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'The Seeding': Barnaby Clay makes his audience feel hot, claustrophobic in desert horror movie

"Somewhere between the combination of being there in the desert, and then facing fatherhood and what that could mean for me, this idea came to me," Clay said.

After directing the documentary SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock and several music videos for bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV On The Radio, filmmaker Barnaby Clay wrote and directed the tense horror film The Seeding (in select theatres and on digital in the U.S. and Canada Jan. 26).

Filmed in Utah, the film takes place when Wyndham (Scott Haze) sees a lost boy in the desert, and follows him in an attempt to locate the child's family. With no cell phone service and Wyndham now led far away from his car, he finds himself completely lost.

That's when Wyndham meets Alina (Kate Lyn Sheil), who's living in this shack in a desert canyon. But it turns out Alina, and now Wyndham, are being held captive by a group of boys.

Influenced by 1970s Australian thrillers, including Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout, Clay's film really taps into the unnerving feeling of isolation, with the audience feeling the intensity of the desert heat and the claustrophobia of Wyndham and Alina's space.

He was inspired by the film the Woman in the Dunes, which has a similar premise, where a woman is trapped by villagers in a house at the bottom of a sandpit, and a visitor is lured there, trapped with her. But it was really when he was in the the desert, Joshua Tree specifically, with his wife, (Yeah Yeah Yeahs artist Karen O) when she was pregnant with their son, that really inspired Clay to explore this story of survival under this system of a society created by these boys.

"I was in the desert with my wife and she was pregnant, and ... existential thoughts come rushing towards you," Clay told Yahoo Canada. "Somewhere between the combination of being there in the desert, and then facing fatherhood and what that could mean for me, this idea came to me."

Kate Lyn Sheil and Scott Haze in The Seeding (Courtesy of Magnet Releasing)
Kate Lyn Sheil and Scott Haze in The Seeding (Courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

While The Seeding was made with a particularly modest budget, Clay had to pull off some striking shots, including moments where Alina and Wyndham are stuck in this desert canyon, and the kids are high above, 60 or 70 feet above, looking down on them, in a way that really depicts the sheer scope of this location.

"There's also a certain amount of naivety which goes into it, ... you prepare for everything, but you're sort of like, 'Oh, yeah, this is going to be fine,'" Clay said. "You make it work somehow and ... I had to be really economical in my approach, and sometimes that leads to disappointment, just in terms of what I'm getting, versus what's there in my head."

"But then sometimes it also leads to something more interesting, where you're forced into a situation where you have to approach it in a different way and it opens up ideas that weren't necessarily there initially."

Barnaby Clay on the set of The Seeding (Taylor Olandt)
Barnaby Clay on the set of The Seeding (Taylor Olandt)

Horror with a message

In The Seeding, Clay also uses horror as a way to address larger themes, like the human cycle of life and our connection with nature.

"The best horror, in my mind, the ones that really stand out to me ... are always ones which somewhere there, maybe not so deep under the surface, there is a message," Clay said. "It's not a message like, 'you must do this,' but it's trying to use the medium."

"I think horror has such a great history of that, because it's mass entertainment on one level, brings people into the theatres, but if you can say something at the same time, it just makes it so much more interesting. I love horror. I love watching horror movies. But I always think that the ones which are going to sit with you are the ones which actually resonate on some deeper level."

A tool that Clay really leaned on in The Seeding is the score by Tristan Bechet to enhance and elevate that eerie feeling in the film, building that sense of suspense for the audience. That started in Clay's early drafts of the film and he stressed that what he loves about Bechet's approach is that it's "very left of centre," with Bechet coming from an avant garde, industrial background with his work.

"If there's an obvious route to go, he's going to take the other route, which is always interesting to me, and I try and do the same within my work," Clay said.

"By the time we got into pre-production and casting, ... I had about 30 pieces of music at that point, but I selected five [to give my key crew and actors], and I was just like, ... you read the script, you can sort of picture it in your head, hopefully. This is the music, this is the soundtrack, this is the feel that I'm going for."

The Seeding (Courtesy of Magnet Releasing)
The Seeding (Courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

There are also moments in the script where Clay wrote that the boys in the film do these chants, which Bechet was responsible for creating as well.

"I had an idea of what they were in my head, but obviously trying to kind of really pinpoint them was pretty hard, and that took a lot of back and forth between Tristan and I, until we kind of got the language right, and the tempo and the feel of those chants," Clay said. "Then he taught them to the boys, ... he was teaching them when we were there in Utah. I got him to come out, which is unusual for for a composer on a low budget movie."

"I didn't really have a lot of time to spend with the boys and it was a great way of bringing them together. They just spent days basically, in a barn near where we were staying, just chanting together."

While Clay directed the film and wrote the script, he was "overly precious" with the words on the page and would workshop moments in the script on set. But something that was particularly important for the filmmaker was shooting on location.

"We found this place, we built the shack there, and I wanted to give the actors, and also me and my crew, just this sense of like, we're in this place, we are stuck here," Clay said. "I didn't really see much else between that and my motel room ... for like six weeks. You feel the visceral element of it when you're doing it."

Barnaby Clay (BIFAN)
Barnaby Clay (BIFAN)

Directing TV On The Radio's 'You' music video has stuck with Barnaby Clay

Bringing all of his experience creating award winning music videos to his first narrative feature film, there is a moment from working with the band TV On The Radio that still sticks with Clay, directing the music video for "You."

"It was a very low budget video, ... and when we shot the opening scene at the diner, we had just two cameras on them, ... and those guys are just the funniest f—king guys, they're just super funny, and just very smart, and the stuff they were coming out with was just hilarious," Clay said. "Tunde [Adebimpe] dressed as Prince was really fun because he was really getting into it."

But Clay shared that it was also quite a sad moment, because the late bassist Gerard Smith had terminal cancer. He died shortly after filming that video, in 2011, at the age of 36, after a battle with lung cancer.

"I think there was a feeling in the band of just, ... how much they loved each other and how much their band meant to them," Clay said. "Bands are like families, so when something like that happens, it just brings out this level of poignancy."

"It's like me thinking about my script when my son is about to be born. Birth and death, you start thinking about some bigger things and it kind of makes you a bit more open."

The Seeding is in select theatres and on digital in the U.S. and Canada Jan. 26, and available in the U.K. on digital Feb. 12.