Last year I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing Sarah Wisner and Sean Temple’s short horror film Water Horse as part of Cinepocalypse’s Short Film Programming. Now a year later, Water Horse has been picked up by Omeleto to be streamed on their platform. I caught up with Sean and Sarah to discuss the film and the extra layers I uncovered upon a second watch.
Hello again Sean and Sarah! I’d first like to congratulate you on getting Water Horse accepted to be screened on Omeleto? How did this come about?
Sarah & Sean: Hi Chloe! Thank you so much for discussing Water Horse with us! It’s always a joy to talk with you. We really love Screen Queens’ commitment to providing a space for women and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Omeleto is one of many incredible online platforms for short filmmakers. They have over 4 million subscribers across YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, and your readers can learn more about them at their site.
Long story short, we were looking for an online platform to premiere Water Horse on after the festival circuit. We submitted the film through their website and were lucky enough to be selected. We put so much energy and love into Water Horse for the last two years and we are so excited for a larger audience to experience it.
You started out this journey at Boston Underground Film Festival last year and ended it with Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, smashing just about every genre fest in the US (including Fantastic Fest!) along the way. What was the reception like at festivals?
Sarah & Sean: It’s been a great run. The catalyst for Water Horse was a nightmare Sarah had, so our biggest goal with the film was recreating the anxiety of that experience. We made a very conscious decision to maintain a nightmare logic to the narrative and were nervous about how audiences might react. We unfortunately weren’t able to attend most of the festivals, but we had a great reception at our world premiere at the Boston Underground Film Festival. Listening to the audience audibly react the way we had hoped filled us with joy. It’s a weird little film, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But the people who do connect with it really seem to experience the dread and anxiety our characters go through. Creating that feeling was always our ultimate goal.
I watched the film last year as part of Cineapocalypse’s Shorts Block 1: Shadows Within, and at the time I was just really taken by the audio visual nature of your film. Watching it again this year some of the themes have stuck out to me more. There is a real feeling of ‘nature vs. nurture’ in Water Horse, with the lake itself acting as that huge unknown mass of ‘nature’ that could potentially cause harm to the family unit. Could you expand a bit on this and whether that metaphor was intentional?
Sarah & Sean: We like to think an audience’s experience watching Water Horse is similar to our experience developing it. On the surface, Sarah’s nightmare was rooted in visceral images and sound, but once we decided to adapt it into a film we started to dive into what the nightmare could mean.
We quickly realised our fears and anxieties about the current political climate and the modern world permeated Sarah’s subconscious. Resulting in a harrowing real-life nightmare dealing with the outside factors that can come into your family’s life, unpredictably and irreversibly.
To be honest, the threat of nature wasn’t something we explicitly discussed, but now that you mention it we can clearly see it in the film. We have more specific thoughts about what exactly the film means to us, but we hope the film works as a catalyst, propelling our audience to dig into their own subconscious and face their fears and anxieties about the world around them.
Sarah, this theme of motherhood and nature vs. nurture are something that crop up all the time with female genre filmmakers, and it never seems to lose steam! Why do you think it’s a theme that genre filmmakers come back to so often?
Sarah: I think there is very rich ground in those themes that have traditionally been overlooked by mainstream culture, and I think that comes back to what types of stories and storytellers have been seen as valuable by financiers. It’s a decades- if not centuries-old problem, that certain themes or topics have been coded as “female” and therefore devalued or neglected in all kinds of art forms. It’s an issue highlighted by many second-wave feminists and theorists but unfortunately the problem persists today, and it has everything to do with that kind of gate-keeping. I don’t think it’s the job of female filmmakers to rectify the imbalance here. But I do think that there’s a hunger to make the films that we would want to see. And there are some really shining examples in every genre of the quality you can get when previously disenfranchised voices are empowered. Horror has so much to do with the home, the body, and the family unit, so I think it’s no surprise that women have a lot to say on those themes.
