• Martyn Wakefield

Ruth Paxton (INTERVIEW)

Ruth Paxton's debut feature A BANQUET has been a feast of awards and nominations for the Scottish born director. Balancing horror and real life alongside unique cinematography has sky rocketed the director into everyone's eyeline in 2022 and rightly so. With the home release of A BANQUET in sight, we talk with Ruth about the making of the film, how it strangely makes a great double bill with THE BLACK PHONE and what's next.



So we're here to talk about your film A BANQUET and firstly before I do, I just wanted to say what a great work of film. I'll talk about some of the expectations compared to reality that some people may or may not get in just a little bit but let's talk about the film. Do you want to just give us a brief overview of what the film is and where it came from?


Ruth:

It's a psychological horror with emphasis on the psychological, I would say. And it's on the surface about a family dealing with profound grief and the eldest daughter has what she thinks is a spiritual experience and that manifests in such a way that she stops eating or she at least feels she can't consume food. So I suppose I've described it in the past as what these characters do with their grief. It's a film about that. And so there're loads of themes that are, I suppose themes that could relate to us on a familiar level, that we can relate to as an audience. The mother-daughter relationship's at the core and the apparent eating disorder, you could say, of the elder teenage girl. But on a deeper level it's more about what it means to believe in something you can't see, I suppose. Sorry, that wasn't a really very tight synopsis.


That is probably the best synopsis for the film. Just that last phrase there, that to believe something you don't see, I think it's such an apt conversation that is so universal. And I think the marketing team for A BANQUET have missed a trick here because I think the deeper themes within the film are exactly what should be the film's selling point. Although...


I would agree. Obviously I say that between us because I'm very grateful to the sales agents and to the different distributors of course. And I haven't had this experience before. I've not put a movie out before. And I guess the other thing that's new to me is being immediately pin holed as a horror director. As somebody that's that's an aficionado somehow at horror because of that's what my feature film is. And I think all the work I've made in the past has been categorized as potentially horror, because it's really dark, it's really fearless, it explores really uncomfortable subject matter and it's often quite hard to watch. But I wouldn't necessarily say I set out to make horror films. With this I knew that it needed to have a label and psychological horror was that label.


And most of the main references for me were other psychological horrors. But I remember when I first caught a trailer for the American film market, which is a really specific marketplace. And I watched it and it was, well it's great, but it isn't my film. It was like it promises so much more in the way of jump scares and body horror and general fear factor that it's, I think maybe what you were getting to before, I think it's going to leave a lot of people dissatisfied, which it has. I've not read masses about the film, but I know that it's a bit Marmite-y for people. But most of the things I do are Marmite, so that's fine.


Love the connection back into food.


Yeah, that's true.


But the film is very, as you say, psychological, a lot of it is the pacing. And I think you've executed that really well as the film gets on, we go back to the point, and it is, as you mentioned, a psychological horror. There's tension all the way throughout and I think you've mastered that quite well. I think perhaps the gore elements or the shock factors might not be as hard hitting but you've still got scenes in there that have got those uneasy, unsettling things. How was it filming, specifically, the I'll call it the banquet scene. A Cronenberg-esque visual that you've got with that. What was it like to do that in contrast to a lot of the standard narration of the film that brings it up to point?


Well, I mean I should say from the offset, that was the scene that made me want to make the film. When I read that scene, I was completely, well, hooked. But I also knew how I could do it. I knew that I could make the most uncomfortable dinner scene you've ever seen, I guess. And so Dave and I, my cinematographer, there's two major dinner scenes and when it came to the scheduling for those, we insisted on having more time for them so that we could basically shoot the shit out of it. I know that's a really a crude way of putting it, but that's what we did. We shot from all different possible angles and then we used this running get in about it and to react to the characters. So we did both of those scenes at night and we did them all through the night.


And so it was a real luxury and we just knew that they were the, I don't know what you would call them, but really this is where you wanted to distribute the weight, on these two scenes. Because they're the scenes that were the best to direct in terms of the drama as well. And we went at it with what was scripted, but it was also quite improvisational as well. And that's how I like to work. So they're my favourite scenes to watch.



I think specifically those scenes between Sienna and Jessica, they're just mesmerizing into watch. And I think we touched on the fact that is a horror film, but there was so much heart in this and yet you've got a family relationship that's miles apart from each other. And I love how that somehow you don't realize it's happening, but you watch the film throughout and there's a huge abstract, I don't know if this was intentional, feel free to take it if it is. But there's a lot of space between everybody physically on screen I noticed. And ultimately you've got this family who are so disconnected, but then by the end of it you're heartfelt that you've just got this mould and it's a tragic conclusion. But ultimately there's this transition where it's gone from everybody's miles apart to suddenly everyone's so close together. And I love that about the film. I think that journey, you don't realize you're on it and then suddenly it's like that.


