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Rewriting Lycanthropy: Interview with HOWL Director Paul Hyett

Amit Shah_axe

In the annals of distinct and memorable werewolf movies, the creature itself must be the essential element that classifies the film as something to remember. For every classic like The Howling with its vivid man-to-werewolf transformation, there are (in that case) at least four inferior sequels or riffs whose on-screen creatures you’d be hard pressed to recall in any detail. In the case of make-up artist and prosthetics designer-turned-director Paul Hyett’s second film Howl (out in the U.S. in January, 2016), the featured werewolves are clearly the defining elements of the film, as they bear little resemblance with any previous cinematic lycanthropic incarnation. Hyett’s take on the werewolf genre is to grizzle up the creature by infusing them with an inbred sensibility (a la Wrong Turn) and break the well-worn rules that werewolves can’t walk around during the day, and only during a full moon. The werewolves in this film stalk and hunt a group of people who have become stranded in a stalled train car in the middle of the forest wilderness where the creatures inhabit.

No stranger to working on a werewolf picture, Hyett worked extensively on Universal’s Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012), which is when I first met and interviewed him on set in Bucharest, Romania. Since his days of working on creature effects and prosthetics for other notable films such as The Descent, Doomsday, and Attack the Block, Hyett has become a full-fledged director in his own right, with his first film The Seasoning House (2013), setting the stage for what he was capable of as a filmmaker. That film, which was set in a harrowing world of war and human enslavement, made an indelible impression, as it skirted the razor’s edge of grim horror and bleak, but exhilarating drama. With Howl, he proves for the second time that he has his own, distinct dark touch and a cinematic sensibility firmly grounded in horror. In light of the upcoming release, I sat down to speak with Hyett about the project and what audiences should expect.

HOWLDiabolique: The last time we saw each other, I remember you were deciding on your next project, but I don’t believe you ever mentioned Howl to me at that time.

Paul Hyett: That was a good couple of years ago, wasn’t it?

I remember you had planned an unrelated trilogy, the first of which was The Seasoning House. But you stepped aside and did this werewolf movie instead. Which is great.

 It just kind of came about. I really wanted to do something that was very far away from The Seasoning House. I wanted to do something that wasn’t dark, nihilistic, and bleak. Just to show that I could do other stuff as well.

Well, I definitely know that you can do werewolves. You and I met on the set of Werewolf: The Beast Among Us, as you know. The werewolves in Howl look awesome, as I expected coming from you. They look quite unlike any other cinematic werewolves.  

Brilliant, brilliant. I kind of wanted to get away from the mythology of furry snouts and things. I kind of felt like if people got bit by something, they got infected and it took years for them to transform. Also, because it’s about the characters, I wanted the creatures to have a humanistic quality. They have much more character qualities rather than just being a whole bunch of big, furry faceless creatures, if you know what I mean.

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I get it. When we spoke in Romania, I remember you telling me how much you liked the design of the werewolves in the Underworld pictures.

Yeah.

I have you on the record for that!

(Laughing.)

So were you thinking of Underworld again for the conceptual design for these creatures, or were you thinking of something different as the base for them?

I remember saying that about the creatures in Underworld. They’re really well designed and well made. It didn’t really effect what we did with Howl. I wanted very gnarly, ugly things rather than having them well-groomed creatures. I didn’t want these werewolves to look like they’d been shaped by a hair dryer. I wanted them to look gnarly. Like Wrong Turn. Werewolves crossed with inbred types of humans. That’s kind of what I was thinking.

I actually really like the first Wrong Turn.

Yeah, me too.

You’re a creature effects guy, so did you have a lot of input in their design and in physically creating the molds and prosthetics, or did you pass on the duties to someone else?

Basically, I had a concept designer who I worked with. I kind of knew what I wanted. I knew where I wanted to go. We started looking at 3D sculpting digital software where you can get a 3D model, and I worked out what I wanted, and then we pushed it around and pulled up the rib cage, so there’s was a lot of designing. Once we kind of got the look in the 3D digital world, then I took it to the prosthetics guys and they took a look at it and came up with ideas of their own. It’s a very collaborative process. The main creature was played by Ryan Oliva from The Seasoning House. He’s absolutely huge. We cast him, and it helped to have him as the main werewolf and the three skinny ones who are the female ones. There’s a certain amount of design. I learned with The Seasoning House that you’ve got to let people have their input because they’re artists themselves. I didn’t want to be there going, “Do this, do that, sculpture like this, paint it like that.” I wanted this to have a little bit of collaborative work as well. I know what it’s like being a prosthetics guy, having a director be very finicky about every single detail. On Howl I had a lot more to think about. This whole film was prepped in about five or six weeks. Suddenly we got a green light. That train took about five weeks to build. It’s all set in a train, so you’re thinking, How do I make the camera look interesting? I wanted to do steadycam shots, slider shots, zooms, but to do the whole thing in the train took a lot of difficult planning and design. Also, I’ve got thirty people – the crew – on the train, and the cast, so basically I had a lot of things to work out. Even with those creatures and the effects, most of the film is shot inside the studio with a green screen in the background. There are effects shots in the end. I had to leave it with guys I could trust. It worked out better that way.

