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Sundance Interview with “Eight for Silver” Director Sean Ellis

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 8th, 2021

Sean Ellis, director of EIGHT FOR SILVER, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jacob Yakob.

Just before this year’s Sundance Film Festival started, I had a chance to remotely interview director Sean Ellis (Anthropoid) about his latest work, the eerie werewolf movie Eight for Silver (which I also reviewed). Though I have some issues with the script, I was deeply impressed by the creature design. That, the casting and the genesis of the idea are what we mostly talked about. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed: What was the genesis of the idea, with this really intricate mythology and your choice to set it in the 19th century?

Sean Ellis: First and foremost, it was a meeting between myself and the producers, Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon, and they asked me if I had an interest in doing a horror film. And I said, “Yeah.” And they were like, “Is there anything that you’re interested in?” And I said, “I’m quite interested in the werewolf legend, but not as we know it.” And they said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, I’m quite interested in a sort of remote village in the late 1800s that’s plagued by a wolf and there’s a dead body and someone’s gone missing, and a secret is being covered up.” And they went, “Oh, that sounds intriguing.” So it really started from that, and I started to write a treatment based around that idea.

And I think at some point, obviously, I was quite aware that I was touching on the werewolf mythology, but to start off saying, “I’m going to reinvent the werewolf” was too big to do. I couldn’t just say, “I’m going to reinvent the werewolf.” I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know how to do it. So, very small baby steps. One of those came about from the original Wolf Man, which was written by a Jewish writer, and the curse of the wolf was a metaphor for being Jewish in Europe in the mid 1930s and being persecuted for being Jewish or being a wolf. And that was the metaphor for it. And I started to think about what persecutes us in modern society.

And I started to think about addiction and how we’re addicted to either drugs or bad relationships or our phones or whatever it is. We’ve often become a prisoner to our addictions, and when I started to think about it in those terms, I started to think that the wolf as a metaphor for addiction is very interesting because you do something that you don’t want to do, and yet you still do it. And so you’re a prisoner to it. And when I started to think about being a prisoner to the wolf, that’s when the design aspect of it started to change in my mind. And I said I think it’s more interesting if you become a prisoner to the wolf rather than actually change into the wolf. And I think that was one of those baby steps that really led me to develop the design of the film. 

CLR: Indeed, the most intriguing aspect of the werewolf part is that creature design. I haven’t seen it before, somebody trapped inside of a larger wolf-like host, or rather, if they’re the host of the wolf, it’s that sort of symbiotic relationship. So, can you talk about working up that particular design with your special-effects people and with your production designer? How did you come up with the physical look of the werewolf?

SE: Early on, I spoke to Mark Coulier, who I’d worked with on Anthropoid, and I started to say to him that I wanted to do a modern version of a werewolf tale. And when I say “modern,” I mean presented in a way that we hadn’t seen before. A fresh take. And so Mark did some concept designs and sketches, and he also did a clay model of it, based on a brief that I gave him based around the idea that the beast had to be big enough to actually carry somebody on the inside. Unfortunately, Mark couldn’t work on the project because of a conflict in scheduling, but it was passed over to Jean-Christophe Spadaccini in Paris. And Jean-Christophe came up with the life-sized sculpture of what Mark Coulier had done.

And so we based the wolf pretty much on that. And we had three versions of it on set. We had a full animatronic one where the face and everything moved. Then we had an attack piece, which was pretty much someone in a suit that was literally on a flatbed wheelbarrow. It took two guys, and they would run this wheelbarrow and the back legs were attached to the wheels. And there was a version of it that would help the CG guys erase certain parts of it. And then I think there was a stunt version, which was just made of rubber, and we used it to throw at actors.

When we finished the first part of filming, we edited over the summer and we looked at what we had. And I think at that point, it became quite clear that even though the beast was kind of interesting, it wasn’t completely there and it didn’t do some of the stuff we wanted it to do. It didn’t move in the way that I wanted it to move. It’s a little bit like Jaws. I love the idea that less is more, but I think when you’ve got to see it, it’s also got to look really cool. I think the problem was it did look a little bit stiff. And at that point I was then working with a third concept artist and I showed him what I had. And I said, “I think it needs to be a little bit more like this.” And he came back with some more interesting sketches, which actually formed the final section of what the beast would look like.

