The star of Sean Ellis' Eight for Silver has some incredibly motivating words for filmmakers.
Ask me if I'm a fan of Alistair Petrie. First I'll say, "Duh," and then I'll say, "Do you have a few hours to talk about The Terror and Utopia? Have you seen Sex Education yet? What about The Night Manager?"
The prolific British actor elevates anything he appears in, and most recently that would include his turn as Seamus Laurent in the Sundance horror movie Eight for Silver. He imbues the film's grim-faced patriarch with a level of complexity and regret that takes the character beyond a straightforward villain.
Petrie spoke with No Film School via phone about working on the film, what he appreciates about director Sean Ellis, and how an acting career has prepared him to work as a director himself.
And if you are a beginning filmmaker in need of a pep talk, Petrie's words will make you want to go grab a camera and make something right now.
Editor's note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: First, I want to ask about what excited you about working on Eight for Silver.
Alistair Petrie: It was so many things. It was sort of a package that was launched at my feet incredibly gratefully, which is sort of a strange metaphor. There's sometimes we can receive a script and you like the idea, but maybe not the execution of the idea, or the script doesn't quite match up with the director, who you thought might be a good fit. There's all sorts of weird how you piece together the jigsaw. But this sort of jigsaw arrived kind of rather beautifully formed, having already been made. Sean Ellis, he was a filmmaker I was always really excited about. I adored his film Metro Manila. Anthropoid I thought was really bold and ambitious and looks amazing. He was on my list of people that one day I hoped they may ask me to collaborate with them at some point.
Sean Ellis was the first two words that I saw. Then you read the script and think, "Okay." You're told about the script that's arriving, and you think, "Okay, it's a horror film." You go, "Okay, they're really hard to pull off in terms of a good script." Again, Sean Ellis's name was attached to it, so you're thinking, "I'm going to give this really due care and attention," and I'm so glad I did, because it's not only a really interesting look at a certain subtype of the horror genre, so-called very inverted common werewolf movie, and it does it a great disservice just to call it that, but it's an easy label to throw at it. But much more of a familial and human drama, which I thought was fascinating.
Then, when I rapidly discovered that Boyd [Holbrook] and Kelly [Reilly], we were going to make up this kind of enclosed triumvirate in this house. Also, the amazing Roxane Duran. Not forgetting her, and Stuart Bowman, and so forth, it was a very easy thing to say yes to do. Sean Ellis was an artist I was really excited to work with. He shoots on film, which is a real privilege these days. He's adamant about doing that. The whole prospect of it was incredibly exciting. Also, getting to shoot on location and tell the story all on location, with no studio work, in also where it's set. We didn't shoot it in Toronto and pretend it was somewhere else. We shot where the film was set, and that gives a real sort of truth a little bit physically that you don't have to work for.
NFS: I actually had the opportunity to speak with Sean yesterday, and he just seems like such a thoughtful, deliberate [director]. Not only in the storytelling and the direction, but as you mentioned, actually being there. He cares about giving the actors that full experience and immersing them, from what I understand.
Petrie: It's really amazing. It's amazing, Jo, because you think when you see the credit roll, when you see that Sean wrote this movie, he directed this movie, he was the cinematographer. He was the photography, the cinematography, the DP of this movie. You instinctively think, "My God, this man must be an egotistical tyrant who would just tell his actors where to stand and how to say it, and he'll just photograph it and if we could all just leave at the end of the day and not make any noise," and it couldn't be further from the truth. For someone that's across so many aspects of this film, he's astonishingly collaborative. I say astonishingly because we were given the full rights to take our characters off the page.
I will say this, he's really smart in casting. He kind of knows what he's looking for, but also I think he knows people's work, and deep dives into how they work and how they want to work. He let the three of us off his leash in many ways to bring these people to life. Anything we suggested and tried, he would say, "Try it. Let's try it," and maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn't. He gave us such a platform for us to do our thing and trusted us. That's so huge when you're making any piece of work, an implicit trust right from the off. So it was a pretty special experience.
