Ben Young’s chilling Hounds of Love is based on two real-life suburban serial killers, writes Philippa Hawker
Ben Young’s striking debut feature, Hounds of Love, is a tale of toxic complicity turned back on itself. Set in 1980s Perth, the film is the story of a suburban couple, John and Evelyn (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth), whose relationship is cemented by kidnapping and eventually killing teenage girls. The film focuses on the fate of their new victim, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) and her struggle to survive.
The opening of Hounds of Love sets the scene in more ways than one: it shows teenage girls playing netball, shot from the point of view of an observer in a car and depicted in a kind of dreamy extreme slow-motion, with the camera lingering on limbs. Young’s script began with this scene, but the way it was shot happened almost by chance, he says.
“I was working with a fantastic cinematographer, Michael McDermott, who is a dear friend and shot tonnes of music videos and commercials with me, and he’d just happened to buy a high-speed camera, the kind you need to shoot ultra-ultra slow. He said, ‘I’ve got this tool that costs a fortune to hire each day, so if you want to use it for anything, let me know.’ ”
For Young, it offered the ideal way to heighten that opening scene and plunge us into a mixture of banality and obsession that defines what follows.
Young has created three demanding, rewarding roles, but finding the actors to fill them was not entirely straightforward. Booth is a good friend he has known for years. “I wrote the role for her, and she said no because she thought the film was too full on.” Fortunately, he says, her agent talked her into it.
The person for whom he wrote John also turned him down. In his search for another actor, he says, it never would have occurred to him to approach Curry, whose skills are most often associated with comedy and whose signature role is in The Castle. “My casting director, Anousha Zarkesh, said to me, Stephen Curry has read your script and he’s eager to do something dark. Would you mind talking to him? We had a chat over the phone and had lots of ideas. I went to Melbourne and auditioned him, and he gave the best audition.”
John has a surface affability, but it soon dissolves; he is manipulative, vain and chilly, full of self-regard. Yet, although he may be in control inside the house, outside he’s less assured, as we see in a brief scene that suggests what his life might have been like before he met a person he could dominate.
Evelyn is fixated on her two absent children, whose custody she has forfeited: John knows how to play on her hopes and fantasies about being reunited with them. Vicki, observing the nature of their relationship, desperately sets out to undermine it before it’s too late.
Young says he was intrigued by the psychology of the female character. Researching similar stories, he says, “Women often seem to commit murder through perversion of virtue or perversion of justice; they convince themselves that the murder of this particular person is the best thing for the world.” Male serial killers generally need no such rationalisation. “They do it for their own gratification.”
Hounds of Love is a distressing film, but much of what happens is implied rather than depicted. “What you imagine is always going to be so much worse than anything I can show you on screen,” Young says. “Had I shown what went on behind the door, that’s all people would have remembered. They wouldn’t have had time to sit with the characters and think about them. I never wanted to make a film about the acts these people commit. I wanted to make a film about the psychology of the people who commit these acts.”
Even so, he says, he was always aware the actors could find some scenes confronting, by the nature of what was implied. “I made it very clear with all of them exactly what I was hoping to achieve out of a scene and said to everybody, ‘It’s just a movie, it’s not worth damaging yourselves physically or psychologically for this. We all know what the scenes are about and what we need to get out of them. If I’m asking you to do something you are really uncomfortable with, just tell me, and let’s see if we can come up with a way to get the same thing across without putting you through things you don’t want to do.’ We did that a couple of times.”
Hounds of Love had its premiere in Venice last year, garnering strong reviews and a best actress award for Cummings. After Venice, Young found himself in demand in ways he is still coming to terms with. “I got an agent out of it and a US manager, and I started getting bombarded with screenplays from the States.”
One was a science fiction film, Extinction, co-written by Eric Heisserer ( Arrival). “I got a call from my agent saying the producers had seen Hounds of Love and wanted to talk to me about their script but that they needed a director ASAP. This was at the beginning of October and I’d only just got back from doing the festival rounds in Europe. So I read it and really liked it, jumped on the phone from the producers and the next thing my agent said was: ‘They want to offer you the job.’ ”
Young is speaking on set from Serbia, where he’s directing a cast including Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan in a science fiction thriller with plenty of special effects. “It’s a real learning curve for me, that’s for sure. Poles apart from Hounds of Love.” Extinction has nine producers; Hounds of Love had one, Melissa Kelly.
After Extinction, he’ll scarcely have time to pause. “There’s another American script I really want to do that is still in development and that’s on the cards.” He’s talking to Craig Silvey, author of Jasper Jones, who also co-wrote the screenplay for its adaptation: “He and I are bouncing a few ideas around.” And with producer Kelly he’s developing a children’s film.
After the Hounds of Love’s Venice debut, “my life changed, literally, overnight”. Hounds of Love opens nationally on June 1.
Director Ben Young
Emma Booth and Stephen Curry in Hounds of Love