Continuing from our previous interview, Attack from Planet B talked with Michael Fausti regarding his first feature film EXIT, and the various influences that have helped shape him as a filmmaker.
Rebecca McCallum: Michael, so far you have stuck with the short film medium, with works such as The Ingress Tapes and Dead Celebrities, what made you feel that now was the time to take the leap and commit to a feature film?
Michael Fausti: Following the incredible response that Dead Celebrities received on the International Film Festival circuit, it seemed like an auspicious time to go into production with a feature. Both Mat (EXIT Scriptwriter Mathew Bayliss) and myself had been talking about writing a feature for a while and buoyed up by the positive response to the shorts, we went for it!
At the outset we placed upon ourselves a number of restrictions: Firstly, narrative events had to take place in a single location and secondly we only wanted a limited number of characters. Mat came up with the premise for EXIT; the idea of a double booking in which two couples from different social and cultural backgrounds have to spend the night together and things then really evolved from there.
Rebecca: The idea for EXIT was inspired by events relating to Brexit and the often-complex attitudes that have been revealed in light of this. Can you tell us a bit more about how the original idea formed and what it was that made you settle on this subject in particular?
Michael: The early stages of writing took place at the same time as the European Referendum, so inevitably this was always going to have an influence. Our original premise for a story set in a single, insular location, seemed the perfect starting point for a Brexit inspired horror film. Although, I’d like to say that I don’t want to be too specific over the meanings and potential interpretations of EXIT.
Whilst Brexit has thrown up divisions and tensions, I always wanted to avoid simplistic binary oppositions in terms of characterisation within EXIT. All of my films to a greater or lesser extent, deal with people who are trapped or experiencing some form of moral paralysis and EXIT is no different. Each of the characters in EXIT are trapped, whether it be by their own attitudes, lusts or aspects of their own personalities.
In regards to the setting of EXIT (review), whilst the house may influence the characters and their behaviour, it’s more an accelerant for the problems and hang ups that the characters already have. And, without giving too much away, some characters are happy to remain trapped in their pasts or continually repeat their sins within the intermundium space of the house. All of which I think is an apt metaphor for Brexit, given how the EU Referendum brought to the surface issues around perceptions of our national past and a recycling of long held beliefs about British identity and culture.
Rebecca: Working on a feature film as opposed to shorts must come with a new set of (no doubt at times, unpredictable!) challenges, can you speak a little about any particular difficulties you encountered during the shoot?
Michael: With our previous films we’d filmed in short blocks or separate segments. Organising an eight day shoot was always going to bring challenges, everything gets bigger and logistical issues around transport, catering and accommodation take time to sort out. Fortunately, we had a really good Line Producer/Location Manager in Lou Nosbod. In total EXIT was shot in eight, albeit, long days!
Principle filming took place in late May in an apartment in London, when the weather was unseasonably hot. At times there were seventeen of us cramped together in what was a pretty airless space. I’m hoping that some of that claustrophobia translated to the screen.
I always wanted the exterior shots of the house to have a wintery aspect to them, to give a sense of a dormant environment outside the house. This meant delaying our final day’s filming for several months. So we then went from heat and humidity to filming in cold and damp! Whilst at the same time ensuring no continuity problems!
Our whole cast and crew were amazing. They never complained. All were consummate professionals, despite having to work in both extreme heat and cold. For that reason, we didn’t really experience any difficulties. We had challenges, such as having to re-jig scenes to make them fit the locations, but with everyone’s creative input we got there as a team!
Rebecca: The film relies on a strong ensemble cast, particularly the four leads who play the two couples. How did you go about casting for these roles and were they developed in the writing process or did you work with the actors to fully realise their characters?
Michael: Working on a limited budget meant that from the outset we knew we would have a tough shooting schedule. We therefore were looking for actors who would make the characters their own but also be able to handle long days and the demands of the script. I don’t believe in just casting for the role. I always look to cast actors who will function as part of an onset collective, where ideas can be freely shared. I encourage ownership of characters with actors. The script should only ever be seen as a starting point in the film process and not something that should be slavishly followed to the point in which creativity is stifled. I always avoid over-directing. It’s about having the confidence to trust your actors.
