Sean Ellis Interview: Eight For Silver

Eight For Silver was one of the year’s virtual Sundance entries, and it repurposes the werewolf mythos into a story of atrocities committed for greed and sins that must be repaid. Filmmaker Sean Ellis (Anthropoid) wrote and directed the story of the Laurent family, whose secrets come back to haunt them when a village boy is killed by a mysterious beast and their son goes missing.

Newcomer John McBride (Boyd Holbrook from the upcoming Sandman series) tries to investigate on behalf of the family, but his feelings for matriarch Isabelle (Yellowstone‘s Kelly Reilly) contrast with his growing distrust of the father of the house, Seamus (Alistair Petrie of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), as he soon uncovers the ugly truth.

Ellis spoke to Screen Rant about his inspiration for the themes behind Eight For Silver, his collaboration with the actors, and the difficulty of practical werewolves on set.

Sean Ellis: I think it was always going to be a period piece. I like the idea that there’s no modern technology to solve things, and when you set things in the past, it feels much more isolated.

For the Romani, it’s just trying to be mindful of them as a people, and not trying to fall into some cliche that they’re bad. To say they had a legitimate claim to that land, and obviously, they paid the ultimate price for it. I just wanted to be very careful with them, and present them in a complex light. Even with Seamus, I think the characters are quite complex – even though they’re doing bad things, you understand why they’re doing it. You understand the Romani claim, and you understand his family’s claim.

I think things just sometimes escalate, and it’s how wars generally start. Over land or religion, or religion dressed up as land or land dressed up as religion.

John McBride has very complicated feelings about the Laurent family because of his own past and family. Can you talk about how his view of them evolves over the course of the film, especially in terms of Seamus and Isabel?

Sean Ellis: I think in the original script, McBride was going to leave with Isabelle. We even filmed an ending like that, and it just felt wrong and unsatisfying in some ways. But I liked the way that the audience does believe that they are going to be together, and in some other life, they probably would have been.

There’s obviously a connection here between them, and it’s never realized that. I love that, because obviously, he’s lost a wife and kid somewhere deep in his past, and he’s dealing with that. Then we have the ending that we have, and it felt right. When we first looked at the original ending, people working on the film were unsure, and I wasn’t sure of it. I thought it was important to change it and figure out a slightly different ending that felt satisfying, but at the same time it’s not one you’d expect.

I definitely felt the ending was full circle for the story, so I agree.

Sean Ellis: I think it really delivers emotionally, showing a mother’s morning of her son. It feels a lot more poetic, and it feels a lot more satisfying. And it gave us the bookend, which starts and ends with Edward. We would have never had that before.

Speaking of Isabelle and a mother’s love, Kelly had some interesting things to say about feeling like less was more for her, in terms of dialogue. Can you talk about how she fights for the soul of her family yet is so repressed at the same time?

Sean Ellis: Yeah, I think the change for her is that she becomes a tigress. She’s sort of stuck in this loveless marriage when we find her, and she’s literally a prisoner to her corset. That was what was happening during those times. But what I love about it is that all that repressed anger in her really come out towards the end of the film, especially when she confronts the beast. It feels very satisfying for me, that she has come from being the woman of the manor, and she’s now become this absolute warrior. She’s somebody that’s ready to confront the thing that’s taken her son.

I think it’s a really nice journey, and Kelly brought so much by doing so little. She’s so watchable. When you’ve got actors that are able to do that, it just proves that in some respects, dialogue is just a very primitive form of communication. Because it’s so complex what she can do with nothing, and you still have a complete understanding of who she is and what her life is, and obviously how it affects her.

She’d discuss with me, how she can do that with a look. “I can do this with a look; I don’t need that word.” I remember one point, I think we were discussing McBride’s gun on the balcony. It was written in the script that she’s going to get the gun, and I said, “Do we actually need to film that?” She looked at me and she goes, “Absolutely not.” Why don’t you cut to outside? And I just come out, and I’m holding the gun.

