Lee Haven Jones: The Feast (2021) | featured image
Annes Elwy in The Feast (2021) | courtesy of IFC Films

Horror Is a Trojan Horse in Welsh Director Lee Haven Jones’ ‘The Feast’

Lee Haven Jones on his debut horror film ‘The Feast’, which is influenced by the ancient Welsh Mabinogion literature of chilling folk tales, legends, and myths.

The Feast
Lee Haven Jones
19 November 2021 (US)

In the Welsh language horror film, The Feast (2021), Cadi (Annes Elwy), a young woman serves privileged guests at a dinner party, hosted by Member of Parliament Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) and his wife Glenda (Nia Roberts). Unbeknownst to the guests, the remote house in rural Wales will be the place they’ll eat their last meal. 

A trained actor turned director, The Feast is Lee Haven Jones’ directorial feature debut. He has directed television in his native Welsh and the English language, including crime dramas, Vera (Cleeves, 2011 – present), The Bay (Carville and Clarke, 2019 – present), The Long Call (Jones, 2021 – present), and the Scottish set Shetland (Cleeves, 2013 – present), as well as the science fiction series Doctor Who (Davies, Moffat and Chibnall, 2005 – present). 

In conversation with PopMatters, Jones tells us about his attraction to elevated horror films with a message. He wants to reclaim horror cinema from its American roots, he says. Furthermore, he wants his work to challenge the suppression of the Welsh language in the global marketplace.  

A good place to begin is to ask about the genesis of The Feast. What compelled you to tell this story?

Roger Williams, the writer and I, have worked together on a number of projects. The way we work is we talk things through, and then decide what themes we want to riff on, and what kind of story we want to tell. I’ll then throw some ideas at Roger and that might include images and songs, or photography. I’m a bit of a magpie in the way I work. 

It seems that many directors reference other films, and they’re obviously in my subconscious, but I trained as an actor, and so I look at theatre. I also love architecture and photography. I throw a lot of stuff at Roger to see how that impacts him, and then he’ll go away and write something. We’ll then interrogate what he’s done, and it becomes a back and forth process between us. 

This story is rooted in three elements. We’re both passionate about horror and recently I’ve been charmed by the works of the likes of Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, or movies such as RAW (Ducournau, 2017). I love these elevated horrors that have a message, as well as a load of blood and gore. 

The other passion is for Wales. We’re both Welsh speakers and we’re keen to tell our stories to a global audience. There’s the passion element, and then there’s the pragmatism. In order to tell a Welsh story in the Welsh language,to a global audience, it seemed to us that you’d need to tell it through the prism of horror –– as a Trojan horse, to get beyond the cultural barriers that the Welsh language and the themes in the story pose. This was the pragmatic element, and then the politics were that we wanted to say something about the world from our point-of-view, as Welsh people. 

What challenges are posed by the Welsh language, and is there a hierarchy where some foreign languages are more accepted b global viewers, for example the Scandinavian ones?  

This film seems to have done something that I instinctively knew it could do, which is speak to a global audience. In terms of television production in the Welsh language, whenever we’ve made something that’s half decent, we’ve had to remake it in English for it to be accepted in international markets. That’s certainly not the case with scandi noir. 

I had a theory about this and the film was in-part borne of that theory. Historically, the problem with Welsh language drama on television is that it feels tonally British, or English. What I attempted to do was to try and make it feel singular. 

The Feast draws heavily from the Korean or Japanese horror tradition, and there’s a Scandinavian feel to some of the visuals. It doesn’t feel English and that has helped. Also the language, rather than being an hindrance, has helped make it other, more exotic and strange. In order for that to happen, I had to combine the language with some very non-British, or non-English visuals. 

So your approach, then, was to subvert preconceptions of the Welsh language by connecting it to foreign genre cinema with a proven appeal?

The piece doesn’t reference it square on, but it’s influenced by a body of literature written in the 1300s called the Mabinogion. It’s a series of folk tales, legends, and myths. What’s interesting about them is that they’re full of horrific things, and what I’ve tried to do is reclaim the horror genre as being Welsh, because horror in cinema is an American form. 

Developing this film, it struck me that much of our literature from the Middle Ages has lots of horror content. I’ve looked to the East, I’ve looked inward to the Welsh culture and tried to create an hybrid that doesn’t feel British. This is partly why [The Feast] has had exposure internationally. We’ve premiered at South by Southwest, then we went to BiFan in Korea, to Switzerland [Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival] and Portugal [MOTELX – Lisbon International Horror Film Festival]. We’ve had a good festival run in a lot of different markets. 

The Feast echoes the early tradition of parables, and it’s one of those films that’s made by its ending. The sudden descent into violence contrasts to the earlier slow pace, where the mood feels ambiguously ominous. The moral message addresses our relationship with the planet and warns of violent environmental backlash.

I keep talking about it as a contemporary morality tale. On a personal level it’s about the importance of being true to yourself and your people. On a broader level it’s a stark warning against the consequences of greed, avarice, and consumerism.

At it’s heart is also this message about environmentalism and sustainability, about how we use the land and abuse the earth. In it’s blood soaked conclusion, as you said, it gives a stark warning about the kind of revenge that the planet will wreak on us if we carry on abusing this fragile Earth. 

The film plays out like a fairy tale, or a very simple Grimm story, and that was by design. It’s interesting when you talk about how the end makes the film – I’ve been talking a lot about this of late. We create a space that some audience members love and others find incredibly claustrophobic, and they hate it. We create a space for the audience to enter into the piece and project their own thoughts and feelings onto the characters. 

A lot of the ideas are shown but not explained. For example, when Cadi turns up on the driveway, we see her damp hair and the image enters into our subconscious, but we’re not entirely sure what that’s about until later on. We’re never explicit and we don’t spoon feed, in the television sense, what the characters are about. We allow the audience to linger in that atmosphere, and it’s only at the end that it’s explained. 

… This film demands a lot from an audience and some people don’t have the patience. I’m aware of that, but it’s not about instant gratification. It would be weird if it were because the message is that instant gratification is bad, and that’s whats killing the planet. The form mirrors the content here, but I completely accept that slow cinema is not for everybody. 

By challenging the trend of speaking directly to the audience, instead of creating a space for them to think for themselves, is The Feast crafted with subversive intent? 

This film is the antidote to a lot of the work I’ve done in the past as a television director, where I’ve been swimming in a sea of literalism, telling everybody everything. Here we try to show but not tell. Hopefully it’s the kind of film that if you see it a second time or a third time, it becomes a richer experience, rather than being a throwaway piece of entertainment. It’s about engaging an audience creatively and imaginatively, and not spoon feeding them everything.

I trained as an actor and one of the things in theatre is that without the audience, of course, theatre doesn’t exist. You need an audience and I’ve tried to bring that idea to my filmmaking. You need an audience to involve themselves and to invest, and the rewards are far greater for the audience. They’ve engaged imaginatively with a film and it has become more complex, deeper and richer for it.

I’ve made the type of film I like to watch. They say that when you’re making your debut feature, make what you know. The Feast is an expression of what I know.