Sundance 2021 Women Directors: Meet Prano Bailey-Bond – “Censor”

Prano Bailey-Bond is a Welsh director and screenwriter. Commissioned by Film4 to direct an episode of their Halloween focused “Fright Bites,” Bailey-Bond’s short “Shortcut” was broadcast on Channel 4 before playing at festivals internationally. Her short film “Nasty” screened at over 100 festivals worldwide, premiering at the BFI’s London Film Festival and winning many awards globally, including Best International Short at Fantaspoa and the Women in Horror Film Festival. Her music videos have picked up accolades including a UKMVA and Best Music Video at the European Independent Film Festival and London Short Film Festival.

“Censor” is screening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which is taking place online and in person via Satellite Screens January 28-February 3.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

PBB: “Censor” is a psychological horror with thriller elements that probes society’s and the individual’s relationship with horror. It’s set in 1985 against the backdrop of social hysteria surrounding “video nasties” here in the U.K., and follows a film censor whose reality becomes unpicked when she sees a film at work that speaks directly to her sister’s disappearance when she was a child.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

PBB: It was really my fascination with censorship and this period in U.K. history that started everything off. The birth of VHS led to a boom in low-budget horror films being made, and these films could now go direct into the home with no form of censorship in place. We’re also in Thatcher’s Britain — a rise in unemployment, a rise in “increasing” crime, social unrest. Papers and politicians became convinced that these horror films were poisoning the minds of society and would turn us all into monsters.

Many of these films became known as the “video nasties” — a collection of films that would become the holy grail for any true horror fan at this time. Censors were under huge pressure — classifying all new and past films that were to be released on VHS, as well as being the “moral line” for what was deemed safe for the public to watch, whilst an atmosphere of panic surrounded these films. I wanted to develop a character who somehow embodied all of this, and that’s how Enid was created.

I was inspired by the notion of how memory, films, reality, and fiction interact.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

PBB: During “Censor” we watch Enid as she has an extremely subjective experience whilst watching a scene in a film, and whilst I hope none of our audience reacts to “Censor” as Enid does to that scene, I do anticipate — and hope — that people connect to the film in different and personal ways. Whether audience members are coming to the film with a knowledge of the video nasty era or not, I would love for the film to inspire conversation.

Whilst making the film I was thinking about my own relationship with horror, about the hysteria of the video nasty era, about trauma and memory, and about how the individual can go unsupported by society. I find it tricky to dictate what I want people to think about after they watch the film, but if it inspires conversations around these ideas that would be great.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

PBB: Whilst making the film my focus was very much on figuring out how to keep the audience inside Enid’s head. Enid pieces things together as the story unfolds, but she rarely articulates her thinking, at least not openly. She’s quite a repressed character. Unable to articulate her trauma because she can’t remember it, she doesn’t speak openly with other characters about her feelings. She’s relatively closed off.

In so many films you have the best friend or therapist character — a confidante to the main character, who allows us more access to the protagonist’s inner world — but this approach never made sense when we were writing Enid. It didn’t fit. It was important that Enid didn’t have an outlet, that she was isolated, and that her anxieties and thoughts and confusions were trapped inside her, so that they would eventually burst out in a kind of weird spasm. So this creates a challenge; telling a story about a closed character whose success relies on us understanding that character’s thinking.

One of the most important things to get right was the casting of Enid, and Niamh Algar brought this immense empathy and emotional authenticity to the role. She was the key to the audience connecting with Enid, and then it’s about how performance, camera, edit, sound, and music work together to keep the audience on track with Enid’s thoughts and feelings, even when she’s holding her cards close to her chest.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

PBB: I live in the U.K. and was born and grew up in Wales, so the first place my producer, Helen Jones, took the project was Ffilm Cymru Wales, who came on board to develop the first draft of the script and have supported the film right through production — through the whole process. Creative England also supported part of our development. And then further into the development process, we were lucky enough to gain the invaluable support of the British Film Institute and Film4.

During development we also attended Frontieres — a finance and packaging forum focusing on genre films organized by Fantasia International Film Festival and supported by Cannes Film Festival. This was a really great experience and a fantastic platform for the film.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

PBB: I was always obsessed with film as a child. I grew up in the middle of nowhere watching VHS tapes of the same films and TV shows over and over again, as we didn’t have a cinema or anything nearby. I thought I wanted to act. My mum had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had worked in theater mainly, and acting really appealed to me. But when I went to study performing arts at college I became much more interested in shaping productions and performances from the outside — it was a way for me to combine my love for acting with a love for craft and creating imagery.

I started to experiment on my course by taking scenes that we were doing in class into real locations, and filming them there. Then I taught myself to edit. I just loved every aspect of the process and knew that making films was what I wanted to do.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

PBB: On the first short film I ever made with funding support, I was assigned a mentor, a lovely genre director named Johnny Kevorkian, who tragically passed away last year and is sorely missed. I asked Johnny for advice on working with actors and he said, “Cast good actors.” It made me laugh — it was so simple! Obviously Johnny — and I — knew there was more to it than this, but it’s definitely the first, and one of the most important steps in getting a good performance.

In terms of unhelpful “advice,” when I was making “Censor” I wrote some quotes from other directors down in the front of a notebook. Most of these quotes were useful, except for a David Fincher quote about directing: “Take all of the responsibility because you’re going to get all of the blame.” At times on the shoot, having this sentence rattling around in my head wasn’t helpful at all, as I put enough pressure on myself as it is – I don’t need extra, even if this can be true.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

PBB: Work with people whom you respect, and who respect you back. Be a good leader. Be patient, but persevere. Trust your instincts.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

PBB: When I was a teenager I was obsessed with “American Psycho.” It was one of the films I had on VHS that I watched on repeat. What appealed to me, and still does, is its tone – the way it tiptoes between humor, and a dark, sinister madness. The characters feel larger than life but still truthful. And it’s such a stylish film. All of this was hugely influential for me. But it wasn’t until years later, in my early 20s, that I learned it was directed by a woman, Mary Harron.

So, I don’t just love the film, but I love that I was coming to it as a film, and not as a film by a woman. In the past I’ve met people who have told me, “Your work doesn’t look like a female director’s work.” Whilst I think this is meant as some kind of compliment, I find this kind of viewpoint incredibly reductive, as though all women-directed films are the same – like we should all be making movies about girls in floaty dresses, picking flowers in slow motion or something! I wish people would approach the work with a neutral perspective rather than a different perspective depending on the background of the director.

A couple of more recent films by women directors that I’ve absolutely loved have been “Raw” by Julia Ducournau and “Saint Maud” by Rose Glass, which are both stunning.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

PBB: Throughout the pandemic so far I’ve been completing “Censor.” It’s certainly had its challenges but I’ve always tried to step back and appreciate how lucky I am to be making my film, and to be able to create during this time. The pandemic extended our post schedule by about five-six months, as we were about to shoot pickups when the first lockdown happened in the U.K., so they had to be postponed. The main positive of this was that I had even more time – and time is such a valuable thing to the creative process, so I used that really well.

I’ve certainly had periods where it’s been more difficult to focus, when it’s felt important to be paying attention to what’s going on outside, around the world. I think the key is recognizing when that happens, and not beating yourself up if you haven’t had a productive day.

There’s been a lot going on, and our brains are processing all of this, trying to understand and cope, so the most important thing is that we are kind to ourselves and each other.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

PBB: We need more underrepresented voices in positions of power. There are gatekeepers at every level in this industry and if we make those positions more diverse, I believe that will have a ripple effect across the industry. This is a shared responsibility too, though, and there are systemic problems that need to be addressed. I’m not working in Hollywood, but can speak from the perspective of the U.K.’s independent film industry, which in some ways acts as a gateway to anything bigger, such as Hollywood.

We need better representation across race and class in this country’s film industry – it should reflect the society we live in. Sadly, film sets don’t do that. There are many reasons for this, and we need to root them out and tackle them.

Last year, the Producers’ Roundtable published a report showing stark, low figures for independent producers’ incomes – producers developing independent projects barely scraping a wage. How can anyone sustain a career like this unless they’re coming from a financially stable position already, or have a partner who is able to support them? Support needs to be there for people coming from all backgrounds, so that we have more diverse voices entering the industry and finding a platform.

This is just one example of how the system needs to change in order to be more welcoming of diverse and underrepresented voices. It needs to be tackled from entry level, right up to top decision-makers. All of us should be looking, on an individual level, at how we can make our work and our industry more inclusive. During lockdown and the Black Lives Matter protests I was pleased to discover more collectives for Black Heads of Departments such as Sporas, which is a platform for cinematographers and film technicians of color.

Having been part of Film Fatales and Cinesisters, I really believe in the power of these collectives, as they draw attention to the talent that’s already out there and ready to work.

January 25, 2021
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