Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature Censor has been one of Flickfeast’s favourite films of the year since it screened at the Sundance Film Festival. The British horror film of the year recently screened at Sundance London and Festivals Editor Dallas King sat down with Bailey-Bond to discuss the inspiration behind the film, the practicalities of recreating the 80s setting and then dive into the ambiguity of the movie’s shocking climax.
Flickfeast: Prior to Censor, your short film Nasty also centred around video nasties. Did the idea for Censor grow from the themes explored in your short?
Prano Bailey-Bond: I actually had the idea for Censor before making Nasty. I was writing the treatment for Censor with my cohort, Antony Fletcher. And then through the research started to think about children during this period, because a lot of the concern around video nasties was around kids being able to get their hands on these films. And I thought it would be interesting to create a short centred around a child. And that was where the idea for Nasty came from. And in my head, I was thinking, Oh, well, I’ll just submit this idea to the BFI and I’ll get funding and then they’ll want to make it, they’ll love it and want to make the feature and I submitted it and I didn’t get the funding. But by the time I spent that long with the short, I was so in love with it. I wanted to make it, anywhere. I saw it as a way to explore some of the techniques and narrative ideas in the feature but almost in like a story that could be going on across town rather than a story that was like, going to exactly speak to the feature. There were elements of the narrative and the character journey, like the missing family member, that I felt worked in Nasty, so I carried that through to Censor. And then lots of techniques that I used in Censor that I was exploring in the short, so it was a bit kind of like chicken in the egg in a way, like they both informed each other really, ultimately.
Flickfeast: Now Censor is set 80s Britain, during Thatcher’s government and the video nasties hysteria. How did that backdrop inform the character’s journey?
PBB: This period, and what was going on during this period was so much of what I wanted Enid to embody, in a way. I was looking at what was going on during this period in terms of around the video nasties. And essentially, you have the birth of VHS, which led to this boom in low budget horror films being available, because previous to VHS, they weren’t getting cinema releases, you know, they weren’t being classified, they’re being rejected, and now they could go direct to the home. So you have this period where these videos led to moral panic. With everybody going “What are these films going to do to society? they’re going to corrupt and deprive our minds”. And what I see during that period is how fragile we think we are. How fragile we think our moral compasses are, because throughout history we’ve seen periods where we’ve become so afraid of what technology is going to do to us. I guess I used that as an inspiration for the character. This idea of us doubting our morals. Wondering if deep down, we are terrible people. That we are one Lucio Fulci film away from snapping, getting our shoelace out and garroting each other in order to feel something. In terms of like that informing the character of Enid, I really wanted to create someone who kind of embodied censorship, not just in terms of sensitive articles. So someone who was quite self-censored and had sense of their traumatic memories.
But then, going back to the period and the kind of politics of this time, you’ve got Thatcher’s Britain. It’s a very oppressive world. Mines being closed down, social welfare funding being cut. What I see there is like, video nasties becoming a scapegoat. They’re a very convenient thing to blame for all the bad things that are happening in the world. That takes the pressure off the government, off politicians, because you can just point the blame at film and say, well, all the terrible things are happening because of these movies. So I kind of was thinking a lot about the relationship between those things. And, and then building the world of the film, I wanted it to be oppressive, Thatcher’s Britain. I didn’t want it to be this kind of big shoulder pads 80s, big earrings, big perms sort of world. So I was looking at photography, projects from the time, one of them was Beyond Caring by Paul Graham. He would go into dole offices and stuff, photograph people waiting for their job centre meetings and things. Everybody’s in like blues and greys, and it’s all kind of downbeat, and those are the kind of images I was referencing and showing my costume design and production design, kind of basing the palette of the real world in the film on. So we’ve had this sort of oppressive 80s Britain, rather than a kind of pop version of that.
Flickfeast: How much of it was a challenge was it to recreate that world? Creating the visual landscape of that time period, production design, etc, as well as choosing to shoot on film.
PBB: I have a really great team and I was quite clear in terms of how I wanted to make film from the start. I think that helps produce the kind of work that’s important to you. I was always very keen to shoot on 35mm. I felt that would be the format that would create the most authentic 80s look. You know, there’s quite a few contemporary films made recently set in the 80s. And me and my DP looked at them, and everything that we loved and felt was most authentic was shot on film. So we made lots of decisions early on, very much looking towards authenticity. I mean, the amount of white noise I watched for this was crazy. And we get to the visual effects and you’re going like, no, it’s not quite real VHS. So what we ended up doing there was dubbing to VHS but it does degrade the image. So we had to mix the dubbed VHS image with the full res image in places to keep the quality. Also the sound design, because there as well, we went to analogue, we went to tape. We used loads of really interesting processing tools to create crackly, weird sound scapes. That’s so much to do with the people that you’re working with in those departments being as passionate about being authentic and feeling unique as you are. So they were like, really inspired by going there and I was really excited by the ideas that they were coming up with and techniques. So I think everybody just wanted to make it as as good as possible. But yeah, it is a challenge because it’s not a massive budget film and when you’re shooting something that’s period, you can’t just go like, oh, let’s chuck that chair in and chuck that table in. You have to find exactly the right pen, were these notepads invented in 1985? Everything’s questioned. But then as a director that almost gives you like, an extra layer of being able to design everything, which I like.
Flickfeast: To use the Shrek analogy, the film is like an onion. It has layers. One of the layers that was interesting to me was the depiction of women in the workplace as well as on the film set as well. It is a examining a specific time but with the Me Too movement it also feels really relevant. Was that an important element to have,particularly in the scene where Enid is being manipulated into a certain type of performance by the director?
PBB: Well, I mean, when you look back at the video nasties, there’s so much violence towards women in these films. It wasn’t primarily the reason I wanted to make the film in the first place. I think there’s a version of Censor that is very focused on violence towards women, and I was much more interested in rather than a woman character going out to rescue women from violence, the character I was much more interested in was seeing a very complicated woman on screen who was dealing with her own demons, who perhaps, felt that she was a bad person deep down that she has something that she’s trying to make up for. It is, in some ways, a love story. She is going out to kind of rescue her sister but it’s slightly secondary to the idea of somebody having this complicated relationship with their own moral compass. However it is such a big factor when it comes to the video nasties, it felt like something that needed to be addressed. And the there’s a lot of casual sexism, which, to me, is a normal thing that happens to women every day. That’s just part of being a woman in some ways. What you mentioned the Me Too movement is really interesting, because I wrote the scene with Doug Smart answering the door in his Paisley dressing gown and that was before the Weinstein stories came out. But I remember hearing about him, you know, this whole dressing gown aspect of the Weinstein saga and thinking, “Oh, I wonder if people think that I’m referencing that”, but I actually already had him in a dressing gown. So just a small detail, but I’ve always thought, interesting.
Flickfeast: We see early on the film, two opposing like viewpoints. You know, movies, even video nasties are there in society as a form of escapism and release, but at the same time that now that they are on VHS, with the ability to just rewind the gratuitous parts, they are seen as a danger if in a child’s hands who may not know the difference between fiction and reality. How does that dichotomy play into your notion of the shadow self?
PBB: There are things that I think even I feel conflicted about when it comes to the video nasties themselves. Like, I think, you know, there’s, there’s violence towards animals in films, like Cannibal Holocaust, that I really struggle with. And obviously, those filmmakers work was the key to it. And there is a lot of violence towards women that can feel gratuitous. The thing is censorship has changed now to classification. So there’s classification now in place so that people can be aware of what kids are going to watch. When I was a kid, I watched loads of things I was far too young to watch. And I think I turned out, okay (laughs). It’s all down to the individual, isn’t it, you knowing what your threshold is. And I think when you’re a kid, you want to push that threshold and find out where your threshold is, but also, you’re being egged on by your friends. And there’s a really interesting story from the 80s. There was a news headline saying like “six in eight seven year olds have watched a video nasty”. So a bunch of pro-video nasty people went out with a load of fake video nasty titles, and they went around schools and asked the kids “so have you seen this?” You know, completely made up films? And they were like, Yeah, because they didn’t want to look like they hadn’t seen it in front of their mates. So it totally undermined this statistic because you can’t trust the kids are going to tell the truth about those things. So I think the whole thing around kids is really interesting one to explore. But the shadow self was something I mean, for me, horror is about the return of the repressed. It’s very much there in sense in a lot of my short films. Like over time, I realised that I was really obsessed with characters who were repressed, who don’t want to face some aspect of themselves, who think that there’s a part of themselves that’s unacceptable, wrong or sinful in some way. And they’re trying to reject that side of themselves. Basically, through rejecting it, that’s just growing stronger and stronger. Eventually, it’s going to kind of seep out through the cracks in a more and more twisted way, because you’re fighting it. And so I think like, you know, that’s sort of what I was exploring a lot in Enid and in this idea of censorship and censoring an aspect of yourself. Then that kind of creeping up on you and getting you. My sound designer and I talked a lot about the shadow self in relation to that. You know, that maybe we all have a shadow self. I mean, me and my co writer, Anthony, we’re always talking about how everybody has aspects of themselves that they self censor. I think more and more on social media it’s become like a normal part of everyday life. What we show other people about ourselves, and our lives and what we don’t show about ourselves. That’s all entangled in the shadow self and my sound designer was so into it that he started talking about how he wanted to make a sound for the shadow self, but for every element of the film So we actually had a conversation about the fridge’s shadow self, and what that would be, which always made me laugh.
