Here in the cult corner of the British Comedy Guide we're big fans of Lucy Pearman and Joz Norris, two inspired absurdists who aren't averse to a good rummage in comedy's darker crevices. Now they've recently conjoined those freaky visions and conceived The Baby - which you can watch at the bottom of this article - a short film about a troubled mother that harks back to the early days of horror. Horror movies, that is: who knows who invented the actual concept of horror. King Herod? Hungry dinosaur? One to ponder.
Norris and Pearman made The Baby in cahoots with director Sam Nicoresti - who's also one half of comedy duo Sam & Tom - and with moody music/lights from Lottie Bowater, who also runs the London-based night Depresstival Presents, where The Baby will be screened soon (details below). The film is making an impression on those without a vested interest, too: it's just been named as an Official Selection at the London Short Film Festival in January. Yeah, baby.
So we decided to take a deep dive with the four creators, to explore how exactly a project like this comes about, and what happens when the filming has finished. It all began with a game.
How would you describe the film's main non-baby character - the mother?
Lucy: I think she's a 'woman on the edge,' which we can all identify with, or at least we all know one. The whole thing came from me and Joz doing a very stupid game backstage, before we went on to do Adam Larter's show Return on Investment in Edinburgh in 2016. Never did I ever think it would be a little weird old film.
How did the game work?
Joz: Lucy would drip lime juice and chunks of mango into my mouth from a great height and I would say "Feed the baby." We found that very funny and decided to make a fun little YouTube sketch about it.
Then when we came to sit down and write it we kept writing things like "The baby's long claws emerge from the crib as shadows on the wall and clutch at the dangling apple," or just finding screenshots from Nosferatu and saying "basically that." We realised we were out of our depth, and that's where Sam and Lottie came in.
Is the style of it influenced by anything or anyone in particular?
Sam: Visually there are obvious references to [Nosferatu director] Murnau and that era of expressionism. We were filming on one camera with two LED lights and no microphone, so the style really came out of the limitations. If we'd had a 4k RED and a £10k budget maybe Michael Bay would've been the main visual influence. I think that probably would've looked quite bad, but we still would've done it.
Was there a particular brief for the music, Lottie, or were you given free reign?
Lottie: I guess how the score should sound was fairly self-evident after watching the initial edit. I wanted to make something that's simultaneously really oppressive and funny, and I find that a lot of the more experimental classical stuff, like Ligeti and Stravinsky, flits between being utterly terrifying, and absurd and hysterical at the same time.
Did you do much prep to play the baby, Joz?
Joz: This baby actually pre-dates the baby in my 2017 show [which is now on NextUp]. We filmed this in April 2017, and I bought the cradle for the film, and had such fun playing a horrible baby I developed it for the Fringe and added its long horrible arms and things later. So this film was my first dabbling in the world of baby performance.
How was the actual filming process?
Sam: We filmed it in a friend's cottage which is partially built out of a ship, in one day, with a crew of two. If you have the right location and good people then it's easy. We didn't need to worry about set-dressing or framing because everywhere you looked was another beautiful, ornate 16th century object that looked like it probably contained the ghosts of Spanish pirates. Easy money.
I'm not sure if that looks a fun shoot: how did you actors find it?
Lucy: Deeply unsettling.
Joz: I loved it. It's nice feeling things that up to this point have existed only in your head creeping out of your head and starting to exist in the world.
Can you talk us through some of the stuff we're hearing on the score, Lottie?
Lottie: There's a cut-up of a community choir, a slowed-down recording of a swarm of bees, my singing, megaphone crackle and my awful violin playing. The bit in the middle with the priest is from a Verdi opera, the section with the apples is a massively slowed-down recording of a frying pan.
The end piano piece is from my old band, I Love Audrey. Some of the sounds were made by musician Ergo Phizmiz, who you can also hear improvising a really oppressive version of the Teddy Bears' Picnic halfway through, which is actually a TERRIFYING SONG.
Is there one moment from the shoot that sticks in the memory/comes back to haunt you?
Joz: We made Eleanor [Morton] and Will [Seaward] run in slow-motion for one scene, saying we'd speed it up to normal speed in the edit. I remember having no idea what that effect would look like, and when I saw that bit in the edit for the first time it was like the laugh was punched out of me. I loved it so much. There was a lot of that on this shoot, a lot of 'Let's just do this now and then see what effect it has later.'
Sam: I remember getting to the house and realising I'd only brought one camera battery. That really put the willies up me.
Did the finished film wind up you way you initially envisaged it?
Lottie: Yes, I think the film looked and sounded exactly how I hoped it would. It's always nice when you manage to make an accurate version of the thing you can hear in your head.
Sam: When I first heard the idea I didn't understand how it'd look, but I knew how it'd make me feel, and in that sense it's an unmitigated success.
I like to think this film was meant to be a jolly romp before you got your hands on it, Lottie...
Lottie: I think I'd been making a lot of DIY lighting type things on my own films, and also had been watching Argento's Inferno obsessively for about a year at that point (hence that Verdi bit in the score) so was thrilled to be able to work on a sort of horror/noir. I particularly enjoy the bit where we bounced the shadow up the staircase, like in an old Looney Tunes episode. The wall looked like cheese.
The film got some really nice responses - did people get what you were trying to do?
Sam: I'm not sure even I got what I was trying to do. We did a bit of putting it in for festivals but it's a hard sell because the comedy festivals couldn't see a punchline, the horror festivals couldn't see a jump scare and the rest couldn't see a budget. But it's a new scene for us, and it's been great to be complimented by people whose work I enjoy. That's all it's about ultimately, bubble-validation.
What are the most extreme reactions you've had from people? Did it alarm any unsuspecting souls?
Lucy: My brother said I look like Marty Feldman who played Igor in Young Frankenstein and I think that's extremely accurate actually.
Joz: I've had a lot of people, when I ask if they enjoyed it, offering up variations of "No, I didn't enjoy it, but it's obviously very good." I like that even when it upsets people nobody can deny that it's a very good film. A couple of people have said they've found it oddly beautiful, which I think is funny.