Sundance never disappoints with Horror, and this year’s festival lived up to that expectation. 2021’s festivities were unlike any seen before, given that it was the first completely virtual event in its history spanning over 4 decades. Setting a high bar for other major fests to come, Sundance was accessible to audiences across the globe and was a leading point in conversation for any moviegoer active on the internet. This is largely thanks to the use of online forums and trends seen across various social media. It was a good week for Horror fans in particular, with the Videodrome-esque dive into violence that is Censor and the COVID-inspired, yet nuanced mind trip of In the Earth. Though none of these Sundance gems stirred a discussion like Sean Ellis’ Eight for Silver did.
“A comeback for Werewolves”, Eight for Silver is what many have been craving for – a Gothic revitalization of an iconic movie monster. More than just a creature feature, however, Sean Ellis has crafted a tale of betrayal, guilt, and the obsession that comes when trying to rectify said acts. A study into human behavior with the Curse of the Werewolf at its center. Set in the French countryside of the 1800s, a wealthy land baron is hexed when murdering a group of Roma nomads over a land dispute. The unknowing townsfolk are soon plagued by a beast, a wolf completely fresh to the genre. “This werewolf isn’t summoned by a full moon nor does it regress back into human form. It completely consumes the body and soul, turning into a bloodthirsty shell of whatever humanity was previously there.”
Starring Boyd Holbrook (Logan), Alistair Petrie (Rogue One), and Kelly Reilly (True Detective), Ellis assembled a bold cast to bring his vision to life. The result was certainly the scariest film of Sundance 2021, one that will surely find a following upon release with many already likening its period setting and bleak atmosphere to recent hits like The VVitch. We were lucky enough to have director and writer Sean Ellis for an exclusive interview! We dive into the werewolf mythos and how he brought the horrors of Eight for Silver to life.
To start off, werewolves are personally some of my favorite monsters in cinema. They haven’t really gotten much love as of recent, so where did the motivation behind telling a werewolf story in 2021 come from?
Sean Ellis: You probably explained it better than I can. Yeah, people go for vampires and zombies and I think werewolves have been left behind a little bit. Point in case, if you look at the last Wolf Man film, it was quite clear that something needed to be modernized. We’ve seen it so many times and it didn’t feel that there was anything fresh to say. So for me, that was probably one of the biggest problems with that monster movie or trying to do a new version of that monster movie. Also, it’s probably why I didn’t start off by going, “I’m going to do a werewolf film.” I started off by saying, “There is a village isolated in the countryside in the late 1800s that is being plagued by a wolf, but they’re not sure if it is a wolf.” The minute I started to think about that, that’s when it came, “Let’s just approach the material like that”, then you’re not falling into any cliches or werewolf tropes.
That was sort of the genesis for the idea of the film. I don’t think I ever really set off to say, “werewolf movie?” But I’m obviously very aware of what’s happened to werewolves in the last 10 to 15 years and how they’ve been portrayed in film. They’ve become very cliched and they’re always spraying teeth, growing noses, howling at the moon, covered with hair, and generally walking on two legs. So one of the things is trying to figure out from a design point of view, how we could have a fresh approach on that, but still keep enough werewolf code? You know, the curse and if you’re bit then you turn. We kind of did away with the moon one because it didn’t speak too much, but at the same time, I think there’s enough information to tell you that you’re in that universe, but it’s presented in a way that you possibly have not seen before.
Just from watching the film, anyone can see how much effort you put into crafting the atmosphere and tone. Are there any specific films that inspired you, whether they be horror or another genre?
Sean Ellis: I was inspired by quite a few films. When I say inspired, what I tend to do is I might write, and a certain film springs to mind. So I’ll go back and look at that scene – see how it was done, what worked, maybe what didn’t work, and then try and figure out how it can help me with what I’m trying to achieve. Not in the sense of “how do I copy it?”, but in the sense of how was it done, how was it effective, and what can I learn from it? What can it bring to what I’m trying to achieve? So, there’s a lot of that.
Then there’s a lot of that I would say is just in my DNA. I grew up on them, so I don’t even need to go back and look at it. They are all part of what I do and I’m very aware of them. Films like Alien, The Thing, and An American Werewolf in London. These are films that I’ve seen over and over again. I love those movies. They’re probably in there somewhere, but I would say maybe they’re references that are probably best hidden. Then there were some more off-the-beat inspirations like Wolfen. At one point I was looking at Wolfen to see how we could do a beast POV and where it had been effectively done before.
Wolfen was actually quite a very underrated film. When I was younger, I could have probably referenced more, but ultimately I think I have now found a little bit of my own voice – less kind of worried about other people’s work and more about what I’m trying to say personally. I mean, you’re a filmmaker and that’s what you do. You make films and you watch films.
Speaking of your own voice, your Instagram is full of BTS from the film. With your background in photography, you took a lot of pride in actually shooting Eight for Silver on film. With this becoming more uncommon in modern cinema, was it always imperative to capture this story on celluloid?
Sean Ellis: I was a photographer before I was a filmmaker, so I’ve grown up taking pictures and being around cameras. So it wasn’t much of a jump to go from still cameras to film cameras. In my first two films, I worked with a very talented DP named Angus Hudson (Mary Queen of Scots). I’ve shot commercials and music videos with some very excellent DPs. It’s been one of the things I always had time for, in the sense of learning from these guides. Whether it was Freddy Francis (Cape Fear) or Benoît Delhomme (At Eternity’s Gate), I’ve worked with some very good DPs. So for me, shooting on film was my first choice. It just has alchemy to it that is peaceful and a little bit scary, because it’s sort of a little bit unknown.
