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Interview: Jon Britt and Ryan Haysom from the neo-giallo short Yellow

Jon and Ryan on Set [click to enlarge]

Jon and Ryan on Set [click to enlarge]

Giallo cinema is one of the most important and challenging movements in cinematic history. At the same time is ushers in legitimacy to an often critically overlooked portion of cinema, it simultaneously breeds new issues (gender, plot/narrative). Because of the moving cinematography and lush scores, trademark to the hybrid-subgenre, there have been endless attempts to recreate the aura of this bygone era. While these attempts have wavered in success, often the factor that links them is their inability to craft something truly original. Homage does not have to mean recreation, and that is something that Director-Writer Ryan Haysom and Cinematographer-Writer Jon Britt have proven with their short film, Yellow. Yellow, which is the english translation of Giallo, is a film that challenges viewers. It wears its inspiration on its sleeves, but it is far from unoriginal. We got the chance to sit down with Ryan and Jon, in order to discuss the project and their future. What was envisioned as a short interview to accompany a review, has emerged as a much longer, in-depth discussion about many of the elements integral to the film.

Diabolique: What are your respective backgrounds in film? What brought you together to make Yellow?

Ryan Haysom: I originally wanted to be a modern artist. I was, and still am, a huge admirer of people like Tracey Emin and the Chapman Brothers. I studied experimental video at university, became incredibly jaded during my studies listening to alcoholic, depressed lecturers and then I fell into my first love of horror cinema. I soon started working on low budget horror films in London, where I met Jon on a film shoot.

Jon Britt: I kind of mark it out by films I’ve seen along the way. I snuck into the cinema to see Se7en with my brother’s ID, and from the moment the opening credits came on, I was changed. I’d never seen anything like it. It was the rough, beautiful film images and the music together; I was hooked. I knew I wanted to do that but I didn’t know how. I started listening to David Fincher’s commentaries a lot and eventually studied Film for 3 years at Uni. Jump forward a decade, Ryan and I both met on the film set he mentioned. I was a camera assistant and Ryan was in the Art department, throwing blood around. Once we started talking about Big Trouble in Little China and David Lo Pan we realized we were mates.

Diabolique: The film has a beautiful look; deep colors, rich blacks and a great depth of field. It manages to have a film look, while still being digital. What camera did you use to shoot the picture?

JB: It was shot on a Canon 5D with Zeiss lenses. For me the choice of lenses is really important to give a softness and mood to the digital image. Ryan and I wanted to make a really modern feeling Giallo, not just a retro throwback, so it was about getting the combo of new and old right. I totally believe there’s no reason why a low budget film shouldn’t still be able to have high production value. To me, filmmaking is using what you’ve got in the most creative way you can, and that means playing to the strengths of your equipment. One thing I always kept in mind was the idea that incredible still photo images can be created with zero budget, so why not with film too; practically nobody, apart from Gregory Crewdson, has a film-scale budget to shoot still pictures.

Hester Arden in Yellow [Click to Enlarge]

Hester Arden in Yellow [Click to Enlarge]

Diabolique: The budget was pretty tight, 5000 euros if I am not mistaken. It seems quite remarkable that you were able to get the look that you did with such a small budget. Care to share with our readers how you were able to produce the film for so little? Any tricks you found helped alleviate funds spent?

JB: Again, we knew the limitations of our budget so the whole approach to the film became how to produce high production value with no money. One specific thing we did was to try and find amazing locations that already existed, with cinematic-style lighting already in place that could be manipulated to our needs. The orange underpass was one of these great Berlin locations that’s been in a few films. We also tried to introduce movement in ways that would work with the camera and equipment we had; introducing a flowing feeling into scenes.

RH: I’d say don’t sleep or eat for 10 days, and if you can, ideally chain smoke heavily with a large amount of coffee. Then cross your fingers and pray to Lucifer.

Diabolique: Crowd sourcing has perhaps as many fans as it does critiques, were you ever concerned that going this route would hurt the film in any way.

