If you like your Christmas films on the dark side, with a blend of horror and sci-fi, then this week’s new release Await Further Instructions is the one for you. Released in select cinemas and Premium VOD from Friday 7th December, the film tells the tale of one family’s traumatic festive period. Estranged son Nick (Sam Gittins) returns to the family home for the holiday period with his girlfriend Annji (Neerja Naik). Unfortunately his family aren’t that receptive to the pair and they soon prepare to leave. However, as they make a bid for freedom, they discover that the house has been boarded-up and the only communication with the outside world comes via their television. The group must work together to try and survive the siege, but tensions rise and the family find themselves properly at war with one another.
The film debuted in the UK at August’s Arrow Video Frightfest and was met with a very warm reception, including by ourselves (read the review here). In attendance at the screening were director Johnny Kevorkian, producer Jack Tarling and lead actor Sam Gittins; we took the opportunity to have a chat about the project. Be warned, the interview below does contain some minor spoilers to some aspects of the film.
How did Await Further Instructions come together?
JACK TARLING: I guess I was originally pitched the idea by the writer Gavin Williams a long time ago, probably back in 2009. We were just having a general meet about various ideas that he had. He’s based in Newcastle, I was based in Newcastle for a long time, and we started developing that together. We brought Johnny on-board probably a couple of years later actually. (Laughs) So still a very long time ago, seven years or so you’ve been with it now Johnny?
JOHNNY KEVORKIAN: I have yes, it’s been about seven years. When I came on-board there was an early draft, so I then just gave some notes and really became involved from that point on. It’s been somewhat of a journey hasn’t it? But a good one. It’s been fun. Then we had a few near misses in terms of getting it made, and then we finally did get the green-light.
I speak to a lot of indie filmmakers and the shoot times seem to get shorter and shorter, it tends to be days rather than weeks, how was the shoot for Await Further Instructions?
JK: We had nearly five weeks. The reason was we spent a week on effect shots. There’s a lot of practical effects in it so you needed that time to get it right, get it working. I think people can compromise and I’ve seen films that have shot in a week or so with a lot of effects and you can see it suffers if you don’t put the time and effort into it. Fortunately, we had the luxury to spend more time. Other than that, the shoot was pretty tough, just covering lots of dialogue, a page of dialogue in a day or two. But that’s part of it. You don’t want to start losing quality by compromising stuff, especially with dialogue because that’s the key of the film. If you start compromising that then people lose interest in the film early on and then you’ve lost the audience. It’s really important to get that right.
JT: I think the other reason that we needed that amount of time is because those early scenes, whilst they’re dialogue, but there’s seven characters in them, so to cover that effectively.
SAM GITTINS: We had rehearsal time as well which was good. I don’t know how we fit it all in.
JK: We rehearsed on the actual sets we shot on which was good, so you guys came up North and did it. I think the problem when you’re shooting dialogue… a lot of the time it can suffer from TV coverage. When I say TV coverage I’m talking the likes of Eastenders, which there’s nothing wrong with those, but they’re shooting pages a day and we’re trying to make it look cinematic. You can’t compromise that. These guys, the actors, all suffered trying to get it to work, but fortunately it all worked. We had a stage that wasn’t soundproof though.
SG: Oh yeah (laughs). We got it down to a fine art of pausing in the middle of our lines when a car was going past and then just snapping back into it.
JK: Also the set was creaking as well. So they all knew how to walk through the stages and stop and talk at the right time.
JT: It’s not all luxury in the studio.
Sam, you play the lead, what was it about Nick that interested you?
SG: I think it was the fact that the script left so much of his character off-screen, or off the page. He has this story from where he left home, he’s not said anything to his parents. He’s got this horrible, thick tension with his dad. This film starts with him going back into that as a different person. I think you kind of see him regress like everyone does when they go back to their parents house. You become the fifteen year-old you were again. Then you see him find his feet.
JK: There’s a lot of unfinished business.
