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There may be few situations more pleasant than being alone
on an island with Thandie Newton—or, for many people, being alone on an island
with Cillian Murphy. But in the psychological thriller RETREAT (opening in
limited theatrical release today), the actors star as a troubled married couple
whose remote home is visited by a mysterious stranger (Jamie Bell) who makes
things very much unpleasant. The film marks the directorial debut of British
filmmaker Carl Tibbetts, who spoke to Fango about its creation.
Martin (Murphy) and Kate (Newton) are trying to recover and
preserve their marriage after their first baby winds up stillborn, secluding
themselves in a cottage on the otherwise unpopulated island off the Scottish
coast. Their self-therapy is interrupted by the appearance of the wounded Jack
(Bell), who claims to be fleeing an airborne virus that has decimated the
mainland. He insists that they must seal themselves up in the house for their
own safety—but once they have, Jack starts playing dangerous mind games with
the duo. Tibbetts gave us the lowdown on RETREAT following its world premiere
earlier this year at Montreal’s Fantasia film festival.
FANGORIA: Prior to RETREAT, did you have any experience in
CARL TIBBETTS: No; I was a practicing fine artist for a few
years, and that sort of led me to more narrative cinema.
I went from installation work into film, taught myself to edit and became an
editor in London for a few years. I was working on commercials and TV programs
and all kinds of things, not really wanting to stay an editor—enjoying it, but
wanting to be a writer/director. The thing about editing is that it’s like
anything—if you want to be a really big editor, that’s all you do, but you
can’t do that and also write and direct feature films. So I was working on my
own screenplays, and RETREAT was the one that broke out and allowed me to make
my directorial debut.
FANG: RETREAT isn’t strictly a horror film, but it does tap
into some horrific material. How did you balance the story’s horrific and
dramatic elements when you wrote the script and then shot the movie?
TIBBETTS: There’s a natural kind of descent, for want of a
better word, that comes out of the situation. Everything derives from what the
characters have to face and have to do. I think the reason those [more
horrific] things don’t seem out of place or feel gratuitous is because of the
relationship between the characters. Because you care about Thandie and
Cillian, and the horror elements in it come from the characters as opposed to
FANG: You got a really solid cast for your first feature;
how did you land these actors?
TIBBETTS: I think everyone just responded to the screenplay,
and they were willing to give it a go. I had a few meetings with each of them individually,
and then we talked about the characters and they were happy enough to go
FANG: You did some interesting casting against type; one
might ordinarily expect to see Bell as the husband and Murphy as the
potentially crazy person. Was that intentional?
TIBBETTS: Absolutely; it was totally conscious, yeah. We
wanted Jack to be someone with an element of vulnerability that would be real,
where it wouldn’t be obvious when he turns up and you go, “Oh, he’s the bad
guy.” He is the bad guy, but we didn’t want a typical psychopathic type. And
Cillian wanted to play an Everyman; he wanted to play Martin as straight as
possible, as subtly as possible, as normally as possible, and I believe he did
that. I mean, he does end up covered in blood [laughs]; he can’t escape that no
matter what film he does. No matter whether he’s playing the most normal
person, he ends up covered in blood or in a dress!
FANG: The film is basically just these three characters in
one location. Was it a challenge to give the film a visual variety that would
keep it interesting to look at?
TIBBETTS: I’d broken the scenes down a while before, for a
different location. So when we get to the new location, and I had to start
breaking it down again, I just had to make sure that in my shots, the camera
was where the story was. If you do that, it’ll always be interesting. You do
kind of try to find a way to use the camera to keep things lively, but if
you’ve got it in the right place to tell the story, then it’ll always be
FANG: You’ve mentioned that you shot the movie in sequence…
TIBBETTS: Yes, we had to. Well, we shot the interiors in
sequence. All the exterior stuff was done at a different time during the same
four weeks, but not chronologically the way we did indoors. That was because we
had to start with the cottage in one condition, and we couldn’t demolish it for
one shot and put it all back together for another, so we had to do everything
FANG: Was it a house someone was living in, or was it
TIBBETTS: No, it was someone’s house; it belongs to a guy
who’s related to the people who set up Portmeirion, this crazy folly in the
middle of Wales that they used for [TV’s] THE PRISONER. It’s this guy’s home,
and we took it over for four weeks, and he was happy enough and kind enough to
allow us to do it.
FANG: And to partially wreck it?
TIBBETTS: Well, we didn’t actually demolish anything of his.
We emptied it completely; all the stuff that was destroyed, we built ourselves
within the place. The walls are very thick and proper stone, so there was
nothing to break, other than what we put in there.
FANG: Did you do any research into the virus element of the
TIBBETTS: I did a little bit. There is actually something
called Marburg disease, which is an airborne virus that actually does attack
the respiratory system and dissolves lung tissue. That was as close as I got to
doing research about a potentially airborne virus—something that contagious
that can carry through the air, is breathed in and then liquidates the lungs.
FANG: Do you have any horror-oriented projects in the works?
TIBBETTS: Yes—again, it’s something that you wouldn’t say is horror, but
has elements of horror in it. I always look back to stuff from the ’80s, like
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON; I started enjoying films because of AMERICAN
WEREWOLF. It was later on that I discovered the Polanskis of the world, but
when I was a kid and picking up VHS boxes, it was AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON,
and Starburst magazine. I saw that classic photograph of David Naughton with
his hand like that, and it was about Rick Baker’s makeup and effects. That film
is like a comedy, a tragedy, a werewolf movie—a lonely man stuck in a city he
doesn’t know, trying to have a relationship, and it’s tragic. I like movies
that do lots of different things. It’s very difficult to pull off, but they did
it with that one, and it was an influence when I was a kid, for sure. So
everything I do will have that in it.
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