Gingernuts of Horror | Mark Stay Interview
IS MARK STAY UNWLECOME? OR IS HE A REDCAP
Today on the blog, I am doin' a team up!
Yep! you heard me right - a team up!
Shall I tell you who with?
Well, it is only that premier horror site
And the reason for that team up is to talk about Unwelcome (and other things!) with Woodville escapee Mark Stay.
Lucky for us, Mark Stay was able to take time out of his busy schedule of promoting his and Jon Wright's new film and getting the new Witches of Woodville book, The Holly King ready for release in September
Right, on with the show!
One of the things I wanted to ask about the film is the title, Unwelcome. The title works on multiple levels for me, not just to describe the Unwelcome attention of the Redcaps for Maya & Jamie. How did you come up with the title?
We didn’t! We started with Redcaps, but there was a TV show with a similar title a while ago about the military police and we thought there might be some confusion. Then we had The Little People for the longest time, but we discovered that didn’t travel beyond UK/Eire in that no one knew what it meant in a folk horror context. I wanted to call it Mother Redcap, but people felt that was a bit of a spoiler. So Warner Bros. sent us a list of alternates and Unwelcome was the one that stood out, and they have a good track record with horror movies with one or two word titles, so who were we to argue?
The Celtic nations seem to have a far different relationship with the Fae Folk than many other countries, in that we are more fearful of them, or at least less trusting of them; why do you think that is?
I’ve been reading a book called Meeting the other Crowd which is full of testimonies from Irish people who claim to have encountered Fae Folk and it’s fascinating stuff. With any interaction with the Fae there’s always a price to pay and I think that’s where the fear and unease comes from. In my experience, Celtic folk have a very generous spirit and are quick to offer hospitality and a laugh (the craic!), so maybe the Fae are the dark side to that kindness?
When did fairies and the such become cuddly lovely people, and why did they all become a bunch of Tinkerbells?
Disney. Always blame Disney.
The Redcaps in the film are different from the Redcaps I know from my Scottish roots. Ours like to kill you by throwing stones at you and bathing in our blood, is this version based on a real Irish version of them, or did you come up with your version?
Ours are a mashup of different cultures. I think they’re closest to the ones you find in Northern England if I recall. But it was important to me that we make these Redcaps our own because once you start researching this stuff you soon discover that no one can actually agree on a single mythology, and every culture has their own version of them with minor variations on how they kill and behave. Believe it or not, I think some of these monsters might not actually exist...
So, for the parts of Maya and Jamie, did you have anyone in particular in mind when you were writing the film, and then how did you get the lead actors involved?
We didn’t write those roles with anyone in particular in mind. Jamie is based very much on Jon and I being complete wusses when it comes to confrontations and violence, and Maya is an amalgam of all the no-nonsense women in our lives. Our casting director, Kelly Valentine Henry, did a brilliant job of bringing the ensemble together and I love the chemistry between Douglas and Hannah. They feel like a real couple to me.
The cast is fantastic (including yourself, of course). Did you manage to catch any of them on set? And did you have any embarrassing fanboy moments?
Ah, yes, I play the key role of “Man in Pub”, completely essential to the plot I assure you. You’ve blown my scam wide open. I only write these films to boost my flagging acting career!
I wasn’t on set much, but as a Star Trek fan it was great to chat with Colm Meaney, and I somehow managed to remain professional and not ask about warp drives. My first encounter with Niamh Cusack was a lovely one because when I was starting out as an actor my aunt wrote to Niamh asking her for advice. Niamh replied with a wonderful letter of encouragement. It was great to finally thank her in person for it.
Why Ireland? Was there a specific reason that you chose Ireland as a setting?
Jon Wright, the film’s director, might not sound Irish, but he was born and bred there. And my mum’s side of the family are from Limerick and Cork, and we’ve grown up hearing stories from Celtic mythology and, with the exception of the Cartoon Saloon animations (which I adore), they haven’t really been done on film. We didn’t want this to be just another US/Brit folk horror.
How has the film been received in Ireland?
No idea. I’m too scared to look! We gave the script to Irish writer friends and asked them to highlight anything egregious that would get us barred from Eire. My biggest mistake in the script was putting a fruit machine in the pub. The writer Caimh McDonnell was quick to point out that Irish pubs don’t have fruit machines! I’m also proud that we set a scene in an Irish pub and no one started singing or playing a fiddle or a bodhrán.
Did you always have the idea that the Redcaps would be more of a physical presence rather than being computer generated?
Ever since seeing Spike Jones’s Where the Wild Things Are, Jon and I have wanted to have creatures in a film that have the physical presence of an actor combined with the kind of expressive faces you get with CG, and this was the perfect opportunity to use every tool in the box to bring them to life. I don’t want to say too much about how they were created, but I think they’re incredibly effective... and they’re not puppets!
When I was watching the film, I got different kinds of feels from horror films of the seventies and eighties, but there also seemed to be a whole range of other eras. Were any of these things in your mind when writing the film, like any specific movies?
Jon and I grew up in that era, so we’re steeped in those films and there are tons of little references and moments, but the one specific reference that Jon brought to me was the final story in Lewis Teague’s Cat’s Eye where a little goblin torments Drew Barrymore and her cat. We loved that combination of mischief and danger.
You play with the audience's expectations constantly. Was that something Jon and you decided on early in writing, or was it organic in its development?
Playing with expectations is my job as writer. I’ll often present the reader/viewer with a situation they think they know and then try and surprise and delight them. I think a writer should live in fear of boring their audience.
The film's original release date was February last year, but, unfortunately, it kept getting pushed back. What happened?
Omicron happened. Cinema is still coming to terms with a post-Covid world and the old marketing strategies aren’t always working. People are going to see the tentpole blockbusters in big numbers, but anything that’s not a big franchise is a very risky proposition for the distributors.
And the chains have figured out that they can make more money showing classic movies. My kids went to see the first two Shrek movies recently and they were packed out. I’ve recently seen The Godfather and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at my local cinema and it was full of people like me who never got to see them on the big screen the first time around. The cinemas get a much better share of the ticket revenue from these golden oldies than they will showing a new film. In a time when attendances are down, why not go with a sure bet?
Releasing new films is expensive, and marketing them often costs more than the production budget. I’m still amazed we got a theatrical release, especially as it’s not been backed by any significant marketing spend. There are no TV ads or posters, so I’m gobsmacked that anyone’s seen it!
So, as I understand, the film came about with Jon Wright and yourself having a conversation about pacifism and what it would take to push you to violence. The protection of family came up, but was it a conscious decision to have Maya pregnant rather than have them already have a family?
Jon and I hate violence and fighting. We love it in films, but in real life it gives me the shakes and whenever I’ve succumbed to violence (not since I was a kid in a playground scrap, I hasten to add!) I never liked how it changed me and what it brought out in me. We wanted to take a really progressive couple and confront them with gleeful malevolence that can’t be reasoned with to see what it would take for them to snap. And when peaceful people snap, they really go nuts. A big influence on this story wasn’t a horror film, but Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May. Roger Sloman brilliantly plays a man who keeps his voice and temper even when his peaceful camping holiday is ruined by others, until he can’t hold it in any longer and he ends up screaming and waving a stick around like a prehistoric savage. It’s really affecting and disturbing.
And pregnancy’s combination of vulnerability and strength was fascinating to me. As Maya says in the film, “Don’t fuck with Mama Bear.”
Did Unwelcome always have a more serious tone to the narrative? Is there a version where the humour comes more to the fore?
It’s interesting you say that, because I think it’s a funny film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. Laughing and screaming are close cousins. The conversation near the end where two people argue whether the Redcap is a monkey escaped from a zoo is a case in point. When we’re scared we’ll make a joke. But there does come a time towards the end of a script’s development where you wheedle out the self-indulgent stuff, and humour is often the first victim of that cull. Gags might not seem funny after a few drafts and they’re often extraneous and easy to cut. Sometimes that might be a mistake. But I think we have a good balance in this one.
I loved how the script dealt with the concept of masculinity; it is unusual to have the male protagonist be such an ineffectual and, at times, toxic element in the film. Was this a conscious decision to make?
Absolutely. Jon and I both come from working class families where you’re expected to be handy in a fight. We had lots of frank conversations about fears and our childhoods, and we discovered that both our fathers bought us boxing gloves as gifts. Jon refused to wear his and told his father he was a pacifist. I sparred with friends just once with mine and was knocked unconscious. As much as we might fantasise about being James Bond or Indiana Jones, the truth is we’re closer to Mr Bean. It’s about time that Wimpy Masculinity was explored in cinema!
As I have said, I loved how the film pushed the expectations, particularly the utterly horrifying beginning. You don't ease the audience in, do you 😂? Did you want to make the boundaries from the beginning consciously?
We knew it would take time to reveal the Redcaps in the story, so it was important to reassure the horror fans that there would be blood and terror, and there’s nothing more terrifying than a home invasion when you’re on the loo. And we knew this wasn’t going to be your typical Quiet-Bang! jump scare horror. We wanted to get under people’s skin and we started by exploring the things that made us uneasy, starting with the kind of people who relish violence and can’t be reasoned with. If you’re a pacifist, how do you cope with someone kicking your door down?
The Witches of Woodville has been an enormous success; its magnificent mixture of whimsy and darkness speaks to many of us. Do you know what the age demographics are for the readership, are many adults of our age captivated by the same feel the books evoke while watching and reading such classics as the Stone Tapes, Come Back Lucy, and Worzel Gummidge?
Thank you! I did a reader survey just before Christmas and I’ve got readers aged from 10 to 70+, so in terms of a demographic... who knows? Gorgeous people with exquisite taste and a sense of humour.
I often pitch the series as “The last ten minutes of Bedknobs and Broomsticks meets Dad’s Army.” It’s light and frothy, but there are Nazis and demonic forces and death. This might feel like an odd combination, but I grew up watching Bagpuss, Salem’s Lot, The Omen and horrifying public information films where kids were regularly bumped off. I was reading the Usborne World of the Unknown, Stephen King, and When the Wind Blows. On the radio we had 99 Red Balloons and Two Tribes. It’s a miracle I’m sane.
What was the initial audience for The Witches of Woodville when you first started to write the series?
Me. My first draft is always for me as I scratch various writing itches. For subsequent drafts I focus on trying to delight the reader. I’ve had great fun hearing from Woodville readers and the things they love about the series, and the knack now is to deliver what they want while still surprising them. It’s a challenge every time, but stops it from being boring.
Could you ever see a crossover between Woodville and Unwelcome?
Ha! Redcaps versus the Witches of Woodville? The Redcaps wouldn’t stand a chance.
It must be a great feeling to see the film out in the world finally, but are you taking a break, or can you tell us what you are working on now?
It’s an amazing feeling and a relief to have the film finally out there. I can’t afford to take a break, though. I’m skint! I’ve just delivered the fourth Witches of Woodville book to my publisher. It’s called The Holly King and it’s a Christmas story about secrets and trauma, and I really put poor Faye and the witches through the wringer. Nothing will be the same after this one.
Jon and I have been working on various film and TV projects, and I’ve got a musical romcom (yes, really!) feature film in development with another writer. There’s a Disney+ TV show coming that will have a “Based on an idea by” credit from me. Sadly, I didn’t get to write on it. Maybe they didn’t like my non-Disney take on fairies and goblins? And I think I’ve just written the first draft of a middle grade fantasy novella that I’m not sure what to do with... I’ll figure it out eventually, I suppose. But I write every day now. I love it. And it’s a privilege and I’d be daft to waste it.