NFS: You're answering a lot of what I was going to ask about directors specifically, about what characteristics you seek out in wanting to work with them.
Petrie: I'll tell you, this is an addendum to that. I think it is kind of a really interesting discussion point because I've worked with a lot of directors over the years. There's a lot of highly, highly, highly skilled directors that know how to paint a visual picture. Oftentimes, those same directors will let you just do your job and they won't tell you how to do your job. They trust you to do your job.
But there's also times where within that trust, you want to say, "I'm not sure about this. Direct me. Guide me. Help me. What do you need? What do you think?"
Oftentimes, those very brilliant directors will say, "I don't know. What do you think?" It's okay to say I don't know, but equally sometimes you are looking for some guidance.
They can make the visuals work so beautifully, and just leave you to do your thing, and that's okay. But if you can get the combination of someone who visually sees something so strongly in their head, who can also collaborate with the actors, where you turn around and say, "I've got a question." They may turn around and say, "I don't know," but they also say, "Let's figure it out together."
That was very much Sean. That's a pretty remarkable combination. With an ego to get done what needs to get done, but lack of ego in terms of he's not precious about even his words. You say, "I think it's this," and he'll go, "Okay. Yeah. Totally. I get that." He allows you ownership of your character. It's amazing, and it's rare, really rare.
NFS: That's awesome. For horror, specifically, we've kind of talked about how the immersion works and how he fully builds out his sets, but for you as an actor, what do you need to create the tension, the mood, the fear for this kind of performance?
Petrie: It's so interesting. It's such a good question because you don't turn up to work every day going, "We are making a horror film. How can we maximize the scares?" You just don't start from that perspective. Your first primary job is to tell the story, and principally the story of these people. So you strip all of that away. Any kind of giggling about, "We've got to stick to the genre. What would the genre demand of us in this scene?" It was just never a discussion point. It was always about these human beings.
You want to sort of lift them off the page and make them rounded and understand them and where they come from and why they are the way they are. None of that you necessarily see explicitly on the screen, but it is our jobs as detectives, really.
That's what actors fundamentally are. We're detectives. We get presented with a written work, which can be 110-odd pages, and then you start to dive into who those people are, how they met, how Kelly's character [and I], and did we fall in love or was it a marriage of convenience? It was Kelly that wanted at least for us to know that these two people fell in love years ago and had children. For whatever reason. It remained between us in many ways. They lost each other and they can't find their way back.
The film speaks to loss and grief and consequences of our actions and those kinds of things. In a way, we were making a very human drama, and then the horror, in a sense, I think, destroying other people in many ways. We acted what's put in front of us, and that's what made it very rewarding.
Then, of course, CGI gets involved, and there's obviously a werewolf and a beast and all of those kinds of things. Then when you see the final result, you sort of see the foundations. If you build solid foundations of the human drama then you almost, with the magic of the director and editor and CGI and story, you'll get the horror for free in a way.
NFS: That's such an interesting perspective to take, so thank you for that. I also wanted to mention that you directed a short last year, I think?
Petrie: I did, yeah. Yeah. I have pretty significant ambitions in that regard. I think everyone should be a polymath in life. Rather than the inevitable question would be, "Oh, are you sort of done as an actor? Is it something that you don't love anymore because you want to dip into directing?" That's just absolutely not. Each informs the other.
I just spent a little bit of time shadowing a director I'm a huge fan of, just to sort of soak up their brilliance. I loved that because I want to feed it into my future directing work. I love working with actors. Yeah, it's a lot of a learning process, as life generally should be. You should never stop learning, and it's certainly an aspect I'm moving into while keeping up my day job very happily.
NFS: I was going to ask how that background as an actor benefits you toward a future career in directing.
