After a quiet month, Andy Mitton, writer and director of The Harbinger, was now back on the UK stretch of the festival circuit, heading out to Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham and Celluloid Screams in Sheffield after screening at Grimmfest in Manchester. This atmospheric tale of nightmares, isolation, and friendship is a great fit for such events; though I do hope people aren’t expecting some other film that’s just been released under the same name. “It certainly didn’t feel like the best luck,” said Andy when we met last week, “but you know, I actually like what it’s done to our release schedule. It’s going to be fine though: there’s room in the world for both movies, as we’re traveling through different channels within the genre.”
JP reviewed The Harbinger when it screened at FrightFest and I gave Andy a question that JP wanted an answer for: did the myth within the film come from real lore or legend, or did he devise it purely for the plot? “I devised it, purely out of thin air,” he said bluntly. “I began with an interest in a movie where losing characters from the story might result in them being erased from existence; because as a storyteller, something that frustrates me is when you have a character die and then you have to deal with detectives and microfiche and research and so on, all the trappings that make a rounded story. But if someone is erased out of everyone’s minds, the story gets propelled past all those details, and I think there’s something new there. So I started with that kernel of an idea, along with the image of the plague doctor. Well, really the plague doctor is a choice that this demon makes about how they appear in this iteration. There could be another movie with him appearing in a completely different form and it would still be the same entity. So yeah, I took advantage of not being an expert in demonology or any of these things and try to come up with something original that suited the machine of the story and the themes I wanted to explore.”
The story involved Mavis (played by Emily Davis), who was plagued with bad dreams, and Monique (Gabby Beans), who was trying to figure out what was really going on with her friend; between them, they went down a route of Mavis being badly unwell before seeking out a demonologist to help them. I asked Andy if he felt he was being troubled by a demon, what would he do about it? “I would definitely start with the pragmatic solutions, like doctors and psychologists,” he said with a laugh. “I think this demon in particular seeps into your consciousness, so I think I might get a sense pretty quickly that those traditional routes aren’t going to work, because you can’t fix something you don’t believe in.”
This comment reminded me of the adaptation of The Exorcist that I’d heard on the radio recently, which included some terrific debates about whether one can confront something that one doesn’t strictly believe in. “Oh yes, The Exorcist is my favorite movie of all time,” said Andy. “I used that, and I used the documentary about sleep paralysis called The Nightmare.” I’d not heard of that.
“It’s a great documentary, very scary,” Andy said. “It’s about the common experiences of people around the world who suffer sleep paralysis and wake up unable to move or see a figure in the doorway. It’s shocking just how common these experiences are, and you feel a little dangerous watching this documentary, like ‘am I going to have this affliction now that I’ve exposed myself to it?’ So I wanted a little kernel of that danger in my story too, a sense that it could be dangerous for the viewer who will wonder what will happen with their dreams. It’s said in the movie that, at his core, he is a bad idea.” Ideas do spread, whether you like it or not, after all.
Another thing that spreads, of course, is a virus…and a major aspect of The Harbinger is its pandemic setting. This gave the film a deeply sad tone at times, especially near its start, reflecting very well the mood of the world during the early months of the real-world COVID-19 pandemic. I asked Andy whether there were other films that came out of this period that he admires. “A very different sensibility, but I really enjoyed Host,” said Andy. “That’s probably the one that rises to the top, though I’m still catching up on some others. I am about to go to a bunch of festivals, after all, and hopefully, I’ll experience Something in the Dirt; that’s one that I’m really excited to see. It felt like a risky decision, obviously, because there is a desire for escapism; and I know I’m not ready for a straight drama, but horror gives you that little cushion, that lens and that ability to look something in the eye whilst also going through a rollercoaster ride.” It must be tricky working out if you really want to dig into this while we’re all still getting past it.
“Exactly,” Andy agreed. “We really stressed over that and even considered placing it in a parallel universe. But I think if we look back in ten years’ time, this is going to be as viable a period as any other setting for a story. Or perhaps even more potent, because we share is usually regional in our experiences, with wars and historical events; but this is something that everyone on the planet can tap into, which is rare. So I think this period of time will be mined for a long time.” Interesting: there were many different responses around the world, but it’s true that the pandemic was indeed global.
Something else which usually has a regional slant is folklore. Of course, the plague doctor came from real, largely European, history; I couldn’t help wondering how well that image translated to modern USA. “People know it, I think, through different iterations over time,” he said, “and even if they don’t know about the plague doctor, they’ve seen the uncanny image, whether it’s a mask in c or they were reading Spy vs Spy cartoons. For me, it’s just the image: the beaked character before you know any history, it speaks to the uncanny. That old Freud essay on the uncanny which was really important to me when I was studying horror in school, the image that worms its way into your mind for reasons that are almost intangible: those things are really interesting to me. So I would have been drawn to it without the pandemic, as an image; and then I had the idea to begin it with the mask format that we’re used to, but have the creature become more organic by the end so that what you think of as a mask can actually bleed.”
As an image, it certainly overlapped with the bird that Monique often drew. “Exactly,” said Andy. “We studied a lot of birds with different beaks, and my mask designer, Moung Hui Park, and I talked a lot about how to strike to the familiar image but not be redundant to evolve into something distinct to this story. I think the bird whose beak we settled on was a Californian thrasher, with a nice violent arc and a sharp point to it. So it was fun designing that along with her and probably less fun for the actor wearing it because it was quite heavy.”
I had wondered what kind of brief Andy had given to the designers of costume and creature effects. “Well, you see the plague doctor sometimes with the hat; that sort of places it in a period. I wanted him to feel like an ancient evil that existed throughout time, so the cloak felt more appropriate than the hat. We tried to focus more on age and distress, a timeless, ancient evil; and then build the environment in the nightmares so that it increasingly felt like this ruined cathedral, a lair that he’s been in through time. So we didn’t necessarily place it in the black plague or Spanish flu or any of the other times through history that we might have seen him in.”
That phrase “timeless evil”: I wondered if that also referred to pandemics, which of course come back in different forms. “Well, the evil likes the pandemic,” said Andy, “for the isolation. I think that throughout time, in terms of finding people’s vulnerabilities, or ways into their consciousness, or times people would have been isolated and vulnerable to this evil…it wouldn’t always have been to do with plagues. He could have chosen a completely other visage and other time. The choice of how he appears is influenced by our fears and our consciousness, so we are, in part, creating the choice, which he comes and mocks. But I don’t think he needs always to have been aligned with plagues and pandemics.”
So the story of this entity being drawn to people in isolation: that could have happened at any time, not just in our recent social setting? “I think so, yes,” said Andy.
But I get the impression Andy hadn’t thought of it until “our” pandemic arrived. “The pandemic brought the idea to me,” he said firmly, “but I knew I wanted to do more than just a Michael Myers-style masked evil. The source of the evil in this story came with a mask, and I liked the idea that he chose his mask; and in this story, he’s the designer of nightmares. The source of the fear extends beyond the mask because he is the face of every character in the dreams, he speaks in the voice of the character in dreams. So I get to keep him a little in reserve and have him speak and appear in different ways. That’s what the real fun is, and that’s why you want to work in dreams as a horror filmmaker: that’s where you get to bend the rules and have a good time. I watch Jacob’s Ladder, my favorite dreamscape movie ever: it’s so grounded, and you have this really warm protagonist at the center of a horror. So that’s my tonal touchstone, much more than something like Freddy Krueger.”
I was dwelling on the topic of the pandemic somewhat, but that can’t be helped: the film did too. When I was watching The Harbinger, over the first twenty minutes or so, I found myself wondering whether it was going to be about the pandemic, or about bad dreams; and it’s understandable if they should overlap: we all had a bad time, especially in those first few months. I asked Andy if those two subjects inextricably belong together in his opinion. “I don’t know about being inextricably linked,” he said. “I think the movie lives in dream logic and this story came very much from my muse. During that time, April and May 2020, I was having a terrible fit of nightmares, so for me, they were connected. I don’t usually suffer from bad dreams, but during that time it was every night. I was probably trying to exorcize it from myself in writing about it, but it seemed connected to an existential dread; because at that point, particularly here in New York, where the National Guard was in town, and we lost so many lives faster than anyone could process, people dying alone in hospitals: it really depressed me. That along with a whole portion of the population kind of getting in the way of using common sense, or objecting to basic scientific common sense. I try not to dwell on that, because I know it’s divisive and perhaps political in some people’s minds, so I try to be sensitive about that. But to me, that existential dread was connected to my subconscious, to my dream world, and it just led me down this path, for better or worse.”
