How Sundance select horror-thriller Coming Home in the Dark subverts NZ's 'happy Hobbits' image

Source: 1News

New Zealand horror-thriller Coming Home in the Dark is set to make its world premiere after being selected for Sundance 2021 in a subversion of the country as full of “happy Hobbits,” according to sound designers at the award-winning Wellington post-production studio behind the film.

A still from Coming Home in the Dark (2021).

Based on a 1995 short story of the same name by Owen Marshall, the horror thriller follows a school teacher who is forced to confront his past after he and his family are taken on a road trip by a pair of ominous figures. The film also stars Daniel Gillies, Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell and Matthias Luafutu.

Coming Home will hold its world premiere at Sundance online on Sunday, January 31 US time (Monday, February 1 New Zealand time) after being selected for the Midnight section of the iconic film festival.

POW Studios CEO and supervising sound editor John McKay has worked on many big-budget films over his nearly 40-year career as a sound designer, including The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.

He says while he’s worked with many first-time feature film directors over the years, director James Ashcroft’s first feature-length film didn’t feel as such.

“He was extremely straightforward,” he said.

“He told us exactly what he liked and what he didn’t so we had a very clear, should I say, beat on exactly what we were after, what we presented and he was very decisive.”

McKay told 1 NEWS the "road crime horror thriller" serves as a reimagining of the everyday with the dread of the “off-kilter world” lurking just beneath the surface.

Creative director and senior sound designer Matthew Lambourn says the film is an unnerving reminder that the natural beauty of the remote New Zealand landscape can shift into something “not just scary but threatening and ominous and even terrifying”.

“We’ve all got in the back of our minds our lovely bushes and mountains, the people that go missing every year or sometimes a backpacker will go for a walk and is never heard from again and that’s always this dark undercurrent that’s running in the national consciousness,” he said.

While a film’s score typically serves as a means of building up audience anticipation or as a cue for an emotional response, its relative absence in Coming Home provides instead an “opportunity” for the subtle layers of texture, sound and the slow build-up of “moments of tension” - the flapping of a coat, the tapping away of a knocked over stand - to shine through, McKay says.

“There’s those cues that music gives you ... It all just brings its own emotions straight away. You immediately go, ‘They’re trying to manipulate you’ or trying to make you feel this way whereas, if there’s no score, it’s a bit more unsettling.

“You’re not given the trigger or that knowing moment, ‘OK, it’s going to happen now, I know because they’re building it up so big’ and so when something happens, it’s a shock.

“The music came after the moment [and] is actually more effective because it gives you the moment to actually reflect on it.”

In one instance in the film, a violent attack at a petrol station is made all the more perverse as the act is committed just outside the frame, with only the horrified gazes of the onlookers and the audience’s imagination - compounded by the layering of sound - to carry the scene through.

Rather than using standard “shock, horror” sound effects, McKay says its “moments of tension” are built through an “accumulation of the environment and the detail over time,” which he called “more powerful” than “something that’s really obviously a horror sound effect”.

Foley artist Carrie McLaughlin - who’s responsible for recreating “the more intimate sounds that an actor will make in a film” - says while it serves as a reflection of childhood trauma, neglect and how it manifests itself in adulthood, set against the backdrop of the New Zealand outback, it’s a story which can be universally understood.

“It could actually be set in a lot of other places, too, with that kind of youth neglect and trauma and how that plays out later in life and just trying to find some kind of retribution,” she said.

Lambourn says the story is a heartbreaking one, too, adding that the film’s premise remains prevalent both here and overseas.

“They are highlighting and reflecting these really dark themes that are happening in our country and overseas. We’ve been saying it forever but [we] really need to address [them],” he said.

McKay said despite the team having worked on more well-known films with larger budgets, the smaller team size and the time constraints which came with it allowed for a more creative shoot.

“We didn’t really have a lot of time, so you actually have to be very specific about what you do,” he explained.

“There’s no sounds that were put into the film that weren’t really used because we weren’t wasting effort and so we had a very good control of what we were actually going to do.

“It was very highly organised and efficiency enables you to create because you create time. Limitations always bring the best out of you, I think.”

“The bigger the projects, the more people - dare I say it, more ego, more sort of competing elements within it,” he added.

Lambourn attributed Coming Home’s success to the team’s strong working relationship with the director and editorial team.

“We can evolve and work on this film collaboratively rather than wait ‘til everyone else has done their part and then, finally, it’s sound’s turn to try and shoehorn effects right at the end,” he explained.

“If you have that time to make those relationships and actually all get on the same page and get that tone right from the start - before you even start, in fact - then it makes it much more rewarding, certainly a more rewarding working process, but I think that shines through in the film as well.”

Despite expressing disappointment the film’s world premiere will be a largely online-only affair due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the trio are excited about the film playing at the prestigious festival following its completion last March.

"It's wonderful that it's gone to Sundance," Lambourn said. "It's showcasing what everybody thinks about New Zealand ... but it's sort of subverting that, showing that we're not all just happy Hobbits." 

Concerns were raised, however, around the loss of the cinemagoing experience and the dynamic range it offers.

“I’ve always worried about how a film will sound in a cinema, but I can‘t go around to everyone’s home and tune their home,” McKay lamented.

“At the very least, don’t watch it through your laptop speakers - stick on your headphones and get your speakers humming if you’re watching it at home,” Lambourn urged. 

While Coming Home serves as proof that New Zealand films can find success on the international stage, more should be done to foster local talent, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, McLaughlin says.

“The more that they get out there, the more interest, the more funding, hopefully - just tell stories and get our writers writing scripts and then getting made,” she said.

“Get that kind of momentum going and keep working our talent and keep growing. We’re never finished with what we’re learning and do it on New Zealand films.”

Lambourn says he’s glad New Zealand talent is once again getting recognition “that we’re beyond the need to have to prove our value”.

“We can produce and we can write and we can make films and we can do all the post-production and we can run a solid workflow,” he said.

“I hope we’re coming into a golden age of New Zealand filmmaking again,” McKay added.

Coming Home in the Dark will have its world premiere at Sundance on January 31 US time.