Henk Pretorius on ‘The Unfamiliar’

Henk Pretorius [photo credit: Paul Harries, copyright: Dark Matter Studios]

The Unfamiliar is a psychological horror mystery and thriller from South African writer-director Henk Pretorius. Best known for local comedy films such as Bakgat, Fanie Fourie’s Lobola and Leading Lady, he’s branched into horror with The Unfamiliar, scheduled for release in 2020.

The film journeys with Izzy, a British Army doctor played by Jemima West, who returns home from war to discover a life unfamiliar to her. Spling caught up with Pretorius to find out more about his latest film…

The Unfamiliar is your first horror genre film. Is this a genre you always hoped to work in?

I have an A-type personality if you buy into the concept of having a ‘personality’ at all, which translates into me wanting to excel in every known genre. I can’t sit still or repeat myself. I have done some comedies; I explored the structure of creating a laugh and invested in the thematic content that I believe ultimately pulls the audience to the cinema. Horror films tickled my fancy. The idea that people find being petrified entertaining became an obsession I had to investigate.

In my process with The Unfamiliar, which has an ironically accurate title at first, I figured out that the seduction of the dark art of horror is the audience’s desire to deal with frightening universal themes.

Let’s look at It Follows, the brilliantly sculpted horror film by David Robert Mitchell. The thematic of this film or why it resonates with its audience, I believe, is because of most people’s fear of contracting a sexually-transmitted disease. The idea of it following you wherever you go is a significant horror trope that the filmmaker manages to, consciously or unconsciously, create a lot of real anxiety with in his use of this trope.

I view the horror audience as a brave group that will delve into the dark to find the light. The darkest horror can sometimes have a healing effect on its viewer. Just look at what films like The Babadook did for those who struggle with grief. The idea that you need to accept the pain and live with it. And when you do come to accept your grief, it will ultimately have less power over you.

Similar to It Follows and The Babadook, I also created a thematic to build into The Unfamiliar. And this thematic exploration is what interests me in the horror genre.

How did you become involved in this project?

I wrote the text with Jennifer Nicole Stang. I identified with the lead character’s strength and preservation, which kept us going through the numerous drafts of the script. Izzy is a British army doctor who felt compelled to volunteer to go to war just after giving birth to her baby daughter. She is the kind of person who selflessly serves others in her pledge to nurture the vulnerable.

The psychology of someone like that fascinates me. And yet is also intimately personal and a theme that runs through most of my previous films. The idea of career vs family was present in Bakgat, Fanie Fourie’s Lobola, as well as Leading Lady. I think “being” an A-type personality it is my lifelong quest to balance my ambition with regular family life.

My mother is a massively influential figure in both my work and my psychological makeup as a person. She is an incredibly dynamic force of nature that burns with more fire than most people I know. She has been very supportive of me since childhood, and I often feel that it’s her influence in my life that I emotionally draw from when creating lead characters.

The story is invested in Hawaiian mythology, what struck you about this and how does it contrast with your original idea of the island?

My co-writer Jennifer Nicole Stang visited Hawaii and delved into the research that eventually led to the enrichment of the film’s Hawaiian mythology. I think most people look at Hawaii and see what Hawaii can offer them, and not that Hawaiians have unique cultures and ideologies. I imagine Hawaiians often feel misunderstood and unappreciated for the wealth of their stories and their truthful offerings as people.

I wrote a portion of this script in Indonesia, and of course, Indonesia is vastly different from Hawaii, yet I feel that tourists rarely make an effort to assimilate themselves. Tourists rarely turn into travellers that pay respect to the people of Indonesia and the wealth of their wisdom. The fear of the explorational process what is needed to make The Unfamiliar, more familiar ties into the central theme.

Hawaii is in the film not as a tourist destination, but an enriched place with mythologies, ideologies and both good and evil forces. It is portrayed as a place in its own right, and not a place to simply serve the Westerner’s desire for an idyllic holidaying.

Jemima West Behind the Scenes, The Unfamiliar Photo Credit: Fathom KeyArt Services Copyright: Dark Matter Studios

Jemima West is ideally suited to this world… Can you tell us a bit about the casting process?

Our casting director Sophie Holland suggested Jemima West for the role. I viewed her body of work and put her on top of my wish list of actors to approach. Producer Llewelynn Greeff sent her talent agency an offer to attach to the project. Jemima’s team of agents are professional and well-respected in the United Kingdom. After they vetted the production and me, Jemima agreed to read the script.

I had a Skype call with Jemima, and she told me she liked the character because the character always faced danger head-on. She ran towards it and not away from it. Jemima also got the character’s alienation to her family when Izzy returns from war. She effortlessly portrayed the distance between them and thought about each beat in the script. She is a thinking actress, and I can’t imagine The Unfamiliar without her in it.