That's really nice to hear. Because that's something that Dave, again, cinematographer and I did a lot of thinking about in preparing for the film, was what the visual storytelling arc would be. And a lot of it had to do with being in a space that offered so much light at the beginning because of the very, very cinematic panoramic window in their front room. And to get it to a point where we were just in a cave by the end or back in the womb at the end. I mean there's so many different... You could relate it to lots of different symbolism, but that's very, very true is that we wanted it to get claustrophobic and tighter as the film went on. So it's really nice to hear that actually.


Cool. I definitely picked up on it, but I think the film certainly has got a market out there and I certainly hope we can help expand that. And I think what I love about horror, what brought me into to doing horrors in terms of building a website et cetera, is just that the sheer vastness, you talk about cinema, but horror genre goes from Halloween and slashers and really nasty, gritty horror. Then you go on the other hand of the spectrum where it's everything to think about mentally. And there's so much relation to real world that you flip it over. Yesterday I saw the new it's Scott Derrickson film, THE BLACK PHONE, and it's a completely different film and yet you put these two on and it's a fantastic double bill. It's terrifying.


I saw a trailer for it a long time ago and I've been waiting for it. I'm really excited about it.


But I mean you could put those two films on the same shelf and they're completely miles apart. so I think certainly I think expectations need to be tethered, but certainly there is so much reward, I commend you for making the film of that and not going outside the boundaries of what expectations are. I certainly think there's a lot to love about A BANQUET.


Oh, well thanks. I think for me, at the heart of everything I do, however stylized it is, it's always drama. It's always about the truth of the relationships at the core. And that's why I wanted to do it. To me it was absolutely this tragedy about a family and we gave it this skew. And certainly in translating the original script, because I worked with the writer Justin Bull after he had developed A BANQUET set in America, so it was set in suburban America, originally. And it became something that we translated to the UK and that I had, I suppose, a heavier hand in writing. And certainly I wanted to pull back from the more supernatural elements at play and really root it all in psychology because I think for me that's what's frightening, that's scary. So stuff that maybe had been there before that might have been hitting more commercial beats for me it was, no, I can see how you do a jump scare.


I can see how you repulse people, I know how to do that. But to me it's not scary. I wanted to, I suppose, tune into the idea of being disbelieved. And I've talked about that before as being something I remember as a kid being what I was the most frightened of, was not being believed by my parents. I don't know, that really frightened me. And so that was how, I suppose, I channelled that into this particularly because I'm not a religious person. So the idea of having a faith in something beyond what you can touch or smell or taste is not something I know, I can't pretend to.


It's not like I'm a total hardcore atheist or anything. I just don't believe in anything. So for me it was much more about relating it to thoughts that I'm a person with a mood disorder and I've had experiences of poor mental health over the years and I'm medicated for that now. But that's for me always territory that I'm going to poke about in because I'm just like, I think that's how you get better is to examine it. So having things in your head, I guess, that nobody else knows is true is how I suppose I thought of Betsy and how I understood Holly's reaction to that.



And that comes across so well. And I think you the mentioned there about some of the script changes from perhaps some of those commercial notes. Really that's what drives it is because you can't pick a side, your rational side is with Holly. Whereas the reality is if you're sat there in Betsy's shoes. I was thinking perhaps, you know what, I've got no reason to think otherwise that it's, well actually is this event real? And it's that bouncing between the characters. One minute you're in Holly's shoes, one minute Betsy's shoes. And I think that's what drives the film so well.


Oh, that's cool to hear. I think that I was maybe slightly anxious going into about the answer to the question, whose story is it? Because I remember learning, I suppose when I was a younger filmmaker, that even if it's two-hander, someone typically has the edge. So if you think of THELMA AND LOUISE, it's still slightly more Louise's story. It's true. You can always just edge out who's slightly more leading this. And I think I was so trained to answer that question. I mean anybody that's in script development knows, "whose story is it, whose story?". That's one of the first things that comes out.


And so I think with the script it was always Holly, that's where it was pitched as was that it was Holly's story and it was her experience of Betsy. But I suppose in the end product it does have more of a balance. And we realized, without noticing it, how Betsy in a sense drops out the story where she drives it at the beginning, and it wasn't intentional. And the cut reflects the script pretty closely. We lost I think moments from scenes, but we didn't really lose any full scenes, but we did reorder some scenes and I think that's why what's had the impact of it feeling like there's a swap some somewhere.


And obviously Isabelle is really stoked, comes in to play as well as obviously Betsy's sister. I mean again, there's even moments where you flip into her storyline so well that it's as a middle, somebody who really wants to help her sister, but on the other hand is being drawn into her mother's view. So it's a middle ground. So even though she's probably got lesser air time, it's probably more her side of things. So I think that's a really ambiguous film and I really love there are notes to suggest things are going in one direction or the other near the end, but ultimately it is what put into it is what you get out of it. And those are usually the long lasting horrors.


That's a really nice way to think about it actually. And I agree. Well I would like to agree. I know it's my work. But I think the other thing as well is that being the first time feature filmmaker and witnessing the same experience of friends of mine who've made their first features. And actually a lot of my friends and colleagues are women who have made horror films over the last few years. It's just interesting to see, I think one of the things I realized was that if I'd made, especially in the UK, if I'd made a more authored first feature, and I do typically write my own work, so this is a sort of slight departure for me, but if I had made a more authored, maybe more straight drama, then I think the film would be criticized in a different way because it would probably be given the leniency of a first feature filmmaker's movie.


Whereas I feel like what the marketing of this film has done and the fact that it's I suppose a genre movie, is that a lot of the criticism, or a lot of the reviews aren't really thinking about the fact that it's a first feature. They're just going straight to, "it's a new horror film, where is its merits and where is its weaknesses" thing. And there's always going to be weaknesses. Even my friends films that who I'm biased about liking, I can see where they're strong and I can see where they're maybe lacking. And a lot of the time that's to do with budgetary constraints and time constraints.


And a lot of that's for me is about A BANQUET. I can see where we were really, because of money, pushed for time and scenes aren't as strong and that kind of thing. So I think in some ways it's been really interesting to have the experience of a film being put out alongside other horrors by directors who've made a number of films and it being critiqued on the same level. And then in another way it's a part of you, it's my first feature, be gentle. you're still trying ideas out and still learning.


Absolutely. And to be honest, you've set a very high bar for first filmmakers. I mean, generally speaking A BANQUET is a really well executed film and I think any budget shoot constraints are well hidden in a very well directed, tightly knit film. And I appreciate you would've inevitably had the challenges around budgeting, but they're very well hidden and thorough, we certainly see a lot of films that think, let's go all out and chuck all the CGI in the film. And then you're at the other end, going, maybe I should have turned it down a little bit. But we hear you, you know your constraints, and that's probably the first hurdle with filmmaking is knowing the constraints and working around it, which I think you've executed really well.


It just comes from years of having no money to make films, that's the thing. I think every film I've made, it has been low budget and this to me was, I understood where you would put the money if you had more of it. And it's really the most beneficial place to do that is with your time. It really is. This was shot in 20 days. It was a four week shoot and you didn't have time to test things out, to play. And I think that the advantage for us was that the bulk of the shoot was in this house. So we got into a rhythm there and understood what worked and how to move quickly as we got on. When we came out the other end and did location stuff, that was where we faltered a lot because apart from anything else were shooting during COVID.


So it was a weird landscape at the time. And we were shooting not only just coming out the first lockdown with COVID restrictions, but were shooting in loads of medical environments. So it was really, really hard to finalize locations that were finalized literally days before. So these were much more ad hoc shooting experiences, which is not desirable really. But I think what Dave, the cinematographer and I would always want would be more time to explore, more time to test things out and to just let the actors do what they want to do and not be on the clock in the same way.



So in terms of your next venture, are you in a rush to get anything else out soon or are you mulling over anything?


Well, I've got a few things I suppose on the go. I'm writing something that you never know... I have no idea. I don't know who gets to decide that really. But I have a number of projects I suppose in development you would say. And I'm attached to direct a couple of things that I haven't written. Everything is dark, but I wouldn't say there's anything that's outright horror if I'm completely honest. But to me they would probably fall into the psychological horror terrain. There's everything I do will have blood and vomit in it somewhere. So I don't have anything, I'm not in a position where I know that I'm going to shoot something right now, but I'm writing and working with writers and it's really nice actually. It's really nice position to be in.


That's great. I suppose in a post COVID world, things slowly getting back to some normal-ness that's great to get back in the company of it all.


Definitely, my greatest anxiety about making A BANQUET in COVID conditions, and the other thing was there wasn't an established protocol at that point. We literally were one of the first films to go out. We had no insurance. It was very risky. And it was only because of the sort balls of the producers I was working with and the confidence that we were able to see it through. But it's a small things.


It seems a small thing, but I was really, really itchy about directing with a mask on. I don't know, I just felt so cut off. And I think you do so much really subtly with your face that you communicate with an actor. You can often, when you call cut, you can really tell them what you think by looking at them. And I mean the fact of it as well, obviously the fact of the actors, wanting to take it off, put it on and losing their masks and all that was nightmare-ish and time consuming. But that was for me, almost the worst part of the whole thing really. Was having to wear a mask throughout it. So I look forward to hopefully never having to put one back on.


A BANQUET is out on Limited Edition Blu-Ray 31st October courtesy of Second Sight Films.



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