Anti Matter – Exclusive Interview with Director Keir Burrows

In Anti Matter (review), the upcoming horror/sci-fi indie from UK director Keir Burrows, a Ph.D. student finds herself unable to make new memories after a failed wormhole experiment. We had the opportunity to pick Burrows’ brain – we’re not sure if he’ll remember any of this – and found out what some of his inspirations were in making his film, and what really scares him.

Dread Central: We saw some cool elements from beloved sci-fi horror flicks like The Fly, Altered States, and even newer ones like Splice. We’d love to know who, or what, your influences were throughout the writing and filming processes.

Keir Burrows: Hey, thanks for having me on. Well spotted! Both The Fly and Splice were definitely on my playlist as I was working on Anti Matter – on the script and on the film. Splice was the primary visual reference I gave my poor production designer, I was like ‘make this’, but gave him a couple grand to do it with. Thanks Jorge (Blanco-Munoz), you did amazingly. Anyway, so Anti Matter used to be called Worm and in a very early concept I had some monster ideas in the mix – not as directly physical as in Fly and Splice, but what happens at the end of Anti Matter, the final frame… I was going to take that a bit further. Insinuate the horror a bit more explicitly. But the monster horror got jettisoned quickly in favor of a more existential dread plotline, the paranoia of knowing something is terribly wrong, but not understanding what, and the people you would turn to for help all seeming to be a part of the problem. Now as to the influences. So Primer was a huge one of course – both in terms of seeing how a strong sci-fi idea can go so far with no real budget, but also conceptually, the idea of scientific discovery being a drug, so that corners are cut, mistakes are made, and you end up discovering something that wasn’t what you set out to find. Then films like Moon, Another Earth were very influential – science fiction that provokes, that makes you think. I am and have always been a huge Nolan fan, and being able to weave my own little Memento-esque structure in, with some old, detective noir visual stylings, was me just having fun. I know it’s not obvious, but Social Network I watched a bunch of times, for inspiration – there’s setting and some plot similarities, and Fincher is just superb to surround yourself with when you’re actually making something.

DC: The cast is really key in a movie like this – the viewer has to care about them. So, tell us who is in it, and how they came to be hired on.

KB: I am extremely fortunate in that my day job is, I lecture screen acting at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. A mouthful, but it’s a great old London institution, everyone from Andrew Garfield to Judy Dench trained there. So I get to work with some of the best up-and-coming young actors all day every day. It’s great for me too – I get to practice directing, and especially directing performance which is probably the hardest, most ‘mysterious’ part of directing, but yes, I get to meet actors. So pretty much everyone in this movie is someone I’ve taught, or have worked with, at some point before. Before making Anti Matter I’d done five short films, which was also a good way to audition. Yaiza Figueroa, the lead, she’s Puerto Rican, utterly amazing, the plaudits she’s received in reviews of Anti Matter have made me so happy. She was in two short films of mine, Grace and The Showreel (Grace opened at Tribeca, The Showreel at London Film Festival). You can watch them both on YouTube. I rewrote the entire of Anti Matter after The Showreel, swopping genders of my main characters so that Yaiza could be the lead. Tom Barber-Duffy and Philipa Carson are both incredible actors I’d taught before. Two of the antagonists – James Farrar the animal rights guy, and Noah Maxwell Clark, the detective, were leads in other short films of mine (Donkey, which is probably my ‘best’ short film, also on YouTube). Yeah, so that’s how I got them all to give up so much time, for so little. They trusted me, I trusted them. I knew they could give what I needed. A very, very fortunate foundation for a little movie like ours.

DC: Your locations are really atmospheric and represent, visually, the old vs. the new… where did you shoot this, and can you tell us what you like most about the surroundings to the story?

