Article by Jack Keating.
After watching a long line of horror shorts at this year’s BAFTA and Oscar qualifying Leeds International Film Festival, one stood out among the rest. Hungry Joe is a movie about a single mother trying to raise a child who never stops eating. It’s a deeply unsettling drama about being working class while also working within the realms of body horror. It stood out as being a film that has a singular vision both stylistically and in its script, which is a feat considering it was written and directed by a duo. Sam Dawe and Paul Holbrook, the writers/directors of the film, have been making short films together for 10 years but still feel like newcomers to the industry. Film was something the both of them always had a passion for growing up together but for a long time it felt like it would just stay a passion.
SAM: ‘10 years ago I decided to go to uni as a mature student to try and learn about filmmaking. And then Paul was like, “that sounds cool, I’d like to do that as well”.’
PAUL: ‘It's always the dream to work in the industry, but having the dream and believing that you could actually do it, or even admitting that you could do it is a different thing. It wasn't until, like Sam said, that he was going to university (I was almost hitting thirty at that point) where I was like like, “Screw it, let's do something about it”.’
The pair of them are cousins and grew up together on a council estate in the South West. As a result of this, they know each other and their tastes well, and it’s because of this that they know when to either pursue something on their own and when it’s an idea that they both want to get their hands on. With Hungry Joe, they knew instantly that this idea was in line with both of their tastes, so they went for it.
SAM: ‘Yeah, it was kind of a rarity in that sense. That was the reason we went with it so quickly because it was one of those things that we were both equally excited about.’
PAUL: ‘You know when it's a good idea to pair up on a project. There are some projects that are really personal and get you excited because they keep you up at night and the cogs are turning, but they turn into a personal project. Then there are projects like Hungry Joe where you struggle to get that, but the excitement comes from being in the room with Sam or vice versa.’
Growing up together on a council estate in the South West, class issues feel like they seep into every pore of Sam and Paul’s work. It’s not even something that’s forced for them; setting a movie like Hungry Joe on a council estate feels natural. Joe’s insatiable hunger only feels like an exaggerated version of what happens to working class families in real life and does an amazing job of hitting home that point without ever feeling overbearing.
PAUL: ‘That is one of the things I'm talking about when we collide as a partnership. We're both from a council estate, we’re both working class lads, we both had parents that raised kids in poverty. So I think that's one of the things that, as a partnership, we relate to the material ourselves.’
SAM: ‘There's a reason that she goes to food banks and stuff like that and it felt like it wasn’t wedged in. It felt like it would have been weird to not mention it because we always set everything we write in that kind of milieu of a working-class council estate’.
Despite being very conscious of the class aspect of the film, as well as the obvious themes of Post Natal depression, they didn’t ever want it to come across as too heavy-handed in its message. It boasts having weighty themes without forgetting that the mother, Laura’s, journey is a big part of the enjoyment of the film. It achieves the tough balancing act of being high concept, character driven, and fun horror all at the same time.
PAUL: ‘There’s a fine line between the theme driving the narrative and your lead actor’s/ character’s attachment to that theme. I think sometimes you can get a little bit lost, where you let the theme drive the narrative more than the character’s inner struggles. In something like Hungry Joe, because it’s quite high concept, it's easy for us to fall into the trap with the fun stuff— we can get him to eat this or we can get him to eat that and we can throw some gore in there. That's all great because that's all the cells of the genre, but for us as writer/directors, we want a little bit more meat on the bone that we can really relate to.’
The topic of genre is one that the both of them are still grappling with as filmmakers. When I described Hungry Joe as their first ‘full blown horror’, they looked taken back as they themselves associate so many tropes with Horror that aren’t present in Hungry Joe. Considering it’s only in the last few years there’s been a resurgence of ‘Elevated Horror’, with filmmakers like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers being at the forefront, it’s sometimes hard not to associate Horror as the slapstick jump-scares that dominated the genre for so long. With that being said, these filmmakers have helped to give the genre a newly found appreciation for movie watchers, and it’s through these trailblazers that Sam and Paul get the confidence to make what they do.
PAUL: ‘We've been a bit adverse to the label, because sometimes when someone says ‘horror’, you're expecting a certain thing, right? You’re expecting jump scares, you’re expecting gore, you’re expecting cheese and you're expecting a plot driven narrative. That stuff is so ingrained in us as film-watchers.’
SAM: ‘It does feel a bit churlish to deny or shy away from [the label]. It’s a weird one with Horror because it's always been a smarter genre than it's got credit for— I do think it is a rich environment to touch on these themes. Obviously a part of us did want to tell this as a Horror, especially when we first conceived it. Before we kind of latched on to Laura's character a bit more, it was more of a straight Horror— like a monster of the week story’.
PAUL: ‘It just goes to prove the importance of development - because when we first conceived it, as Sam said, it was just based on the concept of a guy that can't stop eating, we were already excited about that because that's a really fun concept.
Now we could have just run with that and still made a really enjoyable film, but through development and through having a bit more confidence - because Ari Aster is bringing out the ‘Elevated Horror’ and all this kind of stuff - it gives you the confidence to look a bit deeper. We're throwing ideas around but at some point you have to find a way for us as filmmakers to connect to the material, right? Outside of just loving it because it's cool idea. I’m not throwing out the Horror genre because that’s all there, but what is it about us as filmmakers that wants to make a cut Elevate the genre? That’s where theme is born from.’
