On the eve of Horror Channel’s network premiere screening of THE LESSON, director Ruth Platt talks about the decision to quit RADA, why her film isn’t ‘torture porn’ and what the future holds
Q) The Lesson received its World Premiere at FrightFest. How did you react when it was chosen? And what was the experience like?
I was really excited when I found out we'd been picked – we got a call from the team, and they were passionate about the film, and they are such a knowledgable and experienced small team, Greg, Paul, Alan and Ian, and it meant so much. Especially when the making of it had been such an arduous and difficult process! I had no idea how people would react to the film – it was such a tiny budget, and put together on sheer determination rather than any actual means. But the whole FrightFest festival was amazing – the fans were so supportive and friendly, and the reception to the film was so generous, it was a really brilliant experience.
Q) How did you develop the idea for the film? Did your own experiences at school influence the story?
So my love of the horror genre stems from the satirical, metaphorical nature of the genre – how you can make a comment or observation about society, or about human nature, through the lens of horror – it is quite an expressionistic and stylised way of looking at the world, but quite a cathartic one, exorcising your deepest concerns, fears, and anger, I think! I have done a bit of teaching, though only peripatetic. I wasn't trying to exorcise my real desires to torture students, as some people might think! It was more an observation on the educational system and its failures, and also a psychological study of class dynamics, stemming also from my experiences at school.
The teacher role was inspired by two things - there was a teacher I had at school, and the class just knew, subconsciously and collectively, that we could push him further than we could push the average teacher. There was an innate vulnerability to him, a fear of us, if you like, that allowed the class to behave in a much more difficult way. My film was a bit of a 'what if' scenario – what if that teacher we locked in the cupboard snapped? There was an article I read a few years back about a teacher who did just that, without any history of violence or bad conduct – and who harmed a teenage boy at school badly. That was my second inspiration. The two ideas together created Mr Gale.
Q) The violence in the film is mostly inflicted by a school teacher on two 16 year-old schoolboys. Do you think this makes it even more controversial and difficult to watch?
I think, and I did worry beforehand, that people would take it literally, It is meant to be a deliberate satire on the torture porn genre. It has moral ambiguity and complexity, certainly, I mean hopefully, and those that like the film seem to get this, your sympathies keep changing to and fro, from the teacher to the kids. Mr Gale gets his comeuppance!. I think The Lesson is pretty measured violence-wise – you look at 15 films like The Babysitter and Deadpool and my god, the violence, and it is so slick, so easy. That makes me uncomfortable. The violence in The Lesson is hopefully earned, and deliberately difficult to watch. There is no easy, shiny violence.
Q) What lessons do you want people to take from the film?
Ha! Well, I guess I want people to think about the education system, where its failings lie, how a school is a microcosm of society, and without an all encompassing and deep rooted culture of mutual respect, responsibility and kindness, it can go badly wrong. But I didn't want to do that in a straightforward way, but rather through the horror lens. Some people seem to find it really cathartic to see these difficult kids tortured which is a bit disconcerting! I guess films like Fritz Lang's M are pertinent and influential – that moral ambiguity certainly – the scene where all the criminals in the area capture this mentally ill, but hideous child murderer, and they are relishing the power they have in their kangaroo court – the hypocrisy and the savagery of all of them. Reminds me of Social Media!
Q) The film has been described many ways, ranging from “Kitchen-sink torture porn” to “bravura art-house horror”. How would you describe it?
Satirical anti-torture porn? Though I love the kitchen-sink bit and the art house bit obviously!
Q) The casting is particularly brave, allowing young unknowns to flourish and excel. How difficult was the audition process?
Well – I had the tiniest budget so there was no casting director involved. All the kids were local, untrained kids. They were brilliant actually. They started with loads of stagey acting, and then I had to strip it down – they got it so quickly though and loved the process. I knew Evan already [who plays Fin] as I had already cast him in a music video – he was so hardworking and conscientious. I was lucky enough to go into a local college and have an audition with the young people studying Drama there. Rory [who plays Joel] shone immediately – he took my direction, and his truth of thought and quickness of mind was evident straight away in improvisations. I was lucky to find him – about a week before shooting! Mischa I cast very last minute too, I auditioned her on skype after we had started shooting! She was a drama student at the Prague conservatoire. She was very natural and very lovely – and just astonishingly beautiful, I thought. Her separateness and her measured silence to me was indicative of what it is to be a woman in a man's society. She of course, is Fin's knight in shining armour, at the end of the day, but she is vulnerable, she has to compromise to survive. I thought Mischa had a beautiful stillness that was very watchable.
Q) You’ve been a successful actor yourself, having won a scholarship to train at RADA. But is it true you left in your second year to start up a theatre company? And will we see you tread the boards again?
Well I wasn't that successful! I adored acting, but I was a very insecure person as an actor. I remember being called to an audition, by my agent, for a music video, and asked by 3 men to lap dance on a chair. I wished I had just told them to fuck off. But I didn't – I needed to pay the rent, and didn't want to annoy my agent. So I did it. That happened a lot. As an actress you have to have an innate confidence that I really didn't have. I absolutely adored RADA, and as soon as I left, I realised what an idiot I had been to leave in my second year. I fell into a deep depression – I was utterly broke, I had given up a scholarship, my mother was very ill, it all went wrong. I rang them and begged them to take me back but they had given my scholarship to someone else, and I couldn't afford to go back. But it was during my experiences forming a theatre company that I started to realise that I loved writing and later, when I found my confidence, directing.
What I adore about directing is being able to guide an actor through each thought process, each moment of subtext, each emotional beat and each character trait, and I can do that because of my actor training. That is a really rewarding experience, and it is why I also enjoy working with new, untrained actors. Being an actor I think is terrifying – you are so vulnerable, and especially as an actress, I mean I know it is getting better but sexism and harrassment is rife, absolutely endemic, though it has now suddenly exploded into the public consciousness and will probably now improve. But you really need to have balls of steel.
Q) Who are your strongest influences in the horror genre and what’s been your favourite horror film this year?
‘Haneke's ‘Funny Games’ [the original German language one] is my favourite horror film of all time. I guess that is what inspired my anti-torture porn premise. The violence in that film could not be more uncomfortable and less gratuitous to watch – Haneke is a genius. A close second, though not usually classified as a genre film, is Yorgos Lanthimos' ‘Dogtooth’. One of the most brilliant, piercing satires I have ever seen. I adore ‘Nosferatu’, and Fritz Lang's ‘M’.
This year, I loved ‘Raw’, which I I think it is one of the greatest female horror films of all time - the central metaphor of an impossibly high-achieving girl, with the absolute rigid self discipline, that starts to discover her emerging sexuality and rage – so bloody, sharply funny. And the cinematography – I’m in awe of it!
Q) Finally, what can you tell us about your next project?
I have been in development with the BFI for a year now, so hoping to shoot something next year! It is a horror, but one that has a very detailed, socio-realistic world. And the whole thing is through the eyes of a child. It is also a largely female cast. Looking forward to making it so much, so wish me luck!
The Lesson is broadcast on Sat 9 Dec, 10.45pm, Horror Channel.