Exclusive Interview: Lee Haven Jones On THE FEAST’s Inherent Welshness

There will be maggots. Lots of maggots.

By Andrew Crump · @agracru · November 19, 2021, 5:12 PM EST
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THE FEAST (2021)

Six hundred thousand people in Wales, and another 300,000 or 400,000, give or take, speak Welsh, so that's about a million folks chattering with each other in a tongue seemingly built out of consonants. (The real problem, of course, is not that Welsh uses consonants as vowels but that English uses vowels as consonants.) Given that the Earth's population clocks in at 7.7 billion and change, the chances are low that you've encountered a Welsh speaker if you live pretty much anywhere else on the planet, which means you've likely never heard spoken Welsh. But there's good news! Cardiff-based television director Lee Haven Jones has done you a kindness by shooting his first feature, The Feast, entirely in Welsh. Now you know! You will also know what it looks like when maggots devour live flesh.

The Feast fits comfortably under a number of genre designations, being a revenge film, an eco-horror film, a folk horror film, and a vicious class satire all at the same time. The umbrella sheltering each niche is Jones' craftsmanship; the camera, manned by Bjørn Ståle Bratberg, functions as a character unto itself in the ensemble, a static, placid force of ominous consideration. The Feast unfolds in one location divided into two parts: The home of a venal Welsh bureaucrat and his family, and the wooded hills surrounding it. The bureaucrat is throwing a dinner party. His wife hires help for the night. The help is Cadi (Annes Elwy), introverted and unassumingly sharp.

According to the film's blueprint, Cadi is walking into the lion's den. With The Feast, Jones reverses that dynamic in service to the themes he's communicating about how damn badly we've treated our home planet, how erstwhile English dominion over Wales has ramifications even decades, centuries, after the fact; there's a lot happening and not a lot of time for it to happen. Soak in the culture but stick around for the history lesson!

FANGORIA spoke with Jones a few days after he attended this year's Abertoir Horror Festival in beautiful, sunny Aberystwyth, and spoke at length about the connection between The Feast's Welsh language component and the copious (but miraculously restrained) splatter that crops up the further the story moves.

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This is a movie about, I want to say, almost Welsh vengeance of a kind, not vengeance from Welsh people onto Welsh people, but literally the country taking some form of retribution against people who speak the language – which is a plus in their favor – but don't respect pretty much anything else about their land. That seems to be the core tension here.

Absolutely. I mean, I think you're right. It's a contemporary morality tale, and it's about the importance of being true to yourself and to our people. I think that is very definitely in the DNA of the piece. It's about respecting your heritage, and this is a theme that has actually gone through a lot of my work. It's about people becoming disconnected from who they were, and it's about the importance of connecting with your roots. So that is definitely there, amongst other things. Of course, there's also a warning against the consequences of greed and avarice, and also a lesson about the looming climate crisis that we're facing. I think it's about all of those things in a way.

Yeah. And I like seeing movies take big swings and have lots of ideas on their mind, even if they're not successful. That's a lot to keep in mind for a movie. Did you feel the movie leaning more heavily in one direction than the other, and then try to redirect it? Because it feels like those are all equally important to speak to.

Not really. I love what you've just said about taking big swings at these sorts of ideas, because that's exactly what we wanted to do. I think the balance is within the script in many ways, and I think Roger [Williams, screenwriter] presented me with a really good script; we've worked together quite a bit, so we spoke a lot about this idea before he even put pen to page. All of those ideas are in there and they're all neatly well together, so there was no problem in terms of balance, but I've been passionate about horror, and I've been passionate about Wales, and telling the stories that we have in this country. I'm also pragmatic. Roger and I had this conversation very early on; we realized that in order to get a Welsh language story out into the world, we would probably have to almost Trojan horse it in the horror genre. So that was very definitely within our sites.

There's also a sense of politics, I guess. At one stage in my career, a mentor figure told me that directors need three things. One is an understanding of the actor's process, which, I trained as an actor, so I hopefully have that in bucketloads; the second thing is an understanding of aesthetics and that's to do with, you know, composition, framing, and how we view the subject, et cetera, et cetera. The third thing, which has been absent from my television work, is the desire to say something. For me, that is really important about this piece, and that's what elevates it above some of the television work that I've done, is that it's more authored. I get to make comments about the world in which we live, and that excites me. I think there's a lot to be said about this world in which we live, and hopefully, this film contributes to that debate.

I don't think it gives any answers, but it definitely says things, and hopefully the audience will pick up on that. Even if they don't, you can view this in different ways that hopefully make a very satisfying aesthetic experience. I think it's very beautiful, and it does say its stuff, but also it has that rather magnificent final act, the payoff of blood and gore that hopefully will appeal to fans of horror who are not interested in a message in a way. Hopefully it does a bit of everything, but doesn't leave anybody feeling short-changed. I get that, that's the fear, but you can't be liked by everybody, right?

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You can't make everybody happy, but I think you can try to make most people happy! Mentioning the aesthetics, it feels like there is an intentional design behind how the different locations in the film are captured. It's very still inside the house, as if you're the guest walking through; it's such a modern chic, high-end house that you're afraid of bumping anything and knocking it over. There's a need to highlight with clarity, how much wealth is bound up in this one house. Then outside, it feels like you allowed yourself to be a bit looser because that's the world. Was that a conscious decision? Or am I pulling a Roger Ebert and finding something that's not there?

There are two things. I think you're absolutely right – the camera's very voyeuristic when we're in the interior of the house. The camera's almost like a guest, and it's very precise. The visual grammar of it does reflect the precise, stripped-back, economical aesthetic that you do get from the architecture. I love architecture. That's one of the places where I find my inspiration. I really wanted to capture that sort of precision, because that house is a metaphor for the family. So the camera within that house gives a real visceral sense of what it's like to live within that rather still, hermetically sealed box.

But then, in terms of reading things into it, that's what I love about cinema, and that's what I love about film. By contrast to television, which is very literal and where the audience, I think, are spoon-fed, what I loved about this piece which is my first foray into film, is that I felt I could engage the audience in a far more creative way and allow them the space to project their own feelings and their own thoughts onto what I was presenting. I loved that. I was inspired as a rather precocious young student by a playwright called Howard Barker, an English playwright who wrote a manifesto for a theater. I remember one of his points in the manifesto was that art is a problem of understanding, and I love that idea.

Hopefully, I've brought a little bit of that to bear on this piece. It's a bit like going to an art gallery, I think, looking at this film. Some people get really intimidated by the stillness of the experience, and then other people lose themselves in it and start to see things and project things from their own imagination and their own creativity onto what they see. I guess it feels quite democratic in a way. I'm not telling somebody a story as such. I'm allowing them to find their own way through it.

For me, this drives home how much politics are on your mind, and therefore the film's mind. You're talking about understanding. I think that makes the use of Welsh, specifically here, meaningful. I don't think a lot of Americans understand that Welsh is a language people actually speak, so this is you making a Welsh statement, not just because of the use of language, but because this is a deeply political movie. Does The Feast represent real tensions in contemporary Welsh politics, and how do you marry that to the absolute nightmare fuel that starts to seep up through the rest of the movie?

Yeah. I wanted to make a movie in the Welsh language and to show people around the world, to find a global audience, and also to give a sense of our culture and our heritage. I think it's about justice, isn't it? There's a link between the way that Wales has been exploited over the centuries by the English empire, and what we're doing to the environment now. It's about ecological justice. So, yeah, politics is very much on my mind, although I don't tend to talk too much about that to people, because I think sometimes that can put people off. But it's definitely there. And it is a fairy tale, or a contemporary morality tale. I guess what the film does say is a warning: Don't lose the link with your past, with your heritage, and be kind to this planet on which we live. Otherwise, it will, at some point, get its revenge on us. I mean, it is already, I think.

Somebody described Cadi as a rather crazed Greta Thunberg. I love that image. And good for her, you know? Somebody needs to tell us what we're doing to this very fragile place in which we live.

But there's definitely a link between the way that Wales has been exploited and the way that we are exploiting the planet. One is really a local message, and one is a very universal message, so we're just bringing those two things together in this film as a vehicle, all the while hoping it delivers on a purely horror front in terms of the scares and the blood and the gore and the guts and all the rest of it. I mean, I think it's a subtle version of blood and gore and guts. It's not one of those commercial slasher movies that I was watching at a rather inappropriate age as a child. Weirdly, it sort of harks back to Hitchcock. It's far more suggestive in tone. The horror is in your head. I suggest certain things with certain shots. I don't show you graphically Cadi inserting a piece of glass into her vagina, but I suggest it, and then the audience sees it in horrific, graphic detail.

I think that's the power of cinema for me. You can suggest things, and then your imagination as a viewer is far more fertile than anything I can actually show you on screen. That's what I love about cinema – the suggested power of it.

IFC Films' The Feast is now in theaters and everywhere you rent movies.