Formerly known as The Taking, Bait is the second film from actor/director Dominic Brunt and his actor/producer wife Joanne Mitchell – a nasty tale of revenge that asks searching questions about the notion of justifiable violence. It plays FrightFest – with Brunt & Co in attendance – and opens in UK cinemas next week.
I was on set for the film’s gruesome finale. Here’s my location report and some exclusive pictures.
In an anonymous house in an anonymous cul-de-sac in a quiet part of Huddersfield, two desperate women have murder in mind.
But their plan to secure freedom from crippling payments to a psychotic loan shark has backfired. It’s got bloody. And now there is only one way to go…
“There’s this massive fight. It starts upstairs. I take him from the door and I lure him up and I take my kit off and I promise him all sorts of fun and games, because I still owe him a few hundred pounds and I’m telling him that I’m going to deliver that in sexual favours.
“We fight, into the kitchen, down on the kitchen floor… it’s that desperate scramble of ‘what have you got?’ I’ve lost my weapon and from thereon in its desperation.”
Victoria Smurfit delivers a calm précis of one of the breathless sequences in The Taking dressed only in lacy bra and panties. In a few minutes’ time she will once again be locked in screaming hand-to-hand combat with fellow actor Jonathan Slinger. But, for a moment, she can ruminate on the job in hand. It’s called murder.
Long, lithe, blonde and oozing raw sexuality, Dublin-born Smurfit has built a reputation as a no-nonsense character. From detectives to vampire hunters she’s rarely been tested in any meaningful way on screen. The Taking changed all that.
As a long-time friend of actress Joanne Mitchell, her co-star in The Taking and the wife of Emmerdale regular Dominic Brunt, aka Paddy the vet, who is making his second venture into direction, Smurfit found the script written with her in mind.
It’s juicy stuff – combining heightened reality with a chunky undercurrent of violence. It’s a thousand miles from Brunt’s directorial debut, the zombie chiller Before Dawn.
But Brunt and Mitchell knew they had to make a leap with that difficult second film. Casting Smurfit was part of a strategy that also saw the film being entirely funded by British distributor Metrodome International.
Smurfit and Mitchell play streetwise Bex and naïve Dawn, market traders and best friends who unwisely take a loan in order to fulfil their dream of opening an organic cafe. Slinger, an RSC veteran, is Jeremy, the knight in tarnished armour who becomes their nemesis.
“I’ve never played anybody in massive jeopardy – to play the mouse to the cat,” reveals Smurfit. “Bex is a protector of Dawn. She’s the bodyguard. She’s the one who looks after her. Nobody ever takes her down. Has she had knocks? Yeah, but it just teflons off her.
“She’s ballsy, gobby, can-do, a take-no-prisoners person. I normally play quite high status characters who have got their sh*t together, frankly. So to play somebody who starts there and ends up in physical, mental and emotional terror was too good to turn down. And piecing together the levels of terror, fear, victimisation and vulnerability in an arc was so fascinating. That and I love Dom and Jo.”
There was a time, not too long ago, when 44-year-old Brunt was weary from multi-tasking as director, co-producer, writer and actor on Before Dawn. “Never again,” he said. One assumes therefore that The Taking has been easier since he has left the acting to his wife…
“No! It was supposed to make it easier that I wasn’t acting in the film, that I could make it easier for myself and just concentrate on the directing,” he laughs.
“Then I thought I could help produce it. There are three producers but it’s turned into an enormous thing. It was going to be one camera, locations that were nearby. Then all of a sudden there were locations scattered around Yorkshire, there was a double set-up in a studio, two cameras, a Hollywood cinematographer, two camera operators, everybody’s got an assistant and that assistant’s got an assistant… all of a sudden it’s built from 10 crew to 35, every day.”
Watching Brunt on the set it’s clear that he’s settled into his role as filmmaker. He’s confident, all seeing, comfortable with the complexities of the scene and the intricate choreography it requires. Moreover he’s content to let others get on with their jobs. He’s no micro manager, nor is he a martinet.
Cast and crew are into their third week of the shoot. Everyone is crammed into a tiny kitchen as Smurfit launches the first stage of her fight with Slinger. Brunt guides his actors with quiet intensity. “Water, then strangling, then cut,” he orders, adding to Slinger “Each smash changes your position.”
The rehearsal fizzes with energy. Smurfit hurls whatever she can find at her quarry, including a real pint glass that bounces off his back. The kitchen is dressed with splinters and broken glass – in reality “smash plastic” that Brunt puts back into position whenever actor or crew accidentally moves it.
“Careful with the shards, guys, they’re dressing,” says an eagle-eyed assistant director.
And through it all Smurfit wanders in her scanties. It feels entirely normal to see a statuesque bloodied blonde in just bra and knickers. The crew doesn’t bat a collective eyelid.
“You have to normalise it,” she observes. “It just becomes ‘Oh, there’s Vic in her underpants’ for the first five minutes and then everyone goes ‘Ah, who cares?’ When I arrived three weeks ago on my LA diet I was feeling a lot more confident. Now I’ve been cold and wet, hungry and tired I’m just getting on with it. I don’t care.
“I work on the theory that my make-up artist is my mirror. Don’t want to look, don’t want to know, because if you do you’re a bad model rather than a good actress. I know that my make-up artist will look after the gore and the costume department will make sure that bits and pieces of me aren’t hanging out.”
Brunt and Mitchell had the idea to make a female revenge thriller before they made their horror debut. The Taking is resolutely a genre piece but one that focuses on friendship and loyalty. With gallons of blood.
“There needed to be blood involved,” laughs Mitchell. “And killing. But at the core of it there is a heart to it. You’ve got to care about the two main characters. I want the audience to be rooting for them. It’s very ordinary. That’s the whole point. They are just normal people who made a mistake.”
The film is one of the openers at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival, which begins tomorrow. With its pedigree and Yorkshire locations – it was shot in Huddersfield, Hebden Bridge, Leeds and in Todmorden, which Brunt says has “one of the most beautiful Victorian markets in the world” – its connections are obvious.
But there is a sense that this is a mature work from mature filmmakers. The Mitchell/Brunt partnership extends beyond their marriage to a bona fide business enterprise. And this is a serious film.
The rehearsal over, Smurfit and Slinger go back to war. The camera crew is under the kitchen table; the director forces himself into a corner. Heroine and villain prepare to launch into a vicious scrabble for supremacy.
Smurfit excuses herself. “We can talk mid-kill,” she says. And with that she lopes off to exact revenge on her tormentor.
This feature previously appeared in The Yorkshire Post. Read it HERE. Special thanks to Dominic and Jo, to Vicky and Jonathan, Darren Grassby and the rest of the crew.