Ones to watch in 2022: Ruth Paxton, filmmaker

It may have come together surprisingly quickly, but Ruth Paxton’s debut film about a teenage girl who experiences a supernatural awakening that causes her to stop eating promises to be one of the highlights of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Interview by Alistair Harkness

Ruth Paxton

“It was incredibly quick,” marvels Ruth Paxton. The Edinburgh-based filmmaker is referring to the unusually fast turn-around time for her debut feature, A Banquet, an unsettling horror film that seemed to arrive out of nowhere on the festival circuit this past autumn. “I have literally never made a short or a promo that has happened as fast as this.”

On a zoom call from Miami – she’s visiting her boyfriend for the first time since Covid kicked in – Paxton has certainly had a bit of a dream ride with the film thus far. A world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, a British premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in October... it’s not bad going given A Banquet wasn’t even supposed be her debut film. Having just premiered her latest short, the Maxine Peake-starring Be Still My Beating Heart, at the 2019 London Film Festival, she was working on her own feature script when producer Leonora Darby told her about screenplay she had for a film about a teenage girl called Betsy who experiences a supernatural awakening that causes her to stop eating.

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“I loved the sound of it immediately,” she says. “Like a lot of women, I’ve had periods of disordered eating, and could understand the very specific madness that comes with starvation.” And as someone who's open too about suffering from mood disorders, she liked the way the horror tapped into the idea of a girl being consumed by an idea that overwhelms her and freaks out her family. “As a kid the thing I was most scared of was not being believed,” she says. “That was my big thing.”

A Banquet

After Darby sent her the script (by American screenwriter Justin Bull), the pair agreed to make it right away and promptly secured financing early in 2020. Then Covid hit, forcing a production hiatus, something that allowed Paxton a few crucial extra months of prep time, but also meant she’d have to shoot her first feature under strict Covid protocols – a fraught experience given the fragile nature of their low-budget, 20-day production. Luckily, she says, no one got sick. If they had, “We’d have been f***ed.”

An intriguing mix of body horror and psychological horror, A Banquet is an ambitious film to attempt under any circumstances. Paxton cites the nightmarish work of Scottish artist Ken Currie as her main influence and she’s particularly proud of the work her production designer did to make her protagonists’ modernist London home an extension of their fragile headspace. She also loved all the elaborate food preparation scenes that ratchet up the sickly tension between Betsy (played by newcomer Jessica Alexander) and her widowed mother Holly (played by Sienna Guillory). “The pitch was kind of Chef’s Table meets David Cronenberg,” says Paxton of the film’s grisly gastronomy.

Despite this, she doesn’t really consider herself a horror filmmaker, a label she’s been tagged with since art college. “I made a lot of films at art college, but my graduation film, the one that set me on my way, was about a woman who was basically drinking too much, got really f***ed, woke up the next day, had the fear, didn't know what she'd done, and had this kind of mad, abstract experience. It was programmed in a lot of horror festivals and I was like, ‘I don't think it's a horror; that’s just what happened to me last Saturday!’”

Having grown up in Edinburgh in a family of film lovers, her tastes are actually a bit more catholic. She has stories, for instance, about her grandparents attending the Diamonds are Forever premiere at the old Odeon on Clerk Street when Sean Connery presented someone with a diamond necklace. And she remembers it being something of a badge of honour when the manager of their local video shop told them that their family had the highest rental rate on record. “We just watched movies all the time,” she laughs. “I think my brother and I saw Jurassic Park over 30 times and that wasn’t unusual.”

A Banquet

She and her brother Louis (who’s also a director) eventually started mucking about making films on camcorders borrowed from their dad’s work (“He was a social worker at the time so those video cameras would have been for interviewing prisoners”) and she ended up studying film at Edinburgh College of Art, where her artist mother had been a mature student. Since then, she’s carved out an acclaimed career with her short films and photography, but A Banquet has finally put her on the map as a feature director.

Up next is a film she has in development with Creative Scotland that she’s currently re-writing and she’s also attached to direct an American-set drama for FilmFour called Klickitat that her filmmaker pal Deborah Haywood (Pin Cushion) has adapted from a novel by Leave No Trace author Peter Rock.

Before those she’ll have the Scottish premiere of A Banquet at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, which will be a bit of a homecoming. “I had to fight for it, but I brought a lot of heads-of-department from Scotland with me on this film.

“And I love Glasgow Film Festival,” she adds. “I grew up there: Glasgow Short Film Festival nurtured me and my brother and I’ve had the pleasure of being part of the festival’s music programme, so it’s lovely to be able to screen it there.”

A Banquet will screen at Glasgow Film Festival on 5 March. It will be released on digital on 11 March

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