I mean, at three o’clock someone takes it to the lab and you don’t see anything until the next evening. There’s always that little bit of worry that you don’t necessarily have when you shoot digital because you’re looking at an HD monitor, you know it’s been recording, you’re looking at the playback, and you know that you’ve got it. There is always that little doubt with film, but then there are also those lovely surprises sometimes. I definitely think it sharpens everybody’s game on set and they know that you’re not mucking about when shooting on film.
Everybody is a bit more respectful of the craft on set because it has that sort of discipline to it. And I like that. I like everybody to be disciplined on set. Not that I’m a tyrant or anything, but I do like people to know that there is a place where they are expected to bring their A-game. They are supportive at the same time in order to do that. You know, I try to pick the best people and get them to do their best work. I mean, it’s only going to make my film better. I shot my last film Anthropoid on Super 16, so this one I wanted to shoot on 35 mill. I just love the look of film.
Shooting on film clearly made a difference here so congrats! Going back to designing the Wolf itself, obviously, there are things best left unspoiled, but how long did it take to actually arrive at the final look? Did you experience any trial and error when bringing the Wolf to life?
Sean Ellis: I first came up with the initial idea for what it might be with research for The Wolf Man, the 1941 movie, which was written by a Jewish writer and the Curse of the Wolf was a metaphor for being Jewish in Europe in the late 30s. That’s so interesting, how you can take something like the Curse of the Wolf and make it a metaphor for the persecution of your religious beliefs. I started to think, I wonder what plagues modern-day society? I started to think about how drugs and addiction can destroy families and communities and, you know, it’s not necessarily just drugs. It could be your phone or bad relationships and how destructive it can be. How you can be a slave or a prisoner to your addiction.
I started thinking about being a prisoner of your addiction. Addiction being the metaphor of me being a prisoner to the wolf. So when I started to think in those terms it came, “Okay, that’s interesting because you don’t change into a wolf, you become a prisoner to the wolf.” That was when I started talking to make-up artist Mark Coulier, who I had worked with on Anthropoid. Mark came up with some concept designs based on that idea. Jean-Christophe Spadaccini, who has worked on The Fifth Element and a lot of new movies, came on board to actually build the wolf, based originally on the design that Mark had done.
On set, we had three practical beasts. One was an attack beast that could move along the floor very fast. One was a full animatronic beast. And the other one was a sort of stunt beast that we could still act with. We shot the first part in 2019 and edited it over the summer to see what we had. And we could see how the beast was working on camera and how it wasn’t working on camera. At that point, we also felt that the beast needed a little bit more design. I wasn’t 100% happy with it. So there was another production, another concept artist came in and looked at the movie. I basically said to him, “I want a wolf crossed with a shark.” He said, “A hairy shark?” (Laughs) I was like… no, not a hair shark.
Then he was like “Oh, okay!” So he started to do these designs based on that and they were much closer to what I had originally thought of. I then gave those designs and we started to apply CGI on top of the beast that we had. They augmented the one that we had with the new design and by the end of it, they were so good at putting the beast into the shots that we were sort of accommodating for it. In the beginning, it was done with a practical beast. But when we saw what they had done with the beast in those shoots, by the time we got to film the end sequence in the church, we were actually shooting without any beast and they would digitally insert it into the environment.
They did such a great job of matching those environments with the beast’s aspects. So that was sort of the genesis of the design, where it’s come and gone from. One of Mark Coulier’s ideas when we were talking about how you change into the werewolf, he said “Well, this has never been done underwater.” I was like, you’re right! I’ve never seen this done underwater. So again, once the concept of being a prisoner to the beast rather than simply changing into the beast was put into the script, we went and designed a sequence that would happen underwater. That was a CG environment and they did a superb job on it.
Horror filmmakers usually get asked this, but I’m very curious as to what your thoughts are on violence. To say the least, Eight for Silver gets really bleak. The way you push the envelope is going to take many by surprise. As a storyteller, does that come to mind at all? How far you can go when showing someone getting their limbs torn off or tortured for example?
Sean Ellis: I feel that the violence in the film is absolutely realistic to what we’ve done in the past and what we will probably continue to do as humans because we are the most violent thing on the planet. And that’s a fact. I didn’t want to shy away from the violence, but I wanted to give it context. I wanted to comment on it and say that violence is a vicious circle. It only begets violence. One violent act will lead to another and it will never end. It basically never ends until it eats itself, it destroys everything that’s involved. So by killing these people that came and said, “This is our land,” they unleash such violence on themselves that it turns to destroy everything.
What better way to really settle the matter, possibly, look at historical facts. I mean, wars are started because of land or because of differences of religion. These are facts and we don’t learn from history. That’s another reason why I think this was set in that time period because it holds a mirror right up to today, it allows you to view it through the prism of the late 1800s. It’s saying that history repeats itself. We don’t learn from our mistakes and until something changes in our species or DNA and become a more peaceful and tolerant race, it’s going to continue. That’s how I see it. The violence is a by-product of that.
Finally, this was certainly one of the scariest films of Sundance 2021. People are going to want to know where you have your eyes on set next. Can you give us any clues on your next project?
Sean Ellis: I’m currently working on a Japanese novel by Ryū Mur called In the Miso Soup. That is a very disturbing film and a very horrific story of a serial killer in Japan. I’m toying with getting that next and figuring out how to make it, but there’s nothing concrete just yet. As I literally just delivered with Sundance, I think the week before we were still doing a couple of shots of the exterior of the church and finishing the movie a couple of days before we actually sent the last file to Sundance. I guess after, I’ll breathe a sigh of relief and then maybe decide what to do next!