Ever since it debuted at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Ben Young’s psychological thriller Hounds of Love has been making waves on the film festival circuit with its stark and grim look at a serial killing couple and one of their victims.
Based on real stories about serial killers, the movie stars Emma Booth and Stephen Curry as Evelyn and John White, a couple who have been kidnapping, torturing, and killing teen girls in suburban Perth during the mid-1980s. Things don’t quite go as planned when they pick up 17-year-old Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings), who finds a way to turn the married couple against each other in an attempt to escape a similar fate.
The Australian filmmaker can probably owe his interest in the subject to his mother. “My mum is a crime writer, she writes crime fiction, and I saw all these true crime books she had been reading as research of her own. I found a book on female serial killers and that perked my interest, so I read it and became fascinated with the whole reason women kill, because in general, it’s very different from why men kill. I did some more research on it, and I found the unfortunate phenomenon of couples who kill, so I did some research on that. I thought that was not something I had seen explored on film very often, so it sounds like a very interesting subject to tackle.”
This of course causes the mind to wonder how much of the film is inspired by any one real case. When posed that question, Young says, “I just took the scenario of couples who abduct women and do horrible things to them, and everything else is fiction. It was just in researching female serial killers, it became obvious that a lot of serial killers didn’t act alone. They worked with a deranged man who manipulated them and twisted them into getting them involved in helping him fulfill his own horrible fantasies.”
Young didn’t feel daunted about tackling such difficult subject matter, since he had fictionalized the story from the true killers. “There have been so many films that tell the truth verbatim, so I wasn’t doing anything that other people haven’t done countless times through history, so it didn’t really daunt me too much. I was more daunted by the fact that it might suck.”
According to Young, it was virtually impossible to get Hounds of Love financed at first. “I wrote another movie years earlier that came very close to getting financed and then fell over, and then I wrote another one that didn’t go anywhere. I’ve written seven or eight film scripts, and this is the only one that got made, so yeah, it was a long, hard slog. I got it financed on a first draft. They had a film fund in Western Australia called West Coast Vision, which is run by this government agency called Screen West, and every year, one first-time filmmaker gets $750,000 to make a movie, and you just apply for it. I applied for it and the producer Melissa Kelly and we were lucky enough to get sorted.”
On the casting of Evelyn, a role and performance that’s left a lasting impression, the director reflects, “Emma Booth is a very good friend, and I wrote the role for her. She is one of the best actors that I’ve ever seen at portraying conflict and thought process, so I knew she would just be able to bring a whole new layer to this character through things that weren’t on the page, just by what she was thinking.”
“Stephen Curry is one of Australia’s best-loved comedic actors, and the casting director mentioned to me that had read the script and really loved it and was looking to do a more serious role,” he continues, talking about Evy’s deranged husband. “I thought that could be really interesting, because I never thought the movie would play to an audience outside Australia. One of the issue I had with my own script was that I worried an audience would find it hard to swallow—this girl gets into a car with a couple of strangers—so I thought the context an Australian audience is going to bring towards Stephen Curry is gonna’ completely help them believe that this girl is going to get into a car with them. He did an audition and he was a lovely guy and a really strong actor, so he earned the role.”
“Ashleigh, I had in mind from the beginning when I started writing it, because she was the lead in a TV series called Puberty Blues, which is playing in Australia, and she was phenomenal,” he says about the film’s young protagonist. “I thought she’d be too old by the time we got to shooting, because she was about 23 when we were filming and the character was really 17. But sure enough, the casting director insisted that we audition her, and she came in and her audition was insanely ridiculous, so I had to cast her.”
With a cast complete, a first-time director still has to prepare his ensemble for what is likely to be an intense shoot. “It’s all just in conversation. We worked really hard to pick a crew of only nice people. I didn’t care how good people were at their job. I just cared that they were nice people, and so the vibe on set was absolutely lovely. Same deal with the actors, and we just created a safe environment. I just said to the cast that there’s a lot of really horrible stuff that I’m going to be asking you to do over the next few weeks. I just want you to know that if you’re uncomfortable doing something, just tell me and we’ll talk about it and see if we can come up with something different that still fulfills the same thing the story needs.
“I was just really flexible and changed stuff around a lot on the day, and kept it collaborative and kept them included. I think that made a difference. Even though the actors work under such dark and intense places, the vibe on set was just lovely. Between takes, everyone was really happy, and believe it or not, there were a lot of laughs, and it was just a really safe environment.”
Despite how brutal the movie is in terms of its violence, it might be even more difficult to watch if not for the fact it doesn’t exactly show some of the worst of it—relying more on implication and leaving things to the viewer’s imagination.
“I didn’t want to make a film about the acts that they commit. I wanted to make a film about the people involved in the situation and given that the acts taking place in my film are so hideous, I thought that if I show them, it’s going to completely detract from what I’m trying to afford here, which is the psychology of the people involved, so that was the reason for not showing it.”
This thought process that went into the choice of perspective for the different sections of Vicki’s story comes down to Young storyboarding the entire film in advance. “I’m super-planned and with a film like that—because we had no time to shoot it—I think nearly every frame is storyboarded. We moved from that a lot, as we developed it, but everything was planned. It was all about how to create tension, and often it was just about figuring out who I could sit with at that particular time to create the most uncomfortable vibe.”
But those limitations might become a little less tight as Young moves forward. After all, his next film is a Hollywood production.
“I didn’t necessarily want to go this route,” he says about his transition to studio movies, as he does pre-production on Extinction, a new science fiction film written by Arrival’s Eric Heisserer. “It was just crazy. Hounds of Love received very humbling reviews in Venice, and I got an agent and a manager out of it, then I just started getting offered a bunch of movies. I read this one and just couldn’t say ‘no.’ It was just a movie that I wanted to watch, so I had to do it and here I am. The producers had seen my film, and I literally with this one, they had to get a director ASAP, and they’d seen my film and they rang up my agent and said, ‘We want him to read Extinction and see what he thinks,’ and I read it and really liked it, and then jumped on the phone to the producers and then they offered it to me the next day.”
Extinction is about a father who has a recurring dream about losing his family, which comes true when the planet is invaded by a force that has them fighting for their lives. It stars Michael Peña (Ant-Man), Mike Colter (Luke Cage) and Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex), and though it’s probably going to be a fairly big movie, Young played it down, just like Denis Villeneuve with Arrival, saying it’s a “small film.”
“The thing that appealed to me most about Extinction is that again, it’s very contained,” Young told us. “It’s all about the characters and it’s all about what could happen to them rather than the bigger stuff of the outside world, and I think that’s what I think is most fulfilling, that’s what I think is what makes it so scary. It is a small film, but I hope it will feel a lot bigger, because the whole world in the film is massive.”
Humbled by the reaction Hounds of Love has gotten on the festival circuit, Young hopes to continue a similar approach as he goes on to make bigger films. “I’ve been getting lots of offers for other films and the fact that I’m in Serbia working on a U.S. film and it’s still sort of mind-blowing, because I only shot Hounds of Love in February of 2016, so it’s been a wild ride and it hasn’t stopped.”