FrightFest 2023 - Interview with Tariq Sayed director of Isaac

A talk with one of the newbies at FrightFest

James Whittington
August 26, 2023

NYX: Where did the idea of Isaac come from?

TS: The idea for Isaac came from an interest in genetic modification and the moral questions and conflict that might come with it. The basic idea started out as parents who genetically engineer their own child. That was it in its simplest form. I was fascinated with the question of whether it is morally right to edit embryos, even if nature has given you no other option. The first draft of the script was completed in 2019, and since then a lot of things have influenced it. At the time I happened to be reading a lot about the emerging development of lab grown meat which, being in a similar realm as synthetic technology, seemed to naturally work its way into the story. Marrying these ideas and themes along with my love of psychological horror and science-fiction films meant of course it would lead to exploring terrible consequences. Thus was borne the idea of what horrible creature would be created and how would the parents deal with it. I want the audience to ask their own questions, and form their own opinions about the subject matter, with the film maintaining its entertainment factor, and ultimately be about the characters at the hear of the story.

NYX: Did the script change much and was your vision restricted by budget?

TS: The script actually started out as a short film that we shot and edited back in 2020. When we put it together and discovered we had a 45 minute short and weren’t that far off a feature, my producing partners and I came to the conclusion that in order to tell the story properly, it would have to be longer to allow the characters time to develop and to naturally end up in the place they needed to be by the end. We went back to the drawing board, and canned a couple of scenes. I rewrote a few of the scenes we had already shot, extended the story, and used the short as the foundation for a feature. The fact that we shot it over the course of a couple of years meant the script was constantly evolving. We even had to adapt to external forces, such as the farm where we were filming being drastically changed. Things like that worked their way into the script, enriching the backdrop for our story. The budget limitations meant that the main challenge was to try to make the world seem bigger than what is presented on screen. I would have loved to have shown the inside of the GEO Group headquarters and had more locations, but that simply wasn’t possible. Instead we had to think of ways we could have the presence of GEO Group imposing on the main characters’ lives in different and often subtle ways, such as having GEO products dotted around the kitchen, or the TV advert that appears in the film. We had to adapt to the limitations and make them work in our favour. Keeping everything contained and claustrophobic was a result of being restricted in terms of location, which I think results in a more character-driven piece.

NYX: Was it written with a cast in mind?

TS: While I’m writing I do tend to have actors in mind, or at least a type of actor. For example with the character of Dr Arthur Guria, I knew I needed someone wise, fatherly, and modest so I would imagine actors who might fit the bill. I wouldn’t want to get too attached to certain actors while in the writing process, otherwise I would be limiting myself to what I’ve seen them do before and then that character would be based around that. Of course, given the nature of this production, I already had the cast when it came to extending the script so I was writing with Johnny, Catriona and Kathryn in mind which turned out to be very helpful in being able to envisage how they would interact and live inside the world I was creating. Actors will come on board and make the character their own. That’s something to be open to and embrace, and as I discovered, is one of the most exciting things about the process.

NYX: This is your directorial debut, were you nervous first day on set?

TS: The first day I was on set, I was unaware that it would turn out to be my directorial feature debut, but I was still nervous. Prior to this, I’d only worked on a handful of short films on a very small scale, never with a big crew or budget. I felt there was a lot riding on it. A lot of people had committed their time and energy to the project. I was thrown into the deep end but learnt to embrace the pressure and stress. It encouraged me to just stay focused on what was important; telling the story. There was an amazing (and bizarre) moment one day when it occurred to me that everyone was here to tell the story that I had written. I thought it was incredible how all these talented people had come together to make this happen. It was all daunting, but it’s really something to treasure and make the most of.

NYX: Johnny Vivash gives a powerhouse performance as a man slowly crumbling under surreal circumstances, did he remain in his intense character during takes?

TS: Johnny did something quite remarkable on this project in that he was able to sustain his performance over the course of more than 3 years. Filming Isaac in blocks, Johnny had other projects in between, but always remained in tune with the character of Nicholas. Even after a year long interval between shooting, he was able to step back on set and jump back into the character. That’s no small feat. He has the ability to switch it on as soon as the cameras are rolling. In between takes, he seems like ordinary, charismatic Johnny; laughing and joking with the crew, but there’s something there that tells me he is completely transporting his mind to the necessary place he needs to be in to deliver the performance. He embraced the character and it was clear to me from day one that he thought very deeply about how to approach the complexities of Nicholas. It was a joy to see him bring the character to life. He completely embodied him.

NYX: Was the movie all shot on location and if so, what challenges did that bring?

TS: For the majority of the shoot we were on location in Herefordshire, which presented a few logistical challenges. Getting our cast & crew up there (who are mostly based in London) meant we had to find accommodation. We also had Catriona traveling from France, and Bosco from Dublin. We were essentially in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the outside world. But that was a blessing really. It meant complete focus on the project. We became like a family, spending all day together, sitting around the table enjoying home cooked meals at the end of the day. The unconventional nature of the production meant we had to return on a number of occasions, which of course is not ideal, but it felt like we had built a bubble there and it was very easy for everybody to get back into the rhythm of shooting.

NYX: What was it like working with horror icon Catriona MacColl and how did she become to be cast?

TS: There were moments I had to pinch myself, knowing that she had been directed by one of the greats - Lucio Fulci; it was very exciting for all of us. The experience she brought with her added another layer to her character. She embodies the genre films of her past, and brings to the character a sinister edge that is so important. She is nothing but lovely in between takes when she’s not playing the evil head of a major tech corporation though! I worked closely with the writer Rory MacColl, who came on board as a script consultant. He suggested bringing in his sister (Catriona) to play the role of Dr Abner, who I had initially written as a male character. I discovered very quickly that she was the perfect fit. She read the script and much to my delight, wanted to be involved. I really couldn’t imagine anyone else as Dr Abner.

NYX: There’s something very timely about the movie, was this your intention from the start?

TS: When I first started writing Isaac, the concept of cellular meat was just emerging in mainstream media. It was something I’d never seen appear in a film, but I believed had the workings of a great sci fi / horror. Over the past 4 years as we’ve been putting the film together, I’ve seen more and more news items popping up, and it only enforced the drive to get the film finished and out there. I think it’s something that is going to crop up more and will be a question that will enter everyday life, sooner than we think. People are going to be presented with the option of eating lab grown meat, and I for one will be fascinated to see if it becomes a regular item on our shelves. There’s an interesting debate that comes with it - whether it is more sustainable, better for the environment, ethically right, safer, or simply too strange for people. It feels like the film is coming out at the right time.

NYX: Will you be nervous when the movie has its World Premiere at FrightFest?

TS: I think I will be. I have never presented a film to an audience of more than 30 people, so it’s going to be an experience for sure. I want to enjoy the occasion. It’s an absolute delight and honour that we have the opportunity to show the film on such a large scale at such an established festival. Every time I feel slightly nervous about it, I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to show the film that we’ve all worked so hard on, on the big screen. And our premiere, Leicester Square, Saturday night, I couldn’t ask for a better setting. I’m planning on savouring every minute of it.

NYX: So, what are you working on at the moment?

TS: I am currently working on a script in a similar sort of vein. It is another contained psychological horror story, but this is set in the times of the witch hunts of the 17th century. I’m very excited to get the ball rolling with that!

NYX: Tariq Sayed thank you very much.