Independent horror filmmakers have always been known for their ingenuity. With little more than a shoestring budget, a motley band of friends, and boundless imagination, directors like George Romero, Tobe Hooper, and Sam Raimi created low-budget masterpieces that stood toe-to-toe with the biggest summer blockbusters. So it was probably inevitable that, with the Hollywood machine crippled by the international pandemic, the most talked-about movie of the summer would be a zero-budget found-footage horror film shot remotely by a group of friends over Zoom. In the two and a half weeks since its surprise release on horror streaming service Shudder, director Rob Savage’s Host has been featured in the New York Times and on Good Morning America, earned the plaudits of some of the biggest names in horror, and racked up a so-far unblemished 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. In the wake of the film’s success, we spoke to co-writer Jed Shepherd, producer Douglas Cox, and Savage himself (who joined halfway through the chat) about the challenges and rewards of shooting the first fully remote horror movie. (The conversation does include some mild spoilers, so I recommend watching Host before reading; it’s only 56 minutes long, and you can get Shudder on a free 30-day trial with the coupon code SHUTIN). The conversation has been lightly edited for flow and brevity.
BOSTON HASSLE: It’s kind of funny talking to you guys on Zoom, given the subject of the movie. Has it been weird for you at all using Zoom, having been through all this?
JED SHEPHERD (co-writer): Yeah. It’s kind of weird, because people are a little bit scared to use it with us. [laughs] So we’ve had requests to use other things, like Squadcast– whatever the hell that is. And Skype. I’ve done a bunch of things on Skype, and like, who still uses Skype? This isn’t 2005! But yeah, it is kind of weird. There’s something quite beautiful and meta about it.
DOUGLAS COX (producer): Yeah. I mean, I definitely– and I think Rob [Savage, the director] will agree– he and I spent so long on Zoom when we were filming. We’re talking like 12, 13 hours a day. We’d join the set in the morning, and then we just stay on and hop between locations. So I don’t know about Rob, but I definitely had at least a week away from Zoom, near enough. I think it was maybe four days, actually, just to give myself a breather. But I’m really enjoying how much nervousness around Zoom has been developing from people who’ve watched the film.
BH: It’s like people just got used to it, and now they’ve already got the Jaws effect on it.
JS: Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Zoom!
BH: It seems especially suited for watching on a computer, or on a laptop screen, more than a lot of movies. I usually try to watch screeners on my TV, but by coincidence I wound up watching it on my computer, and I found that enhanced it a lot.
JS: Oh, yeah. It makes you feel like you’re a participant in that particular Zoom seance. I would say that that is probably the best way to watch it initially, but if you want a deep dive into Easter eggs and to get the full story of of Host, watching it on as big a screen as possible lets you see the things we’ve hidden in the background, and all the little features. Each rectangle of screen that the girls are in is like its own little film, You can watch that alone and still get enjoyment out of that one screen, because our amazing crew worked so hard to fill it full of cool stuff. When we finally get to watch it on the cinema screen hopefully one day– which we are doing at least a few times– it’s going to be insane, because people will see more.
DC: Yeah. Real credit to Rob and Brenna Rangott, our editor. They crafted these stories for each character in the film. Like Jed says, what’s been really fun is seeing people go back to the film and watch it in different ways. Even our special effects consultant asked me before we watched it all together the night before it was released on Shudder how best to watch it, whether it should be on his computer or on his big projector. And he’s since done both, and said it was a really fun experience both ways. But my money for first watches is on a computer. And I think if you really want that extra special sort of deep dive, open a Zoom window, just a meeting for yourself in the background, so that you get a little green dot from your webcam turned on. And then you really do feel like you’re being watched as well as everybody else.
JS: And turn off a light and light candle as well, if you want the full immersive experience.
DC: If you dare!
BH: I was curious what putting together the movie was like from a screenwriting standpoint, because for found footage or mockumentary, obviously it has to sound extemporaneous. Was there a lot of improvisation, or were you and the other writers very deliberate about what was being said?
JS: Well, what we had right at the start is, me and Rob came up with all the deaths first. We just had kind of an idea of all the cool stuff we wanted, how we wanted to kill our friends. So we had that. We knew it was going to be a Zoom seance, because that’s what we pitched to Shudder. And we had a general structure, and then we worked with another writer called Gemma Hurley to make it what it is now. But I would say everything you love about Host, all the amazing lines– that comes directly from the girls themselves. They were instrumental in everything you love about it. Like, Emma saying “Happy spookies!” That was just an ad lib from her. All the interactions were just them being themselves, and the fact that they’re real friends really helped. I think the best rehearsal for this is ten years of friendship.
