An Interview with the Makers of Neo-Giallo, Yellow

A few months back I interviewed director Ryan Haysom about his short neo-giallo Yellow, the influence of by-gone Italian horror and the morbid allure of black leather gloved killers, glinting switchblades and bloody ultra-violence. With the film now screening at various festivals around the world, and going down a storm with critics and audiences alike, I thought it was as good a time as any to catch up with Mr Haysom and the makers of Yellow. Joining us in donning black leather gloves and talking about the film are cinematographer/writer Jon Britt and producer Catherine Morawitz.

How did you come up with the story for Yellow?

HAYSOM: I am a big Italian horror fan and I’ve always wanted to make a giallo-styled film, so it’s always been in the back of my mind. Jon and I share a very similar experimental aesthetic when it comes to our ideas on cinema. When we decided to actually try and create a film, we were going in the same direction from the very start and it felt very organic and exciting. Also, a major catalyst was one cold winter evening drinking a lot of red wine and listening to the Suspiria soundtrack very loudly on repeat, which seemed to push us over the edge into Italo-madness!

BRITT: We decided to do some filming in Ryan’s apartment for fun, messing around with black leather gloves, a switchblade and some red cloth, and the idea was born. It was more that we were really spellbound by the giallo aesthetic and wanted to experiment with some of this language and atmosphere in a film.

MORAWITZ: Then they made a little trailer for a film that didn’t exist, called Yellow. And about a year later we started shooting the first scenes.

From left, Ryan Haysom - director, Catherine Morawitz - Producer, Jon Britt - Cinematographer
The story is told primarily with images; there is very little dialogue. How much of a challenge was this, and what made you decide to do it?

HAYSOM: I always listen to a lot of music when I am looking for inspiration, and I wanted music and visuals to propel the story of Yellow. As soon as Antoni Maiovvi started sending over the music that he had composed for the film, I could instantly visualize our lonely main character driving around Berlin in search of a killer. Casting Stephen M Gilbert in the main role was great for us because as an older actor his face tells all of the backstory we need.

BRITT: Probably one of my most influential movie moments was seeing the cloud slicing the moon and the razor slicing the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou. I think it was the combination of the visceral shock of seeing something that sensitive being cut, along with the potential and mystery that film language could hold. I wanted to explore what else could be done. I don’t think it was any coincidence that this was a silent film, relying solely on this power to tell its very illogical 'story.'

MORAWITZ: We wanted to really avoid as much exposition as possible, which can be delivered with functional dialogue, and try to build a very striking atmosphere for the characters and the viewer to be immersed in. But we also were walking a very thin line of not wanting to be too confusing or vague either, to give enough structure to hold it together, but to allow room for mystery. We’ve had a few people who wondered what the hell we’d made, but in general the reaction has been very positive.

How difficult was the shoot, given the low budget and various night scenes?

BRITT: The shoot was 8 or 9 days in total, broken up into two shoots, pre and post crowd funding. The first shoot, in January 2012, was pretty tough. At that point it was still only really Ryan, myself, Catherine and Steve Gilbert. It was very cold and we were outside filming the car scenes, strapping the camera to the bonnet and driving around Berlin at night.

HAYSOM: We had a very small budget and we were collapsing into bed at 6.00am and getting up at 7.00am, which I don’t recommend. I can’t say enough good things about our cast; they were a total pleasure to work with and worked incredibly hard on the shoot. Our camera crew, audio, make-up, and art department were all super soldiers.

MORAWITZ: It was tough, but filmmaking is all about being creative and thinking outside of the expected; that also applies to the organizational side of things. You can do great stuff on a low budget! A lot of people seem to think they need this and they need that, but it’s really about working out where the money is needed and where it can be done equally well with a much more efficient approach. But there is always a way around each problem. We used our imagination to make things work.

Was it a guerilla-style shoot?

MORAWITZ: No. Especially in low-budget filmmaking it’s important to plan things thoroughly I think, it allows you to make the most of what you have. We got all the shooting permits needed, so everybody could concentrate on their work and not have to worry about anything. What we wanted to make was too ambitious to film in a guerilla style. Plus we had a responsibility for a crew of about 15 people who mostly helped us out for free; we didn’t want to take any risks with being kicked out of any locations.

The film has such a brooding, lonely feel to it; all those shots of the protagonist driving around empty streets and roads. What were these scenes like to film?

BRITT: It’s great when it’s been mentioned to us; it was really important for the film that we were able to make people feel that. Of course, it’s a combination of everything – Steve’s performance, Anton’s really atmospheric soundtrack, the locations, the pacing and the images together. I’m really interested in how ideas can be communicated in the most minimal way, yet be full of a strong feeling. When I look at a photo by Gregory Crewdson, there is such an intense atmosphere and so many possible stories existing inside a single frame.

HAYSOM: I love all of these shots in the film; they really have a lonely atmosphere that looks so beautiful with Anton’s haunting music. When we shot all of the driving scenes it was the coldest night of the year. We were all freezing in the middle of nowhere at 2.00am, driving up and down motorways on the outskirts of Berlin, it was quite an experience. I always laugh when I think of the car scenes, as we were all hidden inside the car with a camera on the front of it. A few cars stopped next to us while we were filming and I cant imagine what they must have thought.

Antoni Maiovvi’s music has a great mix between Goblin’s Dario Argento-era soundtracks and modern synth disco. How was it working with him?

HAYSOM: I absolutely love Maiovvi. As soon as I heard his music I knew he was perfect for the film; I had to have him do the Yellow soundtrack. When we first met I told him I wanted a mix between Dario Argento’s Tenebrae soundtrack and Michael Mann’s Manhunter, and he perfectly captured that vibe. He has synth flowing in his blood. I don’t use the word genius lightly, but I really consider him a musical genius, he’s amazingly prolific and everything he does sounds incredible and fresh. I really hope to be able to work with him on everything I do from now on; he perfectly captures the mood that I want for the visuals in my work. He also runs a record label called Giallo Disco by the way, so from the very start it was a perfect match.

Stephen M. Gilbert really impresses as the tortured lead. He conveys a wealth of emotion without even speaking. How did you go about casting the film?

HAYSOM: We met quite randomly through a few other film projects and I ended up meeting him one evening to talk about the film, I remember telling him “imagine Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive but with an old man” and that seemed to interest him, or he might have thought I was trying to flatter him saying he looked like Ryan Gosling. Hester Arden and Rocco Menzel are also incredibly talented actors and took the film to another level. The first time I saw Hester walk onto the set in full make-up and costume it felt like a Hollywood star had walked into the room, and she was a total pro. The female role was the hardest thing to cast as they had to perform all of the female roles but she totally nailed it from day one. Rocco is interestingly a professional mime and he brought so much to the role of our black-gloved killer. He sent shivers down my spine when he was on set in his costume designed by the super-talented Smirk, it was a real buzz to see him act. I would really love to work with them again on a future project.

BRITT: We knew that the person we cast would have to have a particular presence and be able to convey those feelings and ideas without words. I think it was an interesting experience for Steve too, especially as he ended up being with the character for a longer time than he probably is normally, with the shoot being separated over 6 months. I’m not sure he had ever attempted to play a role with so little dialogue before, but in the end, because we’d spent a long time really getting to inhabit the atmosphere of the film, he really understood what was needed. There’d be scenes where we would just go as far as we could to make it as minimal as possible, and that would sometimes take a few takes to get right.

How do you feel about the positive reaction the film has received at various festivals?

MORAWITZ: I think we’re all still totally overwhelmed! I really love that it allowed us to meet a lot of great people in the last few months. People who continue to inspire us. It’s a very personal journey as well, for all of us.

HAYSOM: It’s been an incredible adventure so far and we couldn’t have asked for a better response. When you set out to make a film you never know how people are going to react to it, or even to an extent how the final film will look, but to get such an excited response so far has really made all the hard work and sleepless nights worthwhile. It brings a big smile to my face as we have also introduced a lot of people to the giallo who were unaware of it before.

BRITT: We had no expectations when we were making the film other than that we just had the desire to make it. But things just kept happening. We’re really grateful to everyone that has helped us and the film along the way, especially our producers Ben Robinson and Yazid Benfeghoul, our Transmedia Producer Reem Shaddad, Paul McEvoy and Frightfest, and obviously all our crowd-funders. They really were amazing in their initial support and this turned out to be a big spark for everything that followed. It’s really inspired me that it’s possible to make something if you have the desire and good people with you. The fact that people have actually liked the film and been very generous with what they’ve written about it has been great, but that also makes me want to do better and improve on the next one.

