One of the best films of FrightFest ‘22, The Harbinger, is out now on VOD in the UK. To celebrate the release of his fourth feature film, I spoke to writer-director-editor-composer Andy Mitton about his chilling pandemic-set horror.
SYNOPSIS: Despite the protests of her frail father and concerned brother, Monique (Gabby Beans) travels to New York City during a Covid lockdown to help out an ailing friend (Emily Davis). Little did she know the recurring nightmares her friend suffers from are contagious. Now she must escape the demonic dream architect known as The Harbinger who threatens to erase her from all existence.
How was it taking such a daring, direct look at the pandemic? As writer-director-editor-composer it must have been a long process for you, looking at it like that?
Yeah, all told it was a long process. It was a scary process. It was a leap of faith, and an uncertain one. But faith was very much in the horror community, that I’m a part of - as a fan first. It’s a good arena to look at hard things. I think it gives a bit of space between you and the truth. It felt like I’m not quite ready for a straight drama about it, but with horror there isn’t anything you can’t explore. I think we did it with hopefully enough grace, a bit of insight, and catharsis, so people could have an experience that felt valuable to them. And people who didn’t want that experience, who just wanted the rollercoaster, that would be there for them too.
With the pandemic as the setting did you have to think about the audience more than normal, for instance not leaving leeway for conspiracy theorists etc. considering the creative abstraction of it?
Yes, I think in terms of those sensitivities, or political sensitivities. Everything was getting political at that time. I had them in mind, making sure I was bringing humanity to all sides, all characters. Also there was an opposite element, where I had to think about them a little less. Because you had the idea that you weren’t writing for a particular region, because globally we shared this experience. We don’t share a lot of experiences as a planet. Usually, we think of settings as regional, but whether I took this film to Colorado or Finland there was a shared connection that you don’t usually get.
What’s the reception been like for the film?
It’s been great. I was braced for backlash. I thought it would be more polarising than it has been. There are people who just want their escapism from that particular situation and I get that. But festivals and critically the overwhelmingly positive response has been tremendous to experience, and gratifying for the whole team. It was our hope, we took that leap of faith and landed on the other side safely. It feels good.
How quickly did you establish the big questions you wanted to ask in the film? For instance, one of the main ones that the film discusses is ‘what happened to vulnerable people during the pandemic?’
In coming up with the mythology of how The Harbinger would work as a sort of demon that looks for our vulnerabilities, it felt like the right way to go. That time during the pandemic was, for me, largely about discovering how much of our identity is dependent on these relationships, on our friendships, on the people we couldn’t reach or help during that time. So we were all in different versions of it, some people were alone, some people were with people they didn’t feel safe with. It felt like that was what was at stake, that is the danger, higher stakes than life or death. About each other and why we are here.
Across all of your films you play with this idea of being forgotten, you play it up big in this one, but in We Go On you have characters tethering themselves to each other as ghosts, and in YellowBrickRoad, the characters are walking this path that has been walked before, keeping people alive in that sense, what is it that interests you about that idea?
I guess whatever it is that comes out of me is part of the mystery of people’s muses and interests, part of it is who I am. I guess, especially in the horror space, when you are making stories you are thinking of the highest possible stakes. And when you think of the highest stakes being life and death, death seems like the ultimate high stake. But when you consider being forgotten, the impact you leave on the world, on each other, you can find higher stakes than life and death. That’s always going to be attractive.
Do you think because you ended with the idea of being forgotten, do you think you will move on to explore other ideas or do you think there is more to explore?
Yeah, I do. I have made four movies that represent my existing body of work, but in between all of that I have written these other scripts. There are other things that I have been holding onto that I just haven’t had the resources to make. I think people would be very surprised at the tonal and thematic distinctions from what I have been doing. I have a really wild comic high school voodoo doll story, a satirical high-rise story, a slasher… These themes are nowhere to be found in these scripts. I think it’s a result partly of what has been made. And I’m sure my interest in that topic will keep bleeding out into things. But I’m really excited to explore other things, other flavours.
At FrightFest you mentioned briefly in a Q&A that you took everything fairly linearly in your roles from writer to director to editor, but composer kind of “hung over the top of it”, can you explain a bit further on that?
Yeah, I think that’s the main role there that is not dangerous to keep thinking about the whole time. If you are still a writer while you’re directing, or still a director while you’re editing, then you’re in trouble. This happened with The Witch in the Window too, coming to set with a theme in mind that I can share with my lead actors, my cinematographer… it introduces a flavour and a sort of tempo that can get into the design and the performance. I think there is a value in that. So I like to come in with a few things, even if that changes at the end of the day. I think of everything as music – the directing, and the writing, certainly the editing is music. That is just the way I am wired, so that way it becomes a through line in the process in a really fun way.
