“We did a real séance on Zoom”: Rob Savage on video call horror Host

Director Rob Savage explains how he made his timely Zoom-based horror under the constraints of lockdown.

28 September 2020

By John Bleasdale

Jemma Moore as Jemma in Host
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Host is available to stream on Shudder.

Interviewing Rob Savage is a nerve-racking experience. It’s nothing personal. The 28-year-old British director is perfectly affable, but I’ve just watched his new film Host, which can boast to being the first feature film for the Zoom age, and here we are on Zoom talking. It doesn’t help that a life-sized statue of Freddy Krueger looms over his shoulder.

A pithily effective found-footage shocker, Host tells the tale of six friends who participate in an online séance only for things to go seriously wrong. Since the film’s release, it has become a phenomenon, ranking as one of the most talked-about releases of the year and touching a nerve with a content-starved and isolated audience.

Host started off with a prank video you made which went viral?

That was just me fucking around because I was bored in lockdown. I did actually think there was a person living in my attic. I’d been telling my friends about it, so I thought it’d be a fun little thing I could put on Twitter.

I spent a couple of days figuring out how I could do it and built a contraption so I could very sneakily go from live Zoom by putting my hand in front of the camera, perfectly framed on my laptop screen, so it would then show the scene from [Rec]. It ended up going viral.

Rob Savage

The whole Zoom experience is really well captured, but how did you come up with the story?

Basically, I called up Jed Shepherd, who’s my producing partner, as soon as I had the idea and we spent the day brainstorming scary shit that can happen on Zoom.

I had done a TV movie for Channel 4 about five years ago all about a true haunting that took place in London in the 90s. For research, I met a bunch of mediums and I joined a spiritualist church for about six months, doing these séances every Wednesday night in a church hall in Hounslow.

I’d been messaging some of my medium friends during lockdown and asking what they were doing and they told me they’d been doing readings and séances over Zoom. So that gave us the idea.

And there’s this writer called Gemma Hurley who I’ve been dying to work with, so I gave her a call and told her we had this set-up and asked her to make it into a story. The first time Gemma met the actors, I invited the mediums and we did a real séance on Zoom so she could see how they reacted and a lot of that stuff made it into the movie.

Did other found-footage films inspire you?

I generally really like found footage. I know it’s kind of a dirty word nowadays. We showed the actors, just to gauge their fear levels, Paranormal Activity 3 [2011]. Radina Drandova [who plays one of the friends] ended up crying and didn’t sleep.

The main one I showed Jed and Gemma before we started writing was the last segment of V/H/S [2012], by the Radio Silence collective. It’s a bunch of frat boys looking for a party who come across a black-magic ritual, and the last ten minutes is basically as much fun as you can have.

Special effects must have been a challenge. Did you need to use much post-production CGI?

There’s not much VFX in it. Basically, I’ve been working in film for ten years and I’ve met a lot of people who can do a lot of cool things. And they’re all free at the moment, sitting at home desperate to get back to work. So we made a list of people who could help out and what they could bring. So we had this guy who can build contraptions and this guy can make things fall from the ceiling.

There’s a house of people we know – stunt coordinators and riggers, and they’re all living in the same house. Because this is in the thick of lockdown, no one can go anywhere. So we got them all on the phone and asked them what they could do. When people hear a film is being done during lockdown on Zoom they’ll have a certain expectation about what is achievable. We wanted to push way beyond that.

Host (2020)

What did making Host teach you as a filmmaker?

It sounds cheesy, but collaboration. A lot of your job as director is saying what is the movie and what isn’t. There are a lot of good ideas and you have to say sometimes, “That’s a good idea, but for a different movie.”

When I started out I was focused on “It’s got to be my ideas, it’s got to be ‘A film by…’”, but I’d never go in for any of that bollocks now. My job is just to say what the movie is. There’s a lot of ideas by all of us, thrown in by the actors. If you have time on a film set – which a lot of time you don’t – but just being open to that made this something that was more than we thought it would be.

How did Zoom feel about you using their platform?

I was totally terrified that Zoom would say we can’t use their assets or look, because one of my pet hates in movies is when someone goes to search something but not on Google. But they were into it. We all upgraded our accounts and they helped us with recording in high-def quality and they bumped up the audio recording. So they’re good in my book.

And your next project is a film produced by Sam Raimi. Is it going to be a sequel to Host?

It’s in the same supernatural space. There’s definitely a crossover. It was very nice that Host and the Sam Raimi film got announced the same week. That was a good couple of days. His Evil Dead II [1987] was one of the first movies that got me into filmmaking, because his filmmaking is so evident in that movie.

There are more projects that have been ticking along, so it’s quite exciting, and it’s great that Host is going to come out and remind everyone I’m still alive. The industry has a short memory and it’s been a while since I had a film out.

Further reading

Host: Zoom-bombing with the astral plane

A feat of socially distanced production-as-story, Rob Savage’s haunted housebound horror is the film for our logged-on moment – but its feelings are screen-deep.

By Adam Nayman

Host: Zoom-bombing with the astral plane