Making The Children was simultaneously the most exciting and the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Kids? Snow? A cat? To say nothing of the fact that I would have to make the audience to root for parents to kill their own kids. I’m not sure I’ll be getting a call from Disney all that soon…
There were a lot of people begging me not to make it, but I always had a hunch it could be a fantastic horror film if I could pull it off. Paul Andrew Williams wrote the first draft (which he called Miria – an anagram for a certain horror director, I wonder?) and very generously let me do my thing with it.
The idea of a story in which a lethal virus unleashes all the suppressed aggression that children feel against their doting, confused parents was just too appealing to me. Adults’ fear of children is actually a psychological condition called paedophobia and it haunts great films like The Exorcist, The Omen and The Innocents. This was the primal fear that I wanted to stoke up with The Children. Or maybe it was just revenge on my parent-friends for letting their kids run riot on various holidays and do grievous harm to my hangovers in the process…
When I’m thinking about a film – particularly a horror film – I need to feel that there’s a theme in the material that can churn up some primal fears both in the audience and me. The idea that our kids might actually be psychopathic monsters and not the cute, defenceless little angels we wish they were is probably a universal fear.
When ‘the monster’ in your film is a six-year-old kid, the visual approach has to be very different than a story where the menace is a seven-foot tall, leather-faced guy with a chainsaw. Upfront physical aggression from a kid is never going to be that scary – the audience can always imagine that in a straight physical contest, the adult will always win out. It might be disturbing to see a child thrash and flail around (I love the fits in The Exorcist and the fight scene in the car on the way to church in The Omen) but direct aggression from a normal child is never going to seem like a lethal threat to an adult. I didn’t want the kids in the film to have special powers or superhuman strengths. They would always look and sound like the little the innocent darlings their parents loved.
The scares in a film about kids come more from their creepy behaviour, the adults’ blindness to their malevolence, and from as many ‘that’s so wrong’ images as you can load in. It’s all about messing with the audience’s idealised notions about childhood. Just associating children with images and artefacts of violence and blood disturbs us because instinctively we want to protect them from these things. We find it almost impossible to deal with the idea that they might be relishing or, even worse, causing that violence. More ‘psychological horror’ than full-blown ‘slasher’.
Half the battle was finding children with the most interesting faces – faces that gazed out at you with a mesmerising ambiguity. Are they cute? Are they malevolent?
Casting The Children really was like The X-Factor. We saw hundreds and hundreds of kids and ultimately found four amazing new talents. William, Raffy, Eva and Jake had done pretty-much nothing before this film. They weren’t necessarily the most ‘dramatic’ kids in the auditions but when you watched the audition tapes back their faces had that exact stillness and ambiguity that I wanted. This ambiguity about children is the thing that haunts Jack Clayton‘s The Innocents – which is such a wonderful and very influential ghost story. Are the children possessed or just precocious and sweet? Ultimately this ambiguity drives poor Deborah Kerr insane.
Every good horror film needs to break a few taboos. Hopefully there are a few ‘Oh my God, they can’t do that,’ moments in the film. Paul Hyett, our prosthetics designer, was great at suggesting ways I could achieve the more shocking, transgressive moments in the film. He built a life-size, fully operational dummy of Paulie/William (above) for us to throw around at leisure. When we tested the film, there is a particular moment in a greenhouse that caused the whole audience to recoil. There’s nothing like being with an audience who are all thinking the same horrified thought.
Having just done my first film, WAZ, as a dark, gritty thriller, I wanted The Children to look and sound very different. When it comes to style I think each story needs its own visual language to express the themes and emotions in it. When I start working with a DP and designer on a film, the easiest way to develop a shorthand for discussing your ideas is to watch lots of films and look at lots of pictures.
Nanu Segal is an amazing DP who I knew from the National Film and Television School where, amongst other things, she shot some very lyrical films about children. The combination of a creepily lyrical approach to shooting the kids combined with great suspense was exactly what I wanted for the look of The Children. Nanu was perfect for this.
