Movies

‘A Banquet’ Producer Leonora Darby on Serving Up a Female-Driven Psychological Horror Film With Bite

HanWay Films will screen the first footage from psychological horror film “A Banquet” on Monday to buyers attending the virtual AFM, where HanWay is representing worldwide rights. Variety spoke to Leonora Darby, one of the film’s lead producers at Tea Shop Productions, the company behind breakout hit “47 Meters Down.”

Female-driven “A Banquet” is the directorial debut of Ruth Paxton, and stars Sienna Guillory (“Resident Evil”), rising stars Jessica Alexander and Ruby Stokes, and Lindsay Duncan (“Birdman”). It was written by Justin Bull.

The film centers on widowed mother Holly, who is tested to breaking point when her teenage daughter Betsey 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.

Darby had been looking to work with Bull ever since having aggressively pursued another of his scripts when she worked at The Fyzz Facility. When she read the script to “A Banquet” “it just totally blew me away,” she says.

The next decision was who to attach as director. “It is so much about female relationships and [in particular] mother-daughter relationships, and Justin has drawn those characters and that dynamic so incredibly well, I just thought it would just bring this whole other layer having a female director on board,” Darby says.

“Then we came across Ruth and watched her short that the BBC financed, ‘Be Still My Beating Heart,’ and there is one perfect part in it where Maxine Peake wraps a skipping rope around her neck and has some strange sort of pleasure from asphyxiating herself. I was like ‘This has got some bite in it; this is a very interesting director.’”

Paxton came on board in summer 2019, and by November the project was financed. “It was a very quick process to be honest,” Darby says. The plan was for the shoot to take place this May. The pandemic stopped that, but not for long. The film shot over late July and August on location in London, with COVID-19 restrictions in place.

When approaching the casting of Holly (played by Guillory), the intention was to have “someone who really embodied a new take on the white middle-class suburbia that we see depicted, especially in British cinema,” Darby says. “British cinema is going through such an incredible shift at the moment with the young talent that is coming through.” Series were also a source of inspiration with shows like “The End of the F***ing World” providing a reference. The intention of this generation is on “telling British stories for a broad audience,” she says.

In the film we see a normal, middle-class British suburban family with quite average lives, and then “this weird thing happens,” Darby says. “[Guillory] was very good at exuding this very polished middle-class veneer when there is so much more going on under the surface.”

When casting the daughter it was important that the actress faithfully reflected the age of the character – 17-18 years old – on the cusp of adulthood. Alexander won the role for her ability to deliver the required performance. “Someone who was able to be sweet and vulnerable but at the same time being quite unnerving and scary, and someone that can seed doubt, because this whole film is about doubt and belief, and it is about taking the audience on that journey with the mother, Holly, as she oscillates between whether or not her daughter is telling the truth,” Darby says. “So it’s a very subtle balance because this girl is an enigma to her mother and to us.”

The other central relationship is between Holly and her mother, played by Duncan, who spar with each other.

The absence of religious faith in contemporary Western society is probed in the film, and is challenged when the daughter discovers a belief in a higher power, although hers is not an orthodox version of faith. The film reflects research that Bull undertook into the history of fasting girls in America in the 17th century and 18th century, which looked at “how women were believed when they enacted certain things unto their bodies in the name of a religious experience,” Darby says. Bull took “that tradition and placed it into 21st century culture to see how that would affect people.”

Producers on “A Banquet” are Darby, Mark Lane and James Harris for Tea Shop Productions, Nik Bower for Riverstone Pictures and Laure Vaysse for REP Productions 8 Ltd., which also funded the production.

Tea Shop specializes in genre films like “47 Meters Down,” “I Am Not a Serial Killer” and “Cockneys Vs. Zombies.” Its current productions range from blockbusters like the reboot of “Resident Evil,” which Harris is producing with Constantin Film and Sony, to a smaller psychological horror film like “A Banquet,” but each possesses a distinctive signature by the filmmaker. However, Tea Shop is also stepping outside genre with films like John Michael McDonagh’s “The Forgiven,” which Lane is co-producing. Upcoming projects include one with John Maclean, the director of action-adventure “Slow West.”

Deepak Nayar of Motion Picture Capital is an executive producer on “A Banquet,” alongside Jeremy Baxter of Riverstone Pictures, and Patrick Fischer and Richard Kondal of Creativity Capital.

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