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Our dirty questions to Sarah Young

John McDonald interviews Sarah Young, the director of the deceptive "perfectly married couple" movie Not Him; they talk about domestic violence, the paranormal as a horror device, her upcoming comedy horror series, and a lot more

Sarah Young is an award-winning American filmmaker drawn by dirty and provocative themes. Her films include In Case We Get Found (2021), a short film inspired by her father’s experience as a survivor of a mass shooting event, and Counting (2022), about an actress struggling with severe OCD. Sarah’s latest film Not Him, a gaslighting short horror about the “perfect” husband who turns out to be a very different beast, premiered at the Oxford Film Festival.

You can find out more about Sara’s upcoming work by clicking here.

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John McDonald – The themes behind Not Him are hard-hitting and very real. How did you decide to explore this delicate subject of domestic abuse?

Sarah Young – I’m a big believer in using genre filmmaking to tackle complicated subjects in an accessible way. This was my first time writing my own script to direct and I knew I wanted it to be a genre film. One night I had a nightmare which was shot for shot the opening of Not Him. From there the rest of the script poured out and it became clear to me the story I wanted to tell grapples with domestic violence through the lens of demonic possession.

JMD – Were you inspired by any films during your decision to focus your film on domestic violence?

SY – I think of Not Him as Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) meets The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1978). The movie Gaslight literally coined the phrase in the 1940s with a wife who’s husband is slowly manipulating her into questioning her own sanity. A major component of abuse stems from making the victim question the validity of their own experience. In Not Him I wanted to take the audience on the wife’s journey as she questions if she can believe her own thoughts and eyes. The Shining was another influence as I think it’s the perfect example of using a genre film to look at a very real life horror, watching a father give into alcoholism to become a threat to those he loves.

JMD – How did you come about the idea to incorporate a supernatural element into the film?

SY – Like The Shining leans into the supernatural to help us feel the pain of losing a loved one to alcoholism, the possession in Not Him places the audience in the terror of no longer being able to trust the person that is supposed to protect you. Again I think telling genre stories can allow an audience to connect to the terror of domestic violence and the frustration of not being believed in a way that traditional drama sometimes struggles to do.

JMD – Have you always been a fan of the horror genre? Do you have any favourites?

SY – Yes I love horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Growing up I was absolutely obsessed with Star Trek, which is a perfect example of a show tackling the biggest moral dilemmas of its time through genre. I watched a lot of classic horror growing up as well, I particularly loved Hammer Horror films like their Dracula series. I could do a whole powerpoint on my love for Jaws, the pacing, the characters, the way Spielberg turned technical hardship into a tool of storytelling. Most recently my favourites are The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) and Barbarian (Zach Cregger, 2022). The Babadook because it’s again using the horror genre to tell a powerful story about grief. Barbarian because I am in awe of its structured and how well it captures the experience of being a woman in this world.

JMD – It feels like Not Him was plucked from within a feature, is your intention to bookend the short or do you feel like a need to switch the narrative up slightly?

SY – Thank you! The plan is to switch up the narrative while keeping the core concept. We will get more backstory of their marriage and why the husband was susceptible to being possessed by the demon in the first place. We’ll elongate the cat and mouse game between the wife and the demon once she knows she’s right and is attempting to catch him out and force him to reveal himself in front of others. Their friends will be put in scary and increasingly dangerous situations as they attempt to intervene. And there’s a third act twist that sends the wife and her best friend into a fight for their lives.

JMD – Is it your objective to create a feature film to follow this, or was your only focus to create this short?

SY – This concept began as simply a short film but I am very excited to expand the short into a feature and I am assembling a fantastic team to bring it to fruition. I have had the pleasure of directing several short films by amazing writers but the goal of this short was to make a film that was truly my calling card as writer/director. I wanted to make something that exemplified who I am as an artist and the types of stories I am drawn to tell.

JMD – If a feature was always the objective, how did you come about your decision to create this short in the way you did?

SY – The idea of a feature was born in rehearsal for the short. Conversations with our incredible cast and especially discussions with Tori Ernst who puts in a spectacular performance as the wife led to developing a rich backstory we don’t get to explore in the short. And as this film has played in film festivals around the US we’ve had fantastic responses from audiences who want to know what happens next and believe in the importance of exploring the subject matter.

JMD – Were there any other ideas you felt could have been made into a film as well?

SY – Yes I have two other primary ideas for a horror feature, both based in my home state of Oregon. Without giving too much away, the first one aims to do for the Oregon woods what Jaws did for the Ocean. In that film a group of city folk and a group of small town folk end up at odds with each other in a conflict where both feel justified in their fear of the other. Trapped in the wilderness their prejudices drive them to acts of violence that awaken something waiting in those woods, something hungry for their anger. The question becomes can they come together long enough to escape it? The other tells the story of a daughter who ran away as a teenager to escape her family and the cult that controls them. Tormented by the thought of the siblings she left behind, she returns as an adult to try and rescue them. But the cult has no intention of letting her go a second time.

JMD – The acting is really powerful. Had you worked with the actors previously at all? Please tell us more about your elicitation technique.

SY – Thank you. Yes I am so lucky that the actors are all fantastic. Tori Ernst, Katharine Chin, and Ryan Nicholas Cooper were all actors in my graduate programme at The New School where I got my MFA in Directing in 2019. Charlie McElveen was a very lucky find off a casting call on Backstage. My directing is very conversation based. The actors and I speak at great length about the story, who these people are, where they have come one, exactly where they are in their relationship with one another. So when we walk onto set we know exactly who these people are. On set I am looking for pure honesty in the performances, so I create an environment where my actors can bring their full selves to the work and prioritize time to get multiple takes and allow for experimentation. I’ll move on from a moment when I have seen the performance I am looking for in the actor’s eyes.

JMD – It seems that you are working on a comedy horror series called Ghost Hosts. Please tell us more about that, and any future projects/

SY – Yes I am also working on a horror comedy pilot called Ghost Hosts about a paranormal hunting youtube channel that is in it for the clicks until a new intern turns out to be the real deal and they find themselves hosting way more than they bargained for. My day job is producing a youtube channel (that builds PCs not a ghost hunting channel sadly) so I am having a lot of fun playing with the concept of influencers who are just in it for the money suddenly having to contend with actual hauntings.

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Sarah Young is pictured at the top of this interview. The other image is a still from Not Him.


By John McDonald - 27-05-2024

Failing from the seaside town of Southport but now living in Liverpool, John McDonald has had a passion for cinema since he was a small child. The westerns of John Wayne were his gateway into the cine...

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