Director Prano Bailey-Bond made an impressive feature film debut with Censor. The film tells the story of Enid, a film censor whose childhood trauma bubbles to the surface when she works on a film that mirrors the incident almost exactly.
We spoke to director Bailey-Bond about video nasties, the difference between shooting shorts and features, and making a hero out of someone who should, ostensibly, be a villain.
Tell me how the idea came about for Censor.
The initial seed of the idea came when I was reading an article about the Hammer Horror era, which is obviously a little earlier than when the film is actually set. There was this comment in the article about what censors of that period would cut. There weren’t that many rules, but one of their rules was blood on the breast of a woman should automatically be cut because they believed it would make men likely to commit rape. Surely there were male censors watching this; what prevents the censor from losing control? So it started off as this slightly childish idea in my head about a censor who starts to think they are being affected by the films they are watching and maybe deep down they are a bad person. I then delved into the subject of censors and censorship and quickly landed in the era of video nasties. I grew up watching things like Evil Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so it’s almost like these are the films that inspired my generation of filmmakers. But then, in the UK, the hysterical reaction to these films is absolutely fascinating. It seemed like a really rich period to be looking at that relationship between real life and what goes on on-screen.
Did you grow up during the video nasty era?
I was born in 1982, so I was really young. I wasn’t really aware of the video nasty panic at the time. It was when I got older. I was watching any of the films I could get my hands on.
I grew up in Wales in the middle of nowhere. The closest cinema was a half-hour drive with one bus a week. So I grew up with my parents video collection as my way into cinema. The more obscure titles I managed to find when I started to go to horror film festivals in my twenties. So it was more as an adult that I found the opportunity to see a lot of these films.
Censor is your first feature-length film. Was there anything that was easier or more difficult than you expected?
When you are prepping for your first feature, there is so much about the experience you are about to have that you don’t know. As I went through it all, I realized I was equipped to do it because I’ve made so many shorts and music videos. The actual nuts and bolts of making the film wasn’t hugely different; but the pressure and the stamina were the two things that were really different. For me, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself. I was so in love with the project, I couldn’t let anything slip. The stamina you have to have to get through a five week shoot… I think I was in bed, broken, when it was all over. For me, the mental side of it was the thing that I was most challenged by, but the actual, physical doing-the-job, I was ready for it.
Most people wouldn’t make the censor the “hero” of the film. How did you walk the line between making her likeable and vulnerable while also making her do her job?
It was definitely something I was thinking about during the writing process. There were different versions of Enid, including a version where she is less uptight, but ultimately, you have to write the character that is true to the story you are trying to tell. The deeper you get into the story and the deeper you build their backstory, the more that dictates what kind of person they are. Enid had to be someone with a lot of walls up. She’s a censored person. She doesn’t really talk openly about her feelings. She thinks deep down she is a terrible person and thinks it best not to let people in because they might realize that. She has carried this guilt for what happened to her sister and feels responsible for it. All of those things dictate who the character is.
I think, ultimately, you have to think about who do I cast in this role. On the page, I think Enid could have seemed incredibly cold at times, but casting Niamh Algar in the role really draws the audience in empathetically because of Niamh’s performance. She’s so nuanced. I think the fact that she and I empathized so much with Enid, we were all trying to understand her and lean into her. I think she lets the audience in. But as a filmmaker, an interest of mine is to understand the person who thinks differently to me. I’m always interested in the “bad guy,” what makes the bad guy tick. You could say, yeah, the censor is the bad guy and I wanted to get into the censor’s head.
Can you talk about casting Niamh?
When I was writing, I was making all these little notes to myself. Enid is in every scene. Whoever I find has to be electric on screen, someone we can’t look away from. I hoped the role was weighty and interesting enough to attract someone brilliant.
Niamh and I met on the Screen Stars of Tomorrow [panel]. I was writing and I think we talked a bit but I wasn’t at the casting part yet. I remember thinking she was lovely and interesting and was playing interesting characters. When we started casting, her name came up, she came in and read. Enid starts as this coiled spring, this closed-off mystery. Niamh came in and she read those parts, but she let us in. She has this ability to put thought on screen. So where Enid isn’t communicating vocally, Niamh was able to bring that to life with her really nuanced performance. Then when you get to the latter scenes, Niamh took this stuff off the page. She shot Enid into an emotional stratosphere that I didn’t even think we could reach. And we were already doing that in the auditions! She’s such an incredible, nimble actress.
What draws you to the horror genre?
I think I see horror as the return of the repressed, and I have always been quite interested in repressed characters. This thing we don’t want to look at in ourselves, or in the world; the thing that we ignore, push away, that is going to seep out in some twisted, disgusting, weird way and bite us on the ass, to me that’s what horror is: the things we don’t want to face, and our fears that are going to manifest themselves in a monster or some form that can come to life in a horror film.
I think, for me, what has drawn me to creating horror is an interest in repression. For me in terms of an audience, I think it’s the fact that it’s the most roller coaster-esque genre of cinema. You have a really physical experience with horror that you don’t really have with other genres. I have watched horror films that have made my skin go electric, or there is something really terrifying, and the mad, terrifying catharsis. There’s nothing else quite like it. That’s what draws me to it as an audience.
What is coming up next for you?
I’m definitely focused on features. I have a few things I’m developing. They are quite early days, so it’s hard to talk about them, but they are mixed in terms of genre. Some are more horror while others are more… mind-bending, strange, weird things. I’d love to think I could classify what I want to make as “nightmares.” Sometimes nightmares are just weird.