When Yellow debuted at Frightfest, there were a number of Italian horror films, and films inspired by them, also screened. Why do you think these types of films are becoming popular again, or are at least having such an influence over filmmakers? What is it about the giallo that inspired you to tell your story as a neo-giallo?

BRITT: I don’t know why, but I’m very happy about it. I haven’t seen very much in horror that has excited me for a long time, something that the giallo was capable of doing. I just didn’t feel anything. I think in the last few years, Let the Right One In, Amer and House of the Devil have probably had the most impact on me horror-wise. I can’t wait to see what the Amer guys do with their new film.

HAYSOM: I think to a certain extent it comes down to them being a lot easier to find, there are some great companies like Shameless and Arrow Films remastering and releasing them on DVD and Blu-ray. Italian horror has a real power and beauty, I really believe in the power of cinema and the potential of it to become real art, and Italian horror really transcends the genre into art.

You cited Michael Mann as a major influence, and this is really quite evident throughout Yellow. What other filmmakers have influenced you?

HAYSOM: Jon and myself really love Mann’s Manhunter and it inspired us a lot in the creation of Yellow. I am obviously a big Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci fan, but I do like a lot of different directors, especially David Fincher, William Friedkin, Nicholas Winding Refn, and the great man himself, John Carpenter! My all-time favourite film is Carpenter’s The Thing, so he has a special place in my heart.

BRITT: It’s fair to say that most of them weren’t giallo films or filmmakers; Ryan and I are both into surreal cinema too – Bunuel, Lynch and also Francis Bacon’s paintings. Love is the Devil had a big influence because it’s essentially a character film, but one that portrays very strong sensations in a really interesting way. Fear X and the Documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno also inspired us. But I also really love minimal, naturalistic films like Old Joy too, and I’m sure some of this language crept into Yellow somewhere.

What is next for you? Do you think you’ll remain in the horror genre? Can we ever expect a feature length giallo from you?

MORAWITZ: We’re very busy with Yellow still being selected for festivals, which is fantastic, but Ryan and Jon are also deep into writing the next film and we’re all very excited about it! I love their approach, the way they come up with ideas. It feels very organic. I can’t wait to help bring those ideas to the big screen!

HAYSOM: So the next thing we’ll do will be a feature film. It’s going to move away from the horror genre a little, but it will hold onto the same mood and style that we started experimenting with in Yellow. It is going to be a mix of Euro arthouse cinema and classic Hitchcockian Hollywood, and the ideas we are coming up with are very exciting.

BRITT: It’ll be more along the lines of a character-based mystery, with again a real emphasis on telling the story visually. I’m most interested in films that give me the opportunity to explore the possibilities of images and atmospheres, through the eyes of a flawed character. I’d definitely love to do a feature-length giallo in the future though, as long as it felt like we were trying to do something unique. I also started shooting my first feature film as cinematographer last year in Tokyo. It’s called Fonotune and is an independent Sci-fi road-movie featuring Kazushi Watanabe, who played Visitor Q in the Takashi Miike film. It’s also very visual, with spare dialogue and story, but with a different tone to Yellow, minimal and playful. I’m really excited about it and proud of what we’ve done so far. I’ll be shooting the second part of the film this year too. The director, Fabian Huebner, has really been a big supporter of Yellow.

What opportunities have you had as a result of the film?

HAYSOM: There have been so many so far. My life is so different from when we first started the film, which is crazy to think about. We met Dario Argento, drank red wine with Claudio Simonetti, and became friends with so many people all over the world. It’s been incredibly motivating and is really driving us onto our feature film.

BRITT: It’s been amazing. We’ve been to some great festivals, met some really inspiring people. One of the best moments was showing Yellow in a double-bill with Amer, meeting and talking about the films we love with the filmmakers. Mostly we’re just excited about the next project. We’ve had a lot of interest in it so far and we want to take what we experienced on Yellow and keep improving.

For more information on Yellow and all those involved in making it, check out the official website. To view the trailer for Yellow, click here.


Mykal said…
Great work as always, James. You've turned this blog into a real force in the horror world.
James Gracey said…
Thank kindly, Mykal! I hope all is well with you. Belated good wishes for 2013. :)

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