Sarah Daly: The Unsung Visionary of British Indie Horror

Sarah Daly

In the hideous nightmare world of independent film, where eking out an existence is akin to a dystopian trip for toilet roll in the first days of the COVID epidemic, where men, women, and children fight to the death over the final sheet of poo-roll, where elderly members of the public collapse from Zimmer frames in flames, over battles to the death over bread rolls and milk… where… so many atrocities are carried out.

So, within that broad and ambiguous metaphor for chaos, which is resplendently evocative of the trials and tribulations of independent film, champions and leaders are few and far between. A lady leader is even rarer, with few working in the indie film sphere, producing films and running independent film production companies. I’m not saying there aren’t any, but it would take rose-tinted glasses to pretend there are many. This makes the job of our interview series, which shines a light on the great work produced by women in British indie horror, all the more important. Few can rival the accomplishments of Irish woman Sarah Daly, who graced the shores of Scotland over 10 years ago to co-found Hex Studios, one of the United Kingdom’s leading independent horror production companies and boutique distributors, as well as being a talented artist whose accomplishments won her praise and invitations for collaboration among the Hollywood elite, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, and Channing Tatum. 

These talents are not limited to film production. They include scriptwriting and songwriting, too. In fact, popular musician Eddie ‘Bingo’ Eyes once covered a song of hers in Kirkcaldy’s working man’s club last weekend, and… AND… popular music artist Sia of “Chandelier” fame performed Sarah’s work in concert. In fact, she even went so far as to apologise to Sarah on Twitter for not doing her work justice. Of course, Sarah’s talents don’t stop there, as the busy lady also runs Hex Publishing arm Hex Arcana and performs music herself, recently winning praise from classic ‘80s band New Order for a beautiful cover she produced of their timeless classic “Elegia.”

Mysteriously, Sarah Daly was even invited to the private villa of the Portuguese Prime Minister to discuss her work (among other artists) as opposed to the private invitation I received from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Let’s just say the rumours about his Bunga-Bunga parties are wrong; it is not the exotic women he makes dance, but the exotic men instead. My joints are still aching, and I’ve learned there’s only one orifice for a ham roast! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, not even the Greek ambassador.

Anyway, without further ado, I come to my 10 glorious questions for Sarah Daly about her enlightening experiences working in independent film. As a talented genius, I would urge you to follow her on social media, which you can do on Twitter and YouTube. You can also support her music and enjoy fancy downloads and goodies on her Patreon.

So, let’s get started! 

Sarah Daly [Photo Credit: Kirsty Vance]

Can you share your journey into the world of indie filmmaking, specifically within the British horror genre? What inspired you to pursue this path?”

It’s definitely been quite a journey! I guess I’ve always been creative, but it was when I left secondary school (high school) that I had to figure out what to do with that creativity. I was lucky enough to grow up in Ireland, where university is free, and there are even grants to help you attend, so it was kind of a given that I’d continue my studies. I had no idea what I wanted to do at that point, but I knew it would be something vaguely in the arts, and film sounded like the thing most likely to possibly lead to a career… although it still felt like a pipe dream. As I saw it, doing a degree would give me some time to work out what I actually wanted to do with my life. The only part of the course that I actually enjoyed was scriptwriting, and I fell in love with it pretty much right away. The blend of rules, structure, and imagination really appealed to me, and as someone who’d always written stories, I felt like I could be good at it. So when I left uni, I tried to get into screenwriting in one form or another. Alongside a variety of pretty soul-destroying day jobs, I worked as a script reader and wrote lots of short films for aspiring directors I met online. One of those directors was Lawrie Brewster, and we quickly began to build a creative partnership that felt like it could work. Lawrie had a corporate video company at the time but was eager to make more art-led projects, and he had (and still has, obviously) a producer’s brain. We both had a penchant for darker, more fantastical, melodramatic stories and once we started working together, things progressed pretty quickly. I moved to Scotland in March 2010, and later that year, we made our first feature, White Out, inspired by an apocalyptically snowy Scottish winter, using a DSLR that I’d gotten from my brother for Christmas. After that, the floodgates were opened. We set up Hex Studios together not long after that, and now we’re on our 13th feature film!

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in the indie film industry, particularly in the horror genre? How did you overcome these obstacles?