I thought The Children should look a bit like how a child would imagine a perfect Christmas/New Year. Snow, twinkly lights and so on. Suzie Davies, the designer, thought we should use lots of primary colours. If a child draws a picture of a pretty house in the woods, they’ll always choose the brightest colours in the paint-box. Suzie also made sure that ‘the weapons’ in the film would be very colourful – so the kids would naturally gravitate towards them.
The snow works brilliantly as a frame for this colourful approach to the film. It makes the compositions so much stronger and more graphic. It also invites you to explore interesting angles and ways of telling the story. There’s a crane shot in the film that takes full advantage of the tell-tale clues that blood-trails can leave in the snow. Snow, of course, is a great visual metaphor for our attitude to childhood in a way – a shroud of purity over a mysterious, darker inner world. We were amazingly lucky with the weather and fabulous location. Bright blue skies, snowy fields – a perfect child’s Christmas.
We followed the colour rule through into the costumes. Our designer, Andrew Cox dressed the kids in strong colours and the adults in more muted ones. Casey (Hannah Tointon – above), the teenager, is stranded between the two worlds. Darker colours shot through with purple and blues. Her hair is fantastic – I loved Jacqui Fowler’s idea for the purple streak. I’d have one myself if I had the hair for it. Apart from looking great, the costume, hair and make-up tell a story about each character that goes beyond what the script suggests. The colours of the costumes of the kids become more saturated as the film goes on and the sickness takes a stronger hold on them.
The way the kids lure and trap the adults in The Children is by manipulating the parents’ fears and, of course, their love. The idea that children might use their parents’ love as a weapon against them seemed wonderfully twisted to me. Their MO would be about using their cries and whimpers and their innocent eyes to entrap the parents. The creepy-cute sounds of their toys would also be a useful luring device – sort-of like Hansel and Gretel in reverse. Only when the adults are totally disabled by their instinctive desire to protect the kids, is it the right moment to strike.
The aggression in the film evolves organically from the children’s obsessions with things like the effect of impact or ‘where do babies come from?’ There is often a violent subtext in kids’ games that would be terrifying if it was let loose in real life. The murders in the film are all related to the childhood in some way.
This was probably the most fun shoot I’ve ever experienced. That had a lot to do with the kids. They were amazing to work with and made the film set a lot calmer and more entertaining than it can sometimes be. I always wanted them (and their parents) to feel positive and comfortable about this as an experience. Before filming, we took the kids to Paul Hyett’s workshop to get them used to the gory stuff. (A warehouse full of exploding heads and severed prosthetic limbs – what’s not to like?) After a little coaxing, Raffy, who plays Leah, was pretty happy to stab a fake head in the eye.
After a morning of fun ultra-violence we all went bowling with their screen parents to get them feeling happy with their pretend mums and dads. I realise now that in some ways we were acting out the theme of the film by trying to keep the youngest kids ignorant of the darkest details of the story – I presented everything to them as a fun game. But the kids had a spy – Eva, the oldest, who plays Miranda – who had managed to sneak a read of the script. I don’t know why we were worried. The kids were delighted by the idea killing lots of grown-ups. If anything, they were most looking forward to the violent scenes.
There are a few films I love watching before I start any project, just to get me ‘in the zone’ of how you can tell a story in cinema. One of them is Vertigo. I always go back to Hitchcock because he demonstrates better than any director that when you abandon a certain level of realism, you can really exploit the full potential of the cinema.
For The Children, the specific Hitchcock film I thought about a lot was The Birds. I love how the menace of the birds builds gradually on the edge of the human drama. I love the use of sound and how nothing is really explained. Although, The Children is, in some ways, a virus story, I never wanted the adults to really understand or get a handle on it. They would only have their own emotions and preconceptions to fall back on when the horror kicks in.