What were some of the challenges of bringing Hawaii to life?

I wrote down all the images about Hawaii that I saw in my head and made sure never to use them in the film. I consciously didn’t show the lei, the warm sunlight and beaches or the hotels. I imagined the film to take place in the more inland part of the Maui island. Jennifer wrote in the Road to Hana, but I chose to shoot this part in the early morning before sunrise. Hawaii was portrayed as a place that has both sun and darkness in it, and also ironically, physically, this was the darkest part of the film.

The biggest challenge for Jennifer and I was to be truthful to the ancient Hawaiian mythology. She spent days researching the mythology and Dark Matter Studios commissioned a concept artist to illustrate her research visually.

There are only about 8 000 people in the world that can understand Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, and we had to use a voice coach to teach the actors the language phonetically. Something incredibly strange happened while we were busy with this process that I am still too scared, or if you want: superstitious, to share with anyone.

You mentioned you were aiming for near-invisible visual effects, was it a conscious choice to return to the low-key horror tricks of filmmakers like John Carpenter?

I love John Carpenter’s films. What he managed to do was activate the audience’s imagination and to prove that what we often imagine is scarier than the physical offering on the screen.

I often watch horror films until I get a good look at the monster and then switch the television off. I think with the robust supply of horror films and media that the activating an audience’s imagination is even more necessary and relevant today.

Yet do not be fooled, not showing the monsters, or not showing them often, doesn’t mean you can spend less in post-production on the film. The less you see, the more you need to make up for in your sound design and music. Every sound now has an essential and detailed story to tell. It was this journey that I enjoyed with original score writer: Walter Mair and sound designer Jim Petrak and Michael Medhurst. They indulged in every squeak with me, and we didn’t stop until we found the right soundscape for the film.

I, therefore, think it is crucial for the viewer when watching the film to view it in a dark room with good sound. Viewing it this way will help audiences decode the story with Izzy.

Coming from the South African film industry, what are some of the distinct differences between local and international filmmaking projects?

There are vast differences in shooting an independent film in Britain oppose to South Africa. I am privileged to have learnt from both and feel that the hybrid between a South African and British model will be ideal for our journey forward. The British craftmanship is praiseworthy, and the South African can-do-attitude is a remarkable asset to have in your armour.

I predict with the current uncertain future; film crew and talent will have to work together in an even more closely-knit unit to deliver content that will be able to compete with studio films. I think the luxury of having a big set with specialized personnel may be a thing reserved for an even smaller percentage of independent films. We should all be invested in the goal to deliver a stellar end product, finding distribution for it and marketing it to an audience or else the financial burden of shooting a film will become too heavy on independent filmmakers to survive. I believe we have achieved this goal in The Unfamiliar and time will tell if my prediction does become realized.

The producers and vast majority of the crew and talent contributed immensely to realize the premium production quality in The Unfamiliar, and I look forward to strengthening my relationships with these esteemed contributors.

It is now, more than ever, time to operate like a film-family no matter your national origins. I borrowed the idea of being a film-family from the horror audience’s ideology of the aspiration to belong to a horror-family. This concept, I feel, inspires me to think of myself as part of a whole, rather than an individual who achieves or fails alone. It is a culture we are all invested in at Dark Matter Studios, we fail and learn as a team, and we deliver and celebrate as a team too. You are us, and we are you.

Horror has been having a boom in recent years, what do you put it down to?

The horror audience is similar to the local South African Afrikaans audience. It is a niche that has always been there and will support whatever it deems worthy. Similar to when you saw the Afrikaans films becoming more popular around 2008, you will notice the spike in horror films happening around 2007.

In 2007 something prolific happened: Oren Peli’s petrifying and brilliant Paranormal Activity got picked up as a finished film by producer Jason Blum. The film’s overall ability to frighten audiences, the idea to use audience responses to it as the trailer and the mega-success it received was a real anomaly. After that Jason Blum produced writer-director: James Wan’s Insidious in 2010. James Wan is someone I admire as a master of scares and tension-building, but also as a filmmaker in general. I think his film: The Conjuring broke horror into the mainstream horror scene. Suddenly audiences who have never liked the horror genre were pulled into cinemas with their friends to throw their popcorn over each other as they were captivated by the well-crafted film. I know this because I was one of them.

Producer Llewelynn Greeff has been a horror film fanatic since an early tween, and he dragged me into watching The Conjuring with him at Monte Casino. I have never yelled that loud in a cinema in my life and devoured all horrors I could find after the experience. We were busy shooting Leading Lady at the time, and it was a great time of growth for both of us and a company.

After that, the obsession gripped me and didn’t let me go after The Unfamiliar was born.

The Unfamiliar

The pacing and timing of horror films has to be excellent, just how much footage hit the editing room floor?

I worked with first-time editor and horror fanatic: Jacques Jay Loots on the cut of the film. We shot an extremely lean version of the script. I made sure to cut everything out of the screenplay to make the most of the three week shooting schedule. We did however cut about two major sequences out of the film after receiving notes from the legendary: Ryan Turek from Blumhouse. Ryan is a horror master and was very complimentary towards the film, and he got what we did with it. He offered a couple of notes that we used to cut the film down even more.

Oren Peli also watched the film’s first cut and provided notes and guidance in making it what it is now. Both horror legends’ willingness to assist us, inspire me. It always helps to receive constructive feedback from masters of their craft, and it enabled us to view the film from a fresh angle. Jay, the editor, has worked incredibly hard at getting the film to a place where we felt comfortable enough to show it to them. And they were impressed with it and assisted us with the final polish.

What legends!

Was it always going to be a British family in Hawaii?

The screenplay went through thirty-seven plus drafts and yet the original elevator pitch and intent never changed. I was staying in LA at the time and hanging out with a bunch of marines. They were a great group of people and their stories inspired the psychology of the lead character.

I then moved to the UK to make the film. I was intrigued by how the British Government supported the American war in Iraq and mostly worked with America in a lot of international issues. I changed the USA marine into a British Army Doctor, and the film instantly received more heat from talent agents and financiers. I think the angle is ultimately more original and yet relatable enough with the journey to Hawaii to captivate both the British and American audience.

What influences did you take going into the making of The Unfamiliar?

I love the way Jordan Peele handled the thematic in Get Out, how James Wan used the film medium to create The Conjuring. I am a fan of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and how she built the tension throughout the film. I love the use of unique music that Robert Eggers encouraged in The Witch. I am a fan of horror master: John Carpenter’s employment of the audience’s imagination and the way he built tension throughout the film in the original Halloween film. I thought the colour palette was fantastic in It Follows and the way David Robert Mitchell used the soft light in the reveal of some of the horror moments in the film. There are countless other horrors and films I have watched and admire that may have had a subtextual influence on The Unfamiliar.

The cinematographer, Pete Wallington, shared a bunch of inspiring photography books with me. We wanted to find a genuinely different translation for the film that uses a combination of natural light and the minimum artificial light to tell the story. We also envisioned most of the film to play off in the day and discussed how to treat the daylight in a way that it still adds to the building of tension.

As with many horrors, the house inevitably becomes a character itself, how long did it take to find the perfect place?

The British house you will see on screen was the first house that I was taken to by line producer Tori Butler Hart and the production manager and Tori’s husband, Matthew Butler Hart. They made a horror film before working with them, and I think they had a good feel for it. We did view numerous other houses after the first house, but nothing lived up to it. The house had four stories and a garage with a shed. I guess you can say that the house chose us, and not the other way around.

We found the Hawaiian house also relatively easy and what sold the space to me was the massive hallways and area in the rooms. We discovered a tunnel that connects the different spaces, which I just had to write into the script.

You worked with a relatively unknown cast, what do you feel this brings to the film?

Believability. I feel that horrors made with super famous people sometimes lack believability and the idea that the fear is happening to the people on the screen. I am a great fan of fantastic actors, and some of them happen to be famous too. But fame and talent/skill are not the same thing and is often confused.

In your previous work you cleverly subverts genre clichés, how easy was it to get this balance right in a horror film?

I stay true to the character and the journey of the character. Jennifer, the co-writer, was also very strict on the idea of staying away from scares just for the sake of having a scare. We were very disciplined to adhere to the rules of the story while writing the screenplay. The film is essentially a horror-mystery told through Izzy’s perspective. The audience is on the journey with her to understand what is happening in her house. The quest to reveal this plot is both the hook and the secret sauce of the entire plot.

I consciously used some clichés to misguide the audience in the film. I think the audience has collectively become incredibly smart at figuring films out, and I avoided spoon-feeding any redundant information to them.

Which sequence are you most proud of?

I see the entire film as a sequence or a puzzle that you have to watch to understand or to decode the whole. If you missed even a beat, the film might seem nonsensical to you, and I am equally proud of all the individual pieces.

Image credits – Henk Pretorius Profile: Paul Harries | Unfamiliar Poster Design: Daniel-Duncan Rheed | BTS Jemima West: Fathom KeyArt Services | All Images Copyright: Dark Matter Studios