Interview with Paul Holbrook

‘There’s a sense that you have to fit into a particular mould of what a filmmaker is. I don’t think I fit into that mould.’ An interview with Paul Holbrook, director of Hungry Joe and Shiney.

In Paul Holbrook’s Hungry Joe, a boy is born with an ungovernable urge to eat. In Shiney, a pair of rebellious preteens hatch a plan to buy a pack of cigarettes. Here, Holbrook talks about changes in the horror genre, his commitment to honesty, and why he has no plans on moving to London.

When it comes to filmmaking, Paul Holbrook is determined to put authenticity first. “Honesty is the key thing,” he says. “It’s about setting the film in places that feel very real and grounded, and having faith that they’ll translate onto screen – not drifting into that layer of movie-making where it becomes very easy to fall into stereotypes and clichés.”

Real and grounded vs. stereotype and cliché: when it comes to his 2020 output, Holbrook has very much achieved the former. Last year, he wrote and directed two films, Hungry Joe and Shiney, both of which are being screened at this year’s Oxford International Short Film Festival. The films share the same location – the working-class estate in Hartcliffe, Bristol, where Holbrook and his writing partner Sam Dawe grew up – yet couldn’t be at further ends of the cinematic spectrum.  Hungry Joe is a bleak experiment in horror as social commentary, starring Laura Bayston as the single mother to Andrew Graves’ Joe, a child who compulsively and unabatingly eats – with hideous consequences. Shiney, by contrast, ramps the colour grading up from Hungry Joe’s grey and pallid palette to a sunny, late afternoon gold. Non-actors cast from the Hartcliffe estate – Katie Francis and Caleb Stevens – play bored preteens trying to buy a pack of cigarettes. From punishing high concept to sweet, feel-good comedy, the films show off Holbrook’s protean filmmaking – his ability to dramatize the two sides, real and surreal, of the same setting.

“They are visually and tonally different,” Holbrook explains, “but a lot of the inspirations are the same.” Those inspirations are clear in Hungry Joe, a palimpsest of film favourites and historical influences. First there’s the story of the 18th-century French showman Tarrare, a medical marvel infamous for eating anything and everything (by everything, I mean everything: Holbrook mentions shoes and the blood of dead people). Holbrook and Dawe came across him while discussing their interest in “little Stephen King stories, urban myths, real-life freaks.” Then there’s the love for old anthology horror TV, from Outer Limits to The Twilight Zone,“the kind of thing you would stumble on at midnight on a Friday night.” And finally there’s Holbrook’s investment in real-life places, specifically Hartcliffe. In this daring alchemy of interests, Holbrook shapes Joe into a grotesque, contemporized Tarrare figure living on 21st-century Britain’s poverty line. Or, in Holbrook’s words, an experiment in wondering, “how do we clash David Cronenberg with Shane Meadows?”

But Holbrook, amid these influences, remains very much his own filmmaker. He identifies his main method as “marrying high concepts, striking ideas, or cinematic subgenres with working-class environments” – an aesthetic entirely distinctive to him. This means Holbrook blends genre components with a wider thesis: after initially conceiving the film as a stereotypical horror, Holbrook sought to establish “some thematic metaphors to make it pop.” And they pop brilliantly. Hungry Joe is at once “about class, post-natal depression, single parenthood, motherhood in general, and an unfair system,” Holbrook says. Midway through writing, Holbrook and Dawe switched to focus on the mother’s, rather than Joe’s, perspective, and in doing so poses the question: “how difficult is it to love a kid when you’ve given birth to a monster?”

Yet Holbrook is keen to avoid being too high-falutin. “We’re talking about this thematic stuff and these internal conflicts. Sometimes, that can be a bit pretentious. It’s also about remembering you’ve got a love for the genre – that body horror and gross-out visuals. We didn’t want to be snobs about it.” From grotesque guzzling of food to indulgent, lingering shots of gore, Hungry Joe indeed revels in its own genre. But with critical darlings like Robert Eggers and Ari Aster finding ways of making contemporary horror into social analysis, Holbrook sees the genre “maturing” beyond this. After all, “if you’ve got a moment that freaks you out or sickens you or makes you feel ill – those always land harder when you feel attached to the character it’s happening to.”

From being sickened to being charmed, the leap from Hungry Joe to Shiney is striking – not least in its proof of Holbrook’s polyglot understanding of different cinematic languages. While Hungry Joe was born from a brainstorm about barbarity, Shiney came about after Holbrook pitched the BFI with a film celebrating “that summer holiday vibe”: happy-go-lucky, refreshing, fun. He would cast non-actors from his estate and shoot from a sparse script, “letting the kids’ personalities drive the tone of the film.” The BFI were enchanted, and it’s difficult for the viewer not to be too. Watching Shiney is an exuberant 15 minutes, drenched as it is in a butter gold glow and carried by the bolshie zest of its cast.

In particular, 12-year-old Katie Francis as the protagonist, Kayleigh, is a discovery. Charismatic and full of brio, the underage Kayleigh demands help from her friend and an older boy to secure the Holy Grail of cigarettes. Yet Francis can also pierce the sheen of Kayleigh’s rebellious confidence with a quiet vulnerability. This duality is well understood by Holbrook. “We underestimate kids. They’re really sensitive. They’re bolshie, and a lot of what they do is external – but when you were a little kid, things troubled you,” he says. “We don’t give kids enough credit for how emotionally intelligent they can be.”

Shiney itself is receiving a well-deserved amount of credit from organisations and audiences alike. Within 2 weeks of being posted on YouTube, the film hit a million views. When asked why the film has struck such a chord beyond the festival circuit, Holbrook points to its nostalgic quality. “It’s set in 2011, but nostalgia is still a big part of it. We’ve all wasted days away in the summer holidays – all that stuff is universal,” he says. “There’s something about relating to those stories in an adult way that’s transportive.” But it’s not just the nostalgic elements that highlights this generational gap between being an adult and a teen: Holbrook is excited about Shiney’s award nominations and festival screenings – Francis by seeing its views rocket up online.

Shiney has also made an important point about access. In casting non-actors, Holbrook has introduced new young talent to the film industry – and they now have opportunities off the back of it. As for Holbrook himself, he’s not short on industry enthusiasm. Producers and agents have come knocking at his door, alongside organisations like the BFI. Does it become more of a challenge to preserve his commitment to honesty, the more institutional endorsement he receives? Holbrook becomes thoughtful. “There’s a sense that to take that big jump up in the industry, you have to fit into a particular mould of what a filmmaker is. I don’t think I fit into that mould very well,” he says. “But I’m not going to change.” There’s pressure in particular to move to London – that relocating there is synonymous with industry applause. But for Holbrook, those who decamp to the city become “part of the machine.” “They live in London, they’re making high-end TV. But along the way, they might have lost what makes them unique.” Holbrook is firm. “I don’t want to lose that. I want to cling onto who I am.”

For Holbrook, holding onto who he is means committing to Bristol – to the real and grounded stories he can make there. But despite his reservations, Holbrook’s voice is being heard loud and clear. He’s got funding to turn Hungry Joe into a feature film, and a producer who’s just worked on a successful, award-winning horror is avid to help develop it. This seems to be one way of reconciling Holbrook’s hunt for “creative satisfaction” with wider industry success. “You need that satisfaction,” he insists. “Otherwise, what’s the point in doing the job in the first place?”

Hungry Joe and Shiney screened at the Oxford International Short Film Festival 2021. Katie Francis won ‘Best Young Performer’ for Shiney and Hungry Joe won the ‘Best Effects’ award. More of Paul Holbrook’s work can be found at https://www.paulholbrook.co.uk/.