How does it feel when your feature film debut gets worldwide distribution? We caught up with Bristol horror writer/director Ben Steiner to find out. His first feature, Matriarch, gained an international release on Hulu and Disney+ in October 2022. Its world premiere opened Screamfest 2022 in LA and it also picked up the Gold Audience Award at Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams Festival.
Congratulations on your debut feature Ben! Tell us about the film?
Thanks! MATRIARCH is a horror movie starring Jemima Rooper and Kate Dickie. It’s got elements of body horror and folk horror, goes to some quite harrowing places psychologically but also has a thick vein of smutty humour. The core of the story is the toxic relationship between a long-estranged mother and daughter.
Tell us about the production process?
MATRIARCH was commissioned and fully funded by Hulu. It evolved out of my 2018 short film, URN, which Hulu had commissioned as part of their ‘Huluween’ season, an annual release of original horror themed films and shows around Halloween. Me and my then producer Dan Dixon were commissioned to make a short film for Huluween called URN, and then they asked me if I could expand it into a feature.
I invited a London-based producer who I was developing another script with to come on board, and he in turn asked his boss to get involved. So, the production company was London-based but as I’d written the script with the Somerset Levels in mind and live in Bristol, the shoot itself was always going to happen over here.
How did you go about deciding on casting and locations?
I eventually found the tiny village of Sutton Mallet by using the satellite setting on Google Maps to locate appropriately small, Levels-adjacent villages with churches. There ended up being some issues with the church, so we ended up shooting the interiors at St Michael On The Mount Without in Bristol. All the urban stuff at the beginning of the film is Bristol too.
The casting director was Rob Kelly in London and all the cast came through him apart from Simon Meacock who’s a long-time friend and collaborator of mine. I knew of DoP Alan McLaughlin from an amazing horror short film INK which was doing the festivals at the same time as my short film THE STOMACH, in which Simon plays the lead.
You’re Bristol-based – were the crew you worked with also from Bristol?
A lot of the team were from Bristol or nearby-ish. Kim Heron, our heroic 1st AD, is from somewhere in Somerset where I believe she has the privilege of being Jacob Rees-Mogg’s neighbour! Our amazing composer Suvi-Eeva Äikäs is originally from Finland but has lived in Bristol for years and works a lot with Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. Our head of make-up Nicola Coleman splits her time between London and Bristol.
We had a B unit on one day and that was all Bristol folk including Tomoi Summers and Camila Carlow. We did use a studio space in Bristol and the guys who run it were originally lined up to do our VFX but we ended up getting most of that done in LA.
Beyond Bristol we had a few people from London, like our editor Jim Page, and others – like Alan the DoP and our brilliant costume designer Nadine Powell – came all the way from Scotland.
How does it feel to get an international release for your first feature?
It feels amazing. I’ve been working towards this for 20 years and finally, my dream has come true. And the response has been brilliant. Not universally positive by any means, but it’s definitely found an enthusiastic audience.
How do you think the experience of horror on the small screen compares with watching it at the cinema?
The cinema/home viewing thing is totally personal. I think some people get so focussed on the screen they’re oblivious to the rest of the audience whether it’s one person on the sofa or a hundred people in a cinema. Personally, I’d rather watch something like RINGU on my own or with one or two other people, and something like the aforementioned short film INK – which is gleefully visceral and disgusting – with a vocally appalled audience.
Where can we see it?
It’s been on Hulu in the States and Disney+ everywhere else since October of last year. The premiere was at the Chinese Theatre in LA which was amazing and it also played at Celluloid Screams in Sheffield where it won the audience award for best feature, which was totally unexpected especially as it was screening alongside big horror titles like BARBARIAN.
The film is certainly not for everyone, as I’m reminded every time I look at the reviews on Letterboxd, but lots of people have really enjoyed it and hopefully I’ll be able to follow it up with something fairly soon.
What have been the proudest and most challenging moments of your journey as a filmmaker so far?
The film I’m creatively proudest of is still my short film THE STOMACH, but if I need to give myself a boost it’s the dream come true of making a feature film that I think of. There were a lot of challenges on MATRIARCH – probably a conversation for the pub rather than here! – but the greatest challenge has been just keeping going while not knowing if a feature would ever happen. I’m very lucky to have an extremely supportive wife and family.
Which filmmakers have influenced you creatively?
I’d say Cronenberg, Roeg, Scorsese are my big three. Ben Wheatley and Andy Starke’s DIY / ‘don’t wait for permission to make a feature’ ethos is really inspiring, although I’ve yet to actually act on that inspiration! The Canadian writer-director of new horror sensation SKINAMARINK made that in his parent’s house for $15K. That’s pretty amazing.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to finance a feature version of my short film THE STOMACH, I’ve also got a haunted house movie and a horror/black comedy about a real life vampire hoax. Those scripts are all ready to go and then I’m working on some other original ideas and looking into rights for some novels and short stories I’d love to adapt, some horror or weird fiction, and others British noir/crime.
What do you like about living and working in Bristol, UNESCO City of Film?
It’s a proper city with loads going on, but you can be out in the countryside in minutes. I’ve made lots of lovely, creative friends in the last eight years. Moving to Bristol is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Matriarch is available to watch on Hulu and Disney+. For more information visit: bensteinerfilm.com/matriarch