She had been busy becoming a known face on the UK horror circuit over the last few years, but it was with her third short The Paper Round that British filmmaker Katie Bonham really landed on the Real Reel Scares radar. Receiving its world premiere at FrightFest Glasgow in 2015, the follow-up to Doll and The Porcelain Ground quickly became one of the festival’s biggest and most pleasant surprises. Smartly juxtaposing a sparse, minimal sensibility with dark, jarring imagery, it’s a quietly devastating rumination on grief and guilt that lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled. (Read the Real Reel Scares review of The Paper Round Here).
Fast forward a year, and Katie’s fourth short Mindless is also getting the FrightFest treatment. World premiering at the Glasgow leg of the festival once again, she gave us a quick teaser of what we’d be in for.
“Mindless is about a middle-aged man called Peter, played by Nicholas Vince (Hellraiser), who is suffering from a form of memory loss. He is visited daily by a carer, Judy, but every time she visits she finds the house torn apart and trashed. Peter denies any involvement, but Judy doesn’t believe him and tries to push him into a care home. So is this Peter’s cry for help – or is he telling the truth and is something else causing the destruction? The story also touches on the level of respect vulnerable adults receive, despite their actions, and should their past actions influence how they are cared for in the future?”
It’s an intriguing premise, and one that has the potential to make some important and thought-provoking statements – but where does it sit in relation to her other work?
“It is a psychological horror, but similar to my previous films its heavily influenced by the social realism genre. It’s hopefully a story that makes audiences question who the victim is in this story is. I worked in a care home for 6 years through school and Uni so I guess it’s something that really resonates with me and how that impacted my life at such an early age. Also what I think is interesting is that Peter isn’t elderly: he is middle-aged and a vulnerable adult, I think too many time people assume that those at risk are always elderly but as we have seen dementia and Alzheimers are striking younger people. Tt is a fear we can all relate to. The fear of existing but not living.”
Just a few short weeks ahead of the premiere itself, Mitch sat down with Katie to discuss how she became a filmmaker, what her experiences have taught her, and how 2015 proved to be her biggest year so far…
When did you decide that filmmaking was something that you wanted to pursue, and what were the factors that helped you arrive at that decision?
My first steps into the film world was originally at Uni when I decided to do a Film Theory degree – I loved film and decided I wanted to write about film at an academic level : film theory, academic papers, maybe become a doctor in it, or teach film at university. At the end of the end of the three years I realised that maybe it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. I don’t consider myself to be stupid or anything, but I feel there is a certain level you have to be at to write papers and dissertations as a career and I thought “Do I want to do this for the rest of my life?” I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I left university and got a job working in a music studio in London for a year. Then after that I started working at Shepperton Studios, where came into contact with high-end camera equipment and lots of creative people. I wrote my first script, which was called Doll, and then I talked to a few people about it and asked if they’d be interested in making it, and they kind of said “Why not try directing it yourself and we can help you with the technical side”, and that’s where it all started.
Getting that far into a degree and realising that it’s not where your interest lies can be a scary thing. When you took the step from that to say, making Doll, how much stock did you put in that early encouragement you received, and what other kinds of places did it come from?
It was massively scary, but I learnt so much from spending three years reading film and the different concepts that make up great films so it was still transferable to the practical side of filmmaking. I’m ridiculously lucky: my parents are super supportive, and my mum’s always pushed me with everything I’ve wanted to do. I told her about Doll, and offered us her house for the shoot – I’ve actually shot nearly all my films at her house! I’ve dug up her garden for a graveyard scene, I’ve crashed her car for another scene, so from the get go she was really supportive. The people I was working with at the time were a big influence as well. At Shepperton, everyone is there because they want to be creative and to learn about cameras. I met a budding DOP at work and he said he’d shoot Doll it for me if I directed it. Everyone was just really encouraging, and the more I planned for Doll from the storyboarding to hand-making the voodoo dolls, the more I realised that it was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and something that I could do. So I took a crew of three down to my hometown and we shot it over a day. At first, it’s a passion but you never really see yourself getting recognised for it, or people tracking you down saying “I really want to see your film”.
So what happened next?
After that I got into [short horror film contest] ‘Shortcuts to Hell’ with [second short] The Porcelain Ground, which was originally intended to be a feature script. The Porcelain Ground got through to the final nine, and it seemed like every time I shot a short I was getting something more: a little more feedback, a better reaction, something more substantial than me just uploading my films onto Vimeo or YouTube and just saying “Check out this short film I made!”
After that I shot The Paper Round. I used to have a paper round and those haunting early mornings at 5am (Well, 6am: I was a terrible paper girl) when you’re walking up to people’s houses, through their gates, down their driveways, and for that moment you’re kind of connected with that person and invited into their private space. I know it’s just delivering a paper, but people are just waking up and for a split second you’re part of their daily interaction. I also think early mornings feature heavily in my films because when you wake up you have that moment of remembrance – it’s that moment of realisation when you come out of that slumber: that moment of clarity where everything catches up with you.
So in that moment, do you think that a person is the most honest version of themselves?
Exactly. When you wake up, whatever your feeling or worrying about comes flooding back. During the day other interactions keep you occupied, but for that split second, you can’t really get away from yourself. I think it’s that moment where things really haunt you.
So it’s a confrontational thing, but it’s a confrontation with yourself?
It’s looking to the day ahead, which I sometimes imagine my characters doing, but also thinking “How am I going to get through this? How am I going to make it to tomorrow morning?”
By the time you were making The Paper Round, what were the most important things you felt you’d learned from making your first two films?
The major thing I learned is that organisation is key. For the first three films I was director, producer, casting director, assistant director, set dresser, location manager – you name it and I was filling that role, which is why I have so much respect for all roles on film sets, especially on indie sets where there is no money and everyone has to band together. If a window needs gelling or the set needs dressing – I am still there mucking in and getting it done. But organisation is key, the more organised you are, the more time you have for the creative side: you can break it down and open up your vision much more. Especially with The Paper Round, I realised how organic a scene can be if you just let it linger. Characters can really be drawn out into the scene: let the scene breathe, let the actors breathe and draw them into their characters, and let the scene flow as realistically as possible. I’m not really offended if actors change the dialogue – their interpretation of the character they inhabit is key for a good performance. I also learned to compromise a lot – things happen on set on the day that you have to just roll with – some of them are happy accidents! At the end of the day the goal is to have a finished film and you have to think on your feet and get it shot.
Let’s talk about The Paper Round. It did a lot with not very much, and shied away from virtually any verbal storytelling. How did it come about that the film got it’s world premiere at FrightFest Glasgow?
I was very conscious of the lack of dialogue, but for me the story of The Paper Round is poignant and it worked best with minimal dialogue, the haunting story of one mans inescapable guilt and what he faces day after day didn’t need to be led by heavy dialogue or me trying to explain away the ending. It is for the audience to connect to it and to interpret what was unfolding onscreen. Plus it is pretty short so I didn’t want to weigh it down with too much dialogue.
We finished post in November and I kinda knew Paul [McAvoy, FrightFest co-organiser] from Shortcuts to Hell, because he was on the panel – I’d sort of known him for years as I’ve been going to FrightFest for about seven years now. I sent it over to him, and two weeks later I got a reply saying that it had been selected for the festival. I couldn’t really believe it and at first I didn’t really understand the gravitas of it – I’d never been to Glasgow and I figured that the shorts would be shown in a separate screen or something – then I saw the schedule and thought “oh f*ck, there’s only two shorts and one of them’s mine!” It was the best feeling ever!
I took my mum with me, she had to be there, even though she hates horror films! She walked out of about three films during the festival because she couldn’t handle them! The screening of The Paper Round was amazing – I was so nervous – I stood up and made a pretty terrible introduction speech (I’m a terrible pubic speaker!). I think the most memorable moment of the weekend was meeting my composer, Pat Fagan, we had never actually met in person. He’d scored the rest of my short films, he’s amazing, and he’s from Glasgow! It was the first project he’d ever worked on that had made it into a festival. I turned up, we said hello and went straight onto stage, and I don’t know if anyone noticed, but he was crying. We thanked each other afterwards – the work he does is so amazing – scores are really important to me, and he’s a master of his craft. It is what filmmaking is all about: collaboration, sharing each other’s work, being creative together and just sharing moments like that – I’ll never forget that.
Did that feel, at that time, like the cumulative moment of everything you’d been doing up to that point?
