Containment is the debut feature of British filmmaker Neil McEnery-West, a thriller filmed and set on a housing estate in Southampton. The story follows a group of residents who face an unexplained and terrifying confinement to their tower block, watching through their windows as their neighbours are snatched by unknowns in hazmat suits.
A low budget affair, Containment is driven by its characters, normal people pushed to their limits under extreme fear. The film portrays an apparently widespread virus from the perspective of a group of clueless survivors from a distinctly restricted position.
The fatal epidemic is a narrative which has been repeatedly reimagined, from the countless zombie horrors to the recent Planet of the Apes origin series. What Containment brings to the genre is a group of clueless survivors with a distinctly restricted perspective on the crisis.
Gorilla talked to Neil Mcenery-West about his work on the film.
What’s your production background, and how did you get to Containment?
Well my background is quite mixed really. In terms of fiction, I’ve been making short films up until Containment, and I’ve been doing that since the ‘90s. A short film called Undertow was quite an ambitious project because of what we were trying to do with it, and that took us a lot longer than we anticipated. That took from 2003 to 2007. It was a half hour short, and it was a bit of a mad project. It was entirely made by me; I decided to do all the roles, a crew of one and a cast of three. It was set in a deserted London and it was quite art house. It took us an age to get the footage, we didn’t have any money. And I didn’t want to cheat it by shooting down backstreets, I wanted to shoot in main city areas. We shot over about three summers, mainly on weekends, very early morning, and we’d take an age to get one or two shots. It was worth it in the end because it did well, but it was a ridiculous project to be perfectly honest, and I wouldn’t do it again. And before and during that I’d been doing freelance work, in TV for a while, and on documentaries. But my passion has always been in fiction, so I’ve always been making films on the side.
I’ve read that the Containment project has been around for a while. Do you remember your very first thoughts about it?
The initial idea that became the setup was in about 1995. But the first time I began thinking about it in the kind of form and guise that it is now was probably about 2008. Back in ’95 it was a different story. It was a story about a man sealed inside a block who starts a relationship with a woman on the opposite block, and the reason they were sealed in was an environmental issue, a never-ending heatwave. So they haven’t been sealed in but they’ve been forced to stay inside. So it actually started out as a weird sci-fi romance. But then it was in 2008 when I came back to the original idea, and I shifted it around. The original idea was a guy being sealed in his flat, and everyone else being sealed in the building, and them having no idea why or who was doing it. And then the why and how came about in collaboration with David (Lemon) who wrote the screenplay. But David didn’t come on board until 2009. So it’s been kicking around in forms quite a while.
So considering the ideas you toyed with before developing this narrative, were you always interested in an infection thriller?
I’ve always liked place under siege thrillers, and I’ve always liked the idea of contained spaces, and claustrophobia visually within a story. But to be honest it was partly practical as well. I’d just finished Undertow and was using that as a calling card to get a feature made. And I was trying to think of a feature that would be a sensible choice to make. Something that was interesting and big on scope, but achievable on a low budget. The whole entrapment thing, a single apartment, seemed to fit quite nicely with that. We could make a disaster movie, but by containing it within a very limited point of view, you actually get to minimise a lot of costs and technicalities which go with disaster films.
It’s a busy genre –
– yeah, absolutely, which is something David and I talked about a lot. It was very important to us that we did something a little different, as it is such an overpopulated genre. Particularly virus movies. And virus movies typically turn into zombie movies. So in many respects the virus in unimportant, it just gets the story going. What the story has always been about is how people react under extreme pressure. It’s always been about human nature, and the mistakes people make and the bad choices they can make when they’re under threat. Because the genre is so populated, people come into the film with expectations of where it’s gonna go, so it was fun to play with that and veer it off into a different direction.
Initially the hazmats are the obvious enemy. But as the film continues, almost all of the characters become so dislikeable in many ways. Are you drawn to difficult characters?
I wouldn’t say that the characters become dislikeable; I would say that they become fully rounded. We tried very carefully not to make it heroes and villains; good guys and bad guys. At the beginning the obvious antagonist is set up to be the hazmats, which then gets turned on its head a bit when we meet Hazel, an ordinary person just trying to do her job who doesn’t really understand what’s going on either. Sergei is the closest you get to an antagonist in the film, but even he’s just an arrogant, frightened kid looking after his brother who’s got a real chip on his shoulder. And even Mark, the closest you get to a hero, is fallible and makes bad choices. For us it was a case of making it about ordinary people. And sometimes their darker sides erupt onto the surface when they’re pushed into a corner. I certainly wouldn’t set out to make characters dislikeable.
Most of the films I tend to make tend to start off with an idea I come up with, and I really like developing stories. And I was really lucky with David because he was really generous, and had brilliant ideas. But I can’t write a screenplay for toffee, that’s a skill I don’t have. It’s really important for me to have a good screenwriter, but I do like working closely with them on the story.
Directing is a great part of it for me, because I get to work with all the departments and the cast directly. And it’s a great view of it, because you see it come alive in a way you don’t always anticipate.
In terms of fun, probably sound design is the part I found most fun. I like editing a lot, I edit a lot of other stuff myself. It’s great fun to see what you can experiment with. But sound design is pure fun. Nikola Medic (sound designer) and I had a ball. Because there’s so much you don’t see in this film, it was clear the film was going to have to have a really strong sound design. A lot of what’s going on is implied through sounds, rather than what you see. To create that atmosphere in such a confined space, there’s so much you can do with sound. And I think it’s an area that’s massively underused by filmmakers. You’ve got so much freedom to experiment with, partly because it’s not as used and experimented with, so there’s still lots of ground that hasn’t been covered.
Are there any filmmakers that stand out to you that use sound well?
Scorsese has always used sound very well, the obvious choice being Raging Bull, but really all his films. More recently Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy), he’s fantastic. And Jonathan Glazer who made Under the Skin and Birth, he’s great. Birth had an amazing soundtrack, and Under the Skin just blew me away, the music and the soundtrack was fantastic. It’s interesting that there are more contemporary filmmakers that I can think of than older filmmakers. I think during the ‘70s there was a lot of interesting use of sound by the American independents, but I think nowadays people are really starting to play around with it a lot more.
What’s next for you? Do you see yourself as a thriller director? Do any other genres appeal to you?
Not just as a thriller director, I’d love to experiment with different genres. Thriller and horror are areas I am attracted to, and sci-fi. I’m working on another feature screenplay with David Lemon, and a couple others, one for TV. There’s another project I’m not collaborating with anyone on yet, so I’m not quite sure where it’ll go. But I’d certainly like to do more thrillers, that’s for sure. And ideally I’d like to do a bit of TV as well. It’s a great form which has become really into its own over the last ten years.