Interview: Director Neil Mcenery-West Talks About His Latest Virus Movie, “Containment”

"Containment"

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CONTAINMENT | Available now on VOD and DVD Sept. 22nd | Director: Neil Mcenery-West | Stars: Louise Brealey, Lee Ross, Sheila Reid, Andrew Leung, Pippa Nixon, Gabriel Senior, Hannah Chalmers, Christos Lawton and William Postlethwaite.

Neighbors in an apartment block wake one morning to find they have been sealed inside their apartments. Can they work together to find out why? Or will they destroy each other in their fight to escape?

I recently watched the virus movie “Containment” (you can read that review here) and was very impressed that the film didn’t resort to the quintessential zombie epidemic that typically takes effect after any sort of virus outbreak. I had the opportunity to speak with the film’s writer/director Neil Mcenery-West where we talked about confined spaces, stealthy snipers and zombies (or lack thereof).

James McDonald: Initially, when I saw the trailer for “Containment,” the first thought that came to my mind was ‘zombies!” After having seen “28 Days Later,” “REC” and “Quarantine,” movies that focused on characters trapped inside some sort of structure after a virus outbreak, the next inevitable step would typically be zombies, a result of said virus. With “Containment,” there were no zombies to be found. Instead, the film became a character study of a small group of people who are trapped inside their homes in an apartment block after a supposed virus outbreak. Was there ever the temptation to just toss the script and go with what people were familiar with?

Neil Mcenery-West: Not at all. In fact one of the aims of the film was to take familiar tropes and scenarios, then turn them on their head. That said, the zombie trap was very easy to fall into. Particularly during the early stages of story development. David (Lemon, co-screenwriter) and I often found ourselves searching for ways to ensure that all of the residents kept their humanity. Ultimately, what was important was that you felt they were just real, angry, frightened people. And not the walking dead. Just regular people fighting for their lives and those of their families.

For me, the crux of the story was the notion that there are no good or bad people, just people. The horror comes from the choices they make and the effect that those choices have. We all suppress the more primal instincts that we have, in order to function as a society. And because it’s more comfortable to imagine ourselves as civilized. I think that’s what is so scary about a story that deals with ordinary people making horrific choices. What would you do?

JMD: That’s a great perspective, especially when it could have easily turned into a zombie fest at any moment. As an indie filmmaker myself, I find that writing, for the most part, depending on the overall narrative, can be be rather challenging and with a story like “Containment,” like you stated earlier, it’s the choices that these people make that can either lead them to their doom or to freedom. Given the fact that they are all in very confined spaces, was it difficult trying to come up with various scenarios that would take them out of their so-called ‘comfort zones’? Because at the end of the day, these people prove to be fighters and decide they’re not going to sit down and just wait for whatever to happen.

NMW: Yes, that was definitely a challenge. But it was also part of the fun of the plotting. Figuring out an internal logic for the world. What they could and couldn’t do. What the ‘rules’ of this world were. What they were going to do next to try and escape? How might it succeed or go wrong?

Ultimately the conflict in the story needed to come from the dynamic between this group of characters. And that sort of dictated the direction the plot went in. Their conflicting viewpoints, needs, backgrounds and various moral frameworks. And the limited space just made this all come out in a very sped up and heightened way.

I think the characterization was really the key to making the story engaging within such a confined space. We spent a lot of time figuring out who these people were and where they’d come from. Giving them detailed backgrounds and complexes that never feature as part of the core plot, but that developed into important sub plots. They helped create an internal logic for each character, and then in turn, the relationships they have once they become a group. David fed a lot of that stuff into the script in very subtle ways. That was by far the greatest of many gifts David gave to me as a writer. Because when it came to rehearsal, I was able to work privately with individual cast members and draw out those backstories and embellish them. Which was fun on set, because it meant there were little nuances and actions that came out as a result of all this work. And that would trigger genuine and unexpected reactions from other cast members. Giving the relationships a sense of spontaneity and added tension.

JMD: Well there was certainly a lot of tension throughout, especially when the guys in Haz-Mat suits appeared and what I liked about this particular angle, was that early on, they demonstrated to everyone that they were not playing around with this virus and if you tried to escape, you were literally taking your life in your own hands. The other element that accompanied this particular scenario was the strategically placed snipers in the immediate vicinity, situated in various locations but which the residents were completely oblivious of. Was that aspect written into the story from the beginning or was it something that materialized throughout the film’s shoot?

