Rural Britain is a place of dread and mystery in Elliot Goldner’s debut feature The Borderlands. Following two priests and a technology expert (the inimitable Ben Wheatley-favourite Robin Hill, star of Down Terrace), who are sent by the Vatican to an isolated country church to investigate reports of ‘miraculous’ activity, the film begins in starkly realistic mode before weaving an increasingly disquieting, creepy atmosphere around its characters. The unhinged local priest, the sinister villagers, a sickening incident outside the investigators’ house, an eerie walk through the fields at night, supernatural manifestations, and the descent into the ancient church’s subterranean vaults, all unnervingly rack up the tension, sustained in no small part by terrific sound design, before culminating in a startling, inventive, horrific ending.
Producer Jennifer Handorf talked to Virginie Sélavy about the merits of filming in a bat-infested church and refraining from having a full-on Lovecraftian ending.
Virginie Sélavy: The film has a great sense of the moody, ominous British countryside in the tradition of The Wicker Man. There has been a resurgence of the British rural-horror genre in recent years, with Ben Wheatley’s films, and most recently In Fear. Did you consciously try to make the film fit this sub-genre?
Jennifer Handorf: No, we didn’t. And weirdly it was one of the only things that wasn’t prescriptive about the film. It was made with distribution in mind, in partnership with Metrodome. So they had things that they wanted us to include, like the found footage, the church, the Vatican – that was the brief. The rural element seemed to work for the story, but it wasn’t preconceived. And as we were developing the film, the local youths became more important. But we had lots of meetings where we said, ‘We don’t want them to be the creepy Wicker Man villagers’. So we were not even really aware that we were falling within that genre until after the fact, although we were conscious about many other things. Obviously we’ve got Rob Hill, who’s in Down Terrace, which is one of Ben Wheatley’s films, and he edited Kill List, so we were wary of coming off as copying anyone, but I think the film just naturally fell into that sub-genre.
How did you decide on the location?
Initially the director had thought about shooting at Brent Tor, which is down in Devon, on Dartmoor. But it’s tiny, it’s about the size of a shoebox, so it’s completely impractical to film in. So I was set with the task of looking at 15 to 20 churches that had the elements we needed, with a bell tower, that were on a hill, and were quite remote. When Elliot walked into West Ogwell Church in the south west, he said it was the only one that felt creepy – the other ones felt quite joyous. And I think there’s a very practical reason for that: there’s a native bat population living in the church. You not only get these strange noises of the bats fleeting around, but they also go to the bathroom wherever they are, so you get this sort of green mould all over the walls – it’s a bit gross, but I think that the strangeness and the colouration and the mouldiness and the sounds in the rafters – the life that was inherently in the building – is what made it that much scarier.
It feels like the church is a presence in itself in the film.
It really is. A lot of that is the sound design. Martin Pavey, who is Ben Wheatley’s sound designer, did it all, he’s an incredible artist. He added a lot of life to the church, with creaking rafters, and wind, adding things to make it a proper character in the film.
Were there any real creepy stories or legends about the church? What’s its history?
It was built in the 13th century, but the interesting thing we discovered is that it was likely built on a former druid site of worship, which is relevant in the film. The fact that it’s on a hill and that there are oak trees to the south is in keeping with their sites. And the church was built during the era when the druid sites were being taken over and their gods being done away with by Christianity. There were also some amazing folktales about nearby graveyards, like the possible origin story of The Hound of the Baskervilles. When this horrible local magistrate died they buried him in an above-ground mausoleum and they put iron bars around it so that he couldn’t get out. Supposedly if you go and say the right incantations on a full moon or something, his dogs will rise and chase you out of the graveyard. It actually burned down because some immature Satanists lit lots of candles and set fire to it in the 80s.
Found footage is a very popular sub-genre in horror at the moment. Were you wary of not re-treading ground? How did you approach it?
Absolutely. Strangely enough, it was one of the few things that was part of the brief initially, and when the film was finished, the sub-genre had become so passé that the distributor was begging us to distance ourselves from it in any way possible. So even at script stage, we were dead set on there being a firm justification for why the characters were filming, and how they were doing it. And that’s where the head-cams came from: they weren’t holding them, they were actually mounted to their heads. So they don’t drop them when they get scared. They’re not even aware of where they’re pointing the camera at sometimes, because it’s just their head movements. We even surveyed our friends and other film fanatics about what they hated the most in found footage, and a lot of the time we just got back: ‘Everything, why would you bother? It’s a dead genre.’ So it was exciting that people responded really well to our treatment. And, of course, in the edit it created a world of problems, because you don’t have a master shot, and cutting just on-head cameras can become quite difficult. While we were filming we were very aware of that, so we would make a character look somewhere so we could catch something on the camera. It was all very stringently planned, and very carefully considered throughout the process. If you put the work in and you’re really conscientious with the way you do things, it doesn’t have to be lazy, it doesn’t have to be a throwaway choice.