Social realism is something that appeals to both Sam and Paul - they feel it’s what elevates their films beyond just having the genre tag. Before Hungry Joe, they made films like ‘A Girl and Her Gun’, which was a Drama with Spaghetti Western tropes thrown in to elevate it. On Hungry Joe the blend feels seamless, and it’s probably something the two have learnt to master in their 10 years of filmmaking.
SAM: ‘You can make a social realist film, but social realism should be like a seasoning in our minds. This is something that we get quite frustrated about with some of the films we watch, even ones that we really like, it's like having a meal of salt. You can have ET set on a council estate and you can have the social realism as the aesthetic and the tone but you can still tell genre stories in that setting.’
PAUL: ‘When we’re writing we’re finding that by delving deeper into themes of poverty, hierarchy, the class system, or the lack of respect for different people and all this kind of stuff - the amount of Horror we’re finding in the everyday - there’s a representation of that on the page.’
Paul and Sam funded Hungry Joe themselves which is incredibly impressive when you consider how well it’s being received. They’ve been incredibly DIY in their 10 years of filmmaking, and they’ve had to learn a lot of lessons along the way to try to get doors to start opening. I asked them how they feel now that their hard work seems to be paying off for them and if they have any advice for people who’re looking to get into the industry today.
PAUL: ‘When we made our first very first film we were a bit delusional - make a film yourself and the doors will swing open and everyone will welcome you with open arms. We made one film and it was crap. What we could have done then is run away with our tail between our legs. Instead what we did is we dug really deep into that film to ask ourselves why it was crap and what we can do better. We learnt the lessons and then ever since then we've just had this attitude to pay our dues.’
SAM: ‘If we would have got funding on our first film, the one that ended up being crap, that would have kind of been it for us. We would have made a crap film with the funding and never would’ve got funding again. So there's something to be said about having a bit of a struggle to get to a place where you can get funding, because that's where you find your voices, where you learn what you're good at, what you're not so good at and you can kind of lean into your limitations and get creative with stuff.’
PAUL: ‘It’s really difficult to make a film, really difficult. It's even fucking harder to make a good one. The mistake a lot of young filmmakers make is to make one film. They think they're God's gift and then they'll back that film for the rest of their life. It makes you look a bit delusional— you have to be open to self-criticism. We made like 15 shorts, three of which we were happy to share and we were happy to a degree with. On the rest we were just experimenting and throwing shit at the wall and just kind of learning on the fly. It feels like suddenly after 10 years, even though the doors aren't fully open yet, they're gradually beginning to creak open because we paid our dues. Not that we'd suggest everyone goes and bankrupts themselves to make films, but we were adamant that this is what we want to do forever.’
SAM: ‘You should have an objective view of your own film. So yeah, it’s fine if you wince a bit when you watch it. We've made a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't necessarily want to show anyone, but through doing that, we kind of figured out what we don't like and the sort of stuff that is representative of what we want to do going forward. Hungry Joe is the closest to something I’d like to make at a feature level. That's the kind of film I would like to make.’
I questioned them on when they know when to take criticism and when to ignore it, and asked if they have any advice on networking.
PAUL: ‘Be open to everybody’s criticism, but at the same time, be confident enough to know which criticism deserves or warrants exploration or respect and which ones need to be put in the bin. I think there's this thing of recognising standards. I think sometimes people can let themselves off standards because they're making a short film or because it's cheap. You can let yourself off because it is difficult, but you shouldn't be blind to what they are. You should feel really proud of yourself because you finished it and you got it done, but it's not the best thing in the world. You need to recognise where the standards are and always be aiming to hit them.’
SAM: ‘Yeah, like Paul said, listen to all of it, but then at a certain point you do have to follow your instincts because your instincts are what make you the filmmaker you are. If you're following every single piece of advice, none of those decisions belong to you anymore.’
PAUL: ‘In regards to networking man, just do it, do it all, as boring as it might be sometimes. But don't play the game, don't pretend, don't go in acting like you're something you're not, be yourself.’
SAM: ‘Don't try to act this filmmaker persona— I think we did it a little bit to begin with. Not so much out of like place of arrogance, but out of insecurity because we were okay with it— this talk like we're filmmakers.’
Finally I asked what Sam and Paul have been watching recently and if they have any recommendations for the people out there. Sam recommends Cure, a Japanese horror film, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and is available to stream on BFIPlayer and Mubi. Paul recommended The Greasy Strangler, which is a black comedy horror movie directed by Jim Hosking and available to rent on most streaming services.
Hungry Joe will be available to watch on Short Of The Week and Alter from January 11th.
You can see a full list of their available previous works on Shunkfilms.co.uk.
Paul Holbrook’s Social media/Future projects:
Films coming next after Hungry Joe:
Shiney (releasing online Q1 2021): https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9211458/
Hollow (in post production): https://www.imdb.com/title/tt12638124/
Ordinary Joe – Comedy Series (in development): https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11803916/
Sam Dawe’s Social media/Future projects: