Interview with Jon Wright – Unwelcome

Mr. Wright, I did some research and noticed that Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark is what pulled you behind the camera. Do you mind elaborating on what about Spielberg’s techniques, and the film itself, told you to go and venture in the film realm?

Raiders was an epiphany for me. The closest I’ve gotten to a religious experience. I wasn’t so much watching the movie as inside the movie. I totally escaped into it, I was lost in it. In a good way.

At that age I loved the gory touches, the blood splattering on the plane window, the way Alfred Molina got impaled through the head. And the supernatural touches. I liked the way it was mixed together with a fun adventure story. The desert setting felt very exotic.

And I wasn’t conscious of it then, but now I see how Spielberg moves the camera. He’s got an incredible gift for blocking a scene, especially in those days. The way people’s movements which are seemingly natural and spontaneous choreograph so well with the image. The classic Spielberg shot is when somebody turns and walks into their own close up as the camera pushes in to meet them. And John Williams ratchets the music up to match.

I just knew that movies were magical and I wanted to be a part of it. I started making short films the following year, rough and ready amateur horror movies.

It sure is a beauty, the creation of films! That actually leads me into my next question; the horror genre is one of fascination, learning how to build tension and rattle audiences’ expectations. In your opinion, do you consider it to be the most subversive of the genres? Or is there another word you would prefer to describe the film category?

Definitely the most subversive genre, by a country mile. In horror you can take all the stuff that’s inside people’s heads, and put it on the outside, in plain view. All the weird thoughts and feelings that every one of us has — but we have to keep repressed in polite society. It’s fun to explore things safely in an “anything goes” sort of way. Horror may be a lot of things, and not all of them good — sometimes it can be cringeworthy — but it’s rarely boring.

I recently watched (and adored) Jordan Peele’s Nope, a science-fiction horror involving a UFO. Mr. Peele has been on the record stating comedy and horror are “conjoined twins” and “both are the best ways to deal with fears and tune into emotion.” Unwelcome is considered as a horror folk, but was there are sprinkles of a horror comedy route. Was there ever a consideration to make it a full-fledged horror comedy (similar to your Grabbers work)?

I might go back to horror comedy, who knows? But this wasn’t that film. It’s more of a horror where the characters can be funny if they want to be. I laughed a lot when we were shooting and editing it, particularly around the goblins. But I have a sick sense of humour!

I loved Grabbers overall but I wasn’t totally comfortable with the bits where we explicitly referenced other films — this is a bit from Gremlins, this is a bit from ET. I know audiences love playing that game, but it distracts me from the reality of the story. I want to believe in what’s happening, even if it’s a fantastical Grimm’s fairy tale for adults, like this is. I love Stranger Things but I’m constantly bumped out of the story by their references to other films. It’s probably more fun if you haven’t watched the originals a thousand times like I have…

I see! This film has heavy inspiration from Joe Dante’s Gremlins and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs; do you mind elaborating on which moments from those hit you the most, and how those inspirations stretched into Unwelcome?

We pitched the movie as “Gremlins meets Straw Dogs”, two films I really like. It’s great to have a short hand, but in the final reckoning I think Unwelcome is its own thing with its own tone. As soon as we started shooting it it had this weird, specific, distinctive atmosphere, I’m never sure where that comes from. It’s got the mischief and malevolence of the Gremlins — our creatures, the Redcaps, have that, too. And there’s the stressful intensity of the home invasion in Straw Dogs, we’ve captured a bit of that. That feeling of being a beta male who doesn’t like rubbing shoulders with the local macho men.

Yeah, Straw Dogs stretched a lot into violence and subtle nods toward Vietnam. Speaking of the former, the opening sequence is a rattling sensation, bringing vulnerabilities and social anxiety to the couple. Would you say the feature is thematically inquiring about our fears and masculinities in an unknown environment (or world)?

The film is definitely talking about what it means to be a man. The writer Mark Stay and I both have macho, working class dads, and we wrestled with feelings of inadequacy as teenagers — while I love violence (done in a certain way) on screen, I hate it in real life. We wanted to push our two characters to the edge, really put them through the wringer, put their beliefs to the test. That’s interesting to me, the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. I really like our two lead characters, but it was important not to be too nice to them. That doesn’t make for an entertaining movie!

Yeah, there has to be some instigating incident that drives the action forward; what is going to be that moment that’ll carry forward.

It appears that the film was originally titled, “The Little People,” a representation of the Redcaps included; what changes materialized to have the title changed to Unwelcome?

The title changed in the end because it didn’t really tell you it was a fun horror movie. If you saw “The Little People” in the TV schedule you might think it was a worthy drama, not an escapist Friday night film. I liked that the original title referred to the pint sized goblins but also the people who get bullied and belittled who feel like “little people”. Kristian Nairn (from Game Of Thrones) plays a giant who feels tiny, like nothing. A worthless nobody.

Yeah, I totally get it. Sometimes the title itself can have certain meanings, and if not marketed correctly, could be perceived as something else.

My last question is how was it working with Hannah John-Kamen, Douglas Booth, and the rest of the cast? Did anyone surprise you the most on-set?

We had an amazing cast on this film, that’s at least one good thing that came out of the pandemic! I knew Hannah was fantastic before I worked with her, but she really blew me away, each and every day. She’s got star quality. I think her performance is really special, she’s digging deep and going for the reality of what, on paper, is a pretty hokey premise! Doug I am forever in debt to, he played the truth of what it is to be a coward which, ironically, takes a lot of courage. You don’t often see it in movies, it’s usually people stepping up to the plate — stepping into their Spielbergian close up, fists raised, with a smart arse one liner. I’m a bit bored of that hero cliche, it was fun to undercut it. We’ve also got a great Irish cast, Colm Meaney who people know from Star Trek, Chris Walley, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, Kristian Nairn. It’s a good film for St Paddy’s day. They had a ball on set, really enjoyed themselves. It was a sad day when the shoot ended, we had to break up the band.

That sounds great Jon, glad people had fun with it. A pleasure speaking with you.

Unwelcome has been released on VOD, and our review is attached here.

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