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Director Andy Mitton Talks The Harbinger

9 min read
Gabby Beans in The Harbinger

Gabby Beans in The Harbinger (Picture: Signature Entertainment)

In 2020, many felt a part of their own as the pandemic swept the globe. Inspired by this and hot off the heels of his 2018 supernatural horror The Witch In The Window, created . FILMHOUNDS sat down with the director, writer, editor, AND composer of the chilling film to discuss how the production came to be, against all the odds.

 

You released The Harbinger last year and from what I have seen the response has been overwhelmingly positive – what has that been like?

It's been great. It's been really gratifying. It felt like we were taking chances – certainly at the outset – doing anything about the pandemic. I thought ‘are we just walking into people's blast zones here?' I would have understood if we got it wrong. I'm not ready to look back at that directly on the nose. The theory was that we would strike a good balance and let people process some of that stuff, but also go on the roller coaster ride of a horror movie at the same time. We might become that COVID movie that people say you should see. And that seems to have been what has happened. Which has been very cool and an enormous relief.

 

The use of a pandemic to frame the horror within the narrative is something both very unique within film as a whole, but also very familiar to an audience after experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic. What inspired your choice to do this?

When the idea came to me, it didn't feel like it would be exploiting a horrible situation. Instead, it was a really sincere experience of like, I was swimming in the same dread that everyone else was in the summer of 2020. When I wrote it, it was a sincere way to process my feelings. It was sort of my primal scream. In the middle of this process, there was another movie I was planning to shoot, and everything was falling apart. As well as this, in New York, it was really bad. The National Guard was in town, we were losing tonnes of lives without having the chance to honour them, and it was really scary. That sparked the story. It just kind of came to me one night. It was one of those ‘muse hits you over the head with something' situations. And the next day, I was on the phone with my producing partner having this debate about the pros and cons of taking the topic on.

Gabby Beans and Emily Davis in The Harbinger
Signature Entertainment

As well as dealing with COVID, the film tackles a lot of dark subjects through Mavis and Monique. Horror often does this, what do you think it is about the genre that makes it such a successful platform for tackling such sensitive issues?

I think it's always the place where you can look in the dark corners safely with one another. And it's even better if you get to be congregated in a theatre in the dark and have that sort of holy experience. I think throughout time horror has been a good lens to look at true things because there's a cushion between you and the truth.

There's a story there, you're still getting that escapism and adventure, but there's also a chance to process feelings that need to be processed. I've watched audiences come in and bring their own experiences to a film, whereas others just need the roller coaster ride, and I'd like to think it's there for them. Over the years, it's been interesting to see all those varied experiences. I think that's one of the great things about horror and the horror community. It is by far the best community and I wish everyone could understand its depth, warmth, and passion.

 

Did COVID affect the production of the film at all? I read that you shot the film during the pandemic before vaccines were introduced to the public which must have taken quite a bit of planning.

Yeah – just hearing you ask the question, it's like PTSD, and started to get my hackles up. COVID affected everything, and we didn't have a studio hovering over us with an extra pile of money if we needed to shut down for a week. What's worse, we had a false positive COVID test on day zero. There were four hours at the beginning of production I thought we were going home. It was so bad, but in a way, it was good, because then we landed on day one having just felt like we escaped the jaws of certain failure. From then on we were double masking, had air filters running, and were learning to read people's eyes when we couldn't see their faces. It was strange, every time I called cut, you'd look around and suddenly not know what anyone thought. It was nuts, but it was also great because I'd been shut in my own bubble for a really long time at that point. And suddenly, I was back, collaborating and making things and enjoying the buzz of that action with a great group of people.

 

Of course, the story itself is scary because of the themes it deals with, but one thing I found particularly chilling in the film was the dark and moody cinematography, and the often very isolating scenes for the characters – how did you achieve this?

Ludovica Isidori [the cinematographer] and Xiyu Lin [production designer] were incredible, I have to give them so much of the credit. They brought so much to that apartment set – I love all of the textures in it. The texture of the walls is real, where you see the brick, and then we built in the interior walls. There was a part of it that had a location feel, but also it was kind of a theatre set. There was a backstage to it and we could put a wall on wheels which was really cool. And then when Ludo was behind the camera there were times when I would just get out of the way because she would do this dance with the handheld camera that became very superhuman and organic. It immediately felt more human and kind of down and dirty, and it really suited the story.

A snowy scene shot on location in The Harbinger
Signature Entertainment

Talking about filming, how much of it was shot on location?

