German director Matthias Hoene may be best known for his crossover offerings, such as the comedic horror Cockneys vs Zombies and fantasy action thriller The Warriors Gate. But in his latest film, Little Bone Lodge, Hoene discards his weird and wonderful flair for something much darker and truly terrifying that explores the horrors people will commit in the name of family.
Speaking to FILMHOUNDS, Hoene tells us all about how he created tension in the narrative, developed the characters, and what we can expect in the future.
Little Bone Lodge received its premiere at FrightFest Glasgow, what was its reception like and what was that experience like for you?
It was my second time at FrightFest Glasgow and my third time in front, premiering a movie. I love the FrightFest audience, and this time, it was special because the film is set in Scotland. I spent the previous FrightFest traveling in Glen Coe and the Isle of Skye to film the landscape and establishing shots for the movie. It was just me getting up at four in the morning to catch the sunrise, flying out the drone, and then driving to the next spot over lunch, and catching the sunset. I was deliriously and spiritually connected to Scotland. I have a Halloween group that always meets in a haunted house in Scotland. I've had many, many good times there.
Why did you choose the Scottish Highlands as the setting for the film?
I worked with the writer Neil [Linpow], and we wanted to set a film in a very remote, desolate place. And we thought ‘where's better than Scotland?' to make the character of the landscape itself and make that desolation a part of the story. With its beautiful, craggy landscape, the Scottish Highlands are unmatched.
The house itself was in London. We did look for places in Scotland, but in the end, we just found a really good location that was on a big farm. It belonged to a farmer whose grandparents had passed away many years previous and they left the house untouched and just rented it out to film people. So it already had this really eerie feeling that was perfect.
What inspired you to do the project and how did you get the ball rolling on Little Bone Lodge?
I've already done genre crossovers, a horror-comedy with crime, and an action-comedy with time travel and martial arts. I'm one of the few horror-comedy directors and it's really difficult to genre blend and to then market those movies. So I wanted to do a really straight movie, and I wanted to do a movie that's really character driven. Then I came and met Neil, he was an actor, and he felt like the roles that he'd been getting weren't showcasing what he could do. He'd had a lot of smaller speaking roles in a TV show, so he started doing short films and writing short films. Then during the first lockdown, we got together and said, ‘why don't we use this time to develop a feature film together and make a small, character-driven, contained, COVID-friendly film?.' We didn't make it during COVID In the end, but we did what we said. He pitched me an idea of criminals on the run and we sort of bounced back and forth. It's his first feature film screenplay and he knocked it out of the park.
Did you bring any of your experience from previous works, such as Cockneys Vs Zombies or The Warriors Gate, into the production?
Absolutely. When I was editing Cockneys vs Zombies, I realised ‘oh yeah, I attempted the hardest genre possible for my feature.' But then people still talk about it now, which is really nice and sort of heartwarming. From that experience, I learned a lot about how to control the tone of a film and how to really shape scenes that have lots of disparate elements and emotions.
And then, in my second movie, The Warriors Gate, l was thrown onto a 72-day shoot with sometimes 1000 people on set, I learned the difference between what's essential and what isn't. When you're on a production like that, you just sort of become a much better proof director. To come back to a small film like this, I felt like I knew better what was important about what I was doing. I really enjoyed the small, intimate crew. every actor is different and needs a different thing, and I tried to bring out the best in each one of them.
I read that you made a little prologue to get the film funded, can you tell me about that?
Yes, so me and Neil thought why don't we make a little prologue for the film to show the style of it, and it was also an audition piece for him. I think it really helped get all the actors on board. When people see something audiovisual, they get a real sense of the tone and style. Because my first two films are very much popcorn, fun, and silly, I wanted to show something different and continue to explore my work.
The film's atmosphere becomes more and more imposing and claustrophobic as the narrative goes on – how did you achieve this?
