Ones to watch in 2021: Douglas Cox, producer

The success of Host, the rapidly-made Zoom-based chiller he made this summer with director Rob Savage, helped score producer Douglas Cox an award nomination and a three movie deal. Expect to hear a lot more about him in 2021, writes Alistair Harkness

Douglas Cox PIC: Craig Topham
Douglas Cox PIC: Craig Topham

"Thanks so much for your patience,” says Douglas Cox, apologetically. “We’re three weeks out from shooting and the days are already starting to disappear…”

It’s October 2020 and 32-year-old Scottish producer behind horror sensation Host is up to his eyeballs in work as he arrives a few minutes late for a hastily arranged late-morning Zoom call from his London production office. This, it turns out, is his new reality and while it’s a little surreal to be interviewing him this way, it’s entirely appropriate. Host, after all, is the Zoom horror movie that cleverly used the suddenly ubiquitous video-conferencing platform as the basis for a supernatural chiller. Entirely conceived, produced and released during lockdown last summer, it has been a bit of a game-changer, not least for Cox.

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The movie he’s about to start shooting for instance – which will have wrapped by the time you read this – is the first in a three-picture deal he and Host director Rob Savage signed in September with Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, the maverick US outfit responsible for the Paranormal Activity movies, The Purge and Insidious franchises and the Oscar-winning Get Out.

A scene from Host

In recognition for his work on Host, he’s also just been nominated in the Breakthrough Producer category at the British Independent Film Awards, which isn’t bad going considering he started 2020 as part of a BFI producer training scheme that quickly went south when Covid-19 hit and the industry he’d been scraping a living in since his early 20s suddenly shut down.

But then Cox, who grew up near Haddington in East Lothian, is the sort of creative producer who thrives on turning obstacles into opportunities. Host, which is his debut feature (he’s previously produced a string of shorts, including five with 26-year-old director Rob Savage), is a prime example. Starting life as a boredom-alleviating prank video that went viral in the early days of lockdown (it involved Savage investigating creepy noises in his loft in the middle of a Zoom call with some unsuspecting pals), it kicked into gear as a film almost immediately. “Rob made this prank video and then others saw it and were like, ‘Can you do a big version of this? And we were like, ‘Yeah, we can.’”

With zero movie production happening under Covid restrictions, shooting remotely via Zoom using iPhones for cameras was the only plausible way to make anything safely. But to do it well, says Cox, they knew they had to also make something quickly and get it out as soon as possible. So they signed a deal with horror streaming service Shudder, which premiered it on 31 July, less than three months after Cox came on board as producer.

“I'm pretty sure no one's ever made a film this quickly, certainly not on this spec with these kinds of circumstances surrounding it,” grins Cox. He might be right. The recent Borat sequel may share some of Host’s real-time response to the pandemic, but it was in the planning stages for a long time before coronavirus. Netflix’s quickly produced lockdown project, Homemade, meanwhile, was a compendium of short films, not a genre feature with complicated special effects and a cast spread out across the country (some of whom were shielding with elderly parents). “We had all these kind of mad considerations,” says Cox of the film, which revolves around a group of university friends who participate in a drunken seance on Zoom that goes horribly wrong. “We really dove into the format. It wasn't a film about lockdown, but it was designed to handle the texture of how the world was feeling at the moment.”

Pulling it all together in way that was above board and Covid-safe has, says Cox, been his proudest achievement as a producer. And while he knows he’s looking at the weeks of 14-hour days with rose-tinted glasses, part of the reason he was unfazed by the challenge was that he’s learned everything he knows about film by getting on and doing it, DIY style, rather than going the film school route and ending up in endless cycles of development.

Not that he ever really planned on working in film. He studied sound engineering in college in Greenock, worked for bit as a tour manager and did some live events work at the Edinburgh Fringe. But when a friend got him a job at the London Film Festival in 2008, he moved down south and gradually started making inroