“My perspective is about other people that cinema doesn’t necessarily cater for,” says director Remi Weekes, whose debut His House recently arrived on Netflix. It’s an extremely accomplished first film which tackles big social issues while leaning hard into horror. In the run up to the film’s release talk of awards was being bandied about. The movie landed on Netflix on October 30 – just before Halloween, certainly, but also traditionally the start of the run up to the big awards push. 2020 is of course a trash fire, with awards season shifted till later in 2021 but we wouldn’t rule out attention falling on Weekes’ film, cast and crew.
“I think there’s a bit of confusion as to which box to put it in,” says Weekes.
His House is the story of two Sudanese refugees (Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu) who make it to Britain and are put up in a house but given an endless set of restrictions (“no ball games, no balls, no games” says Matt Smith’s council worker, reading from an impossibly long list) and told they mustn’t work and can’t live anywhere else. But they have bought something with them and it won’t leave the couple alone.
This is an asylum seeker story, but also a British story, one that looks at past trauma, culture and otherness as well as the bureaucracy of the systems in place and it feels very new and very relevant.
“I think when you are not a white, straight man and you love cinema, or not even cinema but any kind of culture, whether it’s music or art, you have to love it, but it’s always very noticeable that your life is rarely reflected on screen,” says Weekes. “It doesn’t stop you loving it, like I love Alfred Hitchcock, I love Stanley Kubrick. I think their stuff’s amazing. But you never watch that and think it bears any resemblance to the lives of anyone that I know in my life.”
Representing different stories is important to Weekes.
“For me as a filmmaker the people that will be in my films are always going to have some kind of connection to my experience, whether that’s being a person of color or being ‘othered’ in some other way. And so, the color of the film, the stories within the film, are going to be slightly different,” he says.
That ‘othering’ is incredibly important throughout His House. Mosaku’s character Rial explains to her doctor that the markings on her face and arm delineate loyalty to two different groups in Sudan who are fighting and killing each other. The first she was given as a little girl, the second she gave to herself. “I survived by belonging nowhere,” she explains.
Meanwhile her husband Bol is so desperate to fit in in his new community that he buys clothes that mirror exactly the man in the advert on the wall of the store, and goes to the local pub where he joins in singing a song about Peter Crouch (“He’s big, he’s red, his feet stick out the bed…”).
“One of the books I really enjoyed was The Good Immigrant, and that says a lot about the need for immigrants to be good or to be accepted by society or the government. And so I guess that’s an acknowledgement of the need for immigrants or people who could be demonized, to be performative, in order to be accepted,” Weekes says.
Weekes had made shorts and commercials before coming on board His House. It was a project already in development that he was invited to pitch his take on by two producers he was sharing office space with.
“They wanted to make a horror film about immigration. But the writers that were working with them at the time [Felicity Evans and Toby Venables], they weren’t quite getting it to the place they wanted it to be, and they asked me if I wanted to pitch them my idea,” Weekes explains. “I went back to them with, I guess, how the film is today, a more psychological, personal story of two people trying to survive, after surviving, and how to move forward from trauma and guilt.”
Indeed, in the film is it only through Rial and Bol making peace with their past that they can move forward.
The movie is anchored by terrific performances from its two leads, both of whom have starred in high profile shows this year. Dirisu was a stand as Elliot in Gangs Of London – an action role which required some impressive choreography and stunt work, while Mosaku was a powerhouse as Ruby, taking on another very different horror role in Lovecraft Country. Weekes says he was lucky to be able to get the two to audition together, particularly since Mosaku lives in LA.
“When we were able to get them together, it was it. We had the two stars. They’re perfect. And they kind of knew each other, because I guess the acting scene is quite small when you’re a person of color, so they knew each other. There was already a kind of intimacy there, and they just connected,” he explains.
The other main character of course, is the house.
“We shot in Tilbury in Essex, which is a small community, a pretty tough community,” Weekes explains. Once they’d found a house they liked they shot there for a few weeks before recreating that on a sound stage. “Once we were in the sound stage, it gave us the opportunity to really transform the house and turn it inside out and really go wild.”
The walls are hacked to bits by Bol who finds spirits and ghosts living inside them until eventually nothing is left (metaphorically at this point) but the kitchen wall surrounded by the ocean they risked their lives to cross which took the lives of so many others as Bol stoically tries to eat his dinner with a knife and fork rather than use his hands.
It’s an incredible image (and is in fact the poster image) which Weekes managed to achieve by transporting the kitchen wall into one of the water tanks they had set up, lighting it exactly the same as the kitchen scene before so they could do a pull out to reveal the ocean.
“Using the ocean as not just a key element of but also a way to uncover his buried traumas, was something very fun,” says Weekes, though he acknowledges it may have been less fun for his leading man. “Poor Sope, him having to fall into the water, then I say, ‘Cut. Can you do it one more time?’ And he’ll be like, ‘Okay.’ I didn’t mean to keep doing that. I think that was the day he hated me the most….”
For the ghosts that we see in the house but also beneath the waves in the ocean Weekes says authenticity was important for him.
“It was always a conversation about what they should look like. And throughout the making of the film they changed a lot, from being very artistic and graphic and really using bold references from South Sudan, to being very true to life. Like what would that people look like?” he says. “We’re always trying to find that line because you want it to feel honest, but then you also want to have fun with it. Whenever we were debating, we would always edge towards honest more than stylized.”
As a result the movie manages to be political and timely but also very scary. Weekes loves horror, all sorts of horror (“My favorite films are from Rosemary’s Baby to The Shining, but also one of my favorite films is Scream. And another favorite film is A Nightmare on Elm Street, or even the Final Destination movies – the sequence on the motorway with the tree trunks was just so good…” he laughs) and describes himself as “lowbrow highbrow”.
Perhaps His House is just a perfect example of how audiences and critics are changing in terms of attitudes to genre – no longer the dirty secret of cinema, horror movies are becoming more celebrated as a home for weighty performances, explorations of big ideas, important social commentary, a place to tell new stories, hear new voices, shine a light on unfamiliar experiences. And do that at the same time as scaring the sock off audiences – this isn’t something new to horror but it could signal a shift in its wider reception.
“A lot of the time with the genesis [of horror movies] comes from scaring teenagers,” says Weekes, delving into the idea of being ‘lowbrow highbrow’ “And so because of that kind of connection, it’s not seen as high cinema. And maybe that’s kind of what I’m getting at. I find it hard to draw a distinction between the two. When you have a really great story that tells you something about the world, it’s exciting.”
His House is available to watch on Netflix now.