Where there’s a will there a way and way back in 1992 writer/director Gary Sinyor, along with Vadim Jean, set out to make the British comedy film, Leon the Pig Farmer but despite there being no way to raise the whole budget, with the goodwill of the entire cast and crew they made the film for nothing, deferring any payment until it went into profit. The success of the film gave Sinyor the opportunity to make a string of comedies such as The Bachelor with Chris O Donnell & Renee Zellweger and Bob the Butler with Brooke Shields.
His latest film, The Unseen is from being a comedy. Starting off happily enough it follows Gemma (Jasmine Hyde) and Will (Richard Flood) who live a seemingly idyllic existence in their luxury home until their only son dies in a tragic accident. Their lives start to fall apart as Gemma suffers panic attacks that affect her vision which puts her in danger at unexpected moments. Meanwhile Will starts hearing his son’s voice. Tormented by grief they take up the offer of a friend, Paul (Simon Cotton), to stay at his Lake District Guest House only to find their situation rapidly deteriorate putting them in ever worsening danger.
We spoke to writer/director Gary Sinyor about making, The Unseen.
SCREAM: You’ve an extensive back catalogue in romantic comedies and The Unseen is like nothing you’ve ever done before. Why the sudden change in genre?
Gary Sinyor: Well when I first started in the industry before even, Leon the Pig Farmer I wrote a thriller and I’m quite attracted to dark stories. It was about a man who was responsible for doing lethal injections on people in America and whenever I started pitching it, people used to start laughing because of the other stuff I’ve done, so I switched to doing comedy, which I love. I did produce a film called Retreat a few years ago with Cillian Murphy but this script I wrote twelve years ago and I’ve been trying for twelve years to make this film. Directorially I was a big of When Harry met Sally which I rate very highly and then Rob Reiner’s next film was, Misery and those were two really great films in different genres which he did back to back. Everyone who is a comedy person has a dark side. There isn’t a comedian out there who isn’t thinking slightly more complex stuff, behind the smiles there’s always that possibility of something darker and more painful.
SCREAM: Why’s it taken so long to get it made?
GS: Well when you’ve a reputation as a comedy person people like keeping you there but this script, having been around for twelve years, has been seen by a lot of actresses and actors and at one point Lena Headey was attached. You need to get star names so you can get the finance, it’s the hoops you go through and I was having conversation with A-List type people or they’d read the script and be interested and then those things would fall through. I should say that the Lake District, as it is was in the script until about two years ago, was actually a light house. So for ten years this script involved the couple going to a lighthouse retreat and I spent years visiting lighthouses all over the world. There’s an amazing one in Majorca on a huge cliff. I looked in England, Ireland, Puerto Rico and that’s because there was a theme when I was writing of light and dark which was controlled by the character of Paul and it had a slightly The Third Man quality to it but the lighthouse added to the budget. It’s only when you realise, “Hang on! I don’t need it to be a lighthouse”.
SCREAM: Well you’ve got a very distinctive house in this right from the start with an odd shaped indoor swimming pool. Was that a challenge to find such a specific house?
GS: Well the lighthouse was the dangerous place they went to and the house the couple live in was in Wilmslow. Once I’d made the decision to film in the Lake District finding the family home was just a case of literally ringing up a location company.
SCREAM: So it wasn’t the due to the knowledge of your location manager?
GS: No, no. I just rang up a location company or I think I might even have gone on their website and looked for houses with pools in Manchester and four came up. They were owned by footballers and one had cars parked inside the house and looked ridiculous but one looked perfect. It was actually ridiculously easy.
SCREAM: Why did Lena Headey pull out?
GS: I think she was attached for about two weeks. We made the announcement and then she or her agent decided she didn’t want to do it but it’s pretty standard for the industry. After Lena, and as part of the process, I went to a lot of what you would call A-list actresses and my job as a filmmaker is to make sure the film is marketable so you try and get big name actors and I would say that just about every name you can think of in the British film industry that would be the right playing age for the film had passed on it and then I met Jasmine (Hyde) and I did a play with her last year and just thought she was extraordinary and I thought, “I’m not going to be at the whim of actors who, for very good reasons are busy and have a slot here and there and agents who will tell them not to do this film because you never know it might not work out because he’s a comedy director or we might get you some other work” or whatever but what I found interesting was the actresses who read the script, and are not A-list, always responded really well to it. So there was a dichotomy between A-list which is always based around business & reputation and very much, “Is this a director I can trust?” and that’s what an A-list actor wants. There was an actor I approached who is very well known who got the script so wrong (laughs) that it didn’t make sense to cast him. He completely misread it and his approach to the character was completely wrong.
SCREAM: You’ve included a lot of biblical references, a lot of information about eye ailments & the effects of medication. It looks like you’ve done a load of research into all of this.
GS: On the religious front … well the play that I did last year which was a comedy called, Not Moses, thematically it’s like the comedy version of The Unseen. I’ve lost my faith in the credibility of the books of the Bible in the sense of them being absolutely true. You hear people talking about souls and the afterlife in flippant ways, particularly when it comes to losing children and it seems to me incredibly difficult territory but one which I wanted to explore. I know my Bible, in the Old Testament there is simply no reference to the afterlife so when Moses dies, he dies. It is one of the themes of the film, you know, “Does his soul carry on or does it not?” or “Is this a ghost talking to Will or not?” and I’ll play with that and eventually come down on the side of, “Not really”. Although I think Psalms offer comfort, well I’ve been on both sides is what I’m saying. I’ve been the guy in the church or the synagogue holding the candle and believing and not believing. I’ve been both. When it came to research on the other things … the first idea I had for the script was I was sitting in an office in Soho and I was working with another guy and I’d just seen an M. Night Shyamalan film and I said, “I’d love to do the film that he hasn’t done” and then about two hours later I said, “Has anyone ever done a film about a woman who loses her sight and when she does, so does the audience?” And he looked at me and said, “No!” And that was literally the genesis.