I think there are a few elements to it, like the whole film is shot and handheld on one camera. Most often people shoot on two or three cameras, which means that cameras are not really on the eyeline and you can't get a camera looking straight at an actor. So by shooting with one handheld camera handheld, I tried to create an authentic sense of being with the characters all the time so you never question anything in the story, you're just feeling everything that they feel. It makes us identify with the characters and keeps the film grounded. I kept the lighting very dark, but also still realistic. There is an arc in light from warm light in the beginning, to colder like later in the film to give it a bit of a journey visually. Give it a little bit of a journey visually.
Then there is the editing. One thing I learned when working with Luc Besson was that if you have a shot that's three seconds too long, you can lose an audience already. So I tried to keep everything as tight as possible. Now, there are maybe a couple of shots where that could have lingered a little bit longer, but I think it's always good to not bore the audience.
Thirdly, the music was something I worked on with Christopher Carmichael who I met on my last movie, and we started designing an unnerving, subtle score. I wanted to refrain from the score over-manipulating people's emotions, I wanted it to be a sound bed that engulfs you and keeps you on edge all of the time. I also think it helps that we made sure that every character is the most villainous, weird, twisted, and sociopathic person, but that you always understood and could identify with them. So you could think ‘I'm with that person, even though I know what they've done.'
I saw the film as a real exploration of maternal love, the power of family, and the extremes a mother will go to to protect her family – was this inspired by any maternal figures in your life?
Neil definitely channeled a lot of those themes into that aspect of the script. I grew up in a very loving, slightly boring family. My mom helped me become a filmmaker. You need to be courageous when you do this sort of thing. And it's a credit to my mom for giving me the courage to become a director and filmmaker and enter the hustle.
In the film, what's really interesting about the theme of motherly love in Mama's (Joely Richardson) case is that it blinds her. She is the character that was kind of abused as a child, and then all she wanted was to create a perfect family. And when that was taken away from her in the car crash, she felt so kind of destroyed. Everything she did was as she tried to recreate that family at all costs. That sort of maternal love made her blind to any kind of consequences or to the darkness of what she was doing. But then you can also sort of understand why she's doing it.
Joely Richardson is absolutely fearsome in her role as Mama – how did she get involved with the project and what was she like to work with?
She read the script, and I also created a little video message for her to pitch it. She had just finished working on the Netflix series The Sandman and wanted to do a smaller indie role. I felt like her role in the film was a little bit frightening because it was so dark, but also, I think she really latched on to the fact that she started as this really warm maternal mother figure and has this sort of crazy character arc. I think she wanted to challenge herself to do that.
And, you know, she was questioning it all the time. As a collaborator, she was always trying to do everything she could to make a better movie, and that's exactly the kind of actor you want on your set. You want to be everyone to be laser-focused on what choices we can make to create a better movie. She came up with the scene of Pa cleaning himself in the wheelchair and watching on CCTV. She always added extra detail and richness to proceedings.
Neil Linpow and Harry Cadby are also fantastic in their respective roles – how did you develop their characters?
I always like having criminals as protagonists in my films, and I think so does Neil. In terms of writing, Neil wrote the role for himself. So when he came on set, he already had the role in his head after a year of rewriting and tweaking the dialogue. He brought an amazing intensity and angst that he wrote into the character, and you could just sort of feel that he had stored it up inside. And all I needed to do was let him burst that onto the screen.
Harry was amazing. Method acting sometimes gets a little bit of a bad rep, but he was method on set. He was in character preparing for the scene during the day – he was so intense you couldn't talk to him straight – but then once the scene was over, he properly switched. He was cheeky and funny. He's the nicest guy and wasn't pretentious about it all. So we were all really inspired by him. And everyone became a little bit more method after that.
Finally, what have you got planned for the future following the release of Little Bone Lodge?
Well, I'm I'm in the process of packaging a couple of movies where I'm trying to find the right lead actor. I have one which is sort of a science fiction, survival thriller, and another which is like a contained action/battle royale film. There's also another action film and another heist movie I'm working on. And a couple of TV projects. One is a killer garden gnome show out of Australia, and there's a superhero thing. I have a few things bubbling, but I'm, I'm excited to share Little Bone Lodge, and I've been already pitching on some big projects on a very big desk. I'm excited about what's next.
Little Bone Lodge is out now on digital platforms.