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Filmmaker Benjamin Finkel discusses navigating the chilling intersections of grief and horror in his new film, FAMILY.

BY MO MOSHATY, March 6, 2024

Finkel's compelling first film delves into the profound depths of human emotion, horror and fantasy, creating a hauntingly gorgeous film that is sure to resonate with audiences.

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MM: I've been so anxious to speak with you regarding this movie since the SXSW lineup release, as one of its themes lies in grief and potential loss. Could you tell me what inspired you to explore that in your film?

BF: Absolutely. The film is incredibly personal. My father was ill most of my childhood and it was a constant presence in the background. As a kid, you don't question these things; it's just your world. I remember being around age 8, wondering if it was odd that we always had to wash our hands twice when coming inside. I was the original over-washer.

MM: Before it was cool.

BF: Exactly! I could finally walk around in 2020 with hand sanitizer without shame. So just a strange life for a kid. Additionally, I was homeschooled as a kid, not for any political or religious reasons but because my parents were bored in school and wanted us to have a more engaging experience, which unfortunately resulted in us being incredibly bored and running around all day. 

However, when it came to making the film, I wanted to draw from my personal experiences—my dad passed away when I was 14, and I wanted to explore that aspect. Unlike many films that focus on the logical progression of illness, I aimed to capture the illogical, chaotic nature of grief. It's not a straightforward narrative; it's more like a shared delusion that sweeps through the family, a potent and powerful feeling that I sought to convey. When people read the script, some would question, 'This is a horror movie?' and I realized, indeed, it is.

 

MM: And to a child, it's not a linear experience; it doesn't make sense. It's very fantastical, almost as if you are a third character in your own life, observing everything unfold. How do you navigate the transition from script to screen, ensuring a balance between the themes of grief and horror?

BF: That was so crucial. I didn't want it to feel like a family drama wrapped in a horror movie; that wasn't the goal. It was almost the inverse, envisioning a film that, on the surface, appears to be a family drama but reveals itself to be a horror movie upon closer examination. The objective wasn't to sprinkle horror elements into another storyline; for me, the entire experience was about the horror, drawing inspiration from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's concept of horror based on duration. It's about being trapped in a moment, or a room, surrounded by family who are your world as a child, unable to comprehend why this is happening. The aim is to convey that reality as a heartfelt, immersive horror experience, where the horror itself is the focal point.

MM: Absolutely, blending grief and horror is a lot like blending horror and comedy; some nail it, while others fall flat. Crafting the catharsis in this film, do you believe anything has been exorcised in the process?

BF: This served as the most profound form of therapy for me, even though I didn't initially approach it with that mindset years ago. I used to be quite adamant that it wasn't about me, but over time, especially during the early stages of learning, I realized I was delving into my own emotions. This became a way for me to unravel and process feelings that I had kept condensed and boxed away. The emotional journey has been strange yet impactful; there were moments in the editing room where I unexpectedly found myself tearing up, not over anything dramatic or related to the film, but over seemingly trivial matters. It was a series of genuine cathartic experiences because, in essence, the movies I cherish the most are the ones that help make sense of the world. They reflect various facets of life back to you, and while I won't presume this does the same for anyone else, the process of making this film undeniably became a form of self-discovery for me.

 

MM: I firmly believe it will mean a lot to many, as it's displaying a crucial fact. Grief isn't linear; it's a mad journey where we find ourselves in denial, acceptance, and then back to denial or bargaining. All these pieces are exceptionally important for anyone seeking solace through horror or other means.

BF: But it's that communal experience, you know? Coming together and observing something that reflects, even if not universally, the more specific it is to one person, the more it becomes universally relatable, as opposed to attempting a broad approach. Delving into one person's experience is what resonates most with me, and I find that interesting in the context of grief versus illness. Grief is immediate, while illness is like a lingering possession, something in the background that comes after.

MM: I never thought about it like that! 

BF: It moves through, something to contend with on a day-to-day basis, active, present, unseen but undeniably there, whereas grief lingers. Illness is like the flip side of the same coin, and it's that aspect I hadn't seen explored as much on film. I wanted to delve into that strange unreality, that living feeling where illness seems to have a consciousness, a presence that's not easily explained. That was the essence of it.

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MM: It's like that character floating in the background, influencing the entire atmosphere of the situation in the film, which is fantastic. I'm genuinely thrilled about it! 

