“It looks like a film, but it hinges on the excitement of live performance. I’d love to give this format a name, so any ideas are welcome!” Michael Beets
A study of isolation combined with modern living, In The Shadow It Waits sees a group of twenty-something colleagues, struggling with lockdown, become entangled in a terrifying online urban legend about a character called Billy.
In The Shadow It Waits is written, directed and edited by Michael Beets, whose short film The Unknown Patient was nominated in the Best VR Story category at the 2018 Venice Film Festival.
The film is performed by its Australian cast at all hours to fit in with the time zone of that audience’s country.
I interviewed Michael via email about his movie (or play?): how it came about, problems performing live, and what he likes about writing horror. ((You can also read my interview with Robert Pham who stars in the film; or read my review here.)
Sarah: In The Shadow It Waits has been performed live a few times now. Do you see it as a play or a film?
Michael: I’ve really thought a lot about this, and I’m still not completely sure! One constant feedback is that people forget that it’s live while they’re watching it. This is something that doesn’t happen in theatre, you might get lost in the story but there’s never the question of whether or not the actors are physically there performing live. So it becomes a question of audience interpretation.
It’s an interesting debate – films aren’t performed live, and theatre shouldn’t look like a film but our project does both. That’s why I love this project, because it looks like a film, but it hinges on the excitement of live performance. I’d love to give this format a name, so any ideas are welcome!
61 scenes, 58 camera set-ups, and everything live. The first question is how did you do it; the second one is why?
I was in a large group zoom call, in Speaker Mode, where the program cuts to full screen whenever somebody talks. It dawned on me that I was watching a type of film that was being performed live and if done right could be a new type of online entertainment. From there I thought, how do I take this and actually use film language to make it engaging.
Luckily I found a broadcasting software that I learned during rehearsals that enabled me to get all the actors’ video feeds and then for me to program the whole performance live.
We spent a lot of time on rehearsals and discovering how this might work narratively. I’ve actually experimented with similar concepts in the past, but this time around, it’s hit more of a chord because of how we are currently using technology.
As the director, has it got less nerve-wracking each time it’s performed?
Not at all. I’m a nervous wreck. Not for the actors and their performance but because of the technology itself. They say don’t work with kids and dogs in the film industry. I’d like to add Australian internet connections to that.
It felt entirely seamless when I watched it, and I forgot it was being performed live. Has anything gone wrong? Has anyone – drumroll please – corpsed?
We’ve had little hiccups here and there with feeds momentarily cutting out but nothing that has affected the show. We’ve had nine performances to date, and when we first started I’d get very anxious when anything small would go wrong, but because we’re so well-rehearsed and have safeguards in place, we always pull through and I almost welcome them now.
Interestingly enough, our audiences seem to appreciate the moments that do go wrong, because it reminds them of the reality that these performers are live.
I saw it as being about the isolation of an extended lockdown but also partly about the effects of packages like Zoom. They’re a lifeline but are also really intrusive. You can see your friends but employees are also forced to invite colleagues into their last private, personal space. What audience reactions have you had and have you seen a difference across age groups? Do young people even have that demarcation between work and home any more?
I’m fascinated by this discussion, especially with how relationships form in virtual spaces. For example, the actors and myself have never met, we only know each other through the process of making this live film. We have this strange but beautiful relationship that we’ve built and it’s entirely due to the situation and technology.
The drawback for me is that there are so many physical cues that are missed in a “virtual relationship” that sometimes it becomes hard to really understand the context of a situation.
A screen can very easily be something that you can hide behind, or disappear from.
As the writer, what do you think it’s about? The effects of isolation, or the supernatural?
The theme of the project, which is something I told the actors from the start is that “this is a project about how people lose themselves to loneliness”. I think this is something we can all connect to at the moment. In isolation we are our own worst enemies and the manifestation of the horror in this film reflects that.
With that said, I also wanted to make sure that it wasn’t too depressing given all our situations, which is why I chose for the horror to come from this silly little game they play, rather than isolation itself.
Is it meant to be set during COVID-19, or something like it, or is something else going on “outside”?
Yes, it’s happening during COVID-19 but with the idea that it’s a year from now, and we’re all living in isolation.
Are you susceptible to internet conspiracy theories and spooky stories? (I don’t believe any of it yet am frequently glancing over my shoulder as I type this at 1am.)
Not really to be honest but I am fascinated by them. I feel sorry for the actors though – we’ve created a horror film in their own homes!
What’s the most fun aspect of writing horror?
The fun part is trying to come up with ways to surprise audiences and to catch them off-guard. I don’t want to sound like I get a thrill out… yeh maybe I do.
The 45-minute running time worked really well, hovering between a short film and a feature. Why did you go for that – was it for technical reasons or storytelling ones?
We could probably push it to an hour and a bit, but it was important for me that this was punchy, and a bit manic. For other narratives I believe we could push the time length to more standard feature length runtimes.
I’m sure you’ll get a lot of comparisons to The Blair Witch Project; Pat’s reactions – he was almost taunted by the creature wasn’t he – really harked back to the weeping footage of Heather Donahue, and after both films that’s the image that has stayed with me. What were your influences?
There’s a lot of influence from J horror and desktop horror films. I would say I’m mostly influenced by the works of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, with films like Journey to the Shore, and Kairo. There’s also definitely moments that we were inspired by Heather Donahue and the way they used the camera.
Will you do more live films or are you looking forward to having the luxury of multiple takes again?
Yes, it’s something I’m very passionate about. I’m currently working on a project that will tell a story with actors from around the world, like a live version of something similar to Babel. I love the form of it, and will be making more to come!
Check out my 4-star review, watch the teaser trailer and find details of the next UK performances here.