I think the toughest thing, but also the most rewarding, is that there’s no rulebook; there’s no singular path to success. Even if you do find a way to make and sell films that works, the goalposts keep moving, so you have to continually innovate and adapt — you have to create your own path. For example, a few times, we’ve felt like we’ve “cracked” one approach, like building a successful YouTube channel, or a sustainable streaming income through Amazon Prime. But then those big, faceless companies change their parameters, and suddenly something that was a reliable source of income can vanish overnight. I think this is especially the case for independent films and even more so for horror. The changing corporate values of these platforms can turn on a dime, and tweaks to their algorithms or policies can have a devastating effect on your business model. But this has only taught us to become even more independent, to be the drivers of our own destiny as much as we can, controlling as much of the funding, production, and distribution as possible so we’re not so beholden to forces outside of our control. It’s also so much more satisfying to have more of a direct relationship with your audience, and I hope also more rewarding for them to feel like they’re genuinely involved with what we do, that they’re on the journey with us.

In the realm of indie filmmaking, some individuals focus on a single discipline while others juggle multiple roles such as writing, directing, acting, or producing. Could you describe your approach in this regard? How do you balance your responsibilities, and what unique challenges does your chosen path present?

Oh yeah, I wear almost all the hats, and some of them sit better on my head than others! I wouldn’t have it any other way, but at the same time, it can be extremely challenging. I’ve done pretty much every job in film, from writing to producing, directing, sound design, behind-the-scenes photography, costume, even catering, and I do enjoy the challenge of trying lots of different roles. 

These days, I focus mostly on the business side of things, so bookkeeping, admin, and general organisation. I’m quite practically-minded and detail-oriented, so I can be fairly good at that end of things, but I do struggle with making the switch into creative mode. Running businesses creates a lot of mental clutter and responsibility that can easily pull you away from the more artistic side of film, and of yourself. That’s something I’m continually working on, to be honest, and I think any creative that decides to convert their passion into a career faces this conundrum. 

This last year has been a massive one for Hex — we produced three feature films and a couple of shorts in the space of about six months, as well as announcing and launching our revival of the Amicus brand, so it’s been full on from a logistical and organisational point of view, which has been really exciting and rewarding, but I’m excited to re-focus more on the creative side of things in the new year. As well as writing screenplays, I’m also a songwriter, and that’s definitely something I want to make more time for in the future. I love film, but music is the most personal, cathartic form of expression for me.

How has the landscape of the British horror genre evolved in recent years, and how has this impacted your work and approach?

I’ve got to be totally honest and say that I don’t really pay that much attention to what’s happening out in the wider world. I tend to focus on what we’re doing, on making the best work we can and on building a sustainable future for the company. I don’t look over the parapets that often. Also, to be honest, I’ve never been someone to follow trends, or try to keep up with a zeitgeist. The same is true of the studio — we simply do our best to tell good stories, make films that we’re passionate about, and hope that horror fans will respond well to that. 

Although I do always like to speak in some way about what’s going on in the world, ultimately, I want to tell stories and make films that will stand the test of time, and not attempt to keep up with what’s popular. We’re very lucky that our audience has continually proven its support for this pretty unconventional approach.

Sarah Daly at Brussel’s International Fantastic Film Festival [Photo Credit: Julian Miranda]

How do you navigate the financial constraints typical of independent filmmaking? What impact does this have on your creative process?

Personally, I enjoy constraints. If I had an infinite budget, I think I’d get overhwelmed by the possibilities. In terms of how that practically affects how I approach a story, I’ll always start by looking at what resources we have available and build from there. We’re lucky enough to have a beautiful studio building at our disposal, as well as amazing locations on our doorstep, plus an incredible team of talented, hardworking, reliable, and lovely people to call upon. These factors combined let us produce films that punch well above their weight in terms of production value. It’s always a balancing act between being ambitious and being realistic, though, and that is something that we spend a lot of time considering in the writing, and even more so in the rewriting stage. 

Balancing creative freedom with commercial viability can be challenging. Have you faced any significant compromises in this regard?

