Prano Bailey-Bond didn’t put pen to paper until much later, but you could say the seeds for “Censor” were planted when she was just eight years old, daring to pop in a film that had been rated “12” in her native Wales and having the TV presenter Simon Bates warn that it was illegal for anyone under 12 to continue to watch this VHS. While her parents assured her that no one in the house would be locked up for this offense, the fear stuck with her as well as a curiosity about how such a rating was arrived at as she developed a taste for directing horror, from staging a play inspired by “The Evil Dead” when she was studying theater to a series of terror-filled short films that have made her feature debut much-anticipated. She ends up delivering more than even her biggest fans could have ever hoped for with the psychological thriller starring Niamh Algar as Enid Baines, a poor soul who works for the film ratings board in England at its most demanding period during the early 1980s when conservatism was at an all-time high with Margaret Thatcher in power and the ability to produce movies on the cheap with the advent of VHS allowing for horror films crude in both their production and bloodletting flooding the market.
One might think evaluating so many grotesqueries might be the worst job on earth, but Enid takes great pride in it, seeing herself as a protector for the public when her own sister went missing in a case thought to be brutal and after coming to believe that she sees her in one of the films she’s tasked with rating, she goes down a rabbit hole she may not be able to come back from. What’s a harrowing downward spiral for Enid becomes an immersive and electrifying cinematic experience for audiences as her reality increasingly warps into the video nasties she’s exposed to, not only showing off Bailey-Bond’s flair for bold and arresting imagery, but with co-writer Anthony Fletcher and a captivating turn from Algar, how Enid pulls what she wants out of what she sees while denying what she doesn’t, becoming her own worst enemy. Armed with a dark sense of humor and a natural feel for the unsettling, Bailey-Bond didn’t have to get her film banned like so many others did in the ‘80s to create a true sensation and with the Sundance hit now arriving in theaters and on demand, she spoke about the inspiration behind it, her collaboration with Algar on such a compelling character and how she ended up stealing a scene in the film at the last moment.
This is one of the best premises for any film I could think of, but it made me wonder did you know the era this would be set in first or the character?
It definitely was an evolution. She didn’t pop into my head as a full character, right from start. In fact, that first time I thought about making a film about a censor I was thinking about a male character, but it quickly shifted to being a female character because I know there aren’t that many films about censors at all, but I just felt like we haven’t seen the female character watching these kinds of films, particularly because I’m a woman and I love watching horror films. But Enid really evolved over time and I was always interested in exploring the idea of censorship in art and in films, but I also wanted to explore the idea of self-censorship and psychological censorship, so I wanted to find something in Enid’s past that she’d censored, or her brain had censored for her. So you’ve got something that you know is there for the character that’s maybe driven them to censor, but you’re working away, trying to figure out what that bit of story is and those things come in little chunks as you develop the script and then she continues to come to life, because the person you choose to cast in the role brings so much to the role. Then every decision you make on set and every decision that the crew are making is all feeding into how we see that character and how we present her to the audience.
Once you cast Niamh, did it change your ideas about Enid?
I don’t know if she actually changed the ideas in my head, but what she brought to the character that maybe wasn’t on the page so clearly was a real empathy, which makes us lean into Enid because she’s quite a closed, cold character in some ways. At the beginning of the film, she’s very hard, she’s got rules, and she doesn’t open up to people. And she goes home and spends time on her own. But you’re looking for somebody that can bring a humanity to that and what Niamh did amazingly was to take us on this journey from this person who’s like a coiled spring with this shell around them, to somebody who was an absolute emotional mess, where almost all the things she’s held inside emotionally for all these years is going to explode out of her. I was always looking for somebody who was going to be able to carry the audience through the film who we couldn’t look away from, and basically Niamh ticked all of these boxes, so I was very lucky to get to work with her.
You likely had to be quite familiar with the films, which are now quite accessible, but how did you figure out how to portray the ratings board?
Yeah, the censors are a secret society in some ways, aren’t they? Nobody gets to see how they work. I started off obviously watching a lot of documentaries about censors from the period, but then I actually just ended up contacting the BBFC and asking if we were able to go in and have a look at their offices and talk to them about their work. They were surprisingly welcoming and really interested in the film, because I guess not many people who have gone out and made a film about what they do, so they were just really keen to be helpful. We went in and we looked at some of the files from the period and we were able to look through the comments and how they were talking about things like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Evil Dead” and “Driller Killer.” That was really enlightening, [because] even though you didn’t know who each censor was, you could see that there was the personality coming through just in their comments.
Everybody’s trying to watch the films both objectively and subjectively at the same time and there’s always that little bit of subjective viewpoint coming through — the person that’s focused on violence towards women or how people from other cultures are represented and things like that. You start to see their obsessions. Then I’d talked to a lot of film censors from the period as well, just to try and get a better sense of what it was like working during this period of hysteria and whether the atmosphere actually affected their approach to the job. All of that stuff was hugely helpful and really inspired loads of different details and elements in the film. Even if the censor’s office in the film is fictional and it’s nothing like the BBFC, even in the layout and the way they operate in that main office, it was all inspired by some of the ideas that I was taking from these conversations and this research.
You have an awful lot of fun with the production design. What was it like designing Video Dungeon, the local video store with all those old movies that Enid visits?
Yeah, it’s very nostalgic, isn’t it? I think anyone of a certain age remembers their video shop that they went to, and mine was like this very pokey little corridor in this little Welsh town, and it was exciting to look at all these videos on the shelves, so creating that was a lot of fun. My production designer, Paulina Rzeszowska, is incredibly talented and probably one of the most hardworking people I know — and I know a lot of incredibly working people. Think about the censor’s office, for example. We built most of the set for that, so that was like a blank office when we arrived and we were always thinking about Enid and how we access Enid more through the production design. When you think about in Enid’s home space, the color was really important. We always thought about Enid’s house being like the color of bruises, these kinds of greens and blues, so that she’s this sort of sore, bruised person in her own space. There was a real collaboration between my production designer, DOP and my costume designer about how we’d create a color journey through the film from the bleak ’80s British world into this vibrant, lush, video nasty world.
You allowed yourself a bit of a dry run on your short “Nasty.” Was there any particular breakthrough in figuring this out?
Yeah, for a start, we shot “Nasty” on 16mm, and we shot “Censor” on 35. And part of the reason we wanted to shoot “Censor” on film was because we had explored the look and texture on “Nasty,” and film was one of the really valuable assets to creating that authentic ‘80s feel. But then the color journey was something I was exploring in “Nasty,” [where] you have scenes like when the camera drifts up the stairs, and you find yourself in a forest, but when we’re going through the TV at the beginning of the film, into the video nasty world, [I thought] how do we break down the line between fiction and reality with the camera and the movement and the visual effects? There’s the aspect ratio change as well. [Those] were things that definitely I was exploring going, “Does this work? What do I love?” On a short film, you can try these things out, and it’s not as costly, so you can experiment maybe a little bit more. Everything worked in the short, so I felt like I could go into the feature more confident about how I was going to bring these things into life in “Censor.”
I can’t let you go without talking about your cameo as “Deranged Bloodied Woman in Rejected Video Nasty.” How did you land the greatest screen credit of all time?
Actually, that’s a funny one. Basically, we were in post-production, and my editor and I had come up with this idea that we’d have this woman swinging a knife, covered in blood. We were thinking, “Oh, we’ll have to get some kind of archive footage,” and we were looking into an existing piece of footage, but we were in lockdown during that period and I, at the time, lived with my DOP [Annika Summerson]. So I was like, “Well, we could shoot it ourselves. I’ve got a nightie upstairs, and I’ve got a bowl of fake blood, so we’ll just do it.” So me and Annika, my DOP actually did that in a house, on a phone. We shot it on a DV camera as well, but it looked too scuzzy and we needed to be able to actually see what was going on. But I’m glad that I got to have a little cameo appearance. I’d be up for writing little cameo appearances for myself in future, where appropriate.