Jaclyn Bartlett discusses the haunting psychological horror feature The Unsettling in an exclusive interview with director Harry Owens.
Born in Ghana and raised in the United Kingdom, filmmaker Harry Owens has created several thought-provoking films, often including themes of mental health in his work such as trauma, grief, and isolation. His writing credits include the short films Mute (2019), The Woman in the Photo (2018), and In Madness (2017).
His latest feature film provides a fascinating exploration of trauma through the story of a couple who relocate to Los Angeles after experiencing a tragic event, only to be haunted by a spirit residing in their new home. The Unsettling stars Abena (Zephani Idoko) and Kwame (Bambadjan Bamba) as the haunted and tormented couple.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Owens for a conversation about his feature film The Unsettling, which screened at the Chattanooga Film Festival in June, and two of its stars, Libby Munro, and Benedikt Sebastian who portray, Vivian and Anthony, friends of Abena and Kwame. We discuss the film’s themes and much more.
The Unsettling is currently screening at film festivals.
Jaclyn Bartlett: You deal with similar themes in your works like grief and mental health—why do you believe those are important themes to discuss?
Owens: I guess I’m sort of naturally drawn to the dark side of humanity, but more like the mental state of human beings so to speak. Obviously, it sounds rather vague because you can get into various aspects of one's mind and then the mental challenges that they tend to encounter, but for me I suppose maternal discord I find rather interesting, but then, in a way, I kind of also have had always some kind of interest in the abstract or the paranormal and wanted to sort of find a way to tell the story, especially using horror as a genre where I can really showcase the drama in a way that's more evocative and that is also thought-provoking.
[That is something] I think some of the horror films I identify with tend to have versus other horror films. It's kind of hard for me to give you a clear sense, but it has a lot more to do with what I'm actually drawn to as a storyteller and what I tend to want to explore in my characters, and that will probably best explain why I'm drawn to those types of stories.
Jaclyn Bartlett: Are you a horror fan and how did you discover your love of horror?
Owens: Oh, yeah, I'm definitely a huge horror fan for sure, but now I'm more drawn to “elevated” horror. I've always liked, you know, your classic horror films from Hitchcock to Bergman to Carpenter to Cronenberg. I like all types of subgenres in horror, James Wan, etc, but more recently, I think I've really sort of developed a taste for a lot of the interesting elevated horror films that have been coming out and that's kind of the direction that I'm going, you know, more like thought-provoking horror films using poetry to tell stories, symbolism, etc. Things that I guess challenge your average audience.
Jaclyn Bartlett: Can you discuss The Unsettling's story, where that came from, and your creative process that went into bringing that story to life?
Owens: I decided to go in the direction of telling a love story between a couple. That's how it started. In a haunted house, but in the course of working on it, I was trying to find a way where the story wouldn't come across as too simplistic, but at the same time not overly abstract because of some of the films that I tend to sort of admire. This was quite a long journey. I will say this idea probably came about in like 2012, but I would put it aside, go back to it et cetera, et cetera, and then it evolved into different types of drafts. Eventually, I settled on this.
I was like, “Okay, well, this is it I think, I'm convinced.” I decided to look for my lead. I actually went on Backstage and started reaching out to actors and Zephani, who plays Abena, responded and sent me a video audition, and I really connected with her and then found Libby and Benedict through the same channel because I liked their reel and for some reason, we clicked really well, and the rest is history.
Jaclyn Bartlett: We already talked about themes, but there are a lot of interesting ones in this film about trauma and relationships. Can you explain your methods for portraying these?
Owens: I think, for me, the technique was more like, you know, to really showcase the mental state or the emotional state of my character (Abena), and especially what she was dealing with. I felt like perhaps creating a sense of stillness around her, using horror as a genre here, the sense of stillness and tone of the film was very important to me to actually capture that. So it was sort of giving the entire film this sense of stillness, this sense of space, and emphasizing the intimacy between her husband.
Jaclyn Bartlett: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “stillness”?
