Writer-director Rob Grant’s viciously funny horror comedy Harpoon, about three “friends” marooned on a drifting yacht with no food or water, explores the toxic relationships between the wealthy Richie, his girlfriend Sasha, and their friend Jonah.
With a dispassionate narrator to push the story forward, the film’s characters are both relatable and authors of their own destruction, as they sink into dehydration – only managing to rouse themselves to debate which of them should be eaten first.
I spoke to Rob the morning after Harpoon’s New York premiere, and the day before he flew into the UK for the Grimmfest film festival in Manchester – where Harpoon won Best Screenplay, and received three special mentions: for Best Kill, for Munro Chambers in the Best Actor category and for Rob in the Best Director slot.
We talked about the ideas that formed his movie, its world premiere at an arthouse film festival, narrators in films, and whether he could ever eat somebody in a life or death situation (don’t pretend you don’t want to know the answer to that one).
Rob Grant: Nice. Thank you so much.
Sarah: When you came up with premise of the film, did you want to do something in an isolated location or did you want to do something about toxic friendship? What came first?
Rob: The isolated location definitely came first. I grew up in Vancouver in Canada, on the ocean. And I was like, if no one gives us money we could shoot a really cheap movie on my buddy’s boat, me and a couple of friends!
But the problem is, I’ll come up with these premises all the time. But until I find out what I want to say, I can’t really write a word. So the premise probably sat in my phone for a year while I was thinking about friendship and betrayal, and it’s only once I get all those little nuggets out that the movie starts coming together in my head.
I’ve learned very early on that any time I’ve tried to write a story based just on the premise alone, I end up at page 30 and then I’ve nothing else to say. They kind of come hand in hand.
Sarah: In some way the friendship issues are quite universal; we’ve all have toxic friendships like that. And particularly the way they’re all stuck in their roles and then take their roles onto the boat with them. But did you feed in any experiences of your own with that.
Rob: Some people ask me, are you really cynical about humans? And I’m like, actually I’m super-empathetic and I want to know how these people got here and why, and I want to talk about how we can avoid that and figure this out. And I’m also open and honest that I’m probably all three of these characters sometimes.
Maybe not to the extreme, but I’m sure everyone [watching] feels someone’s similar to the way they’ve acted. I hope that they’re written well enough that people recognise some nugget of them in either someone else that they know, or are able to evaluate themselves as well.
Sarah: I thought that was something that came over really strongly. Was there one character that was particularly fun to write?
Rob: The characters actually spilled out pretty easy. I often imagine, if some kind of catastrophic event happened, how would I act in this circumstance? And I’m always running through the Roladex: would I be the hero? Would I be the villain? Would I just be a complete scaredy cat and go and hide somewhere?
And I felt I’d done so many of those thought games with myself I was “okay, now I get to run all three of those scenarios in my head”. I just treated it like that as I was writing it. It made it really easy because they’re the triumvirate, they’re each a bit opposite each other.
It just came out, there wasn’t a lot of planning in advance. Then of course re-writing, you find out that you have to add a little bit of this and that.
Sarah: I always like to think I’d be the hero on the news after a disaster, but I’d probably be the person climbing over everyone else to get to the lifeboats.
Rob: It’s like on the Titanic, which one are you going to be, are you the one playing the instrument while the boat sinks around you or are you going to jump on with the women and the children.
Sarah: When you filmed Harpoon, those scenes downstairs on the boat – did you get on a boat and film the whole thing, or was some of that in a studio?
Rob: No, the inside was a set in the middle of Calgary in Alberta, Canada in winter in -30˚ Celsius.
And the reason that happened is we were trying to shoot all of it in a tropical location and looking into Fiji, and then the Fijian government turned us down on moral grounds because they didn’t like the script.
We just kept not finding a location that would facilitate both the inside and outside, and then we basically got the point where we said, “okay, shit, we might have to postpone the shooting.” Postponing a movie on an Indie is like certain death, the movie may never start back up again.
So, let’s just build the inside location here in Calgary and hope that we find an exterior location and a boat that matches what we’ve built – so literally we built the inside without having an exterior boat to match to.
And Mike [Peterson, a producer on Harpoon] scrambled that first week we were shooting to find that exterior location. And I’m so glad, because being able to control the environment made such a difference in the way we were able to shoot it, and also shoot chronologically inside and then reset and shoot chronologically outside.
It worked out to be the best thing we could have done.
Sarah: About all the references to Richard Parker. Did you already know about the different Richard Parkers to weave them in? How did that come about? [Richie in Harpoon, is called Richard Parker; also referenced in the movie are Richard Parker, a character in an Edgar Allen Poe novel, who is shipwrecked with the rest of the crew and is later eaten by them; and a real-life Richard Parker who, decades after Poe’s story was published, was also shipwrecked and eaten].
Rob: That came about while the story ideas were sitting in my phone and swirling through my head before I’d written it.
I read about that coincidence and I was like, that would be hilarious if these characters were also aware of this coincidence and try to use that as part of their survival. I just thought it was funny. It’s just such a crazy coincidence, I just felt – without spoiling the movie – it had something to do with the fatalistic elements that I was going for as well. No matter what these characters do, something’s coming.
Sarah: There’s another one too, isn’t there? A Richard Parker was hanged for mutiny.
Rob: Yes, it’s crazy like you wouldn’t believe it.
Sarah: So many Richard Parkers! With films like this that I really get into, after watching them I Google madly and you end up going down these rabbit holes of shipwrecks and eating each other.
Rob: Cannibalism is a dark hole.
