Unable to return the lock of hair she found in her mother’s locket, Leah (Kiera Thompson) panics and throws it out the window. When a little girl (Sienna Saya) shows up at her window one night, though, Leah doesn’t panic, but lets the girl inside. These two decisions are what will fuel the events of Martyrs Lane, a new horror film from writer-director, Ruth Platt, and it’s with absolute pleasure that we were able to ask Platt some questions about the movie over email.
Rachel Bellwoar: After working on a short film of the same name, what made you want to expand Martyrs Lane into a feature-length movie?
Ruth Platt: So the short was actually a prerequisite from the BFI to see a kind of proof of concept – I had been developing the feature for a couple of years with them and they wanted to see some visuals to establish the tone and vision for the film. I actually found this quite hard – as distilling the right parts of an already written feature script into a successful short is a challenge – do you take a few scenes, or a snapshot of the premise, or do something completely different but with the same emotional interior? And of course my producers had to like the short script first. I learned a lot making the short – putting children into genre pieces is a challenge of its own – and can easily derail the tone – having the audience see the whole film through a child’s eyes was an even greater challenge – and I learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t doing the short – so I’m glad we got the opportunity to do that.
RB: Was there anything you learned from working on the short film that helped, or changed, your approach to the feature?
RP: Ah sorry just answered that above! The short definitely moved the feature script forward – having worked with children in those roles in the short, I started to realise what worked, what didn’t, how to imply rather than to make overt, and ground everything in these unforced, naturalistic performances from them – and to allow enough space for their spontaneity and immediacy. The casting itself was tough – I mean Haneke saw 5000 children for The White Ribbon. For the short we weren’t able to see more than perhaps 100 children – and then for the feature we certainly saw more, but not 5000 by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just about finding those children who have something of themselves that illuminates that character – that special alchemy of their own energy and perception enhancing and making palpable the characters you’ve written, So it was really fantastic to find Kiera and Sienna for the feature.
RB: Usually children turn to their parents for comfort in horror movies, but in Martyrs Lane, it’s Leah’s mom who’s the subject of her nightmares. What was it like getting to tell this story from Leah’s perspective, where her mom becomes the monster?
RP: I hope her mum doesn’t come across as a monster! But I know what you mean – Leah does have nightmares about her mother, picking up on some subtle cues from her mother’s interaction with her that something isn’t quite right. We didn’t talk about it too much, Kiera (who plays Leah) and I, because rather than pressure her with the whole arc of the story, I tried to keep her in the moment of each thought, each line, in each scene, and keep that immediacy and of the moment quality. But she had such a great intuition and emotional intelligence, that it was clear she got that whole fragile dynamic. And luckily she has such a close relationship with her own mother, that she had that foundation which allowed her to use her empathy and emotional skills to imagine how that would feel if that wasn’t the case. So it was so great working with Kiera and her lightness of touch with the character with such difficult subject matter. And both girls were only ten!
RB: Martyrs Lane also offers a very different take on stranger danger, with Leah referring to the Bible and Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels…” Because this is such an anti-horror movie philosophy, was it challenging figuring out how to mesh the religious themes in this movie with the genre elements?
RP: Yes I was a bit worried about it. Religion works well in genre when there is a really overtly provocative rejection of the power abuse and hypocrisy of the institutions of the church. But one of the things I love about The Exorcist is that there’s this really humane, complex, nuanced portrayal of a priest – Damien Karras – his struggles with his faith, his deep guilt over his elderly mother dying alone – and everyone just thinks about this girl’s head spinning around and the vomit but the small details in that film are so bloody brilliant – the awful medical procedures the all male panel of doctors put Regan through, the mother’s flawed but well meaning parenting, and this brilliant character of the priest. I’m an atheist but I grew up in the church, and saw the hypocrisy and repression at first hand, but also saw some really good people working at grass roots level – not the judgemental moralistic ones, but the ones working with the vulnerable and those in need – and have so much respect for them. But…the story isn’t autobiographical, but the setting kind of is, and in the house I grew up in there were many people passing through the house in need of help – and that sometimes was lovely, and it sometimes wasn’t ideal – when you are a child and it’s your home. And I started to realise the idea of sacrifice can be quite a selfish, almost narcissistic thing, if you’re not balancing the needs of strangers with the needs of those closest to you, Christ himself talked about leaving your family to follow him, so it’s in the book. And that’s a bit of a worry when you’re ten! So I guess all those different ideas percolated through into the genre for me.