DC: I think a lot of every part of the process, in fact, was sort of enabling the cast to have an experience which could just allow them to do what they do best. And I think those really grounded performances are one of the major things that really helps this as a found footage film. It really sort of set neatly in everybody’s psyche a little bit, because it does feel just like a group of friends hanging out on a Zoom call, because it’s exactly that. They are all friends. We’ve all been hanging out for years. So what Rob and Jed and Gemma pulled together in two weeks was this sort of 17-page outline which formed the skeleton structure for how the movie would play out. And then, throughout the filming process, Rob would improvise these scenes, and build on the skeleton, and allow the girls to improvise and work these lines around. And like Jed said, some of the best moments came from them riffing on things and sort of just going off on little tangents. The fact that they had such good relationships anyway really allowed that to bed in in quite a kind of natural way, an organic way of filming. It was a really fun process.
[Director Rob Savage enters the chat]
JS: …and Rob was the worst director we’ve ever worked with. Oh, hi Rob!
ROB SAVAGE (director/co-writer): [laughs]
BH: We were just talking about the screenwriting process versus the improvisation, and how you all put together the story and made it sound natural.
RS: Well, I don’t know how much these guys have gone over, but yeah. We had, I think it was a 17-page outline, so every day I’d kind of turn up on Zoom with the actors, and we’d have a short paragraph to describe the scene. And me and the actors would basically have to rehearse it, and do take after take, and try to find what was working and what wasn’t. We’d kind of shape it over the course of two or three takes, and get it down to what you see in the movie. We shot it chronologically, apart from some of the scare scenes, which we shot earlier on. So it was really helpful to basically be able to see the movie happening in front of us day by day. It’s nerve-wracking when you don’t have the normal planning that you’re used to. But it was really fun, actually, being able to turn up and just feel spontaneous. If something’s not working, we can just try something else.
DC: And on that sense of really grounded performance, that whole process really helped in that way. Rob mentioned we shot a lot of the bigger stunt set pieces early on, so that we could finish them with a bit of editing and VFX and play them back to the cast, so they’d be able to react in real time to stuff that they hadn’t seen before.
RS: And we hid a lot of stuff from the cast as well. They got redacted versions of the script with only their scenes in it, so they didn’t know when people were going to go, and they didn’t know where the scares were going to come from. Haley’s chair pull-back, just as an example– that was all rigged to happen live. Haley’s boyfriend, Kieron, was in the hallway with the rope, and he had a trigger word to go on, and the rest of the cast just thought they were playing a normal argument scene. They thought the scares were coming later. So when Haley gets pulled back and slams against the wall, those are genuine take-one reactions. It’s got this element of prank video about it, which is really fun to do.
DC: There was real commitment from all to make sure that we held that as a surprise as well. Even the stunt team, and us in production, would make different versions of call sheets and different versions of risk assessments that would go to specific cast members, that didn’t have stuff that didn’t pertain to their day on it, so there was no way they could figure things out. It’s fun sort of playing tricks!
JS: It’s quite sadistic, isn’t it?
RS: It’s very sadistic, yeah. [laughs]
JS: But you need that with found footage. That’s what the creators of The Blair Witch did. They essentially cajoled the actors into these situations where they would be at their best, and that’s by making them fear everything around them. [laughs]
BH: That actually goes into my next question. Obviously, there are a lot of practical effects, which I’m sure are complicated on a low-budget shoot anyway, but especially given that it was all done remotely. How did you coordinate some of that?
RS: Well, our VFX supervisor, Steve Bray, would come onto the calls and help the actors set up their shots, and make sure that we were getting clean plates, and all the things that you need to piece these shots together. Of course, it’s never going to be the same as being there on set, and being able to get the exact footage you want. There were certain scenes that we knew probably couldn’t be shot by the actors themselves, so we came up with ways of me being able to shoot them. For instance, Emma’s scene with the flour footsteps and the cupboards exploding is probably one of the biggest effects sequences in the movie. That was actually shot in my kitchen, with me dressed up as Emma with the bunny slippers on. We just did a hidden cut, and then I became Emma’s point of view. So then, because I’ve done a lot of work in VFX before, I was able to set it up and get exactly the footage we needed.
For other effects, it was just about getting the actors to understand how the shots are put together. The scene where the sheet goes over the ghost in Emma’s room, she shot that for real. The way she did that is, we got her a little tripod for her camera phone, and she sort of walks it up to the door handheld, and she’s able to place the camera down and keep it rocksteady, so our VFX supervisor is able to work his VFX magic, and then we add a handheld effect onto it afterwards. So for her, it’s quite a simple thing– she just needs to plunk the thing down– but as soon as she understood the principle of why we needed that frame not to move, and there not to be any interference in front of the camera… As soon as they clicked with that, they all learned really fast all of those principles, and cinematography principles, and all the extra things we were asking them to do. They really rose to the challenge, all of them.
DC: I think, as well, it’s worth noting that we were all drawing from our experiences on bigger productions, as well as our shared experiences working on our short films previously, where we’d have to find these creative ways of making things look cool and finding workarounds for stuff. Applying both of those experiences to something like this was a big part of how we problem-solved each of these moments, and figured out how to do it.