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The film is less than 90 minutes, and with horror films involving creatures, filmmakers either like to throw their monsters at the screen right at the beginning, or they hold off and make the audience wait to see the creatures, which is what you did. Talk a little bit about your decision to restrain the creatures from being seen until later in the film.

Concerning the script, I took out a lot of the humor. When I first came on board, there was a lot more comedy in the script. I kind of felt that the film wasn’t balanced and I wanted to ground it in reality. With the creatures, I feel that we don’t show too much. I don’t know if you felt you needed to see the creatures earlier. I think it’s around 54 minutes in when you fully see a creature properly. It’s risky. What I tried to do with Howl was try to have it feel retro and classic in terms of the structure. You always run the risk of it being generic or predictable, but I kind of like those classics like Horror Express and the old Hammer films. We all talked about how to do this. We wanted it to feel contemporary, but we wanted to use prosthetics. One of the things I didn’t want to do, which is what happens with a lot of movies is that they show too much of the creature. So many films – especially low budget movies – everything is in the dark. Little glimpses. I still think, Did I show too much? The creatures were always a constant worry, especially at the end of the film. We shot it in daylight. That was a scary thing. We talked a lot about whether or not we should show them in daylight. I wanted the audience to be taken by surprise because they might be thinking that if the characters make it to daylight, then they’d be safe. But they would be wrong because we don’t play by those rules. These creatures are allowed in the nighttime and they’re allowed in the daytime. They never transform back. I had to show them in the light and in the fog. We show the creatures a lot and the creatures held up in the light.

Talk a little bit about the casting in the film. You’ve got Sean Pertwee again, whom you’ve worked with several times. Of course, he dies again! You also cast Rosie Day, who was the star of your first film and Ed Speelers from Eragon was your star.

We talked about who would be a good zero-to-hero guy. I looked at Ed’s stuff and he seemed like a really good actor. He thought a lot about the character. He’s done some good work and he was the right guy at the right time. He brought a lot to it. With Sean, I’d been talking to him for about a year and a half. Suddenly, just as it was green-lit, I phoned him up and I said, “Howl is going to happen!” He said, “Oh, I’m going to New York next week to do Gotham.” I was like, “Oh, but you’ve got to come and do a cameo. You can be the train guy that gets killed.” He was like, “Okay…” We knew he could come in and do that. He was always supportive of the project. With Rosie, I said, “I have a part for you here.” She said, “One question: Do I talk this time?” I was like, “Yeah, you talk a lot!” She said, “What am I playing?” I said, “An annoying teenager.” “Perfect, great!” It was as easy as that. Rosie and Sean are always so much fun to get on the set. Rosie is the second person to die, so it was really sad to kill her. I was very lucky to get such a cool cast.

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I wouldn’t call this a regular, run-of-the-mill werewolf movie, so who is this film’s audience? Who will appreciate this film?

You know something? I think it will appeal to older horror fans. There’re a lot of new horror movies that are really innovative and that are breaking new ground, but this is kind of a retro throwback horror movie. The old school horror fans will appreciate it a little bit more than the younger crowd who are more into supernatural, possession type movies.

This is your second film in a row where you more or less ground the proceedings in a “real world” type setting. Why don’t you want to go in the supernatural direction and into the beyond?

It’s not a conscious decision. When I do a supernatural film, it will probably be a possession movie. That’s something I have going on right now, exactly that. I think Howl came at a time when I wanted to get away from The Seasoning House. I read the script and I really enjoyed it. I thought it would be a great one to do. You have a certain list of movies you’d like to do, and a retro werewolf movie was one of them. Demon possession is another one. It’s just a case of what drops first. I’ve got a few other films in development. One is a survival horror and another one is a gothic horror film.

Howl is set to be released on Blu-ray and DVD via Alchemy in January of 2016

About david j. moore

david j. moore is the author of World Gone Wild: A Survivor's Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies and The Good, the Tough, and the Deadly: Action Movies and Stars.

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