Alistair Petrie, Amelia Crouch and Simon Kunz appear in EIGHT FOR SILVER, by Sean Ellis, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Sean Ellis.

CLR: As a big fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing, that scene on the table where we see what exactly we’re dealing with is certainly worthy of Rob Bottin’s work on that film. So, then, another question: how did you come up with this circular narrative? You start in World War I, and then we go back to the flashback and then we end back where we started. When did you decide to open in the trenches like that? 

SE: I think after the first block of filming, we realized that we could see where the strengths of the film were and we could see where its weaknesses were. Originally, we didn’t have enough time to shoot a proper ending for the first block. And that ending that we had was weak, and it was also unsatisfying. So I think when we went into the second block of filming, which was at the beginning of 2020, we knew that we wanted to put a new ending on it and that new ending involved the bookend that you saw now, starting in the Battle of the Somme and then returning to that time period. This sort of bookend was written to help structure the whole story and tell the life of Edward completely and tell the life of McBride completely. That really came out of the luxury of having the time to really look at new material, and have the resources to go back and have another go at making it better.

CLR: There must be something in the air right now involving Judas and his 30 pieces of silver. I don’t know if you’re aware of the Spanish series on HBO called 30 Coins, but the essence of that plot also deals with Judas’s 30 pieces of silver, which is a not insignificant portion of your own film. How did you come up with that aspect of your story?

SE: Again, we came up with that over the edit in 2019. It was a way of linking the silver to something religious and something that might also give a reason why that silver is cursed. I think it also played into the idea of why a silver bullet would lift the werewolf curse. For me, it all felt like it really made a lot of sense and it felt satisfying because I don’t think there’s been that … it’s not common knowledge, why a silver bullet lifts a werewolf curse. And I think there’s probably been a few things or films or novels that have tried to answer it, but it doesn’t feel like that part of the mythology is common knowledge. So it felt very satisfying in that sense that it was the biblical silver, and that’s why it’s cursed. And obviously that’s why it can lift the curse. 

CLR: Let’s talk about your cast, among them Boyd Holbrook and Kelly Reilly. How did you go about assembling your team?

SE: Boyd actually approached me. He had read the script. I loved his work. I love Narcos and I really liked Logan. And I think he’s a really interesting actor. I was slightly worried he might be too young. And I think he had a worry about me trusting whether he could do an English accent. So he sent me some tapings of him speaking English and he was very good. And I knew he was going to work hard with a dialogue coach, as well. So I knew he was probably going to be ready in time.

So, we went with Boyd and then Alistair [Petrie] came about through … Mickey Liddell actually said to me, “You’ve got to watch Alistair in Sex Education.” So I saw him in Sex Education, and then I recognized him from Star Wars and I thought, “Oh yeah, he’s really good.” He’s just got this very noble presence. He’s very smart and very commanding and has all the essence of what we were looking for in Seamus. And then, for Isabelle, Kelly Reilly was somebody that I’ve always watched. And I remember seeing her in a play when she first started in London many, many years ago. I’d never had the opportunity to work with her and always thought she is interesting and incredibly talented. I was thrilled when we got all three of them, really.

CLR: And I think your kids are terrific too. I mean, obviously they’re an essential component of the story. What was that process like, finding the right child actors?

SE: That was actually really easy. They just tape themselves and you know pretty instantly which ones are great. All the ones that we got were the ones that we liked from the tapings. And again, it was very important that the younger generation play a very important role in the story, because I felt that, even in society today, the younger generation is very angry at the older generation for the state of the world that they created. I felt it was very poignant, especially when Timmy says, “We’re going to pay for the sins of our elders,” and it’s very true. And I think that there’s a lot of plot points in the story that resonate with today’s situation.

CLR: Genocide and xenophobia, for instance, which are built into your story. Well, Sean, thank you so much. I wish you all good things with the film.

SE: Thank you very much!

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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