Flickfeast: Obviously the film goes to some very dark places be had to go about balancing some of the comedy elements in the film, because there are those moments of levity, even absurdity.
PBB: I love absurd humour, and I find life really absurd in general. When I first started to think about the censors and the video nasties, it felt like an amusing thing, to me. To think of these highly educated people sitting around intellectualising exploding heads and decapitations. You read through their notes, and it is obviously, a serious subject, but it is quite funny at the same time. So it always felt like it was inherent in the subject and in the setup of these characters. So I wanted in it to have this sort of dry sense of humour and these kind of quips that she’d come back with, for example with the Doug Smart moments, the sexism and things like that. She uses humour slightly to deflect things. In terms of getting that on screen, I was really blessed with an amazing cast, and a lot of comedy legends, such as Nicholas Burns, Michael Smiley, Felicity Montague. And it’s not a coincidence because I think comedy actors we can do straight drama, are some of the best actors out there.
Flickfeast: Kim Newman is credited as an Executive Producer on the film. He is a legend when it comes to writing about film, especially horror movies. How did he come on board the project?
PBB: Kim is an old friend. I met him in 2010. He selected one of my short films for a festival. And he’s just been really supportive, like throughout my short films and then when it came to Censor, he’s basically the godfather of video nasties. So when we started going out to funding I was like, how would you feel about being an Exec? And he just said, Yeah, which was incredible. Then during the process of writing the film, I’d sent him the script every now and again, to get his thoughts. A lot of what he was doing was saying “Have you seen this film? Or this film?” And we talked quite a lot about Frederick North and about how there weren’t that many British video nasty directors because I think there’s something a bit racist that actually in the UK, that our horror films are fine but if they come from like Italy, or somewhere else, then they’re, you know, totally depraved. So there weren’t a huge amount of British video nasty directors but he pointed me at Expose which I think has a British director and then we talked a bit about Norman J. Warren and Pete Walker and some of the British directors. Then in the Edit, I’d show it to him. And he’d normally say “More blood, more gore!” (laughs).
Finally we talked the film’s final act and the ambiguity surrounding the fate of Enid so there will be discussion of events from the movie’s climactic scenes…
Flickfeast: Having watched the film several times now, one of the aspects of the film which continues to impress is how you retained the ambiguity surrounding Enid’s past. In particular, the fate of her sister. What this allows for is a lot of fan speculation and discussion over what the truth is. Now I’ve gone down that rabbit hole and have developed a theory that the whole scenario was created by her to cope with the loss of her sister. There are several possible clues like her name is an anagram of Bide Insane i.e. to remain insane. The film titles like Asunder, which means to separate. She’s separated from her sister but also separated from reality. The visual style changes as Enid retreats further and further into her imagination. Then there’s the video case that she sees in the video shop, The Day The World Began. It’s actually referring to the day that she maybe killed her own sister and created tthis whole reality as a way to cope, to protect herself and now she is a character who protect others. Am I completely off base or…
PBB: I love come up with all of this stuff. It’s amazing. I think that you should write Censor 2. Some of those ideas are new to me so they are not necessarily exactly what I was thinking, but the film has got ambiguous aspects. And that is because I want people to bring their own interpretations to it. I want people to talk about it afterwards and have their own feelings and opinions. I think things live on as well in your mind sometimes when there’s a thread left unsewn. There are reasons why things are ambiguous in the film and a lot of that’s to do with the answers that we don’t have in real life. In the film, I wanted to make it especially for Enid’s experience, I wanted it to be in her point of view and she doesn’t have all the answers by the end of the film but I love the rabbit hole you’ve been down, but I fully support your pitch on Censor 2! (laughs)
Censor is in UK cinemas from August 20th