You have also described your films as having an “off-rhythm”, can you describe what you mean by that? What makes your films different in that sense?
In my experience as a horror fan, as someone who loves the mainstream horror as much as the indie world, the big tentpole stuff like The Conjuring films for instance, they set a certain bar, a certain rhythm, that we have become familiar with. We have antennas as horror fans - when someone is walking down a hallway in a story, there is an antenna inside of us and because of those rhythms we think we know when the jump is going to happen. Everyone is going to try and subvert that expectation. I think because that exists in the mainstream we can really play off of that. I tend to, if I have faith in these moments and in the tension of the story, then I start pulling out the score and pulling out the low bass-y drone that is cueing us when to be scared. So we are without our usual cues and that makes us susceptible to new rhythms, new ways to be startled, that feel more true to the jaggedness of real life.
Everything has a tempo - it’s the tempo of a character walking down a hall, or the tempo of what the camera is seeing. With the camera design, I am a little less attracted than a lot of horror filmmakers to seeing things that the character can’t see, or seeing around the corner, or jumping to the POV of the bad guy – which I never do. I’m always going to want our experience firmly rooted in the character’s, and not give these little teases, to see around the corner. I think that lets us do different things with that space.
When you were making the film did you create any rules for yourself in order to keep the audience on their toes in relation to the film’s manipulation of dream logic? I noticed in one scene you had this trick where you used mirrors to play with the filmic logic, any rules that you had to craft scenes in specific ways?
Yeah, we had some rules, a sort of language between the creative team, particularly with Ludo Isidori, my cinematographer, and Xiyu Lin, my production designer. We talked a lot about the levels of dreams and what was important to the story was that we would be very hardwired to Monique’s experience. If she doesn’t know that she is dreaming then we should have no way of knowing. So we should have no reason to direct our shots differently. We just stayed very true, and used her character as an anchor. Any time we had a question of what sort of trickery we could earn, the answer was always in: “well what’s Monique experiencing?” And when she knows she is in a dream, we all know we’re in a dream - then things change, things can tumble, or in the really bad place, we talked about ‘dream level three’, when we go to the really bad place things can lock up, and heighten, become symmetrical, sort of Kubrickian for lack of a better word. So we had fun with those rules and languages and let them guide the way.
When it came to putting such naturalistic conversations in the film - there are things that I think I literally might have said during it – did you think there was a risk in doing that? It is quite daring.
I guess I never, maybe I should have done, but I think it came out of me naturally. The architecture of the story felt true and it fit with our actors. Our actors in this case were all theatre actors who were on the ground in New York who would have normally been on stage. Actors who are particularly adept at naturalism and finding those human rhythms. We were all really quickly locked into a sort of chemistry and a common language when it came to what was being said and how it was being said. I think we all just grew more confident as we went.
Was it all tightly scripted then or did you allow room for some improvisation?
It depended on the scene. It was mostly pretty tightly scripted but because of the naturalism, there had to be some margins to extend, or interrupt, or feel the flow - dirty it up a little bit. If we were in a really loose scene, like the scene early on where the family are telling a story about a runaway sausage cart and there is a lot of talking over each other and laughing, a scene like that I would loosen the reins and let them go.
You have said that you tried to keep the film fairly apolitical but the pandemic itself has been made political, can you talk about the challenges of that?
I can speak to the approach in terms of the politics. I think it is a delicate balance. We have one character in the film – a neighbour who is not masking, who represents the other side of the coin than I personally stand on. It’s not a throwaway, it’s not super important to the story, it’s a grace note but it is someone who we tried to treat with humanity. I had a lot of angry feelings during that time about people who were in the way of common sense, in the way of science, and in the way of our ability to keep each other safe. I was not afraid to express those feelings. Horror has always been more political than people give it credit for.
Seeing as the film does take the pandemic as a big focus, and it is probably quite hard for a lot of people to look at that, is there anything to do with it that you yourself have engaged with art-wise?
On the opposite side of the spectrum of horror, I saw what happened with Host and how an advantage was found in the situation there. But otherwise, I haven’t engaged with anything that reminds me of it.
I think horror has always been there for us in the hard moments to let us process things. But my own experience of this was pretty pure, it was just processing my own feelings and hoping that enough people out there were having similar feelings and it would resonate. Not everyone wants to look at it, but what is gratifying is when you see people who didn’t want to look at it but they are glad afterwards that they did.
The Harbinger is available now on Digital Platforms. A FrightFest Presents and Signature Entertainment release.