Chatting Horror and Influences with Prano Bailey-Bond, Writer/Director of CENSOR

For genre in 2021 one of the biggest standouts for me personally was Prano Bailey-Bond’s surreal psychological masterwork Censor. I caught the film during its Sundance premiere (Read my review here) and the film has stuck with me since. Its the story of Enid (Niamh Alga), a film censor in the UK’s Video Nasty era who slowly unravels after she believes she sees her sister, who was abducted when she was a child in a horror film she’s tasked with reviewing. It’s an almost flawlessly executed descent into madness, that since it takes place during this time period in the UK delivers a rather refreshing perspective on 80s horror.

After seeing the film I knew I wanted to chat with Prano, and dig into some of her influences that would inspire her to craft such a love letter to some of my favorite things, which are obviously some of hers as well. Well, the film hits DVD today thanks to Magnet and for its release I got to chat with Prano about not only some of her personal experience growing up in the Video Nasty Era, but how that influenced her approach as a director to Censor.

Dan: So Censor was a well informed love letter to the video store era and Video Nasty Era, care to tell me a bit about your journey to making the film?

Prano Bailey-Bond: I’ve been making short films and music videos for quite a long time. The seed of the idea came to me, wanting to make a film about a film censor back in 2012. So I started researching Censor and while I was researching it, I kind of thought, oh, it’d be really great to make a short film about a kid’s experience during this period. Maybe that would be like a calling card for the feature and also allow me to try out some of the ideas and techniques and that was my short film Nasty. So that was completed in 2015 and then that did quite well at festivals and things, and I’m sure it was helpful in getting Censor made. But we got our first bit of development funding for the script in 2016 for Censor and from there, we rolled on the script until we shot in 2019.

Dan: I love that we as American genre film fans are getting to see this nostalgia through different prisms with films like Censor and Straight to VHS. What was your first experience with the horror films that inspired Censor?

Prano Bailey-Bond:I think the first time I remember seeing something that really scared me was actually watching Twin Peaks, when I was probably in primary school. I was in primary school, so my brother and sister were eight and ten years older than me. When I was a kid, I was like, ‘oh my God, they’re so cool and grown up and I want to watch everything they watch’. Obviously they were watching a lot of horror, so they were watching Twin Peaks and I wanted in, and it was the first thing that I guess gave me nightmares, but in a way that was sort of more surreal and strange and subconscious, and I didn’t fully understand that, but it was really thrilling and exciting and weird, and I loved it.

I think from that point onwards, I was hooked on strange dark films and TV. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, in the countryside, so the closest video shop was like a 15 minute drive in this tiny little town and it was called Elvad’s and Elvad was the guy that ran the shop and it was like floor to ceiling, wall to wall of videos, and it had a kind of funny smell too.

Dan: Yeah, they all did. Didn’t they?

Prano Bailey-Bond: Yes, I guess they did. (Laughs)

It was such a treasure trove. You know, the feeling of going in, it’s not the same as sitting and swiping your way through films on streaming services, like going in and picking up copies of videos and reading the back, looking at the covers, it’s an experience I really miss actually. But I do remember renting a video from there, which was Lady in White and I think I must have been like eight or nine and we took it home and it was a 12, this is the first time I ever kind of became aware of censorship or ratings. We put the video on, I say, we, I did, my mum was cooking in the kitchen. I put the video on and this guy pops up looking really official saying it is an offense for anyone under the age of 12 to watch this film, do not ask them to break the law.

I just heard offense, prosecution, break the law and I thought, oh my God, my mom’s going to get arrested if I watch this film, it completely terrified me. When I told my mom, she said it would be fine and I could watch it and I wouldn’t get her into any trouble. So I watched it and the film I knew was fictional. So I could enjoy being scared. That was fun. But this guy who was real, wasn’t fun and he was terrifying and I think it’s quite interesting cause like, even at the age of like eight or nine, I could tell the difference between fiction and reality. But, it seems like a lot of people during the Video Nasty Era here in the UK, couldn’t tell the difference between fiction and reality. You know.

Now what kind of research did you do into the era to kind of get Censor right?

Prano Bailey-Bond: There were different prongs of the research. So there’s some great documentaries on the era, but I’ve managed to get hold of some old chat shows and stuff that was debating the Video Nasty era at the time. So you have someone who’s a horror fan on there and someone who’s against and you know, that was great to watch those things. I also managed to get hold of all the news headlines and tabloid press pieces about the era and read through everything that was being said about Video Nasties and the kind of moral panic going on around these films. I also went into the BBFC and looked through their files for films from the period. So we went through the files for, you know, the Evil Dead and Possession and Last house on the Left. It was amazing. We spoke to the BBFC and to sensors who worked during the period. So you’re kind of trying to get a big snapshot and also talking to friends of mine who lived through it as adults and remember it. There’s so much research that doesn’t even fit into Censor. You know, maybe it’s not the last thing I’ll do on the Video Nasty era.

Descent into madness films rarely work unless the actor really gives themself over to this journey, needless to say Niamh’s performance as Enid is perfect. what was casting like here and when you were working with her what was your guidance, films, performances to watch, etc.?

Prano Bailey-Bond: Yeah, the casting process was like a normal audition process. So Niamh was one of about 70 actresses I think that I saw for Enid. I knew going in that this character is very closed. She’s a coiled spring at the beginning of the film and she doesn’t say what she thinks, and she doesn’t have a best friend that she tells what she thinks and she doesn’t have a therapist, you know, it’s all going on in here, but it’s not being communicated. So we needed somebody that would let us into that. When Niamh came in, I felt that she could put that forth on the screen, that what’s so amazing about her, was she just tuned in to Enid in a way that made so much sense to me. She’s incredibly truthful as an actor and I think that grounds the film in a truth.

So you can go from there somewhere really quite extreme and mental, it’s slightly surreal, because you’ve got somebody emotionally holding the character. There was something incredibly compelling about watching her and where she took the character, even in the auditions. She was able to convey that coiled spring at the beginning, but then take this character to the extreme emotional sort of explosion that happens at the end.

When we started working together, I sent her a lot of films from the period. So I was making her watch some of the Video Nasties, but in terms of the performance, I sent her Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.The central performance in that film is incredible, but it’s also the way we’re allowed in that character. Obviously there’s a voice over in that film, but we’re kind of let into this really vulnerable place where a woman is questioning her own sanity.

And The Piano Teacher was another one, Michael Haneke’s film. Because I think that character is very brittle, and Enid’s got a sense of that as well. This incredibly kind of hard-shelled woman, that’s got something much deeper and darker going on underneath. So those were two for sure that I think, and Black Swan was another one that I got her to watch.

You toy with nostalgia here quite a bit in Censor, but you’re very careful never to give your film over to it and remain focused on your story. Was it difficult to tread that line at sort of having all these influences, and time period and the film still being very much its own thing?

Prano Bailey-Bond: I think for me, it was about looking at images of the period that were real life, you know. That’s the interesting thing about memory, isn’t it? And that’s kind of what the film is talking about a little bit as well. We can construct a past through memory that wasn’t actually the past and perhaps that’s what nostalgia can do for us as well, that we suddenly think, ‘oh, back in the eighties, everyone was carrying a ghetto blaster on their shoulder and everyone had massive shoulder pads and big perms’. Obviously, those things did exist and they were trendy, but that wasn’t like the day-to-day life that you saw on the street in the same way as today. You know, there are trends, but when you go down to the supermarket, people are just wearing normal clothes, you know, not wearing the latest high fashion.

So for me, it was about creating an authentic feel for the period, that was always the goal. I guess also thinking about the period as being quite kind of bleak and drudgey and making the Video Nasty world more appealing in a way, which was something I played with in Nasty, you know. This idea that if the real world is gray and oppressive and a bit crap, that actually the cover of a Video Nasty – this lurid, violently colorful cover is gonna seem really appealing. Let’s go there instead, because that looks way more fun.

Finally, given the sort of outpouring of love for Censor, how do you follow that up? Are you going to stick in the horror genre?

Prano Bailey-Bond: I’m working on a few different films and there’s one that’s probably more in the horror world than Censor. I think Censor kind of merges mystery and thriller, and I think this will be more horror. But the one I’m writing next is the only one that’s been announced so far and that has definitely got horror in it, but whether it’s a horror or an incredibly dark drama, I’m not sure yet we’ll see whether it takes us, but that’s an adaptation of a short story called Things We Lost in the Fire, which is from a book of short stories by an author called Mariana Enriquez. I’m working on that with the producer of Call Me By Your Name and The Witch and my co-writer on Censor Anthony Fletcher. So we’re gonna start working on that soon. So there’s going to be lots of writing, but I’m excited about everything. So hopefully other people will like them as much as they liked Censor. We’ll see.

Dan: Well, I’m, I’m looking forward to whatever you do next and I hope you the best of luck because Censor, it was such a great film and I can’t wait to see what you give to us next.

Prano Bailey-Bond: Thank you very much, Dan.

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