SCREAM: So what about all the research on the pills and sedatives?
GS: Well the pill bottle that we used … I have a very minor sort of epilepsy and I’ve had to take medication since I was about 18, so I carry the pills round with me so we ended up using those as Gemma’s pills because it was easy as I always had them on me and we put a different label on them. I spoke to psychiatrists and doctors and it’s actually not a long conversation to find a drug that would both treat someone and drug another in sufficient quantities to put them to sleep.
SCREAM: How did you achieve those point of view loss of vision shots that Jasmine suffers in the film?
GS: Well I shot a pilot in my house about a year ago with Jasmine to see how those shots would work with my crappy little camera and I was her point of view as she went down the stairs and I did that handheld and it worked pretty well and we tried it on the motorway too. I put together a pilot and treated the shot with a bit of software and treated it really amateurishly and people were terrified. So that gave me renewed confidence first with Jasmine as my actress. In the film also it’s very good use of sound design by Tom Jenkins. The main reason why I think people get so scared, and this is what the film is trying to do, is that you’re scared because you identify with her and as long as you identify with her in a horrible position then your imagination is working overtime.
SCREAM: It’s not just that effect but also the harrowing after effects of the death of a child. Was it possible to do any research on that or was it instinct? It’s a world away from your comedy.
GS: I do have children and I could knock out things in films that I’m not interested in and that will never come up in a film that I do and that would be people desperate to make money out of killing people or people trying to get their hands on drugs it’s just not my field of experience but I can imagine what it’s like to lose a child. You create the thing that you fear the most and that would have the most effect on your current existence and would cause one to go off and get religion and another to deny religion and you’re dealing with film so the idea of ghosts is a strong one. I have subsequently met people who have lost children and I’ve met people who lost parents at an incredibly young age too.
SCREAM: You’ve worked with Hollywood stars like Renee Zellweger and Chris O Donnell, Brooke Shields but you’ve predominately used British actors in your films. What’s the difference between working with actors from either side of the Atlantic?
GS: Each is different. I mean here the three actors respond differently to direction and notes but I think the big difference on The Unseen was that we were sort of a troupe together. We lived in that house in the Lake District while we were shooting. The actors and I would sleep in our various rooms and come down in the morning, have breakfast and sit around with the crew in that kitchen which you see and be cooking for each other. You would never do that in America. Your actor would be distant in their own hotel whereas here it was just us! This is going back to my theatre days but they’d learnt it almost as a theatre piece. I didn’t have to worry about them knowing their lines so that’s why I think their performances are so immensely naturalistic. We also shot the film in sequence too so we’d do the kitchen then go upstairs and come back down again so that I could keep the continuity of where people were up to in their heads and I didn’t need to remind them of where they were in the script. These actors didn’t have time off between shots and it kept them all in the moment.
SCREAM: What were technically the most difficult scenes to achieve?
GS: The stunts and the underwater stuff was difficult because it’s got its own challenges but I would say probably when we asked Jasmine to drive around the streets of Manchester at night time and really … well at times we were looking for tunnels or motorways or country roads. It was winter and we were shooting far later than I would have liked too. And she had to concentrate on where she was going and act and it wasn’t on a low loader. I said this to the DoP (Director of Photography)and 1st AD (Assistant Director), “I cannot stand these car sequences” and I’ve written a whole pile of them where as a director I’m stuck in a following car and I’m totally removed from the actors and I can’t stand it. So every single car scene I’m in the car and the DoP is in the car and the sound guy is in the boot and we hired a car that allows that to happen. As a 1st AD you want to control it but as a director you want to be in there. The cameras are quite small but they’re quite heavy actually but some shots of, say Jasmine, you’re putting it on the dashboard and it’s being held there by the DoP and to me it looks better than a car mounted shot. I would never have been able to do this on 35mm or even on 16mm and would have run out of film too.
SCREAM: The Unseen has been in your top drawer for 12 years, so what’s next?
GS: I made Retreat with Cillian Murphy and Thandie Newton almost so that I could make this film and that was six years ago and this (The Unseen) was written 12 years ago. So the next film will be (laughs) …. a comedy. It’s a big romantic comedy called, Something Blue which is set in Miami and Vegas and it’s about a man getting married for a second time to a woman getting married for the first time. Its starts with the idea that this guy has created a different set of rules for his second wedding so he wants it on a beach, doesn’t want any religious involvement and its casual with jeans and all that sort of stuff and this creates an issue for his bride who wants a traditional wedding. Ultimately it’s a Groundhog Day sort of film. They get married and it’s an utter disaster … a comical disaster and then they get the chance to fix it.
SCREAM: So you’re not staying in the same genre as The Unseen?
GS: I would certainly direct another. There’s something about sitting in a cinema and not expecting people to laugh, unlike comedies where you wonder why they don’t laugh at certain things. You sit there and it can be enormously frustrating but there’s something nice about this genre because you see people sitting there so tense they won’t go to the loo. There was one guy who saw it who was desperate to go but he just said, “I couldn’t go. I didn’t know what was going to happen and what I might miss”. To be honest, no matter what the genre, I just love making films.
SCREAM: Thanks for talking to us, Gary.
GS: My pleasure.
The Unseen is out across UK cinemas December 15th 2017.
Words: Simon Hooper