Owens: I guess the pacing is almost as if I was trying to freeze time, you know, like have the audience experience things in real time almost, and so I was not doing a lot of quick cuts, and so when you find the characters within a space, I linger on them for a lengthy period of time. I was lingering a lot on a lot of the characters actually. I was, in a way, forcing the audience to do a lot more thinking, like pulling them in and creating a space where whatever she (Abena) was experiencing reflected on the space as well.
So her mental state was a reflection of the environment, so to speak, and everything else around her and the angles as well. The emptiness is also showcased. The emptiness within the relationship to emptiness she was experiencing emotionally because of the trauma. So there was this void, obviously, within her that she was trying to fill, but it was very challenging because all the forces around her were making it impossible, and everybody else didn't quite understand. So it was a lot of that, a lot of lingering on the characters and the sense of emptiness to sort of showcase the emotional and mental states of the character.
Jaclyn Bartlett: What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?
Owens: There are a lot of elements in the film that are quite ambiguous on purpose. People may look at the film at face value and see it as a couple in a haunted house, and they are attacked by these XYZ, you know, entities, etc. Whereas others might see the trauma sort of permeating it and all the political undertones that also sort of play out in a lot of the scenarios. I did not necessarily, you know, set out to hit people over the head with a lot of these things, but I also use an approach where, again, you know, going back to the sense of stillness, and pausing a lot of scenarios so you're forced to sort of do a lot more thinking through the process of watching the film and ponder over things.
So I kind of presented it for your average audience to see it as a classic horror film, and your audience that wants to be challenged to, post watching the film, sort of like linger on some of the challenging aspects of it as well.
Jaclyn Bartlett: For the actors, can you tell me about yourselves and how you got into acting?
Munro: I'm Libby and I'm currently in Australia. I came home. I was living in Los Angeles, doing The Unsettling, but came home during COVID. I think I was always an actor. It's one of those things, you know, from four or five years old I wanted to be a singer, dancer, actor, that's how I used to say it. I loved dancing, singing, and all the rest of it, but certainly in high school, and more as a teenager, I started leaning into acting. I love literature and words and storytelling in general, but I think I just leaned much more heavily into acting and then went to drama school in Sydney.
Sebastian: I'm from South Africa originally. I've been in Los Angeles I think, for five years now. It's been a wild ride, but my mother was a writer, and she was also a playwright, so I grew up going as a kid, she would just haul us off, me and my sister. My sister also studied drama, but my mum would just haul us off to the theater you know, instead of getting a nanny, or to these late-night shows, and whatever, and so I got exposed to that when I was a little kid, and she would read us children's stories, but also the things that she was working on, the things that she wrote, and so I grew up with a love of storytelling. I have a master's in creative writing as well, and I see myself as a storyteller, using different disciplines, including acting, writing, and music.
"People may look at the film at face value and see it as a couple in a haunted house...whereas others might see the trauma sort of permeating it and all the political undertones that also sort of play out."
Jaclyn Bartlett: How did you get involved with this project and what about it appealed to you?
Munro: I actually remember the audition. Isn't that funny? You don't remember all of them. There's a lot, but I remember sort of trying to interpret the scene and I used to use a coach in Los Angeles where we go and actually work on the scenes. He's an American, a lovely guy who I found. I can't remember how I found him, but he’d shoot my auditions, but he was also kind of an acting coach. I had two scenes that day to put down for him and this was the scene in the kitchen with Abena and it's a really lovely scene, like you actually have a conversation, you know, so many of the auditions that you do are sort of “jump over here” and “run here” and you know, you're sort of blocking something in an audition scene, which means nothing. Whereas when you get to have a conversation with a person, you get to interpret that as an actor, and I think being a theater gal and loving words, they're the scenes that I really love.
Sebastian: I think I had applied for the casting notice or something, and then Harry reached out to me, and then we did a read, a little bit of a workshop because he wanted to see certain beats and stuff. I did a number of different versions of that with Harry because he was looking for something specific and I guess he wanted to see if I could actually pull it off. I booked it so I guess I did, but the great thing about the experience was that a lot of times when you shoot independent projects in general, just because time is money and you know it's a big machine, you don't really have time to rehearse and workshop scenes and stuff like that.
