If you’ve never seen a film in Welsh language before, you’re not alone. According to The Feast director Lee Haven Jones, only 20% of the population of Wales speaks the language, and the large majority of projects being made there are in English. For his debut feature, however, Jones and writer Roger Williams were adamant about telling a Welsh story that is grounded in their roots.
Premiering at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, The Feast is a slow-burn horror that gets under your skin, exploring the lives of a wealthy family as they invite guests over to their vacation home in rural Wales. When a mysterious young woman arrives to be their server for the night, things start to take an eerie turn that no one in the family is prepared to handle.
It’s a chilling film that digs into the cultural roots of Wales, while also providing universal commentary on class division in a brutally effective way. Jones has worked in television for many years now, directing episodes of series like Doctor Who and The Bay, and he proves himself more than capable of holding his own in his first feature. Him and Williams have a clear, distinct vision for what this film will be, and it’s one that sticks with you long after the credits roll.
We were able to speak with Jones and Williams before the film’s SXSW debut about how they came to work on this film together, and how the ideas contained within this story developed. Speaking to the two of them at the same time showed me the rhythm that the duo shares, as they were clearly on the same page, flowing easily from one question to the next regardless of which one of them was answering.
Read on for our conversation with The Feast director Lee Haven Jones and writer Roger Williams:
Mitchell Beaupre: Roger, what was it that got you interested in this idea, and when did you and Lee decide to work on this project together?
Roger Williams (writer): Lee and I have known each other for a very long time. We met when I was writing a TV show that Lee was an actor on. That’s where our creative partnership started, so we worked before on a few things, and this is our first feature together. I guess the aspiration for us to make a movie together had always been there, and it was finding the right project. The themes of the film are themes that exist in other pieces that we’ve made before, and are themes that we personally are interested in. Those questions of identity, responsibility to the land, and to one’s culture. We wanted to look at them through a horror prism.
MB: The movie starts off with a very long stretch of time without any dialogue. It sets up this eerie mood, while also establishing these character dynamics where everyone is disconnected from each other. Was it always an intentional decision to start the movie off with this long period before anyone speaks?
Lee Haven Jones (director): I’m constantly saying to writers, “don’t write so much dialogue!” For years and years I’ve been saying that, and then Roger presented me with this 7 or 8 minute sequence that has no dialogue whatsoever, which I loved so much. You mentioned it well, it sort of gives you a really good snapshot of the disconnect that is within that family, and between that family and the environment. I think it’s a really good metaphor.
RW: That was always there from the script, it was an idea that we had talked about. You hear this a lot from people who are running writing courses and people who are in film development, that thing about “show don’t tell”, so there was kind of a certain amount of cockiness about how much of this we could get away with before anybody speaks.
MB: The house that the film takes place in has these floor to ceiling windows, and several times throughout you’ll see these shots of someone on the inside looking out at another character who’s outside. We see that they’re separated, but that separation is from something man made, not an organic separation. Did you want to tap into this idea that we’re the ones who create the things that separate us?
LHJ: Absolutely, you’ve hit it right on its head. That house is quite a remarkable house, it’s almost like a hermetically sealed box. The family are there saying that it celebrates the area when it’s actually more like a bunker in which they all retreat from life. We were very inspired by the location, I have to say. Roger had written the script and then the search was on for a location that would offer us what we needed to tell that story. The story was tailored to an extent from the location. Roger is a very flexible writer, so ideas sort of morph, mutate, and change according to the circumstances that life presents us with.
MB: There are exterior shots where you see the house and it really does stick out like a sore thumb amidst this beautiful landscape. Was finding the right location difficult? Did you shoot the interior scenes in the same location, or was that a different set than the house we see in the exterior shots?
RW: It’s all shot at that location. Something that is true to the spirit of the film is this idea of being local and generating everything locally, giving back to the land. We decamped for 4 weeks to this tiny village in the middle of rural Wales, and did everything there. The interiors, the exteriors, even when we go to the forestry that’s just a stone’s throw away from where the house is. In terms of finding the house we thought it was going to be incredibly problematic because we were working on a certain budget and needed to go into an expensive property and throw some blood around. Not many people would be willing to let us do that. It was a case of serendipity, though. Even before Lee had spoken to location scouts he had found 5 or 6 properties that fit the bill. I got in touch with the owner of the house and it was this place where people go to meditate on life and escape from the modern world. It’s this beautiful Japanese and Scandinavian inspired property in the middle of the Welsh landscape, and they let us go in on one of their off days. We walked around for a few hours and by the time we walked away we just felt that it was absolutely right.
LHJ: The biggest irony for me is that the house is actually called, well the English translation is “Life House”, which is rather ironic given the amount of blood and gore and death that place sees. We did manage to make a mess of it by the end, we truly did. We dealt with the problem though. You know, white marble and blood don’t go together at all.
MB: Well, they certainly photograph together well in the movie.
LHJ: (laughing) That’s what I was saying!
MB: Something the film does well that can be very difficult to pull off is its escalation. It starts off as this straightforward domestic drama, and then you slowly bring in these horror and supernatural elements. Was that pacing difficult to pull off, figuring out how much you wanted to bring in and when?
LHJ: It is sort of finely balanced, I think. Even at the level of the script it’s sort of a journey from naturalism to theatrical horror. As you’ve pointed out, the first half an hour is this naturalistic piece of filmmaking, and then gradually as Cadi the server upsets the order of the place in a way the structure and the order of the film disintegrates. That gets reflected in the visuals, where we had these hard cuts in the first half an hour, and then gradually we get the mixes coming in and the images sort of elide, and the soundscape gets a bit strange. It becomes sort of a descent into that theatrical horror.
MB: Roger, you mentioned the word “meditate” earlier, which called to mind a moment in the film where the matriarch of the family is showing one of their guests the sauna room in the house. She refers to it as her “meditation room”, but the guest remarks that it feels more like a cell. Did you want to convey this idea that the wealthy family sees this place as their escape, but what they’re actually doing is sealing themselves off from the rest of the world?
RW: I think they want to believe the lie that they still belong to this place. They think they’re proving that by coming to this holiday home, but you’re absolutely right that they’re sealed off from the community. They don’t know the waitress who comes to serve their food. They don’t integrate with the community. The woman who comes for the meal says to the son, “Oh, I see you flying by on your racing bike”. There isn’t any real interaction between these people. The house is a dislocation in terms of the architecture with the area, these people are quite literally dislocated from their roots. All of those themes are at work there.
MB: The family spends a lot of time talking about London, and how they live and spend most of their time there. One of the sons even remarks that the father only comes to this country home to “kill innocent creatures”. The movie has this universal idea of class separation, but I was wondering if you could speak about the cultural specificity of it being a Welsh film, and how the themes comment on the divide in real life between England and Wales?
RW: You’re absolutely right in what you say about it picking up on that idea that they have moved away. For many generations, but I think especially for our generation, there’s this idea that if you have moved away you’re seen as successful. If you’ve gone to study or work outside of Wales, and it’s true in lots of small nations and rural places, you’re deemed as successful. These are people who have done that, and undoubtedly think that they are better than the people who have stayed. The great irony of the film, of course, is that the language they choose to speak is Welsh, and they do that in a very correct way. Some of the language and terminology they use, they’re using it quite consciously, with quite formal and structured words. I think it again speaks to this idea that they come to this place in the countryside and they behave in the manner that they think they should be behaving. Lee, is there anything that you wanted to say about that cultural specificity?
LHJ: I think it’s very much a film that is the product of a minority culture. You know, we live next to England which for a couple of centuries at least was the dominant power, and so we Welsh people all speak English and then 20% of us speak Welsh. It is an intensely cultural film, and it gets into the politics of what it is to be Welsh in the 21st century. At the same time, there are far more universal themes at play for those who perhaps do not quite understand those parts of it. My sense is that if you come from a minority culture that you can probably pick up on that.
MB: I’m a dual citizen of England and the United States, with my roots in England, and something that came to mind while watching the movie is that even though I’ve seen a lot of movies from Wales and movies set there, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie done in Welsh language until this. A lot of people right now, if they had their way, would make sure that Welsh language didn’t exist anymore. Was that a pointed decision for you guys to make the movie in Welsh language? If a producer had come to you and said, “We’ll give you the money to make the movie, but you have to make it in English”, would you have turned them down?
LHJ: (laughing) Good question!
RW: The pair of us are very proud Welsh people, and we also live and work in a bilingual context. I think that with this project we never questioned that it was going to be in Welsh. I think we had decided for a while that we were making a Welsh film and we kind of wanted to go balls deep in that (laughing). We had a lot of these conversations about whether we should put the English translation in the title, if we should have the English graphic, if we should translate all of the credits to English. We decided no because it’s the strangeness of the language and the uniqueness of it that gives the film some of its appeal. I was watching this Finnish drama series at the weekend, and Finnish is another language that can be so foreign on the ear that you can really find yourself lost in this strange world with these strange people. Geographically you can’t really pin it down. Ultimately, we wanted to make a really good contemporary European movie which will hopefully be seen far and wide across the world, so while it was made in Welsh and Welsh is incredibly important to the genesis of the project, it’s also kind of secondary.
The Feast premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]