RB: What do you feel genre films offer that mainstream movies don’t, when it comes to telling stories about grief and trust?
RP: I guess you can access our deepest fears via genre, and through metaphor, that can represent more collective or shared human traumas, pain, fears? Through imagery and suggestion you can create space for the viewer to experience something that chimes with their own life – whereas drama is so specific it can feel perhaps like a more detached or objective event – an event where you can sympathise, and empathise with the characters, but not live vicariously through the experience in quite the same way as you can via horror/genre? It looks to me as if genre is becoming more mainstream – or at least the mainstream wants more genre as it has suddenly started looking like a commercial prospect – but that can be a poisoned chalice in a way I guess- the mainstream likes to take the edge off things – so that’s something to navigate if you ever get that far!
RB: Both Kiera Thompson and Sienna Sayer give amazing performances in Martyrs Lane. What was it like directing them, and was it a long casting process?
RP: I read that Haneke saw 5000 children for The White Ribbon. Our budget certainly didn’t extend to that but we tried to see as many children as we could. It’s a hard process. Children send in tapes and often you know from the first line if they are being themselves and using emotional intelligence to connect with the lines or performing in a way that they think is wanted. Most kids can act. But if there is already a technique in place – if they’ve already been coached to perform, then it’s a harder process to strip that away. When we saw Kiera and Sienna we knew very quickly that they were interesting – instead of creating a polished performance from the get go ( which is quite hard to work with) they brought themselves to the role and I could see them – who they were – and they had qualities that just took those characters to another place – an evolution of character through their own personalities. I loved working with them. They were so unbelievably professional, never tired or complained, lovely to everyone and they had the most amazing chemistry with each other. I directed them by just keeping them in the moment, the truth of each thought, each line, rather than with a whole story arc. And kept them moving before starting to shoot – to keep the energy up. And they responded and worked so hard. They are amazing people and they don’t even know it!
RB: Most of Leah’s interactions with the ghost/angel involve them playing “two truths and a lie.” Was this a game you played yourself as a kid and did you ever consider another option?
RP: I did play it as a kid I think. I also use it as a game when I’ve taught drama to free up expression and to encourage imaginative play and interaction. I thought there was a nice ambiguity in it – something that children do play and a way of communicating more between the lines, within a subtext, that would genuinely work for children. It’s important when working with children to make the words work for them, for their experience, and we played lots of those games in rehearsal and during the shoot. It created an interesting playful dynamic between the two girls which is the foundation of their relationship, and of the increasing danger.
RB: Did you have a favorite scene to write or direct?
RP: My favourite scenes were definitely with the two girls. It was like all the pressures lifted when we were doing those scenes, just between them, and we could just focus on the moment of each thought and line, and be playful, even in the darker scenes. And they had this wonderful camaraderie, and I would just breathe a sigh of relief when I knew it was a day shooting with them. We could just focus on the work. I also love that scene when Leah gives the toy dog to Bex when she’s doing off to university. It was one of the rarer moments when Kiera had some space to be the character without a tightly scripted scene, and she is just so wonderful in it – funny and sweet and vulnerable and tough. All without saying very much – and she and Hannah just created this brilliant relationship – prickly and bickering but also something tender underneath – in a very instinctive way.
RB: If you could try your hand at directing any other genre, what would your dream film project be?
RP: A black comedy definitely, rooted in observational humour about dysfunctional relationships! I loved Force Majeure and my film The Black Forest (premiered at Edinburgh in 2019 and made on a micro budget) was inspired in part by that. I’d dearly love to do something like that again on a bigger scale. I have something I’m writing but I feel the industry doesn’t like you straying from your lane. I still love genre and am writing genre projects too – but who knows what kind of film I will be allowed to make next (if I’m lucky!)
RB: It’s audiences that will be so lucky. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Ruth!
Martyrs Lane made its world premiere at Fantasia Fest and is coming to Shudder on September 9th.