Over this last year we’ve had quite a bit of back and forth and not too long ago I interviewed you for your next film ‘The Thaw’. During that, we were talking about your interest in folklore, and reading your director’s statement for Water Horse, I’ve noticed it’s a recurring theme for you—this time centring around the mythological ‘Kelpies’. What is it that draws you to these folklore stories? And could you tell us about how you interpreted this specific tale into Water Horse?
Sarah & Sean: As you’ve mentioned in your reviews for our films, our films have “retro horror stylings with a modern twist.” We think we’re drawn to the past, whether it be 70s horror films or centuries-old folktale because these stories are a pure depiction of society’s deepest fears of the time. We think it’s very interesting that the fears associated with folktales are still relevant today and we’re drawn to filter them through our own modern experiences and fears.
When Sarah had her nightmare she instinctively knew the film should be called Water Horse. Water horses, also known as Kelpies, are shape-shifting creatures of Scottish folklore that trick and abduct people to drown and eat them. Sarah’s subconscious filtered this folklore through her nightmare and it affected a lot of choices we made.
For example, the most famous water horse is the Loch Ness monster. Growing up in Vermont, it was impossible not to make the connection to our very own lake monster, Lake Champlain’s Champ. For this reason, we decided to film in and around Lake Champlain. The connections and references to Kelpies aren’t super explicit, but they’re definitely there. We hope it brings another layer to the film for audiences to explore.
The music is such a strong element in this film. How did you work alongside composer Mattia C. Mauree to realise your vision?
Sarah & Sean: Mattia is a very talented artist and composer that we met when we lived in Boston. Their art and music explore perception, bodies and sensation, and trauma and resilience. Simply put, they specialise in creating anxiety and they were one of the first collaborators we brought on board.
Before we shot, we discussed how the music would represent Max’s subjective struggle. Once we filmed, we did our best to get images and sequences to Mattia as fast as possible. During the editing process, we’d all brainstorm where we imagined music, how it’d evolve throughout the film. A big breakthrough was the decision to start the film with a sweet lullaby. The evolution and degradation of that lullaby is a huge element of the film and does a lot of work establishing the surreal tone of the nightmare.
Another complex aspect of the score was how it would work in conjunction with Water Horse’s intricate sound design. When Sean edited Water Horse, he spent a lot of time ensuring picture and sound are in constant communication. It was very important the score and sound design had room to weave in and out of each other.
Once we finished discussing the music and picture locked the film, we sent Mattia a version of the film that had about 75-80% of the sound design incorporated. From there, we gave Mattia space to funnel everything through their own creative process. What they create is always an incredible surprise. With a couple of rounds of notes, we reached a place where all of us were very happy with the results.
And how about working with your actors Charlotte and Darren? Darren specifically took on quite a number of roles in your production from producer to stunt coordinator—how was it juggling so many aspects at once?
Sarah & Sean: Working with Charlotte and Darren was a joy. With such a short run time and surreal tone we really relied on their performances to ground the film and give the audience a family to empathise with. Very early in the process we gave them room to get to know each other and develop a real relationship between these two characters. They quickly established a strong bond that was essential for working with their child co-star, Lilith Hurley.
Lilith is the daughter of Sarah’s high school friend. She was just shy of three years old at the time, wasn’t an actor, and had never met Charlotte and Darren before shooting began. Half of our first day was devoted to letting Charlotte, Darren, and Lily hang out and have fun. The work Charlotte and Darren did to create a sense of trust with Lilith was really incredible, and the film wouldn’t have been possible without it.
We still marvel at Charlotte’s incredible performance in Water Horse. Her character really goes through an immense physical and emotional journey. Her ability to hone in on the reality of the moment while the world spirals around her is really powerful.
Honestly, we don’t know how Darren did everything he did on Water Horse! Darren is a force of nature ready to help anyone at any moment. Water Horse is filled with stunts and effects that would never have been possible without him. His ability to bring his character to life while ensuring stunts and effects were done safe and well was amazing. We trusted him immensely.