NMW: That developed as the story did. Because the residents are trapped inside their flats, their view is highly restricted. So it felt important (for the most part) to only show the audience what the residents could see. To heighten the tension and allow the audience to experience the story from the characters perspective. So when we first discover the sniper on the roof it’s a complete shock. And when we hear Haz-Mats extracting residents from neighbouring flats, you can’t quite make out where they are. Are they directly below us now? Are they two floors down? Are we next? The most important thing here was for David and I to work out a rough extraction strategy, so that there was an internal logic to what was going on. Otherwise the danger is that you just start placing Haz-Mats conveniently where you want them, to solve plot issues. And it’s tempting to become lazy about it. Whereas if the logic is in place, you have a basic framework that you have to adhere to. Even figuring out roughly where the nearest checkpoint was, and how long it would take to implement the last resort option was important. When you’re working with a story that has so much mystery and questions that remain unanswered, I think it’s critical to have a detailed knowledge of what is really happening in the bigger story world. You don’t see it, but it definitely affects what you do see.

JMD: “Containment” is listed as your feature-film directorial and writing debut and you co-wrote the film along with David Lemon, a screenwriter since 2000. How was your first screenwriting collaboration and did you guys work well together?

NMW: It was a great experience. David is so talented and versatile, moving seamlessly from comedy into drama and then horror. Plus, he and I share a gallows sense of humor which made our meetings entertaining.

I’ve nearly always come up with the basic idea for the films I’ve made. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the process for me, and it helps me develop what kind of themes and ideas I want to tell as a story. But I’m no good at writing actual scripts. That’s a very specific skill. I can write a plot and develop characters and themes etc., but I can’t turn it into a fully formed screenplay. So I’m always looking for great writers that I can collaborate with who have that amazing skill. And what was brilliant about David was that he was totally open to developing the story together. Which is so important to me. So we spent a long time in the early stages just spitballing ideas. We’d each come up with scenes, narrative events, character choices and so on. Then we’d debate them and argue about what we felt worked and what didn’t. And once we had a detailed plot outline for the film, that’s when David started crafting the screenplay. Then after each draft I’d compile a set of notes, and we’d meet up and go through them. It was incredibly collaborative and tremendously exciting.

In the earlier stages of the story development we were also blessed with the guidance of the wonderful Kate Leys, as our script editor, who kept us on track by asking us all the tough questions that we need to be asked.

We were also very lucky to have producers that were very story orientated. Christine (Hartland) had been a vital sound board to David and I as we developed the story. And in 2011, Pete (Smyth) and Casey (Herbert) came on board the film. By that time we were well into several drafts of the script, but those guys were able to give really valuable story feedback to us in the latter stages of development. They were fresh eyes and are both incredibly story savvy. So that was invaluable.

JMD: The ending of the movie doesn’t wrap things up nice and neat and it leaves the possibility of a sequel wide open. Do you think that’s plausible? It could explain the origin of the virus and you never know, the occasional zombie might pop up! Also, if you were to do a follow-up, I could imagine it resembling “28 Days Later” and its sequel, “28 Months Later” or even “Alien” and “Aliens,” the first of each of those series being more of a claustrophobic hide-and-seek type movie where the second was more action-oriented.

NMW: It’s a good question. I think the main reason the ending feels open is because the story we wanted to tell is specifically about this group of residents. Therefore it felt that the ending we chose was the conclusion to their story. Even if the backdrop to the ‘bigger picture’ was still unraveling. Despite evidence to the contrary, the story isn’t really about a virus. That was always designed to establish the set-up and get the ball rolling. But the film itself is really about the people and how they react to this news. So we never wanted to lend too much weight to exposition and explanations about the virus and its origins. Thought definitely had more exposition about the virus in earlier drafts, but now the only major scene is when Hazel tells the group how it works.

I toyed around with a scenario that would be set further down the line in the same world as “Containment.” It was set after the virus has run its course and the world is a very different place. It was for a competition we won to pitch a transmedia idea at BAFTA. And it was a fun thought experiment, but I’m not sure it would ever get made. No zombies I’m afraid, but certainly more violence and action.

JMD: One final question. Are you working on any upcoming projects that you can share with our readers?

NMW: I’m developing another story with David Lemon. More Sci-fi this time, but once again, grounded in character. That one will be fun to develop.

I also have another story I’m developing at the moment, but there’s no writer attached yet. It’s a thriller set in the final days of WW2. It’s not your usual war story. It’s told from an unexpected perspective, through the eyes of a character you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to root for. There are some cosmetic similarities to “Containment” but it’s actually quite different.

I’d love to do some work in television too at some point. That’d be a whole other discipline.

“Containment” is now available on VOD including Dish Network, DirecTV, iTunes and Google Play and will be available on DVD from Wal-Mart September 1st then nationwide September 22nd


 
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James McDonald

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, James is a Movie Critic and Celebrity Interviewer with over 30 years of experience in the film industry as an Award-Winning Filmmaker.

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