The last twenty minutes or so of the film were largely set in the dream world of the film’s protagonist. I asked Andy whether those images had come from his own nightmares. “In the script, it looked different,” he said. “Funny, but it’s hard to remember. What happened was we built a production plan off a location that we found. We were initially going to shoot on a sound stage, but we couldn’t afford it, and then we found this theatre that had been shuttered. They owned this decrepit opera house next to their actual theatre, and they offered us a rental to use their theatre space and an empty room to build our Brooklyn apartment in. Also, we had access to this naturally decrepit 1920s opera house that was about to be demolished, with incredible textures, holes in the walls; it was cold as a freezer, and terrifying to shoot in. Once I knew I had that space, I walked around it and tried to find the power points in that space, the spaces that scared me, and I installed them into the shooting script. As is often the case in low-budget filmmaking, we looked at what we had and shaped the story to the strengths of that. It was an amazing building, and that’s where I got the idea of the ruined cathedral with its textures: they were just there, and the production designer did not have to do much with that set. So we found them and embraced them.”
Andy made the music for The Harbinger, as well as the last couple of films. “My first film, YellowBrickRoad, didn’t have a score, it was all sourced music. Since then, I’ve been doing it myself, though that’s not something I really want to hire myself for every time, to be honest. When a score is subtly supportive, I think I’m a pretty good hire; I have made my ends meet as a composer in theatre, so it’s a natural part of myself. But I have too many musical heroes that I’d love to work with as (hopefully) the movies get bigger. But in this case, it was actually a very smooth process. I had the main theme in my head before we started, so I was able to share some of the music and just the flavor with people like my cinematographer and my production designer to give them a sense of the mood it evoked. The main theme, in this case, is in purposefully an odd time signature, in five/four, to throw you off your footing in a subconscious way.”
Andy had mentioned his cinematographer, Ludovica Isidori, there; her work was very effective: down to Earth, gritty in parts, and made the locations feel utterly real. I had noticed that Andy had used a different cinematographer with each film though, and I asked him why that was. “It’s funny, no one has asked me that until now,” he observed. “I’ve actually had four really excellent collaborations with cinematographers, and it’s just been circumstantial. On the second film, I got to know Jeff Waldron, who I was really excited about. I wanted to use him on The Witch in the Window, but he was on another film, so that led us to a third person, Justin Kane, who I shot The Witch in the Window with. We bonded and had a wonderful experience, and when it came time to shoot The Harbinger, he was having a baby with his wife; so he told me he shares his Alexa camera with another photographer, which is Ludo, and he recommended me to her. We set off on this journey together and it felt serendipitous because her strength is very much in the hand-held work; she’s able to do the dance with the actors and play a little bit more down and dirty. It’s human, gritty, very unlocked, whereas The Witch in the Window was more on rails, more like a glidy, polished approach. So this felt exciting and different, and I know the actors really responded to her on her feet and operating the camera herself, connecting with them during the scenes.”
Sounds like each cinematographer has been a great fit for each film. This is an interesting contrast to some others I’ve spoken to who use the same team repeatedly. “Oh I’m going to have nothing but confusion for the next film,” Andy said. “I have a lot of DPs now that I love to work with and if all these people are available, I don’t even know how I’ll choose. Some sort of rock-paper-scissors competition, perhaps.”
