The First-Time Director of 'She Will' Tells Us How to Make Witchy Horror (And How She Got an Amazing Cast)
"It's really like running towards a massive rock and trying to push it up a hill until it finally moves."
I'm always thrilled to find new voices in horror. And we love learning from first-time directors here at No Film School. So it was a perfect confluence of opportunities to watch She Will, a new IFC Midnight release from director/co-writer Charlotte Colbert.
The screenplay, by Kitty Percy and Colbert, was a Brit List entry. The story follows Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige), who undergoes a double mastectomy and travels to a retreat in Scotland with her nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt). It just so happens that the retreat grounds were the site of witch burnings hundreds of years before. The setting dredges up Veronica's past traumas as a child star under director Hathbourne (Malcolm McDowell). Then, mysterious forces give Veronica the power to seek revenge within her dreams...
No Film School spoke with Colbert via Zoom ahead of the film's release. She tells us about the challenges of being a first-time feature director, the time pressures on set, and why she's excited about cinema.
Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I want to ask about the development process. What was your inspiration for the film? What did getting it off the ground look like?
Charlotte Colbert: Very difficult. Basically, Kitty Percy wrote a script that was sent to one of our exec producers called Ed Clarke, who works at SHOEBOX FILMS. He does all of Joe Wright's films and stuff like that. And he's a wonderful development executive. And he was looking for someone to team up with Kitty, basically, to work on the script and make the film with her. And he was like, "You two are mad enough to do something together, let's stick you in a room and see what happens."
And so we did, and Kitty was super wonderful and amazing, had lots of incredible ideas, and is just a brilliant writer. And so we just used the framework, basically her story, and I just added some of the links to nature and potentially more dreamlike qualities of the material and the visuals.
I was quite interested in connecting the sort of infinitely small and the infinitely big and making the sort of landscape a character as well within the tale.
Alice Krige as “Veronica Ghent” and Kota Eberhardt as “Desi Hatoum” in Charlotte Colbert’s 'She Will.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.
NFS: One of my questions was going to be specifically about that imagery and how you brought in things that are very big and nebulous, like feminine rage and that sort of power that lives in this story. How did you land on those visuals?
Colbert: It's so interesting. I basically tend to make massive walls and have a lot of different imagery and different thoughts and words. And really, I'm very into the detailed things and I'm very obsessive and I'm very obstinate. So I'm basically a nightmare for everyone.
So yeah, I guess that's sort of how it developed, through time and trying to narrow things down and then working with each department to try and push to the maximum, the visual language within each of the realms. So that the makeup was saying something, so that the clothes were all thought through and how they decompose the character in some ways.
And obviously with Jamie [Ramsay], the cinematographer, working to find the different looks and movements and what the visual language of the film would be. Same with the music. I really wanted there to be vocals if possible, because it was a nice way to—that the music is not like—I'm really interested when music has a purpose, in some ways, isn't necessarily telling you what you feel or whatever. But in this case, really like the idea of it becoming like a character. So it becomes like the voice that's been sort of silenced in a way.
Alice Krige as “Veronica Ghent” in Charlotte Colbert’s 'She Will.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.And actually, our incredible composer, Clint Mansell, he worked with the performers of the music in a similar way to working with actors in terms of building the singular voice and strength as the film progressed. He's incredibly beautiful. I mean, there's something so magic about the voice as an instrument. It's really incredible.
And the production designer as well, because there were lots of constraints. So finding locations, that did a lot of the work, so as to alleviate production design was important. So scoured the entire of Scotland with her and the producer to find these different locations and try and pretend that we weren't millions of different places. So we managed to rope in the local university. All the students came to help to turn it into a film studio.
A hotel that basically we shot in, we couldn't close it obviously. So we just had to shoot doing it. So we have these really funny moments where Malcolm [McDowell]was like, "Is there anyone here?" And they go, "Yes, do you need any help?" It's like, "No." So funny. So yeah.
Malcolm McDowell as “Eric Hathbourne” in Charlotte Colbert’s 'She Will.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.
NFS: There's a fantastic cast in this film. Can you talk a little bit about bringing all of them together?
