Censor stars Niamh Algar as Enid, a film censor in Thatcher-era England, a period that happens to coincide with the rise of the "video nasty," a subset of the horror and exploitation genre that outraged the conservative public in the UK. This led to prosecution, censorship, and outright banning of the films, although they still circulated on VHS.
Enid is haunted by the disappearance of her sister, and as tensions rise in her job and her parents decide to move on from their grief, Enid thinks she's spotted her sister in one of the horror films she's meant to regulate. Reality fractures and the protagonist soon finds herself slipping between dreams, nasties, and life.
In the U.S., where I grew up loving not only the horror classics like Evil Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but also silly gore-fests like the House of Wax remake, Jeepers Creepers, and The Faculty, we tend to take a more relaxed view on violence and an authoritarian stance on sex. It's hard to imagine an entire genre of film being suppressed through censorship like the video nasties.
But that's part of what makes Censor so interesting as a film. It's a unique point of view and a premise that I've never seen in horror before, at once a critique of the period's paranoia and a blood-soaked love letter to a genre that thrived despite attempts to squelch it out.
Censor comes from director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond, an accomplished filmmaker with a strong perspective and an impressive catalog of short films and music videos. This year, she was selected as one of Variety's 10 Directors to Watch. (Fellow Sundance director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. is also on that list.) Censor is her debut feature.
Annika Summerson served as the film's director of photography. She collaborated on Bailey-Bond's shorts previously, including the one that inspired Censor. (Also, if you haven't seen the delightfully weird Await Further Instructions, that's Summerson's work as well.) She received her MA in cinematography at the National Film & Television School (NFTS).
Bailey-Bond and Summerson spoke with No Film School via Zoom after Censor's premiere to share their love of genre movies, what it was like to work on the film, and their advice for up-and-comers. Enjoy!
Editor's note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Prano, I know in the Q&A, you talked about having this obsession with censorship and just being a horror fan in general, but can you talk about what inspired you to get into horror as a director specifically?
Prano Bailey-Bond: Yeah, so it's funny because I didn't really think of myself as a horror director until someone else pointed it out like a few shorts in. And I was up for some kind of funding award, and I didn't get it for the film I had submitted, but my showreel was with them and they phoned me up and they said, "Hey, we've got this horror script and we can see you're a horror director. So we needed a director for it." And I was like, "Oh, am I a horror—?" And I looked back at my work and I was like, "Oh, maybe I am."
But I think, to be honest, I guess I'm fascinated by repression. And I think about when, as I was making my first shorts, I was always really into art and painting and things and thinking in pictures. And one of mine and Annika's first short films The House of Virgins—which sounds like a porno, but it's not—that was about a really repressed woman, and she had all these boxes, and they oozed with her inner repressed demons and things.
And I guess, as I've thought more and more about horror, I think horror is about the return of the repressed. It's about the thing that you try and push away and you try not to face, and eventually, it's going to seep out in some horrible way, or it's going to turn up as the monster in your life and bite you on the ass. So I think there's a connection there between the themes and the style and the filmmakers that I admire. And then a natural kind of way into horror through that.
NFS: Can you talk a little bit about the development of the script also and how that came about?
Bailey-Bond:I had the idea quite a long time ago, and then I took it to Anthony Fletcher, who I co-wrote the script with, and was like, "I want to write a film about a censor, what do you think?" And he thought it was a really cool idea. So we started throwing ideas around, but we kept getting opportunities to make short films. So they would interrupt the development. And then we made Nasty in 2015, which was an idea that came out of Censor, and that did really well at festivals and kind of fed into the feature, even though it was a different character and a different story.
And then I met Helen Jones at a film festival, who's our producer. And she was like, "Do you have any feature ideas?" and I was like, "Yeah, I'm developing this thing." And I was like, "I need to write the treatment." And eventually, probably months later I sent her a treatment, and then she approached Film Company Wales [Ffilm Cymru Wales], who came on board to develop the first draft of the script.
And they actually supported us all the way through development, right to production. And then along the way, we also developed it with Creative England, one draft. And then Film4 and the BFI came onboard probably about halfway through development, and then Film Wales, Film4, and the BFI all funded the film. So it was amazing working with those partners because they were our ideal partners and they're great.