Petrie: I think, to my earlier point, really, I love the idea of creating something, telling a story, and figuring out a way to tell that story visually, which is obviously what we do on screen. But also, the other point of working with the actors to bring that story to life, and how we do that. I'm really entranced by that. In many ways, actors, we're useful and we'll speak the words that you give us.
I like the idea, and I have a fledgling production company with the actor Alexander Siddig, and we have three things in development. Two of which should be—COVID aside, we both would have been shooting this year. We're collaborating with some really exciting people on some pretty ambitious projects. We may just produce them. I may or may not direct if given the opportunity to.
I love the idea of building a story from the ground up, taking a piece of raw material and going, "How does this work?" I see this very much running in parallel to my acting work. They say each informs the other, and I find them equally rewarding. I would never stop being an actor. I've never envisioned stopping doing that. Storytelling.
We're storytellers sitting around a fire. It's terribly whimsical, but I'd just maybe like to set a fire and then sit around it as well, rather than turn up at 10:00 p.m. with a six-pack wanting to join the party.
NFS: I love that.
Petrie: It's a weird metaphor, but it's in there somewhere.
NFS: Any other advice to someone maybe just getting started in directing? Practical advice or philosophical?
Petrie: I think it's the best of times. When I graduated from drama school, if you wanted to direct something, it was tough because you were kind of going, "Well, maybe I can find my grandpa's Super 8 camera." It's obvious to say, but now I can pick up a phone that has astounding lenses. I can shoot, I can plug in a 10-buck microphone into the port and I can record dialogue. You can go out and make a film for nothing.
In fact, it's the best piece of advice I give to young actors actually going to drama school, which is I say, "Create. Always create, because you can. Who knows, you might be able to write. You might be able to direct. Don't just sit by the phone to ring." It was always that case as a young actor. But now, we have the opportunity. You can put yourself online. You have an audience of billions who may well see your work, so create. Never stop. Never stop trying to create. We have the platform to do that.
Yeah, sure, there are thousands of methodologies and there's a lot of people jostling in the marketplace. But to the same extent, I always tell young filmmakers who doubt themselves and think, "How do I earn a place at the table?" I say, "There is no reason on earth why your idea isn't the best idea of the day, the week, the month, the year. Why isn't it? Why not? So pursue it and fight for it and get your elbows out and convince people that your idea and your plan and the story you want to tell is valid and important. Why shouldn't it be? Why shouldn't you be the one in five years' time helming a vastly massive budget TV show, whatever? Why shouldn't it be you? It may not be, but if you're good enough, then believe in yourself."
Again, it's kind of highfalutin and possibly whimsical, but I'm so excited. I have three sons. One of them is studying animation and VFX.
NFS: Oh, wow.
Petrie: The other one has just got an unconditional offer to go to college. An unconditional offer is astounding, so irrespective of his exam results. He's going to study film and television production. And I have my third son who wants to be an actor. I say to them, "You've got to work incredibly hard. There is no substitute for that. But why shouldn't you be the one to tell us some phenomenal stories in this world?"
I would tell that to any young person. I'm kind of slightly messianic about it.
NFS: No. That's so inspiring, so thank you. That is a beautiful answer.
Petrie: I've just given you my Ted Talk.
NFS: You should give one.
Petrie: Yeah. I'm going to keynote it.
NFS: Was there anything that I didn't ask that you wanted to mention?
Petrie: To speak of the film, the only thing I would say that I'm really excited that this film is going out into the ether. It is not up to me to tell people what to think about the movie. I hope it speaks to people on an emotional level. But equally, at its best, I hope people just are scared. Enjoy the reexamination of the werewolf kind of storytelling. Take from it what you will. Just embrace it.
We are all so locked down in this world, and we're finding such joy and pleasure and fear and life in watching things on screen. Just keep watching it and enjoying it. We'll keep making. We hope you embrace it as much as we have been doing it. I'm a lucky guy in a lucky job.
NFS: It's exciting. It sounds like you're doing exciting, amazing stuff, so I look forward to it.
Petrie: Keep grinding, keep learning.