I remembered The Witch in the Window fondly, especially the ending; granted the plot was fairly linear, but the ending was satisfying, albeit sad too. The Harbinger was a little different in that respect. I asked Andy how he chooses whether to provide a nice, clear ending or leave it ambiguous. (He was a little wary about spoiling the film with this answer: I’m going to leave out the detailed parts, but read on at your risk.) “Since this was kind of my pandemic primal scream in a moment of desperation, this is about what I was feeling,” Andy said, “and I’m an optimist. What I felt at this point of the pandemic was hope with no evidence that I should, hope in the face of hopelessness. And the final image of this movie is, for me, a picture of that hope. A sparrow is used as a symbol in the movie, and traditionally one of the things a sparrow was used for symbolically was hope, so I adopted it as my symbol too. I wanted a trap door ending where hopefully we were connected to our hero and rooting for them, and when the rug gets pulled out from under us (and her) at the end, we’re left with a despairing hit. A lot of horror movies that do a trap door ending leave you with that pit, but the final image of this movie, in spite of having no evidence around them that they should be hoping, nevertheless, there it is.” I liked that interesting message for a horror audience.
“I think of stories as machines,” Andy continued. “There’s an architecture to this story, with gears and beams and framework; and this little idea of a relic, the sparrow, is what ties the machine together. It’s one of the central gears. I knew pretty early that I wanted to end on that image, and it would be a mathematical equation of everything that took place.”
Taking the cue from that sad hope, we talked a little about the people who are erased, taken by the Harbinger. “Early in the story, Mavis realized there was someone who used to be in her life that she couldn’t remember,” recalled Andy, “and she describes it as it’s sometimes like there’s a ghost in her apartment, or there’s a smell of cologne, something just out of reach. That begs the question: those people who are taken, are they somewhere? are they retrievable in some way? Is there a rabbit hole to go down, if you follow some relic left behind? I’m not saying I’ll do a sequel to this movie (I wouldn’t), but if I did, that’s what I’d do.”
Having brought up Mavis, I commented that I found her to be the more interesting of the two central characters. I asked Andy whether she was drawn from someone he knows in real life. “No,” he said, “I tend not to do that. The characters are shaped more from the ground up for me, I don’t base them on real people, which makes me confused when I get to casting, because I’ve created an image of a person who doesn’t exist, and then I have to go looking for a match.”
So how does he find a cast to fit these characters? Emily Davis (who played Mavis) was spot on, after all; particularly, I felt for her in that scene where she first met up with Monique again after many years and didn’t know whether to hug. “That’s close to the heart of the movie, that scene,” Andy agreed. “What we had in New York was a situation where the entire theatre community was home. Emily Davis at any other point would have been on stage; same with Gabby Beans, and likely Ray Anthony Thomas [who played Mo’s brother Ronald] and Stephanie Haberle [who played the demonologist, Crystal]. These are all theatre actors. I didn’t have a casting director, and I started watching the show High Maintenance, this show that follows a drug dealer around the city. That show uses theatre actors, and you can see just how good they are on the screen; because there’s a misconception that stage actors don’t know how to be small enough for the screen, but that’s very false. I saw Emily in an episode, and some of my theatre friends told me she’s one of the top up-and-coming actors in New York. She was just on Broadway after we wrapped, as was Gabby; Gabby was just nominated for a Tony as best actress. Everyone came from the stage, and part of the production plan was to utilize these actors who were on the ground; and this also made it a safer production to shoot, because we were all local in New York: it cut down on quarantine and COVID risks because we were shooting all this pre-vaccine, so top priority beyond making a great film was to do it safely. We didn’t have a studio, no safety net: so if we had a positive result at any point, we were done.”
Following that earlier tease about a sequel, I gave Andy my usual close of asking what comes next. “I don’t know,” he said coyly. “It seems like there are a lot of good inroads that have been made so far in this process; I desire to work with a bit more resource and a bit more structure, and I feel like I’ve met those people. I’m too jaded to announce anything specific, but I’ll say I’ve got like seven scripts, and my heart is in all of them. They’re all in different corners of the genre: I’ve got a slasher movie at a wedding; a high school voodoo doll comedy thing; an actiony ice-road trucker story; a high-rise urban horror story…changes of mood and style, but all in horror. I’d be very happy to carry on making horror movies for the rest of my life because I don’t think there’s anything you can’t explore. And it’s the best community, I love it so much.”
When I discovered I’d be conducting an interview about a film with the name The Harbinger, I couldn’t help but recall Cabin in the Woods; so I’d love it if Andy tried his hand at something with a comedy slant to it. “I’ve been dying to,” he said. Plenty to look forward to!
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