Dark Side Magazine at FrightFest 2022 – James Whittington interviews William Higo, director of The Group

Some movies at FrightFest take horror into the real world, exposing how bloody and brutal revenge and betrayal can be. William Higo’s superb thriller The Group is one such movie, so we chatted with him about this strong piece which is showing on Discovery Screen 2.

DS: Where did the idea for The Group come from?

WH: When we first started discussing the notion of making a low budget feature film, I knew that the only way we could make something with the resources we had would be to make it self contained with minimal cast. I then started thinking about what locations could make a dynamic story engine. I had attended a few addicts’ anonymous meetings with family members and was surprised at the mix of people in attendance. They were from all walks of life, seemingly with nothing in common apart from this problem they all shared. It’s as Seth says in the film ‘Addiction: the great equaliser”. They didn’t necessarily get on, agree with each other or even like each other. It was such a tense environment. At that point, it was already a situation ripe for drama. That’s when I started thinking about what would happen if you took it one step further; if this vengeful agent of chaos came into the room, pulled out a gun and turned everything on its head…

DS: How did you go about casting the movie?

WH: We cast the movie through the usual low (low) budget channels: contacts and various open call casting websites. We tried to boil down the characters into snappy archetypes, were honest about our experience and aims and hoped for the best. The reaction was good. We received a lot of self-tapes that we whittled down to a number we could reasonably we manage and then set aside a couple of days to interview as many as we could. Out of that initial session, we cast pretty much everyone for the film bar Seth and Kara. Dylan, Jenni, Tom, Nobuse, Mike and Alicia wowed us from the start. They really came in, took the sides we’d written and brought them to life with minimal prep and fuss. Perhaps unfairly, in the initial sides we gave to Jenni was the scene where Jack confronts her about her relationship with her son. It’s a real powerhouse scene, involves digging deep and you either go all in or don’t bother. Even though we were perched on stools at the drafty end of the office, Jenni has us all on the verge of tears. She was the first person we saw that day and by lunchtime we were still thinking about her performance. Mike pretty much read for every single character, before we settled on him as Dave. He’s really versatile and we knew we wanted him involved. Tom, despite being the nicest guy was absolutely game for playing a complete arsehole. He’s since admitted that he got a real kick out of saying all the horrible lines that come out of Henry’s mouth, almost like acting up at school. Nobuse was one of those quiet performers that came in with a really subtle take on Eddy, nailing a monologue we wrote specifically for the casting. He has this ability to always be doing something interesting in any scene – always quiet, never grand standing, but layering on character detail in these really small ways. Dylan absolutely nailed his self-tape. From the minute I opened the attachment we knew we had to cast him, so much so that he made his way into the storyboards long before we officially cast him. As a character, Jack completely controls the space, and we needed an actor that could do the same. Whenever Dylan was in the room, he could control the ebb and flow of a scene, get into people’s space, drag the camera as he prowled around the circle and that was evident from the minute we met him. With Kara, the difficulty was in finding someone that could go up against Dylan as Jack. You needed someone who could convincingly stand their ground without coming across as petulant. It was an incredible difficult brief and we found ourselves auditioning perfectly capable actors that couldn’t nail that dynamic. When Evangelina walked in, I felt like we were seeing Kara for the first time. If Jack was this unstoppable force, then she was an immovable object. Tall and angular, she felt like a brick wall for him to butt up against. Originally a friend of mine had been cast in the role of Seth but had to pull out due to personal reasons. Luke came onboard shortly afterward, giving us a completely different take to what we’d initial envisaged. Seth went from an older flawed mentor to a potential love interest – something that wasn’t in the original script but worked its way in the minute we saw the natural chemistry between them both. Between them, they built this backstory that was never directly addressed, but added a weight and tone to their interactions that really made the performances feel lived in. By the end of a few short weeks, we had our cast. The next thing was to get them all in a room together.

DS: The performances are very honest, very true, did they have much rehearsal time?

WH: A few months before the start of filming, we assembled the cast together for a read through. The great thing about the script is that it’s perfect for one. Lots of dialogue led scenes, people sat in chairs, confined to a limited space. We managed to create a reasonable facsimile of the meeting room and ran through the script twice. The first time through, I purposefully withheld any input -allowing them to really go for. With the script in flux at that point, it was really useful to see what they brought in terms of the tone of their performance; little ad-libs here and there that I could use to thread through the shooting draft. On-set, there was much less time. The cast all had the same call time and more often than not, they’d be running the scenes whilst we set up. By the time it came for the run-through I felt I was constantly surprised by what they brought to the scenes, a real pick-me-up that kept the adrenaline pumping through the harder days. Honestly, the film wouldn’t be half what it was without the cast. Within the film, there are plenty of sustained heavy dialogue scenes that would play out for up to ten minutes and you’d watch these actors, at the top of their game face off against each other and nail every single line. It wasn’t uncommon to hear eruptions of applause from the video village after a scene, which was great as every department seemed determined to match their enthusiasm and commitment, so it really kept spirits up. 

DS: I assume it was all shot-on location, what challenges did that throw up?

WH: We filmed in a community space outside of London – purposefully chosen as it gave us more or less every location, we needed for the film in one place. I think the only real concession was that in the script, the meeting takes place in a basement room, but the geography of the building was right and like most things, it really helped us to refine the script when we were in situ. However, the key part was that it completely eliminated the need for unit moves, so we could move from one setup for the next without having to reset every time. That said, there were challenges. Every night, we’d have to wrap the entire set for the early morning yoga/karate/boxercise classes and then reset everything the following morning. Thankfully the lighting rig that sat above the circle could be left up as that was an elaborate invention of the DP, Andy and I took a lot of effort to break down. In one instance we ended up double booked with some public speaking event and unfortunately, they decided that they would take priority. Essentially losing a day, producer Talia, First AD Leigh and I juggled the schedule to try and make it work. It also forced a complete rewrite of the ending and the removal of some twenty pages of script. The morning of the clash; Dylan, Leigh and I sat down in a nearby pub and hashed out the final scenes, bouncing dialogue backwards and forwards an effort to save the film. Though it was almost unbearably stressful, by this point we’d essentially lived ten days in the shoes of these characters and found our way to something with a lot more thematic richness than was originally written. There were some casualties – a fantastic performance from Tom for one but ultimately what was shot is the better ending.

DS: This is your first feature as a director, were you nervous your first day in set?

WH: It was definitely nerve wracking being on set for the first time. I’d made shorts before, but essentially that h ad only been a crew of three or four and a couple of cast and here I was with a team of forty. Luckily, we’d assembled a top-notch crew that were incredibly supportive. On the first morning, the production designer May and her team set about building the set whilst Andy the DP assembled the rig and lit for the circle. The cast arrived for costume/make-up tests, and we essentially built towards a few test shots at the end of the day. All I had to do was sit down with the script and prep for the next day’s shooting. It was an absolute relief knowing we had such a dedicated team shepherding the production.

DS: Its intense and very bleak, what was the atmosphere like on set?

WH: The atmosphere onset was surprisingly light, given both the subject matter and that we were literally trying to bend space and time to get the thing done. What helped was that we started on the right foot. The first proper shooting days were essential for setting the tone for the shoot. On the second day, we pretty much quashed any doubts that the film was going to work the minute we started shooting the track in on Jack as he sits at the head of the circle. It’s a key scene in the script, that sets out the stall for the next hour. It was an absolutely blinding performance from Dylan and a moment where every single department just clicked. It really showed everyone what we hoped we were going to accomplished and from that point on, everyone was invested.

DS: There are a lot of themes running through the movie such as regret and the futility of revenge, would you agree?

WH: It’s not an easy film in that regard, it asks a lot of questions – about revenge, regret, culpability – and it isn’t quick to provide a definitive stance on them. I felt that was very important because everyone in the audience is going to feel differently about that, especially as we are asked to empathise with characters that all have blood on their hands to some degree. I don’t condone Jack’s actions, but I understand the emotion behind them – that inability to move on, to be stuck in an emotional stasis and the fury that other people aren’t. Much like the others, he’s attempting to make things right in the only way he knows unfortunately, in his case it’s incredibly destructive. In some ways, The Group is an inverse look at films like Taken where we view things from the opposite point of view, and it really makes you question actions that in another film would be considered ‘heroic’ or ‘just’. This was something we played with a lot, particularly in regard to the music. Dennis Tjiok, the composer, came up with an almost western guitar refrain for Jack underscoring the idea that, in his own head at least, he’s some righteous gunslinger, moseying into town and holding the sinners to account.

DS: It’s a tough movie to categorise, how would you describe it?

WH: In some ways it’s a bit of a throwback: this violent, high concept thriller injected with a modern social conscience. We really wanted to create this rollercoaster of tension that just builds and builds and doesn’t let up. There was a joke on set about the cliché of using a boiling kettle to signify mounting tension. We’re probably one of the few films to then take the same kettle and pour it on someone’s head.

DS: What lessons have you learned as a first-time director about the craft of making movies?

WH: My background is in editing behind the scenes promos, so I’ve spent a lot of time listening to experienced directors talk through their processes. The main takeaway from that I suppose was how important it was to be prepared: knowing each scene inside out, knowing the central conflict. We were working at such speed, twenty pages a day at one point, that we needed to be confident that we had exactly what we needed so that meant being one step ahead at all times, planning the next shot, editing the sequence in our heads. It was really relentless, but it made us learn fast and shoot fast. I’m not sure that it’s the ideal way to make movies, but it was the right way to make this movie.

DS: Will you be nervous when it has its world premiere at FrightFest 2022?

WH: I went to my first FrightFest in 2002, twenty years ago this year, so it means the absolute world to be having our world premiere there. I know from first-hand experience how great the audiences can be and can’t wait to watch the film with them.

DS: So, what are you working on at the moment?

WH: I’ve got a few scripts in the works – one a nineties style psycho-thriller the other more of a straight horror, though both are shot through with the same socially conscious sensibility as The Group. Dylan and I did briefly discuss the idea of a sequel as a joke (Groups?) though I think in the process, we might’ve convinced ourselves it’s not such a terrible idea…

DS: William Higo, thank you very much.