Colbert: Yeah. So, first film, difficult for someone to take the leap of faith. And so even more difficult when your lead is someone quite grown up, in terms of age, because they've got other things to do with their lives than gallivanting in Scotland with you. And they had nothing to prove. So it was really amazing luck to have Alice [Krige]basically fall in love with the script and the story. And it resonates so much with her.
And we met and it was at this hotel in Soho in London for tea. She arrived dressed in this incredible outfit that I now know, knowing her quite well, was not her, but definitely the character of Veronica, and sort of a meeting of kindred spirits and kindred souls. And I feel very pleased and happy and privileged to have her now in my life in general.
And yeah, so to go on this adventure, and I think because the film is so anchored around that character in a way everyone else had to be defined around her. And yes, it was quite sweet because Rupert [Everett] went to drama school with Alice. It was quite sweet that they were reunited. And so that was nice.
Alice Krige as “Veronica Ghent” in Charlotte Colbert’s 'She Will.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.And then Malcolm McDowell was in London, and he was on his way back to LA so we veered him through Scotland, and he was wonderful. And Kota Eberhardt, she's amazing, plays the role of Desi who's the light and hope within the film and the most likable character within it. Was amazing.
I mean, that was like really lucky as well. It was quite interesting because she was a big Alice fan. And so there's something very nice because at the beginning of the shoot, in a way, when there were distant scenes between them. And I think that her, or for her as an actor as well, helped establish that distance, which was great.
And then obviously as the grueling conditions of the shoot pushed everyone to the edge—no, I'm joking—but condensed us into a cooker pot, that their relationship grew. And we're lucky that the scenes in a way of—they really become like mother and daughter towards the end. So they had developed off-camera kinship and closeness and softness between them.
Alice Krige as “Veronica Ghent” in Charlotte Colbert’s 'She Will.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.
NFS: You hinted at it there. I always like to ask about what was challenging about a project and how you overcame those challenges. So is there anything on this film, technical or otherwise, that you had to face?
Colbert: Oh my God. I think everything was a challenge. Basically, getting the film pushed into action is probably the biggest challenge. It's really like running towards a massive rock and trying to push it up a hill until it finally moves. And then it just starts rolling and you're like, "Hooray!"
And then I guess on the shoot, it's like mostly time. Malcolm was saying, "Oh, on Lolita, they had four days to shoot the hula hoop scene." And I was like, "God." Obviously, the cameras are much more cumbersome and stuff, but still, I mean, it's a timeframe that's quite unheard of now, I guess, where everything is so fast.
Yeah, that's the thing, I do hope to have more time because there is that space of dreaming together, which is actually really important and being able to leap off things. And still, I guess, regardless of all the stuff, trying to keep that protected space, very sacred and quiet and special, because it's fragile. Dreaming is fragile. You can get woken up.
And then obviously, the fact that everyone was in lockdown and all that stuff was pretty epic as well. All the cinemas closed and everything. It's quite crazy and just, I think everyone went through so much, isn't it? Just emotionally and everything. I don't know if you feel like that, but it feels like all the boundaries of the real, just even just with all the misinformation and everything, they're so—yeah, it's just so complex that it's pushing everyone to the edge of sanity. And it's quite a nuts time.
Layla Burns as “Young Veronica” in Charlotte Colbert’s 'She Will.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.NFS: What is your advice from your journey for people wanting to become filmmakers?
Colbert: Don't take no for an answer. Keep going. Push for everything.
NFS: Is there anything else you wanted to add that I didn't ask about?
Colbert: I'm just glad that cinemas are reopened and we can have that shared experience. I hope that the people who are doing films are still going to the cinema and wanting to see films within that experience. Because I do think it is a different medium, it is a different art form to—and I love both [VOD and cinema], don't get me wrong, but I do think there are different ways of relating to an audience. One is through a course of an hour and a half or two hours, and one is very bitty. And it's just a bitty and it's just difficult to tell the same story in the same way.
And also, I think there's something incredibly cathartic and important about sitting in a space together, more and more so because we're so polarized and alienated one from another that we're never confronted [with] positions or ideals or discussions that aren't already our own, especially with all the algorithms working to reinforce our points of view. So anything that requires a communal shared experience is to be cherished as an act of defiance to the algorithms that be.
She Will opens in select theaters and on demand Friday, July 15.