[Fantastic Fest 2021 Interview] Ruth Paxton for A BANQUET
Courtesy of IFC Midnight
In her feature film debut, A BANQUET, Director Ruth Paxton explores the difficult dynamic between a mom and her daughters as they collectively navigate the effects of trauma, control, starvation, and the proclamation of heightened spiritual awareness.

In A BANQUET, widowed mother Holly (Sienna Guillory) is radically tested when her teenage daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander) experiences a profound enlightenment and insists that her body is no longer her own, but in service to a higher power. Bound to her newfound faith, Betsey refuses to eat but loses no weight. In an agonizing dilemma, torn between love and fear, Holly is forced to confront the boundaries of her own beliefs.

For its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon Mcgrew had the opportunity to chat with Director Ruth Paxton, where they discussed everything from what drew Paxton to sign on to direct the film, how the minimalist production design lent itself to how Paxton would ultimately direct the story and the scene that features the most striking prosthetic.

Editor’s Note: As a general Trigger Warning, the interview contains subject matter surrounding anorexia. There are also spoilers mentioned in this interview.

Hi Ruth. Thank you so much for speaking with me today! When you came across Justin’s script for A BANQUET, what was it that popped out that made you want to sign on to direct?

Ruth Paxton: The relationship between Holly and Betsey, most definitely. I love the characters. They were great characters, obviously, but there was something about [it] that could resonate with me. My father separated from my mum when I was 12 and it was a time when that wasn’t very common among my peer group. Nobody else had separate parents really. It was a big deal and no one saw it coming. Because this is being recorded I just want to say that I live with my dad. I’ve got a wonderful relationship with both of them. But I had to grow up quite quickly in that situation cause I was the elder sibling and so, I understood that.

There was something about the fact that the first time we see Holly and Betsey together, she literally puts her body weight on her, she hugs her and kind of just gives in and there’s something about that really spoke with me. I’m a person with a mood disorder, I have anxiety and that’s characterized itself in many ways over the years. There was a spell where I didn’t eat well, you know, restricted food. And so, I understood that particular kind of madness that comes with starvation, that kind of obsessiveness and really believing it as well. I think that’s the misconception a lot of people have about disordered eating, in general, is that it fits certain brackets or is easily classified. And I think the thing is with anorexia is it’s not a fear of getting fat. It’s a genuine fear that if you eat, something bad will happen, or if you gain weight, something bad will happen. The fact that Holly was losing her shit over that was something my mum did. I could relate to that.

There were a number of things that attracted me, but I suppose the simplest answer is always going to be the relationship between these women and what happens to Isabelle as a result of Holly and Betsey’s relationship.

The film features three generations of women: the matriarch, the mom, and the daughters. What did you enjoy most about exploring these three generations of women?

Ruth Paxton: I definitely was interested in developing more of what might have happened between Holly and her mother, June. That was something I wanted to pull out more which kind of explained why Holly was the way she was. I think what was really important for me, as well, was for there to never be any blame. I’m not a mum, but I realized in making this film that the mother wound is everywhere. Things don’t always go to plan and it’s not because you don’t love your children massively, it really isn’t the cause of that. June was doing what she thought was best. There was something about the inheritance of mental illness but also breaking that cycle, basically to explain why Holly was quite so vexed by it and quite so unwilling to seek psychiatric treatment.

The visuals are immensely striking and tell their own story, especially when it comes to the design of the house. Can you elaborate on bringing that home to life? And did you always want it to have a minimalist feel?

Ruth Paxton: In the past, when I was a student and you all had to don different hats and do different things, I was always a production designer. I have a real passion for that side of things. When it came to designing the space, we knew we had to get a house that wasn’t going to get boring to be inside and it’s a very unique design, the house. What I liked about it was it felt quite like a labyrinth, like you don’t quite know where the doors are. Ultimately, there were three or four entrances to the house so you could kind of move around it in different ways and that felt cool. You could play with the corners and people’s expectations, really.

I also loved that space because that living area where Jason (Richard Keep) dies, but also where they eat down there felt like an amphitheater or something. It felt theatrical. Plus, obviously, the big Parasite window is awesome. It was the selling point for sure. Sofia Stocco is a production designer and she did a phenomenal job considering the budget as well. We were really, really low budget and it was really important to me that we could control the color palette of the house and paint it because it was all white and it wasn’t going to work for us for the kind of tone we were looking for. Basically, I think a lot of our budget went on painting and then reinstating. So, that was a choice for that dark space.

But the minimalism is an interesting question cause I knew that I wanted it to be minimal because I wanted it to [show] how Holly controlled things around her. But, when Sofia was putting options together,r she sent me a folder of images that were like minimal, really minimal, and really fucking minimal. And the really, really minimal was extremely barren and I was worried that it wouldn’t translate as a family home. I was worried because they are teenage kids and I wasn’t sure…but she persuaded me to be bold. She was like, most horror films are cluttered. There are not many horror films that are really kind of minimal like that, and I’m still glad she did because I think it works really, really well. It’s all very subtle but Sofia had ideas of breaking the control with moments of violence. As the film goes on, the chairs aren’t as neat as they should be. There’s more rubbish around. She’s less in control of the space. I love thinking about how you tell a story through visual design and how you apply an arc to that in both production design, costume, and hair. All of these things are tools to tell your story with, and so I’m glad you picked up on that.

How was it forming that complicated relationship between Isabelle and Betsey for the screen?

Ruth Paxton: It was one I really enjoyed in the development process with Justin. We aged Isabelle up considerably. She would have actually been about six years younger and we brought her closer because I wanted it to feel like she could almost fall victim to this. As an older teenager, she was ripe to be thinking differently about how she looked and what her social status was and copying her sister in that way. So that was definitely an important decision. Also, for me, it is the horror. I think one of the most horrific scenes is when she says goodbye to her mom. I cry a lot on set and so when we were shooting that I was very moved and every time I watch it I think you see something in Holly that’s just broken at that point. It was the sacrifice of the other kid because Holly genuinely believed her to be stronger. Justin’s Isabelle was someone that didn’t appear to need help, she was a social girl, she had lots of hobbies, so it’s not that Holly would feel she was actively neglecting her, she just genuinely thought she was getting on with it. We also thought with the younger sister, not to suggest for a second that she wouldn’t be impacted by her dad’s death, not at all, but with Betsey witnessing it she had that extra sort of trauma of that, I suppose. Props to Ruby Stokes who played her cause she really made [Isabell] her own. She really played her so quietly and so confidently for a young person, not to overact, basically. She was just very simplistic with what she did and I loved working with her.

I can’t wrap up this interview without talking about the most striking visual of all, what we see on the back of Betsey’s head. Can you talk about the process of creating that scene?

Ruth Paxton: Dan Martin of 13 Finger FX, who does a lot of practical effects for films in Britain and, more broadly, he did Possessor recently. So, he’s the go-to guy. He basically created a cast of Jessica, who plays Betsey, and then also a prosthetic that went on the back of her. So, when we needed to shoot close-ups of her in the space, she had a prosthetic but otherwise, it was a puppet. It was literally puppeteered at the mouth and the only digital effects on that scene were just to enhance saliva. There’s a lot of extra saliva there. And that’s really it. As much as I adore that puppet, I think it’s the sounds of mastication…I’m one of those people that if I literally see someone vomit, I’ll want to vomit. I hate smells that are truly grotesque, although I do manage to make films with maggots in them all time [Laughs].

In the design of the mouth….so, the Futakuchi-Onna is a very old Japanese folkloric story. When you google it, and if you see illustrative imagery representing it, it’s always extremely demonic. It’s a horizontal line with really fangy type teeth and often eyes as well. I didn’t want to go down that route. I wanted to take all the horror and be routed back to body horror and human horror. So, the visual inspiration for that was a lot of medical kind of photography, tumor-like imagery, stuff from inside the body. And then, the kind of overarching instruction for Dan was I wanted it to be like a vagina. It’s lovingly called the vagina mouth. There were a lot of ideas of giving birth, of gestation. The film is roughly nine months that she goes through this and so, the scene at the end where she’s barking, we used a lot of labored imagery for that scene. So yes, it was our vagina mouth [Laughs].

A BANQUET had its US Premiere at 2021’s Fantastic Fest. For more on the film, check out our review here.

 

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