KB: Thank you for noticing. I’ve read so many reviews of Anti Matter, they’ve all been so positive, but I think you’re the first person to note that, the old vs new aspect. Yes, absolutely, it was a very deliberate decision to set it in historical Oxford, with all the looming architecture and cobbled streets, and juxtapose the science and the laboratory and the machinery against that. It gives (or at least I hope it gives) a lot of texture, and atmosphere. So the exteriors are all Oxford. The rest of it, mostly was shot in London, where we all lived and worked. And SO much of it is shot in places we could get done for no money. Our flats, our places of work, the local pub, the street outside. The lab location was the staff kitchen in an old abandoned cardboard factory on the outskirts of London that we found. It was all kind of nuts – there’s an old (and very sensible) rule for low budget films: keep your locations few, and simple. We totally flunked that. More than 40 different locations. Stupid. [laughs]

DC: There’s an animal-rights component to Anti Matter. You don’t often see those kinds of realistic touches in sci-fi horror movies. Of course, with scientific advancement comes experimentation on animals. What made you decide to add that, and how do you feel about the practice?

KB: Interesting. So I lived in Oxford some years ago, briefly, and when I was there was a new laboratory being built that had, I think, an animal-testing component. And there was a small, permanent protest outside it, the entire time I was there. But there were also always these police, always watching, always filming the protestors. This stuck with me, so that’s I guess how it came to be in my story. I like that for Ana there are all these real-world antagonists who aren’t actually villains – the protestors, the GCHQ detective, the local police – that, if she were clear-headed she would manage easily, but given her problems, they become more menacing. As to my own views on animal testing, and protesting – phew. Big question, that. In an ideal world, there would be no animal testing at all. Maybe we’re heading in that direction. I hope so. In a less ideal but more pragmatic world, animal testing would be very limited, only to check the effects of vital, life-saving medicines. If a drug that might save my daughter’s life could only exist after a process that included testing, I would support that process. I think the welfare of test animals should be held at a ridiculously high standard. I support animal rights campaigners that call for such welfare. It’s through their work that important changes have come about; they force companies to find other, less obvious ways to ensure the safety or reliability of their products. This is good. In the UK there was a period of nasty, guerilla-style campaigning against scientists and individuals, and that has no place, in my view.

DC: For the horror fans – what are some of the scariest things in the movie? And… what scares you?

KB: Anti Matter isn’t a jump-scare film, and so I’ve always been reluctant to dub it a horror because that creates expectations. But it its horrifying. I mean the basic concept – being the test subject in an experiment and something going wrong and losing your mind, is horrifying, it evokes our darkest nightmares, where the world is not as it should be – AND WE CAN’T UNDERSTAND WHY. I love horror that does this. Have you seen Jacob’s Ladder? That did the same thing, very effectively. It’s horror, without falling into the standard bracket of horror categories. Someone said to me (and this is a big spoiler alert!) that Anti Matter was the greatest science fiction ghost story they’d seen. I mean I can’t think of any others, so I’m in a set of one there, go me, but I liked that a lot. I wish we’d thought of that earlier and marketed it that was. It is that, it uses science – and cold, clear science, scientific process, and experimentation, to look at whether there’s more to us than matter. And with the reveal at the end, when we understand what has happened to Ana… which again is presented without some magic mcguffin, but as the obvious outcome of the mistakes they made… it is a ghost story. And then the final moments… where the audience should be questioning IF things really are back to normal, and we have that final moment with the cocoon, and hopefully leaves the audience wondering what lies beneath, pondering the ‘everything will change’ line. That life finds a way.

Oh and what scares me? Ha. In scary movies, silence. Nothing that gets the hair on my neck rising like silence. It’s the anticipation of a scare that’s the scariest thing, not the boo moment itself. In real life? I don’t know. I have kids so, something happening to them is the one. Actually, nightmares, something no-one prepares you for as a parent are the nightmares where a child has died. You know you have dreams that seem so real, whether you’re naked at work or flying or losing your teeth or whatever? A nightmare like that where your child has gone. That’s the worst thing in the world. Man. Okay, on that dark note – thanks again for having me, thanks for the great review, and for helping get the word out.

Look for Anti Matter on September 8, 2017. Follow @keirburrows on Twitter. The film was directed by Burrows and stars Yaiza Figueroa, Philippa Carson, Tom Barber-Duffy, and Noah Maxwell Clarke.

Synopsis:
Ana, an Oxford PhD student finds herself unable to build new memories following an experiment to generate and travel through a wormhole. The story follows her increasingly desperate efforts to understand what happened, and to find out who – or what – is behind the rising horror in her life.

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