We cast the actors who play Michelle (Leonarda Sahani) Steve (Billy James Machin) and Adrienne (Charlotte Gould) via an audition process. We were anxious to get actors who would be believable as a couple and I feel we achieved this. We approached Chris (Christophe Delesques) ourselves after seeing his show reel… and I’m glad that we did. He really brought something special to the character of Christophe… the same name is purely a coincidence… but it’s almost like he was born to play the role!
Our female protagonist Leonarda (Leonarda Sahani who plays Michelle) deserves a special mention for the levels of emotional intensity that she brought to her performance. All the more impressive given that Leonarda has no formal training and hadn’t acted before. We were so impressed after her audition that we had to take the chance. To give a first time actor such a major part was a gamble, but boy, did it pay off!
The other actors also really played a role in making EXIT so special. We were lucky to have Tony Denham come on board in the role of sinister estate agent Russell Bone. He has such an amazing presence and having seen him in films like The Football Factory (UK, 2004) and In the Name of the Father (UK, 1994) I knew that he’d bring an authentic level of true London grit to the role.
When we were casting for the role of Moe, I ran into an old mate of mine, Rob, (actor Robert Alexander) quite by chance. Again, Rob really nailed the creepy, unsettling, WTF, otherworldly nature of the Moe character that I was looking for.
We had one full rehearsal with the four main actors prior to filming and before scenes we would always have a walk through. All of our actors worked really hard on their characters. Whilst during initial casting we gave some brief character descriptions to our actors, many in preparing for their role, wrote their own detailed biographies to get to the heart of their characters and even collected visual stimuli to prepare. One of our actors even imagined the character in terms of a particular animal! We were so lucky that the actors all supported each other and really worked together to develop the final characters we see on the screen. It may be a cliché but we really did become like a big family.
Rebecca: The experience when watching EXIT, feels very visual and hypnotic, what were your influences and intentions in terms of the aesthetic you wanted to achieve?
Michael: I always intended EXIT to have the feeling of a recurrent dream or reverie. Throughout the film there are numerous pointers which suggest that this has all happened before. I know that I did say that I wouldn’t guide interpretations! As the narrative events of EXIT become more amped up and oneiric, I really wanted to push the visual aesthetic to give a sense that the characters are somnambulists in a collective nightmare. I deliberately went with some disconcerting and bold editing choices in EXIT. These choices however, weren’t from any sense of stylistic indulgence but more to allow greater scope for differing audience interpretations.
As far as influences go, I’ve always loved the work of Director Michael Powell and when thinking about the colour palette and lighting for EXIT, I looked again at Black Narcissus (UK, 1947) and Jack Cardiff’s outstanding cinematography in that film. Many of Powell’s films have always seemed dreamlike to me. The isolated setting of EXIT, brings to the surface in the characters, repressed emotions, flashbacks to their earlier lives, as well as madness. Exactly what I hoped to evoke in EXIT.
Another big influence on me as a filmmaker and upon the style of EXIT is Luis Buñuel, in particular, Belle De Jour (Fr, 1967). What I really love about that film is how it makes no attempt to differentiate memory and fantasy from reality, leaving the audience to finally question what is real. The characters are never fully explained and meaning always remains elusive. It’s a film that’s different every time you watch it.
Rebecca: EXIT has at times, the feel of an erotic thriller, a social horror film and a dark comedy, by taking the film to so many different places, were you ever concerned about finding the right balance between all these genres?
Hybridity is something which I feel brings vibrancy to films. Whilst there is always the possibility that some may not “get” what you are trying to do, filmmaking should be about taking risks. Genre can at times act as something of a cage to creativity. Besides, I think that today’s cine literate audiences don’t seem to get hung up on the confines of genre. I think it’s about having confidence in your filmmaking style and the audience… and I’m hoping this is something that’s paid off!
