‘Into The Woods’ dir. Matt Taabu
A family of three encounter a stranger in the woods, who struggles to tell them something vitally important.
C8: ‘Into the Woods’ packs a real punch in a very short space of time, and it’s not often we see a well executed thriller in short film. What were your main considerations when you set out to make a genre piece?
MT: Thanks. My main focus was to try to tell a thriller in broad daylight and make it thrilling. I didn’t look at the trappings (or clichés) of genre for ‘Into The Woods’, as I felt that doing so may have impacted on the basic story. I just tried to tell the story as honestly as I could, which meant focusing on the character interaction and pushing the emotional beats.
C8: At the thematic heart of the film lies a fear others, and the irony in this case it that the man on the run is actually trying to help the family. Did you always set out to make a film about prejudice?
MT: I was exploring the prejudices that surface in a moment of crisis, when people are confronted by things which push them down a certain path. You might walk around thinking you’re liberal-minded until someone tries to harm you, then your reaction might surprise you. Prejudices sometimes seem like a kind of default position. They’re either the domain of the ignorant, or a survival mechanism, depending on your point of view.
C8: The ‘delightful’ English family turn out to be monstrous – is there a broader political comment you’re making here about people in the UK, or are we reading too much into it?
MT: The original idea started out with the notion of Bush and Blair on the path to Iraq, and the sense that they weren’t listening to what people were telling them about WMD. The story developed into something else, but the basic concept remained in the back of my mind. I wasn’t particularly commenting about people in the UK, as there’s a general challenge any society faces about how we integrate with each other. It’s as old as the human race and we still haven’t fully resolved it. I always saw the film as a morality tale about the dangers of not listening. The family are just trying to survive. The monster is the fear that pushes them into making the choices they do in the heat of the moment. Kill the monster and you stand a chance.
C8: What were the biggest challenges you faced during production?
MT: Pre-production, the search for the right kind of woods took weeks. I must have walked through every wood in the North of Britain. It’s tricky trying to find something that fits your imagination. Either the type of trees or the path wasn’t quite right. I only found the place we used by accident. It was so hidden away, that we only saw two people walk past whilst we were shooting. Living in the city I’d forgotten how powerful and clean the air is in the woods. It’s incredible and intoxicating.
During production, the main challenge was having to stop for passing aeroplanes interfering with the sound recording. We had a really smooth shoot considering we were on location in public woodland and shooting natural light. The sun was out with clear skies each day, we were really, really lucky. It was a great shoot, well organized and prepped, I had a great team pulled together by the producers.
C8: How did you approach working with an actor in a foreign language?
MT: No one ever questioned me about this at the time, and I’m not sure whether this was down to no one thinking about the challenge, or an assumption that I knew what I was doing. I felt that if the tone of delivery sounded right then I’d use that as my guide. I just worked closely with the actors to find the emotional beats and build up each section slowly. First day of rehearsals however, I did get them to act out the entire script in one go while I stood and watched. This scared them shitless as no one knew when to come in speaking in different languages, but I wanted them to use that sense of fear and uncertainty when thinking about their character’s situation. Interestingly, I was quite vocal in not wanting subtitles at first, but when you watch the film without them your empathy changes quite dramatically. Having subtitles also stopped people asking ‘what is he saying?’, which was one of the deciding factors in the end.
C8: Where does the film sit in your career, what had you done before it?
MT: I’d made a short four years earlier called ‘Black|Blue’ and it was really a case of needing to write and direct something else again. The submission came up and I had to find a project quick. I looked at other scripts but nothing felt right for me at the time, so I came up with this story over a weekend when time was pressing on. It continues my theme of exploring issues of personal and cultural identity. I’ve made a couple of shorts since, ‘Threads’ and ‘Brotherhood’, both as writer/director.
C8: What tips would you give to those emerging filmmakers interested in making genre shorts?
MT: Don’t stick blindly to conventions and use what you need to tell a great story. I’m not a massive fan of spending too much time thinking about genre. It’s either evident in the idea or it isn’t. Voicing this usually gets me into trouble, but hey… Try to find a simple idea and execute it well. It’s easy to over-complicate shorts or try and cram as much in as possible. Don’t!
C8: What’s the essence of a good collaboration?
MT: Being a good listener. Recognising that other people can have great ideas and telling them from the beginning that you welcome their voice. It always surprised me how some people seem to find this quite refreshing. I’ve found it makes the process more enjoyable as you’re engaging others by getting them to take ownership. It’s also about making the piece stronger, but that doesn’t mean it should lead to sacrificing your own voice. It’s a balance. It may surprise some people to learn that directors don’t always know everything, however much we might act as though we do.
C8: What’s next on the horizon for Matt Taabu?
MT: I’m currently developing my first feature, shaping the story which builds upon themes I’ve started to explore in my shorts. It’s interesting having more space to let the story breath, but brings new challenges, such as trying to balance the idea with commercial realities of feature film production. You want to remain true to your voice and get the thing made.