From Enthusiasm Comes Magic: 'The Field Guide to Evil' Binds Dark Folklore from Across the World
Nine filmmakers, seven shorts, seven countries, and one earth-shattering challenge.
The surprise renewal of interest in the horror anthology genre can be traced back to a handful of oddball producers looking for a new way to re-energize what they so dearly loved. What emerged instead was a platform that would promote a new generation of filmmakers and re-energize the film industry at large.
If you want to pinpoint the origins of this revolution, you can start with producer Brad Miska who brought his project V/H/S to Sundance back in 2012. This series of found-footage shorts brought directors like Adam Wingard, Ti West, and Joe Swanberg to a much wider audience; later iterations would bring forth talent like Gareth Evans and Nacho Vigolando.
Tim League and Ant Timpson then took the concept a step further with The ABC’s of Death, a film that contained 26 different shorts (each based on a letter of the alphabet) by directors spanning 15 countries. The project would go on to find commercial success and see a sequel as well.
League and Timpson’s latest entry, The Field Guide to Evil, however, feels like a different beast entirely. “I’ve been involved with some of those other ones—I was in V/H/S—and can tell you we weren't making cinema. It was fun, we did something, but it wasn't like this. This is art,” says director Calvin Reeder.
"When you start reading all of these stories, the first thing that comes to mind is to put everything inside your concept. "
Reeder is one of a group of nine directors to have been tasked with taking a piece of folklore, fairy tale or otherwise, and adapting it for the big screen. Joining him are the likes of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (Goodnight, Mommy), Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure), and more.
No Film School sat down with several members of the ambitious project at SXSW 2018 to discuss what it meant to represent their country and their sacred stories through the medium of film. Joining us were Calvin Lee Reeder, who directed America’s Beware the Melonheads, Anke Petersen, the producer of Germany’s A Nocturnal Breath, Dora Nedeczky and Esther Turan, the producers of Hungary’s Cobblers’ Lot, and Greece’s What Ever Happened to Pangas the Pagan? producer Yannis Veslemes.
No Film School: How do you get approached for a project like this?
Anke Petersen: My director, Katrin Gebbe, approached me. She knew Ant Timpson from New Zealand and knew Tim League from her last feature film because it was sold to Tim. She asked me if I want to be part of it, and I was like, "wow." I always wanted to work with her, so, yes, of course!
Calvin Lee Reeder: Ant approached me in a dream. No, he emailed me. I've known those guys for a while and have been in this little midnight scene for about a decade now, so they can get me whenever they want me.
NFS: Were there any restrictions that they gave you in terms of making this short?
Reeder: Absolutely, yeah. Tim asked us to explore a lesson of folklore and make it about 10 minutes. They wanted it to be tonal and horror. That's what they told me. I don't know if they told you.
Yannis Veslemes: No.
Reeder: They didn't tell him anything.
Veslemes: Total freedom for me.
"From enthusiasm, you can create magic."
NFS: Obviously, there's a ton of fairy tales out there. How do you find the one that is specific enough to your country that you feel proud using it to represent your entire region as a whole?
Dora Nedeczky: We had professional help. We reached out to a folklore expert who walked us through the traditional lore, stories that we had around Hungary. And then we narrowed it down to two and pitched those to another producer. Peter added his personal insights to the story that was chosen, which is based loosely on Hungarian folklore. All the characters are really from the Hungarian folklore, but with our own twist.
Veslemes: I come from a historically mythological-heavy country, and so I really wanted to explore something more contemporary, within the last 100 years and something less known and based on the verbal tradition. What I ended up with is actually a creature from bedtime stories. That was the goal.
Reeder: I wasn't thinking as large as you were when you said, 'how do you find a myth that represents your entire country?' I was trying to find a lesser known myth from this country that people haven't really heard of that much but that did exist. There's a lot of strange regional stuff out there. I found myself drawn to the Melonheads and so I'm glad the producers chose it. It was an opportunity to put strange things on children's heads.
NFS: So then, how does the medium of film lend itself to these fairytale adaptations? What can you bring, visually, through technique, that will make these fairytales pop on screen?
Reeder: I really wanted to explore a daytime horror, because I haven't done enough of that. I just like that, the way that feels. When it's effective, you can do scary things even when the sun is out. That's my visual m.o. on this film.
Veslemes: No one has even tried to present the Christmas Goblin in a film, or even in a drawing. I mean, no one knows how this thing looks. So for me, it was a great experience to do it my way, as I have it pictured in my mind.
Esther Turan: For me what was very exciting is that we have, in Hungary, a certain narrative on how filmmakers touch anything that's related to folklore. I don't necessarily agree with that narrative. So, it was refreshing having someone like Peter Strickland deal with that folklore. It's a very progressive approach.
NFS: Then how was the process of actually adapting the fairy tale through your screenwriting?
Reeder: Yeah, it was a challenge. You just find the object and then find how can you bring it out. What characters and what place and what situation help you bring the object out? It's something you sort of meditate on, I suppose, and for me, I definitely leaned on the idea of The Shining. You know, a family of three going into the woods, and the more I could take it from there. So, once I sort of decided I was going to rip off The Shining, I kind of found I could take it other places.
Veslemes: When you start reading all of these stories, the first thing that comes to mind is to put everything inside your concept. But that was quite difficult in my case. I mean, there were a lot of ideas and if I had the chance, I would like to revisit and expand this universe of ideas. I fit so little inside this 10-minute thing.
NFS: Any words of advice to close us out?
Veslemes: Do whatever you want and don't believe the hype.
Turan: I also think that my piece of advice as a producer to young filmmakers is that they should find their allies. It's all about teamwork and people who believe or people who are just as enthusiastic as you are. From enthusiasm, you can create magic. Just like in this case, because we didn't have the right budget, so we compensated with enthusiasm. For me, it's very important to remind even myself that this is essential filmmaking. This is why I became a producer, for projects like this.
Reeder: If you're the one with the idea, a lot of people are gonna come in and try to modify it, or put their thumbprint on it. That's not all bad, but don't let 'em do too much of that. This is your thing and just go for it. If you've gotta make it for two dollars, that's fine.