SG: Yeah, there’s just loads of stuff going on all the time. You just had to constantly be on your toes with Nick. You had to always be in, which was handy because we were shooting in quite an immersive place. In the middle of nowhere, I didn’t go home for the entire shoot, we just stayed in and became Nick. Slowly lost my mind.
As a pregnant woman, who is due just before Christmas…
JK: Okay, yes, that must have…
…It was an interesting watch.
JK: I apologise in advance.
Are you aware of the trauma you may cause?
JK: Yes we actually did discuss. When we screened in Chicago at our world premiere we were trying to prepare for any questions that may arise and that was one question – throwing a pregnant woman over a balcony. It’s not a very wise thing to do. But no one seemed to complain. I don’t know what your thoughts on it are, but it’s just one of those things. You have to keep it realistic. It is also her fault that she got in the way of that. It’s not like someone physically threw her over there, I guess in a way that helped us a bit.
JT: It was something that Gavin and I and Johnny had always talked about. The fact that pregnant women are always given this slightly sacred space in films. Are seen as being rather angelic, that was kind of the aim to write a role that wasn’t necessarily sympathetic. Someone that wasn’t going to be spared the outcomes one would expect for other characters in a genre film. We wanted to surprise people.
Following on from that, it’s the elderly, women and children who are spared, but in Await Further Instructions, none of these characters are safe. Was it an intentional thing to make sure you weren’t aligning too much with conventions?
JK: Yeah, because I think that sometimes people are afraid to approach subjects that shouldn’t be approached. I just think it’s an extreme sci-fi so you don’t want to hold back and be nervous and scared about what to say. We’re also not throwing it in for the sake of it either. It serves the story. That was the key. We didn’t write it to shock people, it was like ‘well she’s pregnant, she’s about to have a baby and unfortunately that happened to her.’ You can tiptoe around these things, but sometimes they just…
JT: Sometimes they’ve just got to go over the banister. And of course Kate’s baby has a very bright future in the film.
The film starts, and continues, with all these family tensions at Christmas…I’m hoping that you guys have more relaxed Christmas experiences?
JT: Not always….I mean the script came from somewhere (laughs).
JK: I think everyone has problems don’t they? I think the problem is when you see your family every six months, or once a year, all the frustrations of whatever happens in their lives seems to come out. This takes that, but drops another 100 points on top of that and pushes the extreme. It’s a Christmas you do not want to spend with the family, and the worse thing is they’re locked inside together. They can’t escape. That’s a nightmare. At least at Christmas if you want to, you can leave, but not this one. They try to, but no chance.
For me that’s where most of the horror came into it, just being trapped in there.
JK: With the worse type of people that you could imagine. That’s the problem, you come there knowing what they’re like and Angie’s, ‘oh, it’ll be fine’ – she’s very naive to the whole situation – and then they just start with Granddad and dad.
SG: It’s just tense from the off. I’ve always liked it that way – I thought it was brilliant when I read the script – when they actually sit down and still try to have the turkey dinner. It’s such a British family thing to do. Just get on with it.
JT: (laughing) We’ve got to have a traditional British Christmas otherwise the terrorists have already won.
And what’s it like having David Bradley as your Granddad in the film?
SG: He’s a superstar. He’s just so lovely to be around, just one of those really warm nice people.
JK: Thankfully nothing like his character on-screen.
He seems to play a lot of cantankerous old men.
JK: He does doesn’t he.
SG: But he’s just really sweet.
JT: Genuinely a delightful man to work with.
JK: Very gentle (chuckles), not like Granddad at all.
JT: Following his Twitter feed, I’m happy to say that his own politics are nothing like that of his character in the film.
Are you all fans of the horror genre?
SG: I’m a fan of the horror genre but it has to sort of be, for me, a little bit of a retro style.
JK: That’s the thing with horror because what you don’t want to do is end-up being on a shelf with hundreds other titles similar to it. That’s the problem with a lot of horror unfortunately. It can fall into that trap. Where if you pick somethings that’s slightly different, then you can at least know that it’ll get some kind of attention. You want something that people will talk about. What you don’t want is that they watch and go, ‘that was alright’, and just move on. Fortunately this one [Await Further Instructions] isn’t like that given the great reaction we’ve been getting.
SG: It’s always a challenge as well when you do horror. I think a lot of actors, not shy away from, but don’t pursue it as passionately as other genres because I think, I don’t know if this is the case for every actor out there, but I think sometimes they’re a little bit scared of how difficult it is to imagine some of these things. To try and make these things realistic.
JT: I think it’s a genre where if you get it wrong, it can look really bad. Whereas a bad, or mediocre, drama is probably a little bit embarrassing, but not a failure.
JK: This film could have also gone very wrong if not done right. There’s the danger of this film going one way or the other way, and fortunately it hasn’t for us. But there is that danger if things go wrong with the effects or with the performances. Sometimes you can take performances so melodramatically in something like this – it’s such a ridiculous scenario – that people overact. But fortunately everything was grounded in reality.
JT: That was your approach, to play everything down. The characters could have been played as more grotesque archetypes than they were. I think that was an important thing, to humanise them all. None of them are ‘bad’ people, they’re just people who have a certain perspective due to their own insecurities and their own life experiences and so on, which make them behave in a certain way, which isn’t always pleasant. I think it’s actually really believable in terms of people that we encounter in our lives.
JK: What is important about Await Further Instructions is that you’re allowed to act in it. That’s the good thing. You’re not just running around screaming, chopping people up.
SG: There were some really nice scenes in there that were just really soft, and felt like they were in a different film. The scene with me and Neerja, when we’re on other sides of the door. There’s just really nice moments with his sister and his mum. The relationship with Nick and his mum is just one of the nicest things about the film I think for me.
JT: Everyone has scenes where we get to experience their humanity.
What has the audience reaction been so far?
JK: When we screened in Chicago, people loved it. People were cheering and whooping, really were. They were shouting at the screen. I don’t think we’ll get that reaction here because we’re more reserved.
JT: We are British.
JK: Exactly, but I’m hoping they’ll see what a lot of people have seen, and that’s the key really. Just to walk away and think about and talk about it afterwards. I think what was interesting is that people go into this film not knowing what to expect, and not expecting what they get and are surprised by it.
JT: The audience in America… there wasn’t even a poster or a trailer. People really went on a journey that they weren’t expecting. That for me was a huge compliment. I think one of the things that we set out to achieve with this was to have a film where there is no way that in the last five minutes you can even remember where you even were at the start of that film. We want to take people as far as you possibly can within that scenario. I like the fact that we start in a very mundane, banal, setting and end-up where we do.
God forbid, but say you guys were to end-up in a similar situation, which character do you think you would be more likely to be like?
JK: I wouldn’t want to be dad.
SG: I’d probably be Scott.
JK: He’s the muscle.
SG: I bet I’d get my hand bit off (others laugh). I would. I’d stick my hand through, I know I would.
JT: I’d like to think I’d be Nick and Angie, but who knows.
So what’s next for you all?
JK: I’ve got a possible TV series in America setting-up and possibly another feature called Trap House. There’s a few things bubbling away.
SG: I’m off to shoot a film called Break which is a directorial debut from Michael Elkin. Me and Adam Deacon. It is exciting, even though it’s about snooker. I’ve got Ray & Liz which is a BFI film.
JT: I’m really excited about Ray & Liz. I saw the trailer, watching it is like watching a film. It’s not a mismatch of bits.
SG: Well it’s Richard Billingham, the artist who shot it. It was kind of a frustrating shoot because he wasn’t directing you as an actor, he was directing you like a puppet. ‘Don’t raise your eyebrow there’, literally that meticulous about it. I have no idea what I’m going to look like in it.
JT: A slate of things, who knows what’s going to go first. There’s a thriller set in Canada maybe. Don’t know yet. There’s also very early, early talks about a spin-off TV show based on Await Further Instructions, but it’s very early stages.
Catch Await Further Instructions in select UK cinemas and on Premium VOD from Friday 7th December 2018.