What do you think the technique brings to the film? How different would the story be if it’d been filmed as a conventional narrative?
Thematically, the idea of whether or not you can believe what you see, and the truth of the image, was a big thing. We realised in the process that it really suited the story, because if we’d filmed it straight, then if we showed you a string or a trick, you would think that it was shonky filmmaking, or you would think that it was obvious that we were showing you a trick. But if you do that with found footage the audience thinks, ‘Did I see a string, was that the movie or was that this guy faking it?’ All that stuff fits the genre better – the questioning of the image, the questioning of whether you can believe your eyes, really suited it thematically.
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There are a couple of particularly creepy, unsettling scenes, like the one where Father Deacon walks through the fields in the dark, and the scene in which some local youths gruesomely tease the priests.
I think the reason why those scenes work is because of what you can’t see. I’m a big believer in ‘Don’t show, imagine!’ You never properly see the youths until they get their comeuppance. And that really works because, in the light of day, they are these harmless kids, but at night, when you wonder who they are, what they are – and we keep them faceless until that point – your mind wanders to a very dark place if you allow it. And with Father Deacon walking around at night, again, he’s the character whose eyes are playing tricks on him, or he thinks his eyes are playing tricks on him. And I think we’re all used to that sensation of being somewhere dark, and suddenly the hairs on your neck stand up and you start to wonder, ‘What was that, what’s that sound, what’s that shape?’ and despite the fact that you know you’re alone, and you know there’s nothing sinister, your mind creates all these narratives. It’s also a lot about the sound design, because you’re informed by what you’re hearing, as you can’t see anything. So you can hear something but you can’t match it with what you’re seeing, and that’s very unsettling.
The relationship between Robin Hill’s jolly techie character Gray and Gordon Kennedy’s tormented priest Father Deacon is one of the great pleasures of the film.
It really is. The film wouldn’t be what it is without the chemistry that exists between those two. There are a lot of scenes that are straight improv from the two of them. When they’re looking at the map and picking out the different places, Gordon, who is a comedian, and has written comedy, is actually being forced to play the straight man by Rob, who won’t let him be serious for a minute. They’re a real treat.
One of the interesting things about the story is that it’s about priests who have a remarkable lack of faith in the miraculous, when you think that their whole belief system is based on just that.
Exactly. I come from a very religious part of America and I grew up surrounded by people who had tremendous faith, and for me it never made sense. But hearing those people talk about it as fact, they clearly get great comfort from it, it’s a big part of their lives. And then you look at the Catholic Church as an institution and you realise that not everybody within that institution has to have that absolute faith, as long as they act as faithful men – that’s all that really matters, a lot of it is politics. So it was really interesting to explore that. The character of Father Mark is meant to be by the book, he follows the rules, and then it’s revealed that he’s the one with the least amount of faith. And he makes this point: ‘Am I not a good man? Do I not follow the teachings of Jesus? Why do I have to believe in magic to be a good Christian?’ I found myself asking that a lot when I was a kid, and it was interesting to see it treated in the script. Then you have Father Deacon, who is someone who started off with a really strong faith, but through experiences in his life has learned that man’s inhumanity to man surpasses miracles. So he’s had it beaten out of him, where Father Mark never believed in it. It was a vital part of the film. Funnily enough, we’ve had a really bad reception from Italy because they think we’ve portrayed the Church as too nice, we haven’t made the priests sinister enough. So I’d quite like to see the Italian remake of this!
[SPOILER ALERT Stop reading if you don’t want to know anything at all about the ending.]
The ending is fantastic. Without revealing too much, what was the idea behind it?
Initially the ending was a lot more explicit, a lot more Lovecraftian. And it became one of those wonderful evolutions: because of the way you’re making a film there are restrictions put on you, and you can’t do what you initially intended, so you’ve got to come up with another solution. Keeping things a bit more subtle, having the guys just walk into it, showing that all they had to do was turn around and walk out, but they don’t, because they wanted that proof, because they needed to see it, and eventually they do, but the price they pay for that is obviously quite large.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy