“We’ve all been in a situation where we have felt out of place, lost and alone, suspicious of those we are not familiar with.” These are the sensibilities that South African-born filmmaker Abner Pastoll set out to explore with his tense debut feature Road Games. This dark and disquieting love story follows the incidental pairing up of hitchhiking duo Jack (Andrew Simpson) and Véronique (Joséphine De La Baume) when they become inexplicably ensnared at a mysterious couple’s mansion with a serial killer on the loose in rural northern France.
Written and directed by Pastoll and also starring Frédéric Pierrot, Féodor Atkine and Barbara Crampton, Road Games is all set to world premiere at this year’s Film4 FrightFest in London this Sunday 30th August. In expectation of the film’s premiere SCREAM’s Howard Gorman caught up with Pastoll to talk about his unceasing desire to make movies from the tender young age of 4 and what inspired him to explore cultural divergence between England and France within the thriller genre for this, his directorial debut…
SCREAM: Thanks for talking to us Abner. Before we chat about Road Games I wanted to ask you a little about your background in filmmaking. Most directors I speak to say they started shooting homemade films from a fairly young age but never have I heard of someone getting interested in making films as young as the tender age of four.
Abner Pastoll: I was literally born into it and I never questioned what I had to do. I just always knew I had to do film because my grandparents used to have a cinema in South Africa. My parents are both South African and they moved to London when I was about 2 so I did actually grow up in London but I spent a great deal of time in South Africa and South Africa to me was our family cinema. We used to go there one month every year or so and it would always be at the cinema and involved the running of our cinema. That, and the fact that my dad used to have all kinds of filmmaking gadgets around gave me the initiative to pick it up and try and do stuff. I really wanted to be an actor at first actually but that was the four-year-old me. I was making these little movies because I wanted to make my own stories and I realised I preferred being behind the camera. I wanted to make the characters rather than actually be the characters. I preferred being the puppet master rather than the puppet.
Knowing from such an early age what you wanted to do in life why did you choose not to go to film school?
I don’t know if it was specifically an intentional decision but I never really felt like I had such a drive to study in that kind of circumstance. I felt that, because I grew up watching movies and making my own little things, the best way to learn was to just do it. It just felt the natural thing for me to do really. If I look back in retrospect at how I got many things made or ended up getting certain filmmaking jobs it’s basically down to just making friends and going to festivals and meeting people. You meet people at festivals and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to collaborate or work together straight away but down the line you just never know.
Coming to Road Games, this is a project that has been a long time coming. How much has changed in terms of plot, locations and cast since you first put pen to paper?
Yeah, it’s been quite a strange project as it’s been in the works for quite a long time. It’s been through various incarnations in a sense but it’s always been the English/French mix and it was always the intention to shoot the film entirely in France but we ended up shooting the majority of it in England. I think we did a pretty amazing job to fake it and, despite it not being what I ever wanted initially, it just worked out.
The initial idea came from when I was on a road trip in France a long time ago and I was staying in a creepy house so the idea sort of started from that place and the characters then formed out of that.
With a lot of the dialogue in French was it a challenge, especially as I know it was very important for you to create very relatable characters to make the finale all the more shocking?
The most difficult part initially when I started to write the script was thinking about the multi-language because it was really about that. It was almost like a block for me until I realised, “Wait a second! It’s much simpler if I just write the whole thing out in English and I used that as the blueprint to plan how I would use the language later. So I wrote the whole script in English and had it translated for the parts I needed in French. I just love French cinema in general and thought it would be great to do my own version of a French movie.
Being a multi-lingual film how was the casting process and also how did Barbara Crampton get involved? I read that she jumped on board straight away as she said it was one of the best scripts she had ever read.
I started casting a while ago and, as these movies take a while, you cast people and then have to recast them because of scheduling so I had a couple of different members cast originally. For the role that Barbara plays though I never actually cast anyone except for her but she was the last person that I cast. Having said that, she was actually even attached to the project a couple of years before we even shot the film so it was quite a relief to finally do it.
For Andrew’s role I met many great young actors but there was just something electric about him that I felt suited the role. It was just one of those things that I knew in my gut. It was the same kind of thing for casting Joséphine as Veronique. Again, she was actually replacing another actress and I changed my approach when it came to replacing her because I had auditioned so many actresses. I just sat down and met Joséphine over coffee when I was in Cannes and we just got along really well and she really understood the character and I’d seen her in Kiss of the Damned at that time.
Without giving too much away, did you do much pre-production or did you keep the actors apart to give them more of a grasp of their characters’ situations?
Yeah, it depends on the kind of story you are doing but I kept them apart because I wanted to keep everyone a little bit fresh and on their toes. We basically rehearsed really intensively for one day and then on a second day we did a loose rehearsal in the locations. It was only really those couple of days we used as rehearsals and the rest we sort of blocked out just before we shot and that was a nice style that worked for the film and for everybody. For Andrew and Joséphine it was deliberately scheduled in a way that helped with their relationship and the way that they feel awkward with each other and then more comfortable. I think we were just lucky with the way that it played out.
Then there was Frédéric, who was always my number one choice. It was almost, almost written for him. I say that because his face kept coming into my head as we went along. Then, when we started casting for the role, at the time it was before The Returned was on TV and my French producer was telling me that he’s a working actor but nobody really knew him and it wouldn’t really help with our financing. But then when The Returned came along it just turned out that he was an interesting actor so, finally, we got the actor that I wanted.
With Barbara it was a really random thought and I honestly didn’t write the role specifically for her but with the fact that she was back to acting with You’re Next I thought it could be interesting because it was very different to anything else that she was doing. I actually just sent her a message on Twitter, not even about the script then, and social media is amazing in that you can connect with people so we had a brief little exchange and then I got my casting director to send her the script. Because of our brief exchange on Twitter, when she got the script she took it more seriously because she was like, “Hey, I know Abnell.” because we had made that initial connection. As you said, she really responded so well to the script and she’s been pretty much the number one supporter of the project.
The film is beautifully shot at the hands of your DP Eben Bolter. How well do you work together and how did you get it all to look so French?
I think that was all very clever scheduling and also my location scout was very good in finding rural areas. The trickiest thing we had was just finding spaces that were pretty much empty because it’s really about being lost in these wide open spaces in France. So we managed to find these really amazing areas in Kent and the landscape of Kent is actually really similar to that of northern France. We found an amazing mansion near Maidstone and there were all these farmlands around there and it just all had the right feeling. And then in the North of France we needed to shoot enough to basically trick the audience to believe it’s fully France and we found a bunch of landscapes that kind of matched. In the end we shot 4 weeks in England and only 1 week in France and that one week was only really four days but we managed to shoot enough to get the feeling that the whole film was in France.
Eben was great. He pretty much listened to what I would want and it was good. It was nice to have somebody that created a visual that was in my head that sometimes was not so straightforward to articulate in words. We would talk about a couple of reference movies that wouldn’t necessarily be similar in theme but visually we would bounce a few ideas around to try and capture the right mood and feeling. The funny thing about him is that he doesn’t really respond so well to pre-production. He much prefers the energy of not being prepared so it was a little bit frustrating at times but a lot of times it also worked in our favour.
Another reason the visuals look so incredible is due to our fantastic colourist Lee Clappison (whose credits include Kick Ass and Shame). He is such a wonderful guy and he really understood what I wanted to do with the film and brought out an amazing energy from the picture.
How much did you work with Daniel Elms on the score? It worked so well in setting the tone in each scene.
I’m happy that you asked me about Daniel because he’s been involved in the project for a long time. He actually composed some initial test music two years before we shot. He was instrumental in many ways in taking my script and interpreting the words into music which, in turn, inspired me into making the visuals. And none of that music that he initially scored is in the final film. That’s the funny thing, it was almost like a first draft that he did. It was a really great collaborative process and it was always the intention to try and mix an orchestral score with a retro synth and it wasn’t very easy at the beginning and we never quite got it to work but then one day, not long before we were due to record the score, Daniel was very stressed as one part was’t quite working but he managed to merge some sounds together and it was quite fantastic.
To wrap up, have you got anything planned after Road Games that you can share with us?
Yeah, I’m sticking with genre films and I’m going for different types of genres. I’ve got a couple of scripts I’m working on and one of my next projects is a pretty fun action thriller but I can’t say too much about it yet but it’s going to be wild and wacky.
Thanks so much for talking to us Abner and I hope you have a great FrightFest.
Thanks very much, Howard. I’m very excited to get the film out there and we have a few more festivals on the cards but I’m not at liberty to reveal which ones just yet.
Pastoll will be in attendance with pretty much the entire Road Games cast and crew at the festival this Sunday 30th August. In the meantime we’ll leave you with the teaser trailer (below) and you can find out more details of the FrightFest screenings here
Words: Howard Gorman (@HowardGorman)
ROAD GAMES teaser from February Films on Vimeo.