RH: I don’t think we ever had those worries. I remember having a Skype meeting with Ben Robinson and Reem Shaddad, who were great producers early on in the film. They proposed it as an option to finance the film. I didn’t have a clue what crowd funding was at the time, and even when we began the campaign it seemed to be a very new thing that we had to navigate. It was actually very exciting in the way that we were able to publicize our idea and connect with an online-audience before there was even a film!

JB: It’s always a risk in that you can’t know if the campaign will end up reaching its goal or not. But we always felt like the film was something enough people had been waiting awhile to see and ultimately we couldn’t have made the film without their support. But yeah, at the time I don’t think we knew enough about crowd funding to have any negative thoughts!

Diabolique: The one thing that is apparent about the film is that the story feels a bit too long for its run-time. There are things hinted at, and there are things left completely unexplained. I think this may be why some people have felt that the end is abrupt, I recall one review even saying it felt “easy”; Was the script always this length, or did you find you had to shorten it to accommodate for budgetary concerns?

JB: For me I never felt the ending was resolved at all. If it had been, I’d say it could be seen as too easy for sure, but it’s more ambiguous than that, and it’s how we wanted it. When the end credits begin he’s back in his car again, and his search isn’t over.We tried various lengths of cut during the editing stage, and the final length we decided on was probably the only way it could have been to capture the mood we wanted. We’ve had plenty of folks telling us it’s too long, or not long enough, so it’s an interesting thing.

RH: The classic structure of a short film, around 9 minutes with a twist ending, was something I really didn’t want to do with Yellow. I wanted to make something that felt like a mini-feature film, especially in the visuals; it had to feel ambitious. We both wanted to focus on a character study of the protagonist, which is not easy to do in a short. I like the idea that things aren’t explained, especially in the context of a detective-styled story. Steve (Gilbert) was so great in the lead role that his face told everything that you needed to know.

Diabolique: I guess I never really considered that. It is far too easy to say that the ending is clear, that it gives a single answer to a difficult question. But, when really thinking about it the film, it can’t be said to be true. Rather, you almost give the viewer an easy out, a way to give them solace in resolving a story, but this resort is more a failure to accept the real ending. In that way you appeal to those who need a defined ending, without sacrificing ambiguity. What is it about the ambiguous ending, the lack of a clear denouement, that intrigues you as creators? Do you find simple endings to difficult ideas problematic?

JB: I still don’t agree about the easy out! It was definitely not intended in that way anyway. I guess if people want to see it like that they can, but I hope that when someone watches it they will feel something different, that there is some uneasiness to the ending. I think the thing about ambiguity for me is that it feels more honest. I love the sequence in Manhunter when you start following Tom Noonan’s killer, and he takes the blind girl on a date to the vet’s to feel the unconscious tiger! All of a sudden you see the complexities of his character, the fact he’s tender and compromised and conflicted and brutal.

RH: I really don’t believe in the description of an ambiguous ending, there is only the ending that feels right for the story. You have to recognize that the greatest drama comes from the character’s attitude to the world around them and this propels the direction, whatever the events in the film are. Our protagonist is both haunted and compelled by the mystery that drives the film. Does it matter if it’s the real world, or just a fantasy? In life, there are no real endings and I like that. In life no one lives happily ever after.

Diabolique: That’s true, and it is something a lot of filmmakers have latched onto: the reality of unresolved endings, at least non-simplistic endings. Forgetting about potential funding or interest, if you had it your way would Yellow be expanded into a full-length feature? Or are you done with this story?

RH: We are currently working on a full version of Yellow, but we want to take it in a different direction. There are lots of things we’d like to do that we didn’t get a chance to do on Yellow (Short).

Diabolique: For the feature, without giving anything away, will you be working with a more defined resolution? Or do you plan on keeping the ending as ambiguous as with the short? Will the same sparse and dream-like feel be a presiding tonal element? Is there anything you can tell us that will be tackled different, or is it too early to give anything away?

RH: With the feature we are continuing to experiment with the way we propelled the story through the use of visuals and sound design. It’s in the same spirit but on a grander scale.

JB: If anything, we’ll be delving deeper into it. The longer run gives us much more time to make the character have even more ambiguity and dark corners! I’m sure anybody looking for a genre film wrapped up in a nice pink bow will love it!