NFS: That's awesome. I'd like to also know from both of you, what challenged you on the project and how did you overcome those challenges?
Annika Summerson: It is a low-budget period piece with a lot of [visual] effects. There were quite a few challenges. I think the end act, so the night shooting in the forest, was probably the hardest bit, just logistically, creatively. We were shooting in October, November up in Leeds, in North England, and it was raining. It was muddy. It was cold. You know, the classic on-set life. So that, I think, because that part of the film was definitely the hardest part just practically.
Bailey-Bond: Yeah, I mean, on the like practical side, it was definitely that. It was the environment we were in, and you're wading through mud at times with equipment and it slows you down, and you've got a lot to get through, and it's nighttime and it's cold and all of that kind of thing.
I think on a creative level for me going into it, it was thinking about how you keep the audience inside the character's head when this person never really talks about how she feels or what she's thinking, and she's interpreting things in a really subjective way. So she'll be in scenes where another character is meaning something completely different, but we need the audience to stay with her. So that was always something that I was, as I went into the film, I was thinking about that from casting right through to how we worked in terms of my collaboration with all the different departments. Because everybody is honing in on how to tell that perspective. It's a very single point-of-view film, and Enid doesn't get everything right, so it's how you keep the audience with her, basically.
A lot of that's down to the casting, and Niamh's amazing performance, and the kind of nuance that she brings to it. But also the way that Annika captures that on camera. And then the way that Mark Towns edits that so we stay in her head, and then the music overseen by Emilie [Levienaise-Farrouch] that just pulls out those details.
And so, that I think was a big creative challenge. But also a really fun challenge.
Senior programmer John Nein and director Prano Bailey-Bond at the virtual Premiere of 'Censor' by Prano Bailey-Bond, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: © 2021 Sundance InstituteNFS: I feel like in a lot of horror that happens now, you always have that character moment where they're waking up. They have that gasp, and it's like, "Oh, it was just a dream." But in this film, you didn't really delineate between reality or what was going on in her head, which I really liked. I don't know, Annika, if you had anything to add to how you, on your side, maintained that through-line.
Summerson: I think one of the main things that Prano and I decided to do was to have quite a clear color arc through the film. So we started in [Margaret] Thatcher's Britain, and we wanted like, not the pop-quality 80s. We wanted the bleak Thatcher-era 80s. Prano was very clear about this. That this is the world that I want to portray.
So we started with quite a muted palette of blues and grays in the office. And then we kind of set some rules for ourselves that when she was in the beginning, when she was dreaming, or having fantasies, we would introduce colors such as purples and pinks. And then they would slowly merge into, seep into the other world. And then towards the end, we wanted to go for a video nasty. We made the short film Nasty five years ago. So we had already explored some of these color themes.
And I think from the beginning we were kind of going towards red and green, but we actually ended up more towards—in the final scene in the ravine, it's very red and cyan and that cyan is tying in a little bit to the office in the beginning. So it was supposed to be extremely vivid, but also be like a combination of the two worlds.
NFS: The color was beautiful. And you shot it on film, correct?
Summerson: We shot about 80% of it on film because we had a little bit of restriction from the execs. So some of the end scenes and the first are actually shot on digital. But the main part of the film is shot on 35mm, yeah.
Bailey-Bond: We did a tiny bit on VHS as well, didn't we?
Summerson: Oh yeah, we did.
Bailey-Bond: And we've got a little bit of Super 8 in the opening scene as well. So we mixed and matched a little bit.
Summerson: There's an iPhone shot in there as well.
Summerson: During lockdown, we did a cut of a promo that's also in the film on one of the screens, that's on my phone.
Bailey-Bond: Yeah, me and Annika were living together through almost the whole process of making the film. Because we're like old friends. We met at university a long time ago. We've known each other for a long time, so we actually lived together through the whole process of me writing the script, and then all the way through the first lockdown. So we shot that during lockdown. I covered myself in fake blood, put on a nightie, and we had quite a cool wall in our house. So yeah, that was fun.
