Sebastian Godwin is a writer and director whose debut feature Homebound is screening as part of Glasgow FrightFest. An atmospheric psychological horror starring Aisling Loftus and Tom Goodman-Hill as newlyweds visiting his family for the first, it takes elements of fairy tales and gothic literature and applies them to a modern setting. We spoke to Sebastian about the making of the film.

Can you tell us about Homebound?

Homebound is my debut feature film. It’s a story about a character, Holly [Loftus], who goes to visit her husband’s family for the first time. It’s very much about an outsider coming into quite a foreign world, and trying to understand what’s normal, what isn’t normal, and what’s going on in this family. And as the story goes on, whether she wants to be a part of it! Or whether she needs to somehow make an escape.

The relationship with her husband is intentionally vague. You get the sense that it’s been a whirlwind romance. He’s older than her, and she doesn’t seem to know much about him.

In a sense, that’s the main question [the film poses]. If they hadn’t gone back to meet his family then perhaps they would be happily continuing as normal. I think in a way, the fact that it’s not so clear leaves that question hanging. Sometimes if we step back into the past we fall back into old habits. For someone who we don’t know so well, that can be quite an alarming, surprising, and sometimes uncomfortable situation.

It feels like there’s a fairy tale element to the story, in that she’s the stepmother and she’s being introduced to the kids for the first time.

Absolutely. I guess I wanted to make a film about outsiders and alienation. I think the classic figure of an outsider in a familial setting is the stepmother. And so I think that’s a really great way in to capture something about what it is to be an outsider. There is a fairy tale element to it which is very interesting. I think it also brings the tale into the gothic. It’s not a social realist film, it’s slightly stylised and therefore psychological. It’s almost adds a dreamy, atmospheric, nightmarish edge to the film. It was always really important to me to capture that atmosphere.

I’m actually hard of hearing. From birth I should have worn hearing aids, but for a long time I didn’t want to wear them. So a lot of my life was spent trying to interpret, trying to decipher and understand what people were saying, or at least trying to associate their behaviour with what they might be saying. The character of Holly coming in and trying to interpret the behaviour around her was kind of a personal experience that I was really trying to capture in the film. ‘Am I right in interpreting this the way that I am?’ And how far do you trust this instinct, or not? I think Holly’s instinct throughout the film is that something’s not right here. But how to have the confidence to act upon that. And what makes it particularly difficult obviously is that she’s married to the dad. [He has] the responsibility for the situation to a certain extent.

It’s definitely captured an atmosphere of sustained dread right from the beginning. For a film so attuned to a particular atmosphere, how do you know when you’re shooting that you’re achieving the atmosphere you’re going for?

I think it’s the reason it took us quite a long time in the edit; to find that rhythm, that intensity, and that atmosphere. I think it’s actually surprisingly difficult to reach that sense of intensity and to sustain it. It’s really difficult. We were very lucky to have an amazing editor called Rachel [Durance], who just seemed to have the ability to string the shots together to keep the string tight throughout. I think it’s a mixture of instinctively thinking we’d caught it, but then trying to recapture it in a sense in the edit. It was a challenge, not easy! But I’m glad you felt that there was a sense of dread to it; because that’s exactly what we were trying to achieve.

Where did you find such a great location? Not just the house itself, but the grounds around it are very creepy.

We were very lucky to find the place. It’s kind of a character itself. Funnily enough, there was a BBC series called, ‘Normal for Norfolk’ and it’s called Wiveton Hall. There’s an incredible guy called Desmond who lives in the house, and it is exactly as you say. It’s an incredible place and has incredible and very particular and unique atmosphere. It’s very old and atmospheric and very beautiful. But it’s also very intimate and dusty and eccentric. We didn’t really have to do too much to it from a production design point of view, which is also just a tremendous gift given the budget that we were working with.

It’s the kind of film that only really works in the UK, where there’s so many interesting country houses. America doesn’t quite have that same tradition, like The Turn of the Screw type of gothic tale.

But then they did The Haunting of Bly Manor and that kind of thing. Even that they’ve managed to appropriate into their system! I take your point though, there is something about the idyllic English countryside and family life, which is something that to I certain extent I wanted to subvert.

It’s a film that has a very small cast, and the story asks a lot of them, particularly the younger actors [Hattie Gotobed, Lukas Rolfe, and Raffiella Chapman]. How did you go about finding them?

For better or for worse, they were just alarmingly up for it! I think that kids are more used to playing and realising what is real and what isn’t; and being able to use that to allow themselves to go oven further than they might expect. It’s a mixture of that and also having three exceptional kids in themselves. They were so creative and brought a lot of ideas themselves. And also they experienced actors themselves even though they are young. Raffiella in particular had been in Tim Burton films [Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children] and was helping us to an extent! So it goes both ways, and was a really fantastic experience.

So the casting process was actually fairly straight-forward?

It was fairly. I saw Aisling Loftus on stage in London and thought she was fantastic. I sent her the script and she agreed to play the main role. From there Tom Goodman-Hill was cast. They had worked together before, so that was fantastic. It took a bit of time with the kids to find the right people but Jessie Frost, our casting director, was a real trooper and a fantastic talent in finding [the right people].

And was it shot during the pandemic? How did that impact the filmmaking?

It was actually shot prior to the pandemic. It was the edit that was actually much more disrupted by that, not the shooting. In a sense, the pandemic provided an opportunity to spend a bit of time with the edit and to think about it. As you pointed out the challenge of finding and maintaining the intensity took a bit of time.

It’s a very short and compact film [at 71 minutes]. Was that deliberate or how you felt worked best? Were there scenes removed, or were the scenes used edited down for maximum effect?

It’s a mixture of the two. It was made as part of the Microwave Feature Film Scheme, which is based on tiny budgets. It’s a question of how to maximise the money that we had to make the best film that we could. I think that’s part of it. The second part is that films just find their natural rhythm and natural length in a sense. I think it works as a kind of short, sharp shock. I feel quite pleased that it’s experiential as a film. It’s not so much about a classic storyline as it is about taking an audience through an experience with a character and trying to create something of an intense ‘live’ experience. Particularly in the cinema, the hope is that you will be left somewhat struck by something quite visceral.

Visceral is an interesting word to use when you deliberately keep all violence offscreen, and several key moments are left to the imagination.

Absolutely. For me at least, it can be more powerful to leave the audience to decipher and come to their own rationale. The key thing for us was to make sure to keep the attention throughout. And any answers can come later.

It’s your debut film. How do you go about getting a debut film made?

I went to the Polish National Film School [in Łódź]. When I came back there was a scheme run by Film London to make your first short film. I applied for that and luckily enough got commissioned. Then I made another short film also through Film London and BBC Films and the BFI. And Microwave had a very low-budget scheme for first-time filmmakers. I applied to that. It was an open submission, and it was kind of like the X-Factor in its selection process. It was open submissions and then was whittled down to 100, 50, 20 and each time you had to perform [laughs]. Just like X-Factor! Luckily enough we were commissioned through that. But it was a long journey in building that relationship. I go quite some way back with Film London and the BFI and BBC London and I think it’s often important if you want to make your first film to build those relationships as best as you can. Because you can then grow and develop with those same people if you’re lucky enough.

Do you have any future projects in the pipeline?

There are many that I’d love to make, obviously. There are a couple of other feature films I’d love to make and some other more experimental works I’m interested in.

Homebound screens at Glasgow Film Theatre at 18:30 Fri 11 Mar 2022 as part of FrightFest at Glasgow Film Festival