Still from Yellow [Click to Enlarge]

Still from Yellow [Click to Enlarge]

Diabolique: Speaking of the sound design, the soundtrack is beautiful. How did you hook up with Antoni Maiovvi? What was the process of working with him like?

RH: Hooking up with Maiovvi came about by complete accident. Half way through the Yellow crowd funding campaign a friend sent me an email telling me I should check out another crowd funding campaign happening at the same time for the record label Giallo Disco (which Maiovvi co-runs with Vercetti Technicolor). We started chatting online and realized we were both from England and lived in Berlin! The first time we met we exclusively talked about how weird Lucio Fulci was, while Maiovvi drank a Mango Lassi in a bar. I remember thinking “I’ve never seen a man drink a Mango Lassi in a bar before, I like this guy”. I told him Manhunter and Tenebrae were soundtracks I had in mind for Yellow and let him loose to do whatever he wanted.  He nailed it: Synth runs through his veins. Working with him was a total pleasure.

JB: He’s a machine. I think we have about 10 features’ worth of soundtrack material from him so he’s way ahead of us. Probably my favorite sequence in Yellow is around the point of the elevator shot and a lot of that has to do with the combination of Maiovvi’s music and the images together – it’s this strange hidden feeling that films can reveal. I think that’s what so addictive about it.

RH: Looking back, I find it funny that two guys from the West Country in England made an Italian horror film in Germany, I never saw that coming.

Diabolique: It could be said that the soundtrack is actually one of the film’s principle narrative devices, was this intentional?

JB: It was always important for us to create a certain flowing and dreamlike mood, with very little dialogue. Because he made a lot of the music before we shot the film we could really work on the shots with this in mind.

RH: I think with all the great Italian horror films, and great cinema in general, music is a narrative device and should be used that way, not just dropped over the top as an after thought. Especially with the soundtracks of Giallo cinema being so iconic, we knew we needed something that really stood out. I’m still excited when I hear the Yellow score.

Diabolique: Giallo films are often criticized for the ways in which they depict the murder of women. People have gone as far to say that the films find a certain pleasure in showing women violently tortured and murdered. Your film seems to plant itself strongly in the classic tradition of Giallo, and in that regard you do not seem to be questioning the motives of these films. What are your thoughts on this manner? Was this a concern in the making of the film, how you were to approach the victims’ roles?

JB: We were totally aware of this stereotype and that’s why, in a small way, we tried to add a subtle change to the standard victim role. Even though the scenes and the deaths play out in classic Giallo style, the fact that Hester Arden plays all of the female characters adds an extra dimension to it. I think the feeling of guilt is a big theme for the Detective, and I really felt that because the female character keeps appearing, it’s because she means something to him, so the victims are not just faceless dolls adding to the body count.

RH: The film has a dream state within it, an altered state of perception. We wanted to play with the concept of the male gaze, that the same actress performs all the women in the film, and that our protagonist arrives at scenes he could never know the location of…Or maybe it just comes down to what Argento always says, that beautiful women just look better being killed.

Hester Arden in Yellow [Click to Enlarge]

Hester Arden in Yellow [Click to Enlarge]

Diabolique: Wow, you know I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t fully realize it was the same actress playing the victim with each scene. Maybe we can chalk it up to being absorbed by the visual feel of the film. That being said, it seems that subconsciously, recollecting on my viewing experiences, I felt there was something in the victims that was strange, familiar. Was working with the actress, getting her to play each role slightly different, challenging?

RH: The women who were in Giallo cinema were, for me, much more than just fetishistic objects to be killed by black-gloved killers. They were also heroines, murderers, and strong, ballsy characters who could do everything and did. Our lead actress Hester Arden is a strong woman and a fantastic actress, it was a role that wasn’t easy to cast and we were very lucky to have had her recommended to us. She was fearless on set, like a true Italian scream queen!

JB: I loved the idea that some people might not pick up on it being the same actress straight away, but always felt it would seep in somehow. I think it fits with the kind of films we like to watch. We like to be given some space to let things happen.

Diabolique: I think it is a testament to the engrossing nature of the film. There are some really simple but aesthetically pleasing shots in the film–my favorite being the shot of the drawer opening, the way the camera seems to be connected with the movement–how meticulously planned out was the filming? Was every shot storyboarded, or did you approach the film in a more relaxed manner?

RH: We talked a lot about the look we wanted to achieve before we started shooting. Jon made up some brilliant storyboards, which are very close to a lot of the shots in the final film. We wanted a classic style that rooted the camera mainly static, and for me this was exciting in directing the actors to move and perform within a set frame. It felt very powerful; really letting the actors be free to perform.

JB: When the drawer opens, the camera was attached to it! It was part of the thinking of the film to highlight small details, especially reveal shots, with as much movement as we could muster with what we had. That would really help to illustrate the Detective and procedural elements of the film. I think you can see this in the elevator sequence and the scene where the detective chases the killer down into the underground station, too. We storyboarded a lot because time and money was tight, but also because we had some clear ideas about how we wanted the scenes to move between each other. Some details happened totally spontaneously though. I loved the strange crawling lights that move over the detective in the final scene. The light was just there in the bar we filmed in, but it worked really well, so I kept it in when I was lighting the corridor.

Diabolique: Who thought up the idea for the killer’s look? I am intrigued by the look. First, it seems to embody such a wealth of intertextual (religious, hardboiled detective, executioner, slasher and of course Giallo) elements that it gives the viewer enough to create a psychological profile of the killer, in a completely visual form. It might not be the killer intended, but it grants the viewer room. It makes it possible for the film to not overly explain who the killer is, and have the film’s story still work. We are actually more concerned about who the detective is.

JB: Exactly, I think you got the influences spot on. We were really lucky to work with an awesome designer called Smirk, who listened to what we were talking about and took it to a whole new level. It’s quite a difficult thing to take all those crazy influences and mold them all into something coherent and iconic, but I think he pulled it off really well, and it definitely gave the film a very visual and memorable element.

RH: I grew up in a Catholic household and was forced to go to Church until my early teens. I think this is one of the reasons I became so interested in horror, because, in my opinion, Religion is the real horror of the world. The original idea for the killer came from wanting to mold the idea of catholic repression and guilt into the form of a killer. We described the world of the film to Smirk, and the rough idea that we wanted the look of an insane psycho fetishist priest from the future and he delivered a design of the killer that blew us away!

Stephen M Gilbert in Yellow [Click to Enlarge]

Stephen M Gilbert in Yellow [Click to Enlarge]

Diabolique: I find that short films are never completely free of error, and often (due to budget and time constraints) filmmakers always have at least one shot, one delivery, one thing they wish could have been done differently. Is there anything that sticks out for you, any part you wish you had done differently, had you had the time or budget?

JB: I don’t think that’s just short films; it’s filmmaking or any creative thing. I want to chase perfection until I finally go mad from it.

RH: I wouldn’t say I have any regrets with the film. The hardest part was getting it actually made, after that everything is a blessing. I think the final result is an achievement for everyone who worked on it and I have a lot of memories that I will cherish forever. Most notably nearly falling out of a window through exhaustion and having Jon pull me back in.

Diabolique: The parking lot scene looks like something straight out of Argento; it is almost too pretty, too perfect to exist. This could probably be said of almost any location in the film. How long was the location scouting process?

RH: We all live in Berlin and looked around for locations a lot, some were easier to find than others. Part of the film was shot in my old apartment; at the time my neighbors must have thought I was a serial killer. The orange underpass is spectacular, our producer Catherine knew of the location. As soon as we went there to do a little test shoot we knew it was perfect for the timeless and surreal feel we wanted.

Diabolique: One aspect that strikes me, with each consecutive viewing, is that the film seems to be largely tied together with crossfades. I actually think that some of the strongest filmmaking occurs in the office-murder scene, where I believe the longest stream of diegetic sound happens. Was the film intentionally supposed to play out in a dream-like manner, fading from shot to shot, sequence to sequence, or was this more a result of necessity?

RH: Using cross fades came along after a conversation I had with Jon about why people do not use cross fades anymore?! Cross fades are brilliant! Jon’s interest in Surrealist cinema was also an influence in the use of it to portray a dream-like state throughout the film, but the office scene was purposely edited in a different style. It’s the full reveal of the killer; it had to jump out at the audience.

JB: As a whole we wanted the film to feel very much like you lose sense of time. You’re really unsure how long the detective has been searching for answers and at the end the cycle seems to start again. It’s an evil loop he can’t seem to break free from.

Diabolique: This is a random question, but I would be lying if it didn’t strike me immediately upon viewing the film, what was the reasoning behind having one of the only pieces of decoration in the “detective’s” house be a playboy-esque poster?

JB: We shot in our friends’ flat. They liked having porn on the wall.

RH: It’s just a little nod to the grand masters of exploitation sleaze really. You know he’s a lonely old man; he needs some enjoyment. Or it may be that I just think Playboy is a great magazine.

Diabolique: I’ve read that you are highly inspired by David Lynch, is the ambiguity of the ending a reflection of this inspiration?

RH: One of the original reasons we became friends was over our shared interest in similar cinema, one being David Lynch. I think his films are so influential because he captures the ambiguity of real life. The world is a very strange place and all the more so, when you are an old, catholic guilt ridden, playboy reading, misogynistic detective.

JB: One of the things Lynch is not really given a lot of credit for is the way he develops his characters. If you didn’t care about the characters the ambiguity and the strangeness would not hit you as hard. It’s this combination that’s the inspiring thing I think. One of our biggest challenges was creating a character in a long-ish short film that was captivating enough that you get wrapped up in the drawn out mood, without it outstaying its welcome; or the weirdness being for its own sake.

Diabolique: It is actually refreshing to see two artistic individuals who aren’t afraid to profess their love of genre pictures, in particular horror. It seems that there is a long running trend, that very much still exists, where talented directors will move away from horror, professing that it is in their past.

JB: I have a much more open approach about it. That’s one of the biggest issues I have with ‘Horror with a big H.’ For me, it always seems too neatly packaged and limited to certain responses. Most of the ‘horror’ films that I like, if you can call them that, could equally be called something else too. Some of the most unnerving films I’ve seen, like Eraserhead, Blood of the Beasts, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Shining or Blue Velvet wouldn’t even be considered horror by a lot of people. The sequence with the white horse being killed and cut up in the abattoir in Blood of the Beasts just hit me really hard. One moment there is this incredible majestic horse that trots into the courtyard and literally a couple of minutes later it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s pretty powerful and gets you on a gut level. I mean, it’s way easier to make a killer, a one-dimensional nutbag, than make him a complicated and compromised nobody, like the guy in The Vanishing, which is way more interesting and honest. But, it comes back to that old classic of putting the evil safely inside a container and not admitting it’s amongst everybody, because that’s way more threatening. That’s why I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of standard genre at all. But I really like a lot of the elements that genre is built on as long as the thing is alive and makes me feel something.

RH: I have such a fondness for Giallo cinema because it really transcended the genre into an artistic form. They are insanely inventive and beautiful to watch. It’s sad to see the later Argento output because you can see him losing grasp of this ideal, becoming nothing more than a failed exercise in gore and sleaze. Stanley Kubrick and William Friedkin made two of the greatest horror films of all time: The Shining and The Exorcist, which were films deep into their careers. They are so amazing because they didn’t approach them as horror films, they approached them as pure cinema. I enjoy working with Jon so much because together we reach this point of wanting to create something like pure cinema, that transcends genre expectations. That’s what makes great cinema for me. When people approach things from a view point of wanting to make a horror film, working within the expectation, wanting to be extreme, you end up with Hostel or Saw, which I don’t have any time for. Luckily, for every Rob Zombie there is a Nicolas Winding Refn, who is pushing the boundaries of genre cinema. His latest film Only God Forgives is a horror film, but it’s also arthouse and has exploitation elements. This is the kind of filmmaking that I like.

Diabolique: What is in store for your futures?

RH: Horror is in my blood so there will be something coming! We’ve been working hard to get the new Yellow feature going.

JB: I’ve just recently shot an episode for the ABC’s of Death 2 (Y is for Yelling) and I’m also shooting and producing a Japanese sci-fi road-movie feature called Fonotune at the moment.

Stay tuned for a full review of the short film, later this week. 
 
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About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

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