Rose: an interview with director Jennifer Sheridan

December 12, 2020
Alix Turner 0
Features, Interviews

Rose: an interview with director Jennifer Sheridan

The Grimmfest line-up is always varied, even the programmes for mini-festivals like their Xmas Horror Nights. It includes four new feature films, all radically different from each other, as well as shorts and Q&A sessions with filmmakers. One of those films is the British film Rose, which is a romantic drama and a horror combined. The director of Rose, Jennifer Sheridan, talked to me earlier this week about her experience, the film’s reception, and what comes next. This is her first feature film, having previously directed a number of short films and TV shows. So I asked her how it came about that she made this one, jumping straight into unusual horror?

“That’s a very good question, Alix!” said Jennifer. “Essentially, I got an agent for film and TV, and he sort of knew that I was really into genre and quite dark stories. I was an editor for years, and one of the best jobs I got to edit was The League of Gentlemen, which is, like, very dark. So when he got sent the script, he said I think this is right up your street, I think you should read it. So I did, and I loved it, thought it was really cool. I met the writer, Matt Stokoe, we got on really well and I told him what my vision for it would be; he said great! That’s how I see it too! We sort of spent a couple of years working on the script and throwing ideas back and forth. The script was already in a really good place when I first read it, so it didn’t change massively, but we kind of crafted it together. Sophie Rundle [who plays Rose] was part of that process, because she was attached to the project quite early on, and was friends with Matt. We got it to a place where we were really happy with the script, then managed to scrape a bit of funding together, and thought: well, let’s just go and do it! So we did!”

The last title in Jennifer’s IMDb page is a children’s TV drama, The Snow Spider, equally fantastical. I asked is fantasy her “thing”, or is it a fluke that the latest two had a similar tone? “Well, this is the thing. This has been the problem my whole career, really: even my short films have varied greatly in genre, and as an editor, I was very much in comedy. So I tried making a comedy short, and that was fun; I made a sci-fi short, and different things. I tried to figure out what is my voice, what is the story I want to tell people, and I think I basically decided that I really like stories that are a little bit dark, and have some hope or some interesting otherworldly element to them. So I don’t know if I can ever be knocked down to one genre. Snow Spider is like Harry Potter in Wales, then Rose is like vampiristic lockdown. And I like that, I like the variety: as long as it’s a good story, I’ll get hooked into it.”

I hadn’t come across The Snow Spider until preparing for this interview, so I asked Jennifer about it. “It’s aimed at ten to fourteen-year-olds, quite young, a little bit scary. It’s based on a trilogy of books, by Jenny Nimmo, back in the eighties. They’re quite dark, based on old Welsh mythologies, which is quite cool.”

I’ve got great respect for horror as a vehicle for metaphor: everyday racism in Get Out, dementia in Relic. I asked whether inspiration had been found in films like those. “Well Rose really speaks to a situation where you’re in a relationship, but one of you is slightly more dependent on the other, how it can put pressure on a relationship. Both Matt and I had relationships in the past where there had been some carer element involved, whether that’s a mental thing or a physical thing, and so we both had an insight into how that can impact things. We wanted to tell that story, but with extra elements.”

It was interesting that Jennifer had mentioned an interest in dark stories with an element of hope earlier, as I confessed I had struggled to see that in Rose. I have loved other romantic horror films, such as Spring and After Midnight, and those were brighter in comparison. “I agree with you that there isn’t a huge amount of hope, but I’ve got to say there are points when I’m rooting for them. And there are elements when you can see Rose’s character particularly is resigned to the fact that this is probably not going to end successfully. Whereas Matt’s character, Sam, is a lot more hopeful and romantic, like ‘if we just stick to these rules, we can make it work because I love you so much.’ And I don’t want to spoil anything, but that contrast does add to the bleakness: it’s easy to think ‘you’re kidding yourself there, mate’. He’s a bit of a romantic at heart, believing that love will conquer all.”

I think what almost conquered all was the couple’s willingness to find compromise. It may not be possible to compromise on what one is physically capable of doing, but rather one’s needs. Perhaps hope is to be found there. “Maybe so,” Jennifer said; “and then when Amber comes in, Rose really sees her as a hope, because she thinks this is someone that Sam can look after, whereas I’m a sort of lost cause; he should spend his energy on someone who stands a chance in life.” It was interesting debating our interpretations here: to me, this hope was distinctly misguided.

Rose: an interview with director Jennifer Sheridan

Rose also had the feel of a Grimms’ fairy tale for me – the hunter in the middle of the woods, the occasional image of a wolf – but with no obvious moral. I asked was I right about that? Is there any message Jennifer expects an audience to take away from Rose? “That’s a tricky one. It’s not a traditional narrative by any means, in that it doesn’t conclude in a way that’s satisfying for everyone. It’s open-ended and definitely up for interpretation: and that was very intentional. We want people to fill in the blanks of what happened afterward. We know kind of what we think might happen, but we’re open to people interpreting it differently. So whether that makes allowances for there to be a clear message, I’m not so sure, but I do hope that when people watch the film they feel like they’ve been on a journey with these characters and that it’s been quite a contained moment they’ve witnessed. And I hope they buy into the relationship they have and feel like it’s real and can understand the motivations the characters have in the film. Perhaps people will take from it something like ‘love is never easy’, potentially. It’s never going to be perfect, there will always be things to overcome together, and sometimes maybe you can’t! That’s such a bleak message!”

I would really like to know more about Sam and Rose. I’d like to know how their relationship turned out as it did, whether they always faced these difficulties. Is there going to be another film or extras on a Blu-ray perhaps? “There aren’t plans. We had such a limited budget, and a limited shooting schedule, it’s not like there was loads of stuff on the cutting room floor: we had to be very economic with what we shot. Luckily Matt, Sophie, and Olive [Olive Gray, who played Amber] were such incredible actors they really made that happen. They made it possible to do things in very few takes: without that, we would have struggled to make the film. But what that means is that it’s not a particularly long film, but also we don’t have much extra. We were just so amazed we managed to make it, and that it’s out in the world that we didn’t even think about what happens next. And that’s a question we’ve been asked a few times: is there a sequel? Will we find out what happens next? And that’s something that’s definitely worth thinking about. But it would have to come from Matt because it’s his brainchild really.”

Not only is Rose “out in the world”, but it started out at London Film Festival, a great way to start. “Thank you, we were so thrilled with that.” Rose definitely deserves to go far, so I asked whether a distribution deal is lined up: “I believe that it’s in the final throws of being signed on the dotted line, but I’ve not been a part of it, I can’t give you any details, except it’s due to be announced soon.”

Watch this space. “And watch the film!” said Jennifer.

The UK has now had the chance to watch it again, at Grimmfest’s Xmas Horror Nights, which Jennifer was quite excited to hear more about. We discussed the diverse programme and the likely audience, and Jennifer was curious to see what they make of the film. “Although there are horror elements in Rose, it is very much based in a relationship drama, and it was a sort of delicate dance making the film because I love those horror elements and the effects, leeches, and all that. But at the same time, we didn’t want to risk undermining the truth of their story, so it was a fine balance. I wonder if some viewers might find it lacking in ‘horror’ until those jump moments.” I reassured her about Grimmfest’s programming being fairly broad, covering genres that overlap with horror too.

I had half expected two of the producers, Sara Huxley and April Kelley, to have joined in the interview. They had strong acting backgrounds and so I asked whether they had wanted roles for themselves in the film. “Just achieving this film on the budget we had kept them quite busy. So they didn’t have any opportunity. Plus it’s such a tiny cast: there weren’t a huge number of roles to cast. I would have loved to have them in: they’re both incredible actors as well as incredible producers and fun to be around. We’ll keep working together and maybe pursue that avenue as well.”

I asked what’s next for Jennifer. “Most of next year is being taken up by a BBC drama that I’m directing. But I’m looking at and developing some feature scripts that I’d love to have April and Sara involved with again, but that might be 2022. Hopefully, there’ll be no more COVID in the world then.”

This led to asking what life has been like this year, of course. “Well, a lot of my directing work got unfortunately canceled and pushed. I was supposed to be directing two episodes of Inside No. 9, which I was so excited about, but they got shifted. It’s quite ironic because when we shot Rose, we were essentially isolated in a forest, away from civilization, no phone signal, no internet even. You had to drive ten minutes down the road to get internet. So it would be the perfect film to shoot in a lockdown scenario! So I encourage everyone to make films like this and then we can get the industry moving.”

Back to the film. It’s such a patient, slow-burn drama that even the slight description I’d read in the publicity didn’t become apparent on the screen until about halfway through the film. So I asked Jennifer how can we best describe Rose in a way that’s both true and will draw people to go and watch it. “You’ve put me on the spot there, Alix,” she said. “A couple isolating in the woods are sort of thrown into disarray when a young stranger stumbles into one of the rabbit traps by their house. Does that work? It’s hard, isn’t it?”

It is hard to describe. I’ll have a go soon when I review it.

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