How we made Welsh horror The Feast: “I was trying to craft something specifically not English”

Director Lee Haven Jones discusses the challenges of making his culturally specific Welsh-language horror The Feast.

The Feast (2021)

With his Welsh-language feature debut The Feast, filmmaker Lee Haven Jones has delivered an atmospheric thriller in which enigmatic local woman Cadi (played by Annes Elwy) makes a seismic impact on a wealthy family intent on exploiting the surrounding countryside for their own personal gain. Here, Haven Jones explains how he hopes to help put Welsh filmmaking on the international map.

Where did the inspiration for this project come from?

I’ve worked with screenwriter Roger Williams quite a bit on a number of television projects, and we’re both passionate about horror. We were also passionate about creating a piece of horror cinema in the Welsh language, with the ambition of having it travel the world. We decided to delve into the long history of Welsh literature, which is inherently horrific in many ways, and use that as a springboard to tell a story about contemporary Wales, weaving in the global theme of climate crisis.

How closely did you work with Roger on the screenplay?

My process with Roger is that we come together, we talk about broad concepts, and then he’ll go away and commit pen to paper. I will throw different kinds of stimuli at him: a Spotify playlist, a series of photographs, a few films to watch or images from dreams I’ve had. The script was always a route rather than a fixed blueprint; it was a moving, evolving, organic thing.

The Feast (2022)

It’s such a visually atmospheric film. Did you always have images of how it would look in your head as you were working on the story?

Absolutely. It makes me sound very Machiavellian, but it was all sort of pragmatic in a way. In Wales, we don’t have a thriving film industry, much to my annoyance. We are very good at making long-form television drama. But one of my frustrations is that every time we make a television drama that is half-decent in Welsh, we then have to remake it in English because the market dictates that there is no appetite for Welsh-language content.

It struck me that perhaps we need to do that because, culturally, tonally and stylistically, a lot of our content feels English. So I thought about ways around that. Rather than looking to examples of British horror films, I was thinking more about trying to create something that was very different. I looked at Korean, Japanese, Scandi horrors for inspiration. I was trying to craft something that was a bit of an international hotchpotch of styles but definitely not specifically English in tone or feel. It was very much a consideration that the film should be aesthetically very different.

The performances are so important, particularly the central role of Cadi. How did you find Annes Elwy?

I’ve known about her work for quite some time. She’s a formidable actor; has some great credits to her name. My only concern was that her character doesn’t say very much at all, so how do you attract her to the story? But I accosted her and her agent at a BAFTA Cymru ceremony and told them I had a great horror film, at which point their faces dropped. But they agreed to read the script, and then they were fully on board. Annes gives a remarkable performance; it manages to command the audience’s sympathy, despite the lack of dialogue. But cinema is such a visual medium. Coming from a theatre background, one of the lessons I learned is that I could make a piece of cinema that was visual, rather than it being very wordy. 

Cadi is at such glorious odds with the setting, this clinical modern house set in the most stunning Welsh landscape. How did you find that?

I knew that this location was going to be key to unlocking this film visually. It’s such a cliché to say that the location is a character, but it’s more than that: it’s a metaphor for the family, a physical manifestation of their relationships. It’s cool, stark, austere. I literally put in a search engine ‘contemporary designed houses in Wales’ and this one popped up. It was called Life House – such a wonderfully ironic name given that we knew we were going to inflict all kinds of things on the characters inside it. We saw it on a Wednesday morning and by Wednesday afternoon Roger and I were sitting in a café rewriting bits of the script for the house.

Lee Haven Jones filming The Feast (2021)

It looks stunning on screen, as does the surrounding countryside, thanks to  your cinematographer Bjørn Ståle Bratberg. How was it working with him?

We have worked together on some television projects, and a lot of the grammar that we have can be seen in that work. It’s about discussing what you like, and what you don’t like, and being precision freaks. I felt it was important to see this family in a clinical aesthetic, so the camerawork had a similar precision to it.

At this budget level, the default with horror is to go handheld. But all the way with this project I’ve been trying to subvert the cliché of what horror language should feel like, even in terms of the production design. It’s a Welsh horror film, but it’s not in a stone cottage, it’s in a modern house. It’s in bright sunlight. And the cinematography has a sense of form to it. What I love about the journey of the film is that it starts very naturalistically and then, as the family implodes, the look becomes more theatrical, more mystic. It starts in muted hues of blue and green, and then we ramp up the colour and it becomes peppered with bright tones.

Now that the film is about to be unleashed on the world, what are your hopes for it and the Welsh industry at large?

I have big hopes for our little film. I would love it if it were to kickstart some kind of industry in the Welsh language. There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t have a thriving film industry. But it seems to me that we need to be pragmatic in establishing the kind of brand that we sell to the world, and it’s about identifying what we do really well. Our culture, our literary heritage is full of these brilliant, fantastical stories. I think that’s a really good base for us to start from. There is no reason why Wales can’t be as renowned for horror as somewhere like South Korea.

The Feast, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 19 August 2022.

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