How I Rediscovered Spontaneous Creativity Making My Quarantine Zoom Horror Movie

For writer-director Rob Savage, lockdown led to him having fun making movies again with his latest film Host, now streaming on Shudder.

I worry, so I plan. Then I worry that I’m planning too much.

That’s how I’ve made films for the past decade, rendering every frame of the movie in my head before I even step on set. Planning every last detail. It dulls the fear, but I worry about what I’m missing by narrowing my focus so acutely.

I worry that I’ve lost the spontaneity and persistent creativity I felt when I started out making films. Back then, shooting with my friends on Mini-DV with no budget and no expectations, it felt like the movie was revealing itself in real time. I felt present.

Rob Savage (right), with collaborator Alex Smith, during the making of his debut feature, Strings.

Back then, I had everything to prove and nothing to lose, so the ideas flowed freely. Then came some success and, along with it, the worry. Worry that those ideas which came so easily would dry up, that they were a fluke the first time around. That I’d be stranded on a professional set, waiting for an instinct that I didn’t possess to kick in.

So I started to work in television and commercials, all with real budgets and real crews and real actors and oh my fucking god. It was a lot. The only way to calm the worry was to plan. Leave nothing to chance.

Of course, it was fine. The instinct kicked in and I learned to be increasingly spontaneous as the years went on, though I never felt quite as present and engaged as those Mini-DV days.

There was always meticulous planning to fall back on if spontaneity failed me. There had to be. On such big productions, you have to walk into a room and know that you can achieve what’s been planned for.

The thrill, I knew deep down, is in not knowing. Reaching for something unproven and possibly insane, with no idea if it’s going to work. That’s the feeling I wanted to return to.

“I’d been hosting regular Zoom hangouts, so one night I complained to my friends of strange noises coming from my attic …”

Enter COVID-19. Days away from shooting a big TV series, I got the call so many of us received, telling me that everything was to be put on pause. After weeks of playing PS4, gorging horror films and attempting to enjoy yoga, I was bouncing off the walls with restless energy.

Then, during one of my nocturnal horror-movie marathons, I had a stupid idea: I thought it might be fun to scare the shit out of my friends, and a plan began to form. Despite being idiotic, it gave me a buzz to feel creative while under house arrest.

I’d been hosting regular Zoom hangouts, so one night I complained to my friends of strange noises coming from my attic and – well, you can see what happened next.

The video ended up going viral, with over 4 million people watching and sharing within weeks. After staring at my walls for months, it was a nice reminder that other people still existed beyond them. All just as bored as me.

In fact, the entire film industry was at home, bored and itching to work. If my stupid prank video was essentially a remotely filmed movie starring me and my gullible friends, could this be expanded into something resembling a professional film production? I didn’t know, which was a terrifying thrill.

I called my producing partner Jed Shepherd, always a bad influence, and we started throwing ideas around. He pitched the idea of a group of bored, quarantined friends staging a séance via Zoom, which sounded like a movie I would watch the hell out of. Working with the brilliant screenwriter Gemma Hurley, a basic shape emerged for the film and, determined to be the first feature to be shot remotely in lockdown, we tore ahead without a script.

From the beginning, we wrote knowing that the actors would have to achieve everything themselves without me being physically present. Relinquishing that level of control horrified me, but was also electrifying. I had no concept of what this film was going to look or feel like, and I knew that I couldn’t rely on my usual crutches.

Directing Host via WhatsApp.

We embraced old-school special effects, opting to try and achieve almost everything in-camera if possible, which put a huge pressure on the actors. I ran a training course for the cast via Zoom, teaching them some basic in-camera tricks and encouraging them to come up with more of their own. We curated Zoom screenings of horror movies so that the cast could familiarise themselves with the techniques used to create tension and so that we had a frame of reference as a team.

All of a sudden, we were shooting. Each day we signed into Zoom with a whole day ahead of us and only a couple of sentences written down in place of a script. No concrete plan, my familiar safety net in tatters. Shooting chronologically, we were plucking the movie from the air, scene by scene. We’d try something, beginning with the baggiest, most improvisational version possible and gradually tightening with each new take until the film emerged.

None of the actors knew when and where the scares were going to come from. In the spirit of the prank video, I told the cast that anything could happen at any time, and that they should stay in character and react as they authentically would. The film features some horrible moments involving complex stunts and practical effects, all of which we shot on the first few days of filming. We would then play these clips to the cast for them to react to, which provided genuinely terrified reactions that would have been impossible to achieve on a normal shoot.

Making this film was a hit of pure creativity that I desperately needed, a reminder that I could still access that feeling of spontaneity and chaotic creativity which inspired me to pursue this ridiculous career path in the first place. Sitting at home alone in my dressing gown, directing people across the country from my laptop, I felt more present than I have in years.

Rob Savage’s latest film, the Zoom horror film Host, is now streaming on Shudder. Rob wrote, directed, shot, co-produced and edited micro-budget feature film Strings at age 17, which premiered at the Rome Film Festival. and won Rob the Discovery Award at the British Independent Film Awards for the film, the youngest director ever to win a BIFA. Rob is a Sundance and Berlinale alumnus, has won a number of awards for his short films at festivals including the London Short Film Festival, Raindance and Sitges, and was the recipient of the BFI Future Film Award in 2011. Rob’s 2017 film, Dawn of the Deaf, played at over 100 film festivals worldwide, including Sundance and Sitges, where it won the Melies d’Argent for Best Short. He has directed episodes of Jez Butterworth’s Britannia and the pilot of AMC/Amazon’s Soulmates, and is developing a number of TV shows, including Rawblood, a horror series starring and produced by Natalie Dormer, and a small-screen adaptation of Dawn of the Deaf.