Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor premiered at the 2020 Sundance festival to rave reviews and a strong word of mouth. The story of Enid, a repressed film censor who spends her days watching and reviewing video nasties in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, captured the attention of audiences and this August, Censor finally arrives on screens across the UK. We hit Bailey-Bond up on Zoom to discuss what frightens her and working with Niamh Algar among other things.
What was your first introduction to horror?
I have an older brother and sister, so I wanted to watch, as a kid, everything they were watching, which was obviously stuff that was not suitable for people my age, because they were eight and 10 years older than me. It’s not exactly horror, but I watched Twin Peaks when I was in primary school. And that had a massive impact on me. And I remember the man with no name, I think it was called. He was the first thing that really frightened me as a kid. There was something about Twin Peaks and the sort of surrealism of it that spoke to my nightmares and intruded in my nightmares as well. I guess Twin Peaks is the first thing that frightens me, but I used to watch things like Strange But True. I loved anything that would kind of leave me a bit scared to walk up the stairs after I’ve seen it.
Were you impressed by the feeling of a film or a TV show being able to make you scared? Do you remember where that fascination came from?
Basically, I enjoyed [it] because I knew it wasn’t real. I’ve mentioned this before, because it relates to Censor slightly, but the first time I saw Simon Bates introduce a film with the classification rating when he came on and said this film is a 12. Anybody under the age of 12 should not be watching it. And I was terrified by him more than I was ever terrified by a horror film, because I was underage watching the film that he introduced. And I thought my mom was going to get arrested and taken away for letting me watch it. Watching fictional horror, even as a kid, I knew it wasn’t real. I also enjoyed books. I remember my mum reading The Witches to me, and I was so scared of the little girl who got trapped in the painting, that always haunted me, this idea of knowing you’re trapped somewhere and everybody else just walking past, glancing at you and admiring a beautiful painting, but you’re in there screaming and no one can hear you. That was really nightmarish to me.
Most people when they’re scared, they’re like, I don’t want to feel this way. What made you want to sort of seek it out more and then later in life recreate that?
I think that some people enjoy that feeling. And I’m really fascinated that some people can’t bear it. I think about that a lot and I haven’t really found the answer yet. But if I take me and my sister, she doesn’t really love watching scary things and we come from the same upbringing. We’re very similar in lots of ways, but what makes me feel comfortable and enjoy watching it and the kind of physical thrill that you get from horror, she can’t bear it. I don’t really have the answer to that. In terms of why I wanted to make horror, it was more about wanting to look at dark characters. I wasn’t going into making my first short films, thinking I want to make horror and I want to freak people out, that wasn’t my intention. And it still isn’t really what I’m aiming to do through the films I make. I just find troubled, dark, morally conflicted characters interesting. And the horror genre allows a space, as a filmmaker, for you to go beyond what we know and see in everyday life, there’s a way that we can manifest a character’s fears, and the insides of their brains on the outside and horror films that I don’t think you can do as intensely or wildly as you can in horror. But also, I’m very interested in repressed characters. And I think of horror as the return of the repressed, the thing that you’re avoiding in your life or in society, that’s going to come and get you in the end. Enid is a very repressed character, and also the first short film I ever made was about very repressed woman, as well.
And like you said, horror is very intense, and it’s a very physical genre, is that something that’s important to you, as a director, to get a physical reaction from your audience? And is that something that you wanted Censor to bring out from people?
I don’t think about that when I’m making the film. Maybe when you get to post production, you’re hoping that the moments are going to affect the audience in the way you intend. That might not necessarily be like an intense physical experience, I certainly want to make people think and have conversations, that’s not so much about the physical side. But when you’re in the cinema, and you hear people react vocally, or you see people jump in your film, it’s very rewarding. I can’t deny that that’s a lovely thing, to experience. At the BFI recently, the audience were amazing and just vocally laughing or jumping, the vocal reactions were so nice, because it’s a sign to you as a filmmaker, that they’re engaged, and they’re responding in the way you hoped they would. But a lot of the time, that might not be something you’d ever notice. It’s so hard to tell how someone’s responding to work sometimes, because you can’t see inside people’s heads, which is probably a good thing.
The film has this great balance of the spectacle of all the gore and the scares, but also social commentary of the very specific time that it portrays. Why was that important to you?