'Censor' by Prano Bailey-Bond is an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
NFS: I wouldn't ask you to explain your ending, because it's so fun. But what I would ask is how you both approached the development of that whole sequence. I assume a lot of it, like you said, is coming from doing the short and having played in that space already.
Bailey-Bond: It was a lot of fun. The ending obviously has sort of a couple of different styles in it, and we were always heading towards the video nasty world basically. But then the very ending, I mean, I suppose the references we were always throwing between us were kind of this technicolor world. This sort of, hyper-reality basically, because the film is so much about the line between fiction and reality. I feel it's a tricky one to answer because I'm trying not to say too much.
NFS: I don't want to spoil anybody.
Bailey-Bond: Let's say it was a lot of fun to shoot that. I think it was so funny, that day, and the cast was amazing. Because they're coming out and they're doing stuff that—I remembered them just being like, "Prano, what?" Well, for a start, the parents who were just these two absolutely lovely actors, Clare Holmanand Andy Havill. They were like, "How have you dressed us, Prano? You've made us look so old." And then—just the trust that they gave me, I think was just amazing to go to such an extreme with the performance.
And to be honest, it was like, in approaching that day, I remember being just so, "It has to be amazing. It has to be amazing." And you're worrying about the weather because in the script, it's like, glorious sunshine and you scheduled it for the day and it's going to be the best weather, but what if it's pouring with rain? And all the anxiety, and then we got on set and it came together amazingly. And Annika just did this amazing job that was kind of beyond my dreams for that finale.
Yeah. I don't know. Annika, what do you think?
Summerson: I also really enjoyed that scene. [It's] so bonkers, it's so crazy that—especially since Clare and Andrew were just in a few days of the shoot, so they just get chucked into that world full of—Paulina [Rzeszowska] did an amazing job with all the plastic flowers and everything. And then Prano's just like, "And now you're doing this." I'm also not going to give anything away, but it was just so funny how they were, as Prano said, they really trusted her vision because obviously, it's like, "And now you stand here and scream, and now you stand here and you're happy." And it's like—well, that's not how you direct. That's not how Prano directs. But it was a very fun day, that. And yeah, it did come together. It was everything from finding the perfect street with the little, you know, the little box, the houses and the—just everything coming together within the restraints we were working with.
Bailey-Bond: Yeah. Our location department deserves a shout-out for that, actually, because they were amazing. Because you're working in not a massive budget, like Annika said, but also it's a period film. So when it comes to stuff like finding a street, you're having to ask all the people on that street to put their cars away. And you know, we're using the whole street in a couple of scenes and they were incredibly charming. And the communities that they found for us to shoot in were really welcoming and helped us out a lot in terms of parking their cars in garages and stuff.
But yeah. I mean, locations never get enough credit, I think. There are no awards for locations teams, but they're the first on set and last to leave. The team up there, they're based up in Leeds. They were great.
NFS: So a lot of our readership are a mix of experienced and beginning filmmakers. What advice would you have to an up-and-coming filmmaker who wants to get into horror, directing or shooting?
Prano Bailey-Bond, director of 'Censor,' an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Bailey-Bond: I think, I mean, there's a couple of things I would say. The thing I always think about with young filmmakers, in general, is not to take rejection too much to heart because there's a lot of rejection along the way. And sometimes people don't always get your ideas initially. And the best thing to do is just go out there and do it anyway, show the world. And that's kind of what I did with my early shorts. I didn't get funding. So I was like, "Fine. I'll just lock Annika in a warehouse with me for two days and make her film me doing something weird." And that turned out quite well.
Then when it comes to horror, I think it's about finding your unique way into the genre. It's such an imaginative genre, and that's what I love about it. Pretty much you can do anything in horror. And I think it's about bringing your imagination to the genre and finding your own unique language within it.
Summerson: Shooting horror. I would say, if you look at it from a technical point of view, just watch loads and loads of films that scare you and then try to figure out why they scare you, how the camera builds up the tension. What is it that makes you jump? How do you use the shadows? You know, not only the light, but actually, how do you use shadows? And just do research, and then obviously go out and practice, practice, practice.