Shifting gears a bit, touching on Johanna's character and reflecting on her unique situation, wearing my other hat, we refer to it as becoming the glass child—where one becomes somewhat invisible, a bit see-through. Did you infuse any personal elements into Johanna's space, or did you navigate through what would have happened to her in that specific story?

BF: Yeah, a lot of events in the film are drawn from real experiences. While there's a distinct horror side to the story, many events, dialogues, and aspects stem from actual occurrences. It's interesting, this concept of becoming like the glass child, that sense of invisibility when you're alongside someone who's dying. It's like fading away with them, but also being caught in this overwhelming force, almost like a black hole. As a caretaker or someone around that person, they cease to be human and become an object, creating a whirlwind of conflict and drama. Johanna portrays this perspective, presenting the world through her eyes and taking her experience seriously. Though some wonderful American films address this, as a whole, I believe American culture doesn't take children's experiences as seriously as European or Japanese films, for example. The depth and authenticity of a child's experience often get diminished, but I feel that, in many ways, a child's emotions are more real and deeply felt than those of adults. For me, the film was about taking that childhood experience seriously and authentically tracking it.

MM: Absolutely, couldn't agree more. I'm constantly trying to convey to people that the last five minutes of 'Train to Busan' is emotionally murderous. It's when she's singing in the tunnel, and it's like, no adult would express their grief in such a visceral, unfiltered way, but a child would.

BF: Yes! Exactly. 

MM: Skipping a bit towards the auditory aspect, considering how crucial sound design is in horror movies, were there specific sounds you envisioned or heard in your mind as you were writing the script?

BF: We invested a lot in sound design. Lewis Goldstein, and our exceptional sound team, executed phenomenal work. The script was conceptualized with sound in mind, particularly inspired by experimental 60s electronic composers like Alvin Lucier and James Tenney. Tenney's technique, recording and playing back strings on a tape deck, influenced the film's theme of radiation. The narrative explores the peculiarities of medical interventions in cancer treatment, resembling a ritualistic connection to elemental forces. The film's core is a pulsating thrum, intricately linked to Joanna's inner turmoil. Described as a string wrapped around her heart, the vibrations signify a connection between music, vibration, and the wavelengths akin to radiation. Composer Logan Nelson, along with the Attacca Quartet, contributed to this unique blend, creating a surprising and evocative soundscape right from the start of the film.

MM: Oh, I love that because I'm a real sucker for sound. Experiencing things in cinema mode where the sound completely envelops you is just fantastic, and knowing that was written with such attention to sound design only makes it an even more incredible experience for me.

BF: We experimented with some really cool techniques, like dropping key changes into the overall mix, and manipulating levels to create a pulsating effect. It added a layer of complexity to the overall sound design.

MM: This film has me genuinely thrilled, and I believe it's going to be a beautiful piece that resonates with many people. You're truly doing impactful work.

BF: I certainly hope so.

About FAMILY - 

Family: 11-year-old Johanna’s world is falling apart. She’s just moved across the country for her father Harry’s medical treatment, and as her father declines and her mother Naomi is consumed with caring for him, Johanna feels horribly alone. In desperation, she makes a call out into the universe for a good spirit to save her family. But as the long summer days wear on, and a series of increasingly disturbing events rips through her home, she begins to fear that something else has come instead — a terrifying presence from some dark corner of the universe that has latched on to her family and is now eating them from the inside.

Starring: Ruth Wilson, Ben Chaplin, Cameron Dawson Gray, Allan Corduner

Written and Directed by Benjamin Finkel

Produced by Lynette Howell Taylor, Samantha Housman, Benjamin Finkel

Sound Department: Lewis Goldstein, Bennett Kerr, Rebeca Lindenfeld, Tom Ryan

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Mo Moshaty is a horror writer, lecturer and producer. As a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and life long horror fan, Mo has lectured with Prairie View A&M Film & TV Program as a Keynote, BAFSS Horror Studies Sig  and The University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Mo has partnered with horror giant, Shudder Channel, to co-produce the 13 Minutes of Horror Film Festival 2021 and 2022 with Nyx Horror Collective and her literary work "Love the Sinner" was published with Brigid's Gate Press in July of 2023 and her two volume collection, "Clairviolence: Tales of Tarot and Torment Vol. One and Two" will be published with Spooky House Press in the Spring of 2024

Mo is the creator and Editor-in-Chief of NightTide Magazine

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