The film sort of starts in grey, suburban, 80s Britain, and for me, that is a huge contrast to the world of the video nasties. And I find that really fascinating that we’re in Thatcher’s Britain, and the 80s that I sometimes see represented in images and films today. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the 80s Britain that I grew up in or remember or see in real life photography. I was really inspired by photographers from the period like Paul Graham and Martin Parr, to create a Britain that was a bit more bog standard, that wasn’t as fun and pop as some 80s representations are. I’m really interested in that juxtaposition and where the horror and that lurid, vibrant, colourful world of video nasties becomes almost more expressive and more appealing, when it’s placed within a very mundane, suburban setting. But for me, it also became a way for us to Wexplore the character’s journey, because Enid moves from a place that’s quite oppressive and almost reflects her inability to communicate and her kind of closed, emotional sort of closeness. And she ends up in a place where she’s the opposite of that, but because she’s so been so repressed for such a long time, it all comes out very wildly and out of control.
And we always talk a lot about gender and horror together, because it has been historically very much focused on women and women’s bodies, but it’s always been sort of male made. But lately, we’ve had amazing horror films made by women, such as St. Maud and Relic. Do you feel like part of a movement? And is there any sort of pressure with that?
It’s an interesting question, because I’m excited by these films that I’m seeing. Previous to that, we’ve got Jennifer’s Body, Raw and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and The Babadook. We’re seeing women creating more complex female characters that are helming these stories and I think that appeals to female audiences, and it certainly appeals to me. In terms of whether or not it feels like a movement, I definitely feel like the films that have come before that have been successful, have opened doorways for filmmakers like me. For example, The Babadook and Raw, they opened the eyes of people holding the purse strings. And that makes it better for upcoming filmmakers. But it’s hard to say whether it feels like a movement, because you’re creating your own work. We’re all making the work that we care about. And it’s great that lots of other women are getting the opportunity to do that, too. But I certainly think that women writing women has shifted the kind of female characters we’re seeing on screen.
Niamh Algar is just fantastic as Enid, how did she come aboard? And did the role sort of change or develop after she was on board?
I met Niamh on the Screen International Stars of Tomorrow scheme in 2018. And around when we were casting, The Virtues came out on TV. I saw her in that and was like, she’s special. I started watching everything else she’d been in. Then her agent had got in touch about the role and I was super excited for her to come in and read, the process itself was very traditional. When I was writing the character, I was really thinking about what I needed from the lead. I knew that whoever played this role was going to have to be strong enough to carry the whole film because Enid is in pretty much every single scene, but also that they needed to be able to take the character from being this coiled spring to something much more wild. And Niamh came in and basically just did that. She was able to really bring the nuance and empathy to the Enid that we start with. I think that’s the thing that Niamh really brought to the role, this incredible empathy, because Enid is quite closed, and she could be quite cold as a character, but Niamh allows us to lean into Enid. And she has this amazing ability to put thought on screen. So even if Enid isn’t communicating what she thinks, Niamh’s letting us in. She also has this incredible range and took the final scenes, even in the audition room, to places that I never expected the scenes to go.
Once she was on board, we worked for a few months before we got on set, me and Niamh would Skype together and talk about Enid. We talked about the scenes and the things that Enid went through, her backstory. And we started to talk a lot about her physicality. I’d always imagined her to be very like up upright and have kind of neat and tidiness about her at the beginning that would sort of unravel. But then Niamh was bringing other ideas, like when Enid picks at herself. That was something Niamh suggested. Then I spoke to my makeup artists and said, we’ve been talking about the idea that she’s almost trying to pick her own skin off, that she’s not comfortable in her own skin. And then once we were on set, Niamh started doing this kind of reset thing with her shoulders. It was about seeing what Niamh was bringing to it and then enhancing that through whatever means I could. With the shoulders, we tried to bring that out with sound design and post-production.
How did you create the very distinct visual look and the language of the film?
I’m quite conceptual in the way that I think about my approach to directing visually, but I also collaborate very strongly with my departments. I thought of the film in worlds. I felt like we had the real world, the video nasty world, the dream world, and Enid’s memories. And I wanted to weave those together through the film. So that was the concept I took to my production designer, my DoP and my costume designer, and then we would start to pick out what those elements were that we were weaving through. For example, within the lighting, we start with blues, greys and cyans. And then when we go into a dream world, we see pinks and purples for the first time. And when we come back into the censors’ office, we then start to pepper in those pinks and purples. You’re taking elements, whether they’re props, lighting, or the way the camera moves, and weaving them through one world. I always imagined it like doing a plat with all these different elements and then ending up with one new reality. I was very inspired by the video nasties in terms of the third act and where we go in the forest. The ending was ultimately inspired by Enid and the kind of ending I wanted to give her even though maybe she’s not able to have that in real life.