Harry had a very specific idea in mind, so he wanted to workshop the scenes and figure out the character dynamics between people and the characters at least, and that was a great bonus to be able to do that for a period before we actually started shooting so that by the time that you start shooting there's already some kind of relationship built, and a lot of things that Harry wanted was counter what you read on the script. There's a lot of the subtext stuff I mean, if you look at the movie then there's intentionally like a lot of awkward spaces and things designed to unnerve you a little bit, and that's when you don't see that on the page. On the page, you see the minute counts.
You’re like “It’s one page so it's probably going to be a minute”, but when you design it then it becomes this thing of like so how do you get under the audience's skin? That's a lot of what we did in the rehearsals was like, okay, cool, this is great what you're doing, but actually kind of like, explore that, and then that creates that thing where it feels like this kind of feels awkward, but on the screen, it reads like, yeah, that's what we want. So that was interesting. That was a great experience to just be able to work against what you're kind of used to in that kind of sense.
Jaclyn Bartlett: Is acting in a horror film different from acting in other films for you?
Munro: I think that's such a good question. I'm like, is it different? It's kind of like, even with comedy, you go, where's the truth? You still have to always bring it back to the truth, right? Because if you're acting for a horror film you're kind of taking the tension out, so you always come back to the truth. My character is a real person who's experiencing this in real-time. So say, with comedy, if you play for the laughs, you won't get there. You've got to play for the truth and I think horror is the same.
Sebastian: Yeah, 'cause the character doesn't know anything's wrong with them or the world. They just know the situation that they're in. When you're the protagonist and the world around you is weird, then part of the problem is that nobody believes that because to them, every other character in the world is real, it's normal, and everything's fine. You're just a crazy person that's looking at it from a different point of view, and that's why they always get locked up, or the police don't believe them. It's always as if nobody believes them, but if you're playing that character, then you're just playing like you said, the truth of the situation, which is that nobody believes you and you're helpless. So yeah, again, yeah, it's the same thing.
Jaclyn Bartlett: Do you have any advice for those pursuing acting?
Sebastian: Have that doctor's degree in your back pocket. I’m joking, that's not true at all. I really think that if you're passionate about acting, just go for it because there are so many opportunities out there in the world. It doesn't really matter where you are. Whatever you're passionate about, pursue it because life is really short and it really is just about finding that thing that gives you joy so that you can spread joy, and if that’s acting, then do that.
If it's cutting somebody open and dissecting that person's heart, then do that, but whatever it is that gives you that joy, that's really important, because acting is a very, it's hard work, especially when you get to like the Los Angeles machine, and it's long hours. It sucks a lot of the time. There’s a lot of stuff that you need to do, classes, workshops, but if you're passionate about it, then that overrules everything. Stay with it.
Munro: I think what has occurred to me today and has often in the past, listening to Harry talk about the film, and him creating tension in the stillness and things like that because I definitely remember walking into rehearsals and it was an entirely different film than I anticipated because Harry had a vision, and I do think it's important for actors to know that they are in somebody else's vision and to really listen to that and try to take that on board.
So particularly with horror, I think but certainly in any genre, the filmmaker, you wouldn't believe what is in their head. It always surprises me how they're going to create tension, what that relationship is, so I think to get the most out of that that you can. What is this project? What does it look like? Am I in the same world as everybody else? So try to find that access with the filmmaker, it is a collaborative effort, and you're part of a team to try to listen and understand what they're trying to get.
Jaclyn Bartlett: Do you have any advice for people pursuing filmmaking?
Owens: Yeah, I think I would say surround yourself with very cool people. Trustworthy, loyal. Networking is very important for sure. Finding the right team is very key here for sure because the support system has to be very strong for you to be able to at least find yourself going in the right direction with your story, right? I would assume that other filmmakers may be aware of these elements, but I just feel like sometimes it's a learning curve. You will have to have probably made some films prior to actually getting into making an actual feature film because it's a bit different, especially in the indie sort of space, and so it's really a lot of support from your cast and crew.