Darren: I’ve always been great at multitasking, both in and out of film, but what Sarah and Sean allowed me to do, whether I was acting, stunt coordinating, supervising on-set practical effects, producing, or even just bonding with the kids (actress Lilith Hurley and her older brother Alex, who was visiting the set), was trust me to take charge of those responsibilities at those times. One that stands out in particular was when I was choreographing a single take fight sequence in the house between actress Charlotte Rea and myself. We didn’t choreograph ahead of time, as I wasn’t yet familiar with the location, and I had full reins to work with her on everything for a half hour before we rolled. The directors and crew took time to just watch and learn, as a fight scene was new to everyone but me. I was confident in my abilities but needed time to be attentive to Charlotte, keeping her safe, working on reactions, timing, props, and falls, and when we finally shot the fight, we got it on the first take and moved to the next setup. The elation following the ease of getting that scene, which had been a worry for the directors up until then, added a lot of positive energy we really needed to push through the rest of the difficult shoot. Being laser focused on the respective positions I hold when I need to is a great way to compartmentalise, so I don’t get overwhelmed.
As well as the score, every review I’ve read of Water Horse (including my own) praises your use of visuals and editing. I’m wondering what your inspirations were for this film and how you plan for such snappy, nightmarish editing?
Sarah & Sean: As we’ve mentioned, the biggest inspiration for Water Horse was Sarah’s nightmare. We tried our best to recreate the images the way Sarah’s subconscious presented them to her. That said, the process of actually creating a film did result in differences. There were definitely outside influences that we drew on.
Two of our biggest cinematic influences were Don’t Look Now and Martha Marcy May Marlene. These films place audiences in a mental state somewhere between memory, dream, and reality. We were in a constant search for that same feeling.
The climax of Don’t Look Now is one of the most terrifying sequences we’ve ever seen. We don’t want to spoil it for anyone that hasn’t seen it, but in the final sequences, the editing is no longer concerned with narrative. Instead, it creates a subjective experience driven by emotion. This is exactly how we wanted Water Horse to feel.
Like any small budget short film, we didn’t have the time and resources to get every shot we wanted, but Sean’s day job is trailer editing — a hyper-efficient form of storytelling that relies on image and sound clashing against each other to create meaning. Sean was always confident he could find moments in the editing room (aka our living room) to create surreal imagery and emotion. Some of our favorite moments were 100% discovered in this post-production process.
While there is a fair amount of montage style editing, Water Horse is also composed of long takes played out in real time. It was very important to maintain a dreamlike quality to the imagery. Martha Marcy May Marlene was a huge influence for these moments. The slow zooms, faded colour palette, and unconventional compositions create a dreamlike quality that spirals into nightmare.
And finally I’d love to know how lockdown’s been treating you? I know you had to postpone upcoming short The Thaw until next year, so what’s the plan going forward? Any quarantine shorts in the making?
Sarah & Sean: So much has happened since we postponed production on The Thaw. We were one week away from shooting in mid-March when it became undeniably clear that we couldn’t move forward. There was such an absence of leadership and such a lack of concern for lives and safety at the federal level —it honestly felt absurd that the decision was still ours to make. But the callousness and cruelty of this administration is on full display, and it is both cathartic and just to see such a powerful movement push back against centuries of wrongdoing. During this incredible groundswell, our vision for The Thaw has only grown stronger. When tradition fails Ruth, she is forced to burn her past and face an uncertain future. We always intended this narrative to be a metaphor for our time. What systems have failed us? What can we imagine will take their place? Black Lives Matter. Black Trans Lives Matter. It is past time to demand a just world.
Creatively, there may be a quarantine short in the future, but our priority has been developing and writing feature versions of The Thaw and Thorns. We’re ready to shed the constraints of short film and embrace the scale and ambition of our stories.
Thank you again for discussing Water Horse with us Chloe! If you’re readers ever want to discuss Water Horse, film-making, or anything else, they can find us on social media or contact through firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sean_temple and @sarahjwisner.
You can watch Water Horse, courtesy of Omeleto, below:
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She is a costume designer and trainee teacher living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Green Room and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Letterboxd here.