So many hot-shot music video directors jump to horror films as their next professional calling, then springboard to something else after cutting their teeth in the genre…
Lucky for us, music-video veteran Barnaby Clay, writer/director of The Seeding, which hits theaters and VOD January 26 from Magnet Releasing, plans on staying put. Not only is the London-born filmmaker well-versed in scary movies—his super-dark survival horror thrill certainly shows that—but he’s already pounding away at his sophomore fright feature.
In The Seeding, a solitary hiker (Scott Haze of Antlers) finds himself trapped at the bottom of a remote desert canyon. There he meets a hermit (Kate Lyn Sheil of You’re Next) living in a tiny cabin, completely off the grid. With no means of escape, the couple play captives to a pack of feral boys.
We caught up with Clay as The Seeding gears up for its January release. The movie world premiered at June’s Tribeca Film Festival, where Clay’s previous effort, the documentary Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock also launched.
This film has echoes of The Hills Have Eyes, Lord of the Flies, etc. Are you a fan of survivalist horror?
Of course, absolutely. Any film that puts you in a position where you can start imagining how you would react and what you would go through in that situation. That was always immediately interesting to me, especially in a desert situation. Obviously, The Hills Have Eyes was a big influence, but at the same time, the real ones which spoke to me were ’70s Australian films like Walkabout, Wake in Fright, and Picnic at Hanging Rock. Films where you are in the desert in that kind of situation and at the mercy of nature.
It’s such a dark film, yet you say it was inspired by the birth of your son. What a contradiction!
I know [laughs]. It’s a little crazy. Inspiration takes all sorts of forms. It’s not really the birth of my son, actually. It was more the feeling a man gets, prior to having a child, when you know life is changing and you have to accept that. Your whole world is gonna change, but then it’s beautiful. And then at the same time, you realize that you are quite helpless as a father. You can do what you can do to help, but you are really just there to move things forward and make sure everything’s all right. But you are not really in that much control, which was very interesting to me.
Location is so important in The Seeding. How did that inform the film and how did you find your canyon?
It was all about that enclosed space and finding something like that. We always looked at the location, the canyon, as the third character, really. It was so important. We actually searched all around the world. We looked at a dormant volcano in Romania, the Canary Islands, Northern Mexico, and we had people on the ground searching up in Canada. We also looked just outside Joshua Tree, but couldn’t really find anything. And then a picture came through of this canyon in southern Utah, in Kanab. There was something very beautiful about the kind of textures in the wall there. The stone is red, which tied into this aspect of earth. And there was something quite weirdly feminine about it. We also needed some practical things like strong ledges for the kids to stand on and have access to. Kanab ticked all the boxes. It was still incredibly hard to work in; what you are actually seeing there is not a true hole in the ground, but a bend in a canyon, which we then completed in postproduction.
So, shooting involved a lot of cheating to create the isolated, inescapable cabin in the canyon?
Yeah. We had a wall with about a 220-degree view, this curve in the canyon, which we could use. But then it had an entrance point and an exit point, so we had to avoid that for the most part. And then when we couldn’t avoid it, that’s where postproduction came in just to seal it all together. I’m pretty happy with the work which was done on it. You don’t really see it. There is quite a lot going on in there, where we’ve got a lot of movie magic happening.
How long did it take before you lost your voice directing this film?
Oh, my God. The whole experience was so painful because one of the important things for me, when I was in preproduction envisaging how we were gonna make the film, was that I realized it had to be on location. We had to basically build the shack on location, and it was a pretty hard desert environment. It was very hot during the day, very cold at night. And, there was mud on the ground, weirdly, because there was a lot of groundwater. It was just really uncomfortable, and everybody had a very tough time as they generally do on films [laughs]. We even had to build the road to go in and out.
Everything which could go wrong went wrong, but it was just important that we did it that way because I wanted both the actors and the crew, to a certain extent, to feel like we were all trapped in this canyon. There was one day, about two weeks into the shoot, where we went and shot on the ridge up at the top of the canyon. And it was this feeling of relief [laughs]. Suddenly it was warm and comfortable. You just feel very trapped down there, very, very confined. My voice hung in there for the most part, but it was perilous.
With all the difficulties, and as a first-time narrative feature director, how were you able to pull off a 19-day shoot in a desert canyon?
You got no choice [laughs]. That’s the money we had. That’s all we could afford. Another couple of weeks would’ve been nice. You are at the mercy of the budget, basically, and to get it done. We actually left Utah with about 95 percent of the film done, and we had a couple of pickup days just outside of Los Angeles in Aqua Dolce near where they shot Nope. We literally came back from Utah where we’d shot one half of the scene, and we needed the reverses on the actors and shot that in California, and it actually totally works. You can’t tell at all.
Anything about your own family, your wife, and child, that worked their way into the screenplay?
Well, my wife’s a singer [Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs], and she used to sing songs to my son. The idea of these lullabies is important; they are such a tool in horror movies particularly. And so, it’s just like trying to create something unique. I knew I could trust her with that task. My son came in and did some ADR when we were in postproduction. It was a little post-credit whispery chant. Everybody said I should cast my son as one of the boys, but I was like, “No way. I’m never gonna get this film made if my son is there! [Laughs] That’s gonna be impossible.” But watching a boy grow up, he’s 8 now, obviously, that makes its way in on how I’m thinking about the boys and also how I’m directing the actual boys that I cast. It helps knowing how to talk to children. Plus, when he was born, this feeling as a man of, “OK, what do I do?” [Laughs] Feeling slightly helpless, which is how the character feels in so much of the film, this helplessness.
What did Scott Haze bring to the table that might not have been in your original material?
I wasn’t actually super-familiar with his work before I cast him. Somebody suggested him. I didn’t know who he was. And then I looked him up and started watching things with him, and I thought, “OK, all right. This guy has the ability to really go there.” In Child of God, he just really went to a place. And I knew that, obviously in my film, it starts with a man at the very beginning who’s very much urban, a little anti-social. But at the same time, he’s just a model man. By the end of the film, he is a primal version of himself. There are many great actors who I saw and spoke to who could do the first half of it really well, but are they gonna get to the place where [the character] gets to? And I had this feeling that Scott could, and when we saw him [for the role] when he finally gets fully trapped in the last act of the story, he is really at his primal self. He is just this primal mess of a man, with his hair grown out. Just seeing him going for it in that situation, everybody was like, “Oh, yeah, this is what he should be.” The character that I wrote, I didn’t want a straight, likable, fun guy. He is somebody who probably struggles back in the city in his old life and is a little uncomfortable in his own skin. That’s how I described him in the script, and Scott had that ability to get there as well. He was just all in.
What were you looking for when you cast the feral children, and how hard was it to find those young actors?
It was pretty hard, actually. We were operating on a really tight budget, and we didn’t have the luxury like a lot of larger films do of spending six months trawling the country trying to find these kids. My casting director, Bess Fifer, put some messages out on platforms, and we got a ton of tapes from all around the States. And because the budget was tight, we didn’t want to be flying everybody in from a different state, but we almost did end up doing that in the end. Some of the lesser roles, we got local kids from Utah. It’s really hard because you generally get sent these tapes, and they felt a little trained and inauthentic for this type of role. Some of the people we used in the end were non-actors as well. I just wanted some level of rawness in their physicality. With not a lot of work, you can basically make them these characters. With a wardrobe change, they slot right in. My cousin, Tristan Bechet, was the composer of the soundtrack. And I had him come to set 10 days before we shot to rehearse the chant with the kids. And in that situation, they really got into their roles and really became like this family unit together. And they’re still great friends since then, which is cool.
Take me back to your Tribeca Film Festival premiere last June, which many of those young actors attended.
It was great. I love Tribeca, and I love the festival. It was a fantastic experience. The standout experience for me at Tribeca was, other than screening the film for the public for the first time, the kids, the main boys, they all made it out. They came from all over America. They’d never been to a festival like Tribeca before. And they were so thrilled and excited. That excitement is infectious, so it just made everything so much more fun. We had a party afterward, and we managed to get them in, even though they’re all underage [laughs].
What’s next for you? Are you looking to do more genre films?
Yeah, I love horror. That was my entry point into cinema when I was in my mid-teens. I used to be a Fangoria reader, which was kind of rare in England, actually. They didn’t really make it over. I started by doing prosthetics and stuff like that, but I just didn’t really have the skill to carry on in that. But it’s been part of my life ever since then, and I will do more. I’m not sure I’ll always do horror, but certainly, the next one that I’m writing is in the genre. It’s sort of psychological, but it’s city-based. It’s somewhere between Cronenberg and Polanski. Like Dead Ringers in a Rosemary’s Baby, Upper East Side world. So, it’s body horror on the Upper East Side!