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Unwelcome: An Interview With Director Jon Wright

Image courtesy of MPRM Communications

Jon Wright’s Irish set horror Unwelcome brings an unfamiliar variety of little people to contemporary film audiences, as well as some thoroughly down-to-Earth thugs. About ten years ago, Jon directed films such as Grabbers, which caught the attention of Sundance and Grimmfest film festivals; but since then, he has been largely working in television…until this new film.

I opened our conversation by asking him how the job of a director differs between the worlds of film and television. “I guess there’s a bit of convergence these days,” he said, “they’re not quite as different as they used to be. But in my experience, the films that I’ve done have been of the personal nature, passion projects; and the TV work has been mainstream, crowd-pleasing stuff in comparison. With bigger audiences as well. I’ve been a hired gun [for the TV work], so I’ve been brought in, shown the scripts, and told ‘this is what we’re making, do you want to direct it?’ Whereas with the movies, I’ve been a bit more involved at the script stage, and it’s a different job all ’round, really.”

His co-writer, Mark Stay, was also Jon’s writing partner in an earlier film, Robot Overlords. I asked Jon how that partnership works. “The original idea started out as a conversation between the two of us,” Jon said. “So we were laughing at each other, saying what cowards we both were. We liked to dress it up: the nice way of saying it was to say you’re a pacifist, but really we were terrible cowards. We were just reminiscing about different situations where we’d been in fights or around fights, and how useless we’d been, and then we’d got on to talking about our children. I’ve got a thirteen-year-old son, and he’s got teenage children, and we both agreed that if our children were threatened, we would be violent; and not only violent, but more violent than a violent person, because being so hopeless at fighting, we’d probably grab a weapon and try to bring the confrontation to a very fast and abrupt end and get the Hell out of there. That was interesting to us: how can cowards be aggressive? That felt like a dramatic question and that’s what we asked the two main characters in the movie.

“That’s how the film idea started,” Jon continued. “Mark goes away and he writes the script, brings it back and I write lots of notes and it’s a collaborative process. In this case, though, Mark wrote it.”

So considering the germ of the story idea was about violence and defending one’s family, I asked how that ended up being paired with a “creature feature” style plot. “I suppose I’m always instinctively drawn to things that are fantastical,” Jon said. “For me, the films and shows I’ve always enjoyed are windows into a world that you don’t get to experience in real life. Obviously, there’s a place for both kinds of entertainment, but the genres I connect with most are horror, science fiction, and fantasy. When you see a gangster movie, it tends to be a world you haven’t experienced yourself; even that is a window into another world; as opposed to films about people having arguments over the kitchen table: we’ve all experienced that, and I kind of feel like when I watch things, I want to escape the real world, and maybe come back to reality via some back door, rather than looking at it front on.

“I wanted to do something in Ireland again,” Jon went on, “and have an excuse to shoot out in the beautiful Irish countryside. We looked at myths and legends and came across the redcaps, who are these malevolent Irish goblins who like to dip their caps in the blood of their victims. So these are folk creatures in Irish mythology, but they’re also in Celtic mythology in general and appear elsewhere in the world. What I found interesting about them was that they’re a bit like a dark and twisted version of leprechauns; so it might seem on the surface like we’re making an Irish leprechaun movie, but when you scratch the surface, you see that these aren’t nice fairy folk, but nasty, malicious characters. Also importantly, what I took from the image of the bloody cap is that they enjoy it: there’s pride or pleasure in their act of violence, and I think that’s what they are in our film; a symbol of unrestrained violence.”

Having been raised in Ireland myself, I was reluctant to use the word “goblin,” as it is not part of their original culture: Jon’s creatures are fear dearg in Irish, translated as “red men,” one of many Tuatha Dé Danann offshoots. Pre-Celtic mythology fascinated me when I was growing up, especially the way there are regional versions of some stories. “Exactly,” said Jon. “what I find fascinating when you read Irish folk tales, is how there’s a darkness to them; they feel horrific, rather than nice or twee. This film feels like a Grimms’ fairy tale for grown-ups, and that’s how I had imagined it.”

This reminded me of some of the fairy tale imagery in Unwelcome: a young woman in a long dress running through a dark forest, the ancient dolmen, the giant-like angry man. I asked Jon whether this approach had been deliberate or just the way the story played out. “Very much so,” he said. “I feel that there’s something very pleasing about fairy tales and the atmosphere they conjure; but often in the modern world, they’re considered as just for children, and I think there’s a market there for people like myself who enjoy it but want something more adult. Let’s be clear: this film is really not appropriate for children, and it explores adult ideas with imagery of fairy tales; whether it’s the deep, dark wood, or the stone house that you can’t find when you’re searching for it.”

Back to the creatures briefly (before picking up Jon’s reference to “adult ideas”), with a question from reviewer JP Nunez: I asked Jon whether the mythology had been left intact in Unwelcome, or whether changes had been made for the story. “We very much rewrote the lore,” Jon said. “Red caps are here and there; they crop up everywhere, even in Harry Potter. But they aren’t that well known as creature characters; not like bringing a werewolf or a vampire to the screen, where there’s already an understanding of what the mythology is, and you can either break it or go with it. The red caps were virtually a blank canvas, so we made them our own, and basically made them an embodiment of our movie’s theme. That worked very well for us.”

I assumed Jon was referring to violence there, but when I had watched it, two ideas seemed prevalent to me: respecting tradition and unhealthy masculinity. Jon nodded at that and clarified: “Our leading man, Jamie [played by Douglas Booth], feels a lot of pressure to conform to the stereotype of masculinity. He goes through an experience at the start which makes him feel very belittled and unmasculine, and he reacts against that by setting his mind on becoming an ‘alpha male,’ a clichéd ‘real man’. Bless him, he tries as he might and can’t manage it.”

In contrast, the elder Whelan (played by Colm Meaney), father in the family of loutish building contractors, told his younger son to “be a man,” and had an utterly different approach to what that means. “Exactly,” said Jon. “That was uppermost in Mark and I’s thoughts: we both had quite macho fathers who could handle themselves in a fight. My Dad took me out into the garden when I was about twelve and said ‘right, you’re old enough to learn how to box now.’ And I said ‘Dad, I’m a pacifist.’ He was incredibly disappointed, this hard-drinking, two-fisted Irishman; his shoulders sank and he walked back into the house like he was going to a funeral; I couldn’t have disappointed him more. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a loving and intelligent man, my father, but a very macho man too.

“It’s become quite topical,” Jon went on; “whether this type of masculinity is a positive thing or a toxic thing. I think we talk about that through Jamie and Maya [Hannah John-Kamen]. He’s somebody who wishes he was an alpha male and just isn’t.”

(I couldn’t help contributing: especially when he hides behind his pregnant wife a couple of times.)

“Perversely and ironically, it takes a lot of courage to play a coward,” said Jon, “and Doug was very willing to play the truth of what it is to be a coward. It was something he understood and he wanted to go there, and I have to say I don’t think a lot of actors would. Many have one eye on playing a Marvel superhero and don’t want to let go of that dream. But Doug was willing, and he really does play the truth: it’s pitiful how Jamie falls apart, quite honestly. I imagine in real life that’s what happens in real life for the majority of the time, to the majority of people.”

I agreed that it was Jamie’s nature, but also amplified due to the trauma he had been through at the start of the film. “Exactly,” said Jon. “I think both characters are suffering from PTSD, badly traumatized by what happened to them in London; and of course this being a story, their desire to get away from all that comes back to haunt them. You could argue that Unwelcome is about two people wrestling with PTSD.”

Before we moved the conversation away from the men of the story, I had another question about “Daddy” Whelan: I asked Jon why that character had been so insistent that everyone calls him “Daddy.” “It’s a low-level form of bullying, really, isn’t it?” said Jon. “It’s his way of saying you must acknowledge that I am the daddy, that I am the father figure, the big man here; I’ve got the status. He’s saying ‘if you don’t call me that, you’re not acknowledging who I am.’ So it’s a kind of bullying, really.”

Hannah John-Kamen as Maya in Unwelcome
Image courtesy of MPRM Communications

The women in the film were almost flawless in comparison to the men; and to the extent that the fear dearg, or red caps, apparently revered them. I didn’t recall that from Irish mythology, but rather a lot of changelings. “There is a changeling in the film,” said Jon. “I suppose it’s going back to pre-Christian times when there were goddesses instead of gods; and female leaders. The idea of men being superior to women, I think, arrived with Christianity. So I suppose we’re looking at a very ancient society in our red caps; in fact, if you look closely at their costumes, they’re made up from many periods of history. They’re like magpies, with little things like Coke can ring pulls that decorate their clothes; but also, they have things from the Victorian period and before, like bones from cavemen times. They’re a very old species because they’re magical: they live in a kind of twilight time between reality and a magical world, and as such, their perception of time is different.

“We saw them as a kind of matriarchy,” Jon said, getting back on topic. “They revered the female leader; in a somewhat unhealthy way, let’s be honest.” And their attitude certainly served to highlight the gender differences in Unwelcome.

But speaking of the costumes; I asked Jon whether the design had been drawn from other films or books. “A lot of other films, sure,” Jon said, “but I particularly looked back to Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which I always loved. One thing I enjoyed about that was the sense of mischief; the gremlins always seemed to enjoy wreaking havoc, and they don’t seem to feel very guilty about that, but pleased. We also looked back at the movie called Cat’s Eye, based on the Stephen King stories. I was always very fond of the final story where Drew Barrymore encounters a goblin; I loved the way they shot a small actor on a massive stage, which gave it a sense of something real. So we built double-height sets: when you see that goblin reach up to the door of the French windows, he really is reaching up: it’s a twelve-foot door with a handle six feet off the ground. So when he comes in, that’s a real person walking into an actual room, wearing a mask; then when we’re on the close-ups, we use motion capture. An old friend of mine from school called Rick Warden played all the goblins: his face was animated back onto the masks. We photographed the static masks and animated the faces in post.”

We didn’t really have time, but I squeezed in one final question, warning Jon first that it could be a big one. I wanted to know how he navigated the blurry line between presenting a culture (rural Irish in this case) and using stereotypes. Thankfully, Jon had an answer straight away: “I think what we’ve done with this movie is taking a lot of the stereotypes and the traditional depictions of Ireland, and played with them, messed around with them. I think it is representative of an Irish village, but at the same time, the modern world is in there; and I would be disappointed if Irish friends of mine felt it was stereotypical or ‘paddy-wackery’ as we call it. I hope they enjoy the way Ireland is represented here. I like making films (and I did this with Grabbers) where you take the international chocolate box of a country and put something unexpected in the middle of it. We do go to one of the most picturesque parts of Ireland and show that wonderful rolling landscape, as well as the colorful village characters; but I’d like to think what we do is quite unexpected and contemporary, and doesn’t feel old-fashioned or stereotypical.”

Unwelcome comes to US cinemas on Friday 10 March as part of the AMC Thrills & Chills line-up and on Digital Tuesday 14 March.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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