BH: Obviously, it’s a challenge to shoot remotely, but I imagine it’s also a challenge to get it distributed without the traditional film festival circuit. How did you wind up getting this movie to Shudder and in front of people?
RS: Shudder saw, I’d done a kind of prank on the actors in the movie– because they’re just our friends, we were all just hanging out on Zoom before all this– and I did a kind of stupid prank video where I’d pretended that a zombie had eaten me on a Zoom call. And we put that online, and that ended up going viral, and we got millions and millions of views on it. So Shudder had seen that, and we had a lot of people reaching out after that video went viral, asking if we could do a longer piece on Zoom. We had some ideas, but Jed came up with this idea of the Zoom seance, and that was kind of all we had when we went to Shudder. We had other companies bidding on it, and there was actually a bit of a bidding war on it, but Shudder was the only company that got how we wanted to do this– the fact that we didn’t have a script, we didn’t know how long it was going to be, we didn’t really know anything about how it would work. Our pitch was, “We think it’s gonna be really cool, we want to get it out as quickly as possible, we want to try to capture a moment, but you’ve really gotta let us figure it out. You can’t try to impose the way that a normal film production would work. You can’t just copy and paste that and put it onto remote filming. It doesn’t work that way.” And they totally got on board with that, to their credit. They were totally supportive, and it was nice knowing that we had a launch platform that was aimed at the audience we were hoping to connect to. We made this as horror fans for horror fans. And it’s been amazing how well the horror community has embraced it, but it’s amazing as well that it’s transcended the horror community and has entered the mainstream conversation in a little way, which is something we never expected.
BH: Do you all have any projects lined up next? Is there anything you’re working on now?
JS: Yeah, me and Rob are doing a film with Sam Raimi, that was announced I think about four weeks ago now, which is really fun. We can’t say too much about it, but it’s an idea that we couldn’t believe someone hasn’t done already. We want to make it ASAP, and hopefully this lockdown situation will be finished so that we can make it, because it’s one of the best ideas we’ve ever come up with, and it’s one of the most fun things as well.
RS: Working with Sam on it is amazing as well. We’re such big fans of him, but he’s exactly how you’d expect. It’s such a fun, collaborative process.
JS: Because it’s on Zoom as well– we’ve been talking to him on Zoom, and doing table reads that way– it’s like a Master Class that we’ve got for free, because we’re seeing this man in action just making our ideas better, as only Sam Raimi can do. It’s ridiculous. I’ve learned so much just by watching him. And hopefully we’ll all do something with Shudder again. Hopefully they like us enough that we get a chance to do that.
RS: I think they like us plenty.
DC: Watch this space, I think, alright?
BH: As a final question, do you guys have any advice for someone trying to make art, now especially in quarantine, or just in general?
RS: I think, quarantine or not, what you’ve got to do is– we’ve made a bunch of low-budget short films together as well, which is how we got on Shudder’s radar in the first place– the thing that we always do, and the thing that I always tell specifically filmmakers, but anyone, is don’t wait around for the ideal circumstances, because it doesn’t exist. There’ll always be some impediment to you going and making your movie. Look at what you’ve got available in front of you right now, and make the movie that you can make right now. Any restriction can be turned into an opportunity if you look at it in the right way. When we were making this, I remember there was a lightbulb moment when we were developing this where I realized that the remote filming aspect of this wasn’t a hindrance, it was actually an amazing thing, because it meant that literally anyone with an internet connection could be a part of our movie. If we needed something very specific doing a crazy stunt, we could find somebody anywhere in the world almost to do that stunt, and by the afternoon it would be in our edit, it would be in the movie. So it’s a whole new way of working, but it’s also an opportunity. We made Host with people all around the country, but you could have made that net even wider. You could make a film that utilizes talent from all around the world. There’s so much you can do with it. So yeah. On whatever scale you’re talking about, look at what you have access to right now, and make that movie.
DC: That’s how we’ve done it, like Rob said, and just to follow from that, embrace your tribe. People that you meet, and that you make these things with, stay in touch with them and keep working [with them]. We all met years ago making films, and here we are. Even the sound designer, Calum [Sample], who did Host, came on randomly to mine and Rob’s first short film, which was before we even met Jed. Same with Dan Hawkins, who’s our VFX guy. It’s all people who we’ve just stayed in touch with over the years. And it meant that, when this came about, we knew who to ring up, and we knew how to get people who cared about this as much as we do.
JS: My only advice to someone who’s just starting out is just don’t be a dick, because later on you might need people to help you make these things, and people remember. So just always be nice to people. And if someone asks you for help, if you can, help them, because then they’ll help you later on. That’s it: don’t be a dick.
dir. Rob Savage
Now streaming on Shudder
Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.