Spling interviewed Glasshouse screenwriter and associate producer, Emma Lungiswa De Wet and writer-director Kelsey Egan. The interview unearthed some welcome insights into the writing process and what it took to realise the dystopian fairy tale, Glasshouse. The story centres on a family, who are confined to a safe haven in their bid to isolate from a contaminated world. The ensemble drama stars Jessica Alexander, Hilton Pelser, Anja Taljaard, Brent Vermeulen, Kitty Harris and Adrienne Pearce.
From inception to “mist opportunities”, Spling invited Emma and Kelsey to open up about the story’s origins, their winning writing formula and some of what inspired them to dream up Glasshouse in this in-depth interview. Watch the recorded interview above and read some of the rich and valuable insights gleaned from the interview.
The Writing Process
Having experienced professional disappointments, both screenwriters decided to write the only way was to write themselves out of the predicament by accepting a job to write for Multichoice. Glasshouse was a collaborative effort for the co-writers who found the experience to be cohesive, able to write in the same character voice with a similar vision.
It’s a film that wanted to be made making the writing experience quite easy, holistic with De Wet and Egan finding their odd and even scenes matching in terms of tone. Created mostly via video conference, they were able to find better alternatives, argue well and somehow managed to deliver one of the strongest first draft scripts through this constant checking and rechecking process.
The Eastern Cape has been trying to promote film tourism, which prompted them to centre the film at Pearson’s Conservatory, a colonial remnant and the kernel for their world. Based at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha) , this location had become a bit weary, something that worked quite perfectly for the decay and weathered feel of the film. While De Wet and Egan wrote the screenplay with Pearson’s Conservatory as the inspiration, they only opted to get permission afterwards, confident of being able to pull strings with the municipality.
Realising that this aspect of tourism was controlled by Nelson Mandela Bay, which was driving for more film industry work in the Eastern Cape, they found a champion to cut through all the red tape with the proviso that they leave the space in better condition. Having grown up on opposite sides of the world enjoying the Gothic sensibilities of the Brontë sisters are, Glasshouse has a fairytale vibration with a Victorian feel. Wardrobe and many elements hark back to its colonial origins. Adding grace and elegance to this relic helped inform their world with the film primarily based at this location.
In terms of influences, Glasshouse does have a number of parallels with The Beguiled with a similar plot device of a stranger disrupting a matriarchal home. However, the filmmakers used Never Let Me Go as a touchstone for the haunting tone to Glasshouse. Opting for a film of poignant domestic restraint, the idea of a “dystopian chamber drama” seems accurate as one journalist described it.
Partly inspired by single location pressure cooker films like Hard Candy and Moon, Glasshouse was also somewhat influenced by the idea of normalised ritual from films at Midsommar. Coming from a theatre background where the screenwriters were forced to make magic in a black room, you can understand the dynamic. Operating from the primary location, it’s easy to see how glasshouse could work as a stage play.
The Writer’s “Room”
When it comes to drafts of the screenplay, most require a minimum of six drafts. South Africa tends to be limit this to 2 to 3 drafts while there are instances where there are 8 to 12 drafts based on writers room politics where some are replaced. Having written on Trackers, Egan had experienced a writers room where they took turns being the head writer. Having three different brains pass over the material makes the process much more thorough. Having a solid skeleton in place and a fixed structure for the characters, they managed to deliver a shooting script the first time round, which is quite miraculous.
Having scanned through the screenplay, been actively involved in assessing and being in tune, the dual writing process was intuitive and well-prepared. Having tried the Trackers method on a feature film, applied the script treatment, scene breakdown and known where they are going it’s easy to see how they arrived at such a polished final product. Having a producer like Greig Buckle as a tiebreaker, he was able to apply great commercial experience in offering special insights. So in the case of Glasshouse, it wasn’t quite the same as a first draft in most cases.
There are obvious parallels that can be drawn between Glasshouse and the pandemic. However, these are coincidental with the dystopian genre often relying on these elements. While the screenwriters weren’t aiming to take advantage of the current climate, the claustrophobia of the setting and context of an upside down world caused by The Shred, tied in beautifully with the idea of lockdown, an invisible threat and undergoing a new protocol to avoid contamination.
Glasshouse has a calm in the chaos feeling, a controlled atmosphere. As a folk horror, the normalised rituals and killing come across as ordinary housekeeping. This iconic, high concept is the kind of thing that would be spoof-worthy, much like the films that inspired Scary Movie. Having such serious subject matter, you can understand how a joke version was constantly at play during the shooting process.
The lyricism of the language was also something that the filmmakers worked hard at grasping, creating a timeless and untraceable fairytale. While the shoot was based in South Africa, the production has a universal feel with the cast instructed to adjust their accents for a non-specific feel.
Egan met their composer Patrick Cannell in 2013. Wanting to work together with the musical prodigy compared with James Horner, Glasshouse arrived with a tight budget. Giving Patrick a Spotify playlist of songs that had the right feel, he listened to the mix over a road trip and delivered every step of the way. Live strings recordings raised the bar for Glasshouse.
Glasshouse is a passion project and labour of love, testament to the brimming and resourceful talent who were able to do much with little. However, it wouldn’t have been possible without the “decades worth of favours”, working with film people who loved the story. It’s a feature film that outplays its budget something De Wet and Egan wanted to point out to acknowledge their generous collaborators and demonstrate that these feats were the result of “miracles on air”.
While Glasshouse is difficult to classify, embodying elements from fairy tale to western, the screenwriter duo focused on the uneasiness of the situation, opting to play into the psychological thriller. Through its taut atmosphere and pacing, it compels the pressure cooker environment. Through the post-production process they were able to address film changes and turning points using ADR. Based on constructive feedback from a test screening, they were able to figure out when audiences figured things out and common threads.
Using a setting in Final Draft that enables a script report, De Wet and Egan discovered they had create a well-balanced ensemble piece. In terms of favourite characters, the most delightful was young Daisy while Gabe proved to be most difficult thanks to his limited dialogue, where things can go wrong. An imagined condition, loosely based on dementia, the feeling was that they would’ve liked to write more bravely in retrospect in part based on Brent’s performance.
Page to Screen
Port Elizabeth is known as the Windy City and reinforced this nickname by disrupting the mist machines. Trying to create a haunting atmosphere and writing as if the glasshouse was encircled, capturing mist on screen proved to be incredibly difficult. The prostehtic effects were quite amazing, while the bonnets presented some practical concerns with their screens misting up after adjustments were made to maximise performances.
South Africa is known as a versatile film location, a popular setting for dystopian films such as: Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Monster Hunter and the critically-acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road. De Wet and Egan kept the film broad to create work of a global relevance. Casting an international cast member and rising star in Jessica Alexander gives Glasshouse more clout. Having earned the part, it was her gift to the production. Special thanks went to Multichoice for greenlighting productions to keep film professionals employed over the disruptive period for the film industry.