experience of the Balkan regions and of African states, to name but two conflict zones, where in recent wars men have been slaughtered and women raped before then often being sold to pimps as nothing more than commodities. This is sexual exploitation at its most raw and in our civilised Western society that strives to respect concepts of diversity, equality and tolerance, the basic barbaric brutality of these worlds shocks even more. To portray such an environment is a tough challenge for even an experienced moviemaker, so for a novice to pull off the credible, shocking, yet still profoundly respectful success that he has done, is nothing short of remarkable. Hyett and his co-writers have though laid some clear ground rules to their story: Not one man in the movie is a sympathetic character; and whilst the on screen violence is at times harrowing, for a movie set in a brothel there are barely any scenes of female nudity. This heartening and implied subtext, is that in this world it is simply ordinary men who are the the monsters, whilst the women and girls are all victims deserving of our sympathy. The simplicity of the tale is almost biblical and sadly the crimes and exploitations depicted within the story, are equally as old in both principle and example.

Kevin Howarth

The movie stars both new and familiar faces. Angel, the waif-like protagonist is played by newcomer Rosie Day. Hyett speaks of Day being a pleasure to direct and one who, when on set and off camera would be a cheerful member of the company, yet who when “action” was called, could almost instantly drain the colour from her face and the sparkle of life from her eyes, to give the most convincing performance of a young woman forced to survive in hellish surroundings. The fact that Day has not been (until this movie at least) a recognisable star, adds to the convincing nature of her casting, with a hint of the story almost being a drama-documentary at times, such is the commitment of her performance.

Other notables are Anna Walton who plays victim Violeta, a familiar face from amongst other outings, Hellboy 2. Kevin Howarth is Viktor, the owner of the brothel. Again a genre-familiar face and Howarth turns in a performance that is disturbingly credible as a man who in a split second, can turn from being a “supposed” friend of the rounded-up girls to a ruthless murderer, slaughtering one of them in front of the group, to terrify them into  obedience. The most famous name in the credits is Sean Pertwee, star of Dog Soldiers and Wild Bill. His character Goran, a corrupt militia leader, is cleverly written and wonderfully performed. Whilst all the men in the movie are evil, none of them are caricatures and their wickedness by turn is depicted via subtle acting and outstanding direction.

Hyett has mastered his locations well and where one expects to see an end credit suggesting that the movie was filmed in some low-cost eastern european nation, it is a genuine and pleasing surprise to discover that the film was actually shot in and around London. An old RAF base in Uxbridge together with local woods, being masterfully converted to an anonymous Balkan “somewhere” and with appropriately modest use of CGI combined with clever design and photography, the director’s illusion is complete.

Rosie Day

And of course with Hyett being one of the UK’s effects-meisters, expectations run high for the movie’s special make up offerings. Those expectations are exceeded. Hyett speaks of one murder that took nearly two weeks to complete, involving a  day of photography on both actress and her prosthetic dummy, followed by days of subtle CG, to complete the gruesome detail of her despatch. Genre fans who want a gore-fest as well as a harrowingly told tale, will not be disappointed.

The Seasoning House is a refreshingly intelligent story albeit tragically grounded in reality. Helen Solomon who initially researched the movie pays tribute to Hyett when she says that “a lot of the films key scenes are sadly more documented fact than fiction.” Hyett himself hopes that the “film may in some way bring attention to the terrible experiences that some women continue to suffer during times of war”. He has done his cause proud with a film that shocks, entertains and above all, educates. The most terrifying aspect of this picture is that the horror it depicts is all too real for too many women.

My 4* review of The Seasoning House can be found here
The Seasoning House opens in selected cinemas on June 21st.

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