Yeah – I think as well that I’m pretty hard on myself so if I don’t get good results out of stuff I take it hard. But having one person come up and say “I liked your film” it makes it worth it, and to play at Frightfest in front of a crowd that I’ve been apart of for seven years and for people to come and say they loved it was the most surreal and most rewarding moment.
It was a massive, massive deal for me. Filmmaking is stressful: you cry, you scream, you’re stressed 24/7, but it’s always worth it. You have to enjoy moments like that, when you can get on stage and say “this is what I made, I really hope you like it.”. I don’t think I realised what the reception was like at the time. I feel like I was in shock and it was only a couple of weeks later that it hit me. You don’t register what anyone’s saying at the time! From initial conception of an idea, the end project seems so far away, and to finally get up there and show it to people and for people to like it really makes the journey worthwhile.
A year on, you’re sitting with another world premiere on the cards, and you’re back in Glasgow! Building to that, flowing from The Paper Round, 2015 was a huge year for you.
2015 was crazy, and it feels weird to say that in the past tense! It was insane – I was on seven short film sets! I can’t remember exactly when, but around the time that The Paper Round was premiering I crossed paths with Damon Rickard and we started talking about our projects. We sparked up a friendship and he invited me to work on his new short film,The Package, and he asked me to be Assistant Director. So I said “Yes! Fantastic!”, but the only problem was that I had no idea what an AD does! It was my first AD job. So I went away and spent hours researching it: fundamentally, they run a film set. I’ve always been pretty good at organising everybody on my own sets, and I figured this would be the same, only with a larger crew. I went away and learned how to do shooting schedules, call sheets and kind of thought “Yeah, I can do this.” I very nervous on the set of The Package, but it went well and we finished on time, so we must have been doing something right!
After that I worked on Volcano, by Mike Clarke, and then Dead Bitch! with Chelsey Burdon, which was a lot of fun. At the time that one was quite stressful – there were a lot of characters in a single location, a lot of prosthetics and we only had a short time to do the film in, but I had a blast. I met Liam Regan [director of [Banjo] on set there too, and we have a great rapport now too.
The set photos from Dead Bitch looked pretty chaotic!
Yes! It was mental! It was great to meet Chelsey too. Her AD had dropped out two weeks before, so it wasn’t much time to get my head around it, but we pulled it out of the bag in the end. It was cool to see her in action, because obviously, I’d seen She…
You don’t forget She in a hurry!
Definitely not – so it was great to meet one of the masters behind that! Then I worked on Andy Stewart’s Remnant, which was so much fun. I met Andy [Stewart, director] at FrightFest Glasgow last year and we got talking. He sent me his other shorts and I sent him mine and we started chatting about films etc. – he heard that I’d been ADing and invited me to be second AD on Remnant in Glasgow. I had to get involved as his stuff is so good. Ink and Dysmorphia are seriously amazing, and I wanted to see how this guy creates his short films. So it was great to see him in action and also to see Grant Mason’s amazing work. Every director you work with is different, so that’s always interesting to see how each one works and how they channel their vision. You know how vocal or quiet they are, how they piece things together, that sort of thing. It was a big crew, and it was good to work in a crew that size and see the professionalism, and the ways that everyone works together and collaborates.
Remant is a pretty ambitious project with a lot of characters and a few scenes. Did it feel like a massive departure from other shorts you’ve worked on?
Yeah, Remnant was the first one that felt bigger – a bigger crew, a bigger cast, more prosthetics, everything. It felt like a step up. Working on a set like that and seeing how everyone works was great. It’s that moment halfway through a day when you’re in this flow, and everyone’s in sync with each other to create a film – it was a great experience.
So then came Mark Logan’s Rats – that was a night shoot, and looked pretty demanding in a totally different way.
It’s funny, because every one I’ve worked on has been challenging in some capacity or another and I think Rats probably was the most challenging of all. It was a two night shoot, and we were trying to squeeze in a lot of script pages over this time and we were working against sunrise. It was two nights in a beautiful location, but it was intense. Seeing Paul While’s creation for the monster was awesome. It was great to see what he and Mark had come up with and to see it literally come to life in front of your eyes. It was a really good shoot, but when time’s against you, you just have to be focused and so on point with schedules.
One more for 2015, and it’s a big one. How did you get in tow with Nicholas Vince?
Nick’s been so supportive over the last year and we’ve collaborated a lot between Rats, Remnant and Mindless. I actually approached Nick with Keepsake – my cursed film! My friend Ben helped put me in touch with him when I was looking for an actor in his age range. Ben had met Nick at conventions a few times and said he was one of the nicest guys around, so I emailed him directly! I sent him my other shorts and the script for Keepsake, and he got back to me within a day and said he loved it. We started a friendship from there, and then Keepsake crashed and burned, and when I came up with Mindless and he loved it. He’s such a cool guy. It’s pretty surreal having Nick Vince on your speed dial!
It was a pleasure to work with him as AD on his first short film. He approached me and asked me to give some feedback on an idea of his. He writes a lot of short stories so I thought a script of his would be really interesting. I read it and I thought it was great, so I said yes, but from an AD perspective I thought “Oh good, we’re shooting at night, and there’s kids in it, and also a dog. Great!” If it had been anyone else, I think I would have said no – he couldn’t have picked three harder things to try and control on a set! But it was Nick so of course I said yes. We shot it over one night and it went so quick. It was also absolutely freezing (I spent breaks doing circuits around the field with the cast).
So here we are: Mindless is premiering at FrightFest Glasgow. Getting another world premiere two years in a row is about as good an endorsement as you can get! Before we get there, I think you’re being a little hard on yourself when you say Keepsake crashed and burned – do you look back on that now as an obstacle that you turned into a positive with how you responded to that, and having ended up conceiving Mindless from it?
Definitely. Keepsake not happening was a blessing in disguise. Keepsake was much bigger than anything I’d done before and it became a bit of a beast of its own. We had a huge crew involved, a massive house we were hiring for a four day shoot, and the production just got bigger and bigger and it felt like it got out of my control. I was trying to achieve so much and push for something so much bigger. I was trying to jump twenty steps ahead, and all I needed to take was one.
Did you end up feeling removed from it a bit? Like too much distance had sprung up between you and the original idea?
Yeah. Obviously we struggled with the Kickstarter – I was asking for a lot more money than I had before. We’d got to the point where we were renting proper locations and using a lot more kit that I didn’t easily have available to me. When the Kickstarter didn’t make it, that was horrible, but also you can only put so much into a project, and I’d put so much into this. We had actresses drop out, location changes and all sorts. Me and Damon, who was producing, were tearing our hair out. Everything kept going wrong, and we didn’t raise the money. It became so big that I couldn’t rein it in. We were still going to go ahead and shooting despite the money as I decided to self fund, and then we lost our location the day before. We had picked the location very carefully, so we couldn’t really go anywhere else. We cancelled, which was crushing. So I decided to think about what made the short films work. They worked because it was a small crew and a location I could control – I decided to rein it in. So I rewrote Keepsake and called it Mindless. It’s pretty much a completely different story, and Nick was thrilled – he was originally supposed to be in Keepsake for about two seconds, but in Mindless he was the lead!
I was also lucky enough to meet producer Candice Redford on the set of Dead Bitch she is fearless, straight talking and dependable. We actually decided to shoot Mindless with three weeks notice. We pulled our resources and just ‘Got shit done’. As friends and co-workers we have a great relationship and I have so much respect for her. I am so happy with Mindless and I do genuinely think it’s a hundred times better than Keepsake was ever going to be. The more restrained you are by a project, the more creative you have to be. I was crushed at the start, but I wasn’t going to give up. It’s the best worst thing that’s ever happened to me! I wouldn’t change it for the world now. Mindless is much more powerful than Keepsake. I feel like Keepsake had more of a generic twist but it didn’t really make you think about what it was trying to say, whereas there’s more to Mindless.
So Mindless is more in step with who you are, what you’re doing and where you think you’re headed?
Definitely. Keepsake was this paranormal story, and that’s pretty much all it was. Mindless is more on track with where I want to go. It’s a psychological horror mashed with social realism – my idea of a perfect film – and the kind of filmmaking I want to achieve.
‘Mindless’ premieres at Film4 FrightFest, a strand of the Glasgow Film Festival. It runs alongside the feature ‘Anguish’ on Friday February 26th at 3.40pm in Screen 1 at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Weekend passes for FrightFest are available now, and individual film tickets are onsale from Monday January 25th from glasgowfilm.org, or in person at the GFT Box Office.
Photography Courtesy of This Thing Called Photography