It’s that shorthand of being able to tell things really efficiently, and filmmaking is a lot of that. It’s life with the boring bits cut out. A lot of it is just figuring out what are the boring bits and if you can remove them.

I assume that being both the writer and the director helps with that. How does that affect the way that you view the film; are you putting on a director hat in one moment and a writer hat the next, or does it all come together?

Sean Ellis: No, it’s just one thing, really. You’re just a filmmaker with a story. One of my jobs was to choose the best people available, whether they’re actors or grips or gaffers. You put that group of people together, and you become like a band; you become like musicians. You want each person playing on their top form and giving you everything they’ve got. That way you know that the jam session will hopefully be good.

It’s just creating an environment for those people to do their best work, really. I think that’s why it’s always important that the actors have the right costumes and the right environment and the right props, and that they can discuss their feelings about the situation freely, so they can feel free to explore. Same with the crew: for all the heads of departments, I always encourage ideas from them, and I really listen to everything that’s coming on board. Hopefully, after a certain amount of time together, you become quite a well-oiled machine and start to read each other’s thoughts about art and money. It really is a very creative environment.

Even though something’s written on the page, it’s not necessarily what you’re going to be shooting that day. The script is going to change, because and actor might have a different idea about the language. It’s constantly in flux right to the end; you’re adding ADR lines that can actually change the direction of the scene. It’s constantly changing meaning and directions.

The way the creatures look was very different and fascinating. How did that translate practically on set, between costuming and makeup and CG?

Sean Ellis: We had a practical beast on set, and it was quite obvious from the beginning that it was a very time-consuming process to shoot. You could only shoot it in certain ways, and it look effective. I really started to see how much this was limiting our beast. I think at that point, CGV came in, and they’d done a full body scan of the beast that we had on set. They had a beast that was a CGI version of it, and they could overlay it to make it move in ways that we couldn’t on set.

But also at that point, I started to tinker with the design of the beast. I had another concept artist come on board and do another version of the beast, so the beast slightly changed. That got put back on top of what we’d shot. I think when we did the second block of filming, it didn’t have the animatronic beast on set. We literally just did the shoots knowing that the CG beast was going to be put in, because it was so impressive what they could do with it. That was basically how it came about.

Are there any supernatural beings or mythos that you would like to dive into next?

Sean Ellis: I haven’t thought about it, but I’d like to think that whatever I tackle, I try and bring something that I feel that would be new and fresh to it. I’m a big fan of zombie movies, but I think they’ve been done to a point where I’m not sure if they can be reinvented anymore.

But it’s definitely been fun playing with the werewolf one, because I think it’s been the ripe for reinvention for a long time. I think we haven’t really seen a full version of it that has been reinvented in this way. I’m very proud of that; that’s what we set out to do.

So many themes resonates in this film, between the greed gone wrong and paying for past sins. Was there any one theme that resonated most with you, or any inspiration that made you tackle said themes?

Sean Ellis: You’ve seen a lot of the younger generation today being very angry at the older generation for the state of the world that they’ve left. People like Greta Thunberg are really trying to make people understand that they’re very unhappy with the situation, and quite rightly.

I think there was this idea that the elders, out of their greed, have left a cursed land for the younger generation. It did sort of speak to me in those terms, that we will pay for the sins of our elders. That felt very poignant, and it felt very much like what’s going on now, with the sick of sort of greed that’s left this planet the way it is.

The film certainly left me thinking about that for a long time after.

Sean Ellis: I mean, it’s ultimately a horror film, but I wanted it to be more than just a horror film. I think it had to work without the werewolves; there has to be something that says something about society as well. Good horror films reflect society and hold that mirror up to it.

I felt quite natural, the way that it came, because they were my feelings about the world. As I was writing it, I was like, “This is the sort of stuff that makes me angry.” But at the same time, those messages get slipped in and become part of the narrative or part of the subplot for the characters, which show different points of views. Obviously, Seamus has a very different point of view about the Romani clan than Isabelle. It can be a very gray area. Basically, I think that’s what makes it complex.

Eight For Silver had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on January 30.

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