Rebecca: The use of sound in the film is key to creating the right temperature for the audience at any given moment, how did you approach scoring EXIT and did you have any specific influences that you referred back to?
Michael: With such a bold visual aesthetic and colour palette, EXIT was always going to need a very distinctive score.
Nick (Musician & Composer Nick Burns) and I worked very closely together when scoring the film. Nick not only wrote all of the music in EXIT but also totally oversaw the sound design and mixing of the whole film. Nick got straightaway where I was coming from. I’d say things like, “can you make it sound a bit more like a 1940s radio in an abandoned factory” and he would!
We had many lengthy discussions over the music for EXIT. I wanted to evoke a sense of a disturbing past within the house, a brooding menace which is there but only at the periphery. At the same time I didn’t want to go with anything too emotive, yet I still wanted to make an impact and draw the audience in. So a John Williams orchestral score wasn’t really going to work here!
Dark Ambient and early 1990s Industrial were, I guess, the key reference points. Nick created a multitude of drones and soundscapes. These occur throughout the movie and have great resonance in terms of both characters and narrative. Although my favourite piece Nick wrote is that which plays during the erm… “party scene” with the two couples.
Nick really went above and beyond in his support of the project.
Rebecca: EXIT explores themes of class, social mobility but crucially, it never feels as though we are being instructed to think in one way or another. With this in mind, did you intend to create a film that is deliberately ambiguous or is there an overall message you were seeking to convey?
Michael: As a British filmmaker I guess social class always lurks at the margins of everything I make, it seems almost inescapable. However, with EXIT I didn’t ever want to make an “issues” based film. I’ve always preferred films that we’re more elliptical and didn’t preach at their audiences or tell them what to think. Whilst I don’t believe in being deliberately obtuse, many deep rooted social issues cannot be easily solved and when films attempt to apportion blame or suggest trite solutions, they risk patronising and alienating their audience. Those films that do focus upon an issue, often fail to humanise their characters, presenting them simply as a problem to be solved.
As I said earlier, I always wanted with EXIT to avoid a simplistic “heroes” and “villains” dynamic with the two couples. Like BREXIT, the events portrayed in EXIT are influenced by many factors…
Returning to the question of the ambiguity of EXIT, I get asked a lot about ‘The Man on the Phone’ character, in regards to who he represents or whether I share his views. Even amongst the production team, we have different interpretations of this character. Chatting with people after screenings of EXIT I’ve heard some really interesting and divergent perspectives. Including one very interesting Freudian perspective… Rather than leaving the audience with a simple message or slogan or shock image, I’d always rather leave them with questions. I think I achieved this with EXIT!
Rebecca: Your work always feels very deeply steeped in both cinematic and cultural references, can you share some of the stimuli that you used to bring about EXIT?
Michael: Sure. In addition to Michael Powell and Luis Buñuel’s work that I’ve previously mentioned, I often will revisit some of the work of cinematographers I admire such as Otto Heller or Jack Cardiff, before I begin planning the visuals. Heller’s work on The Ipcress File (UK, 1965) and Peeping Tom (UK, 1960) is incredible.
Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (US, 1943) is another film I greatly admire and watch on a regular basis. The dreamlike atmosphere that she creates in that film stays with you and draws you in, to the point that you never question the dream logic that comes into play.
I’m also a fan of Lars Von Trier and love how he is always willing to experiment in his work. He was a real inspiration with this film and I was thrilled when someone mentioned that they saw his influence in EXIT at the premiere!
Rebecca: With your first feature film all boxed off, you must be feeling thrilled (and relieved!), what’s next for you now?
Michael: Yeah, I’m really happy with what we’ve achieved with EXIT and feedback from festival screenings has been extremely positive. We’re now in discussions around distribution for EXIT, so watch this space. In terms of what’s next, well I’d like to make something a little more… punk… but no spoilers yet…