Really, the whole thing was on location. The apartment set I talked about was the only sort of set we had. We spent 14 shooting days in Binghamton, New York, which we were mostly faking for Queens. It was all real, even those snowy scenes. I mean, it didn't even make sense that it would take place in the snow because it really should have been spring at that point in the timeline. But it was snowing where we were and it seemed to fit the movie, so we just embraced it. All of the dreamscapes took place in this old decrepit opera house. We had a deal with a great theatre company in Binghamton called The Goodwill Theatre. They own the space which is full of all these amazing ruined textures that you could never fake on a set. So I walked around this opera house before we shot and I rewrote the dream sequences to suit the location. It was as scary as it is in the film, maybe even scarier to actually be in that building.

 

You wrote, directed, edited, and composed for the film – what was that like for you?

Yeah, not totally recommended. There are benefits, but mostly, it's a minefield of ‘oh, God, please, everyone, keep me honest. Keep me from going into tunnel vision'. You have to count on a lot of people's fresh eyes and honest perspectives and do a lot of listening, especially when you're writing and directing. Never be the director who's protecting the script, and never be the editor who's protecting the director's footage. Being the composer is the only hat I wore through the whole process.

 

Did you take anything from your previous works, such as The Witch In The Window, into The Harbinger? Or was there anything that you had learned from your experience with these films that you steered clear of this time around?

I'm always learning, and making films is so hard. So yeah, I always take the lessons forward. But what I love about doing this is that you're presented with a new story that has fresh, different needs than the last story. So it's fun to make all your decisions based on what's best for this new story rather than trying to build on anything you've done before. And then at a certain point, you just lean completely into the story and the characters. I like looking at The Witch In The Window next to this –  there are themes in common that come out of me naturally and my interests – but I love that they're very different. And that makes me happy because I just want to have a lot of flavours out there.

Gabby Beans in The Harbinger
Signature Entertainment

I can't talk about the film without talking about the antagonist itself. It's really scary! How did you go about creating the look of the character of The Harbinger?

We wanted to take the familiar image of a plague doctor and do something different. It was a collaboration between Moung Hui Park, who designed the mask, Candace Phelan [the costume designer], and Jay Dunn, who was the actor wearing it. We extended the beak and gave it a very particular shape, based on a bird called a California Thrasher. The bird imagery was intentional, what with the sparrow imagery in the film and other symbols related to birds. As the story goes on we see the costume change. We see it as a mask at first but over time as we get closer the textures of it become organic and you can see tiny feathers. We talked about the way birds look when they're caught in an oil slick to achieve that look. We also tried to make choices that allowed him not to be set in a particular time. When you think of a plague doctor you usually think of the hat, but we went with a cloak as it felt more ancient and timeless. In every choice we made, we tried to take the familiar and evolve it, making it distinct to the story.

 

When it comes to the mythology of The Harbinger, how did you come up with it? I read that you created the legend yourself.

I was building around an idea I'd been interested in for a while and doing a movie where the stakes would be more than life or death. The stakes would be their existence and it could be that they were never there and all trace of them is gone. That idea interested me for a while, and I combined that with whatever I've absorbed from watching demon movies. I knew what the story needed and I just did what I do – I take long walks, and I make shit up. I remember at a Q&A someone asked me this question and they were clearly into demonology. They were very excited to hear about my research, and they seemed somewhat surprised when I told them I made it up.

 

The fear is really felt through the two main characters Mavis and Monique, who are two old friends that met during a very difficult time. How did you decide on that relationship dynamic?

I always try and populate my movies with the people I like to populate my life with. I like seeing old souls for lack of a better word. Emotionally intelligent people going through the machinations of a horror movie is interesting to me. I also thought about the pandemic in that we were all separate from each other, and we couldn't leave our bubbles. If we did, we would be endangering other people to go help someone else. It was a catch-22 that tested our relationships. And for a lot of people, I know myself included, it was our friends.

It seemed we were most detached from those friendships, and it was families that people tended to feel trapped. So the dynamic between Mavis and Monique made sense to me because this was what it was all about. Emily Davis (Mavis) and Gabby Beans (Monique) had some familiarity with each other already so they brought chemistry to their scenes. We removed a few details in the script even after we cast it to avoid pinning down that friendship in too specific a way so that it felt like friendships from our own lives.

Gabby Beans in The Harbinger
Signature Entertainment

Lastly, I want to know what will you be doing next? What can audiences expect in the future?

I'm too jaded to say anything too specific for fear it will disappear from out from under me, but I have some things in development. I've met a lot of new people through this process, the experience has been great. So there are a lot of irons in the fire. I've got this cosmic horror piece in early development right now which I'm excited about. So hopefully it's a new chapter – and I'll have more than 14 days to shoot it.

FrightFest Presents and Signature Entertainment releases The Harbinger on Digital Platforms now.