There have definitely been times when the focus of a project has been more on keeping the company’s finances healthy rather than entirely on the creative aspects. If you’re working with a commercial funder, they will have certain parameters that they want you to meet so they can guarantee a return. Often these are quite arbitrary things like the number of effects shots or a certain amount or type of action — basically, so they know they can cut a suitably exciting trailer to sell the film. It’s understandable, but it can be a little frustrating. I think how we manage that is by only pitching things that we know we can still find in some way creatively rewarding. These more commercially driven projects might not be exactly what we would make if left entirely to our own devices, but there are still aspects that we can enjoy and get behind from an artistic perspective. For me, it’s about the theme, the characters, and making the audience feel something. I can pretty much always find some way “in” to a story, some part of it that I can feel passionate about and invested in, even in the most commercial or mainstream films. Incidentally, commercial doesn’t necessarily mean lacking in creative merit, and uncommercial films also don’t inherently have more artistic value.

What advice would you offer to aspiring filmmakers looking to break into indie filmmaking, especially in the horror genre?

I would say let go of the idea that there’s only one set path. There are a thousand ways to get to where you want to be, and you’ll most likely change your mind about where exactly that is along the way. 

Everyone who aspires to work in film has their own unique reasons for wanting to do so, so if you can, figure out early what it is that you’re looking to get out of it, and what you have to offer. Ironically, sometimes the best way to get involved in film is through skills you have that may seem unrelated. For example, if you’re a good cook, you can get into the catering side of things. If you have any trade skills or are crafty, you can get involved with building props or sets. Even if that’s not necessarily the dream of where you want to end up, that’s often the best way to get your foot in the door. 

Be eager, reliable, and a team player. Film is possibly the most collaborative creative medium, especially on the indie side of things, and if you’re a lone wolf or a diva, you won’t get very far. So be nice! Put yourself out there, connect with people who are already actively doing and making things, and make yourself useful to them any way you can.

What personal or professional sacrifices have you made in your career, and how have they shaped your journey in the film industry?

I think if you’re someone who’s compelled to make a career out of creativity, you can pretty much assume it’s going to take a very long time, and that you’re going to be very poor for most of that time! So yeah, if you’re big on material possessions, indie film probably isn’t for you. Money has never been a major motivator for me, luckily, so it hasn’t felt like much of a sacrifice to live modestly. I feel incredibly grateful to get by doing work that means something to me. 

People do manage it, but I think it’s quite difficult to live what most would describe as a “normal” life if you work in film at any level, independent or otherwise. But I never wanted one of those anyway! You have to be a little crazy to do this for a living to be honest. It’s a compulsion more than it’s a job.

What changes or developments do you hope to see in the British indie horror scene in the coming years?

I’d just like to see more mainstream support for indie film, and indie horror especially. There’s, unfortunately, still a bias, especially among arts organisations, against the genre. Despite the obvious massive commercial and artistic potential of horror films, there’s still this pervasive idea that they’re in some way lesser, more low-brow, less worthy than other genres. The UK has massive potential for growth in the indie horror scene, but it does feel like it’s in its infancy still in a lot of ways, because of lack of funding and support. I’m very hopeful, though – I think we’re going in the right direction at least, but I must also say that there is a certain appeal and motivating energy to being the underdog or the outsider! 

Sarah Daly’s musician name is Metaphorest

Could you share a particularly rewarding experience or project in your career that reflects the unique challenges and triumphs of working in indie horror filmmaking?

Oh gosh, that’s a tough one. Every project has its high points and low points – they’re all pretty much equal parts harrowing and rewarding! I would say our second feature, and first full-on horror film, Lord of Tears, has a good dose of both. Back in 2012, 13 of us headed up to the Highlands to stay and shoot in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere, and eight days later, we returned with most of a feature film in the can! They were epic, freezing cold, difficult days that were equally full of fun and camaraderie and a shared sense that we were creating something special. 

Once the film was shot, we launched our first crowdfunding campaign so that we could finish the film, and I just remember the incredible excitement and gratitude that people were willing to back us, that they were into what we were doing. That was the first time we really felt that this could be something we could sustain, that we might just be able to make a living making our strange little horror films. That was huge for us. 

The film went on to play at a ton of festivals, won some awards, and built a decent fan base that was the springboard to everything that’s come after. We’ve learned a lot since then, and it’s certainly not a perfect film, but it’s one that will always have a very special place in my heart. Working in indie horror can be brutal at times, but ultimately, I get to make art with my friends and keep a roof over my head doing it, so I’m pretty blessed, really!