Sarah: Actually I wanted to ask you whether there are any circumstances when you’d consider eating somebody. I don’t know if you’d be able to do that?
Rob: My answer would be the same way as we were saying earlier – I’d like to think that I’d be this heroic person but if my life was on the line I have no idea. I’d probably have to end up eating someone!
Sarah: Someone has to survive to tell the story! One thing I really like about Harpoon is how taut it is. It doesn’t ramble, there are no dips, it keeps going to the end. You’re a director and editor and you’ve edited other people’s films. What is it like when you are editing your own? Can you be quite brutal and sacrifice something you really like in your own film to keep it on track?
Rob: I think I’m my own harshest critic. I don’t know why I have this but when I’m sitting in the editing chair it’s someone else’s movie, it’s not my movie anymore, it’s not my writing.
So when I’m there I’m very good at just being like “this stinks, this needs to be made better, cut this out”. Sometimes to the point that I now send a cut to my producer Mike and he will be like, “Why did you cut that out?” “It sucks.” He’s like, “No, it doesn’t. Put that back in.”
I’ve taken the Seinfeld level, his logic was always leave them wanting more not less.
Sarah: When Harpoon premiered did the audience laugh where you expected them to? Did they respond in the same way to the same bits?
Rob: No. Our world premiere was at Rotterdam [the International Film Festival] which is just not known as a genre festival. It’s more prestigious arthouse. So I don’t know what the audience was expecting when they sat down, but it was basically like they were just hit in the face with a train.
It’s like “what the hell is this, what have we got ourselves into”. That was the weirdest one to sit through because I’m like “why aren’t they laughing?”
But that became one of the talking points of the festival when people were like “have you heard of this crazy movie at this festival?” so it worked out in our favour and we sold out four of our five screenings after that.
That’s what kicked the movie off but that was a strange first experience. It was like: “uh-oh, did we make a bad movie?” but it was just, I think, the audience, no one had heard of it. So, no one was prepared for what they got. That was a weird one.
I try not to sit in with the audience now, because it’s too stressful. I’m more worried about “did that person get up to go to the bathroom or are they walking out?”.
Sarah: When you were making Harpoon were you unsure about whether it would work? Particularly with the narrator. Because you get your exposition from him, no one’s sitting around being boring telling each other what they already know. And he’s so just dispassionate. I thought he worked incredibly well. But in some films a narrator doesn’t work well, it’s a way of putting back in what the film should have told you anyway.
Rob: You said it perfectly. The narrator is there from the first draft because I wanted for him to be able to give the back story for these characters.
So they have the freedom to just act like old friends and not have to reference stuff that they already know. That was an important element.
We did realise in the editing process that the way he described what these characters were doing was super-important because if he was being judgmental of them, then the audiences were going to be really judgmental and cynical about these characters and we needed to avoid that. Otherwise why would anyone engage?
We went through a million drafts before we hit the right tone where he has to be benign about the behaviour.
We still didn’t satisfy some audience members who were like “oh narration is such a cheap trick”. And I was like, the best movies of all time have narration!
Sarah: I thought he worked really well, and also he’s an extra character when the other three are so tight.
Sarah: So it gives it a bit more scope.
Rob: Yeah. Our logic behind it was the way they used the narration in Magnolia – because if we saw the bad guy talking about strange coincidences at the beginning of Magnolia, I don’t think you’d be prepared for when it starts raining frogs. You had to just be able to cue up that some weird stuff was coming our way.
Sarah: So what have you got planned next? Is it going to be another indie horror, are you going to have a break? Because even though at the festivals you’re getting great reviews, it must be exhausting keeping doing this.
Rob: For sure. And I’ve always been very open and honest that indie film is in a really tough spot right now. People only have the time and energy to go see like three movies a year and most of those are going to be Marvel movies.
It’s really tough for movies, especially like ours, to get traction and get noise – and thank god we have people like you that actually want to champion these movies, because it’s kind of our only option right now.
And I think it’s interesting because I’m very cognizant about not making this just an expensive hobby – because you’re actually wasting other people’s time and money if it doesn’t go well. So I have been very open on this tour that if I make another one I’ve got to try and figure out a way that it’s going to make its money back for our financiers.
We’re in a weird spot right now – what do I do next? And I don’t really have an answer. I’m writing the next one but do I want to make it? We’ll find out.
Sarah: What have you seen yourself recently that you particularly liked? Do you get to go to the cinema much or are you too busy?
Rob: What I do to try and turn my brain off, is play video games. So I have been doing a ton of that, just to try and get away from movies for a little bit. I mean, I’ve got the classic, I watch The Office to veg out!
I haven’t actively sought anything new recently. Actually, I’ve been going back to old stuff. I got the Criterion Channel, I re-watched Tarkovsky’s Stalker and I was watching the Escape From New York. What I need is to get back to watching movies and them not feeling like work.
Sarah: Is Grimmfest your last festival for Harpoon?
Sitges will be the last one I am attending, and then I’m going to try and go back to real life while this movie gets rolled out and try to ignore all of the Internet so that I don’t get upset if someone writes bad words about it.
Sarah: I haven’t seen any bad words about it so far. People seem to really like it. It’s a breath of fresh air, watching people deciding whether to eat each other.
Rob: Well it came out of desperation. It really did. I was just like, shit if I don’t get a chance to do another one, I just got to write all the stuff that I’ve been scared to try, or might not work, because if I don’t get another one that’ll eat me up. It’s like, why didn’t I do that.
Harpoon is available in the UK on the Arrow Video Channel, Amazon Prime and Apple TV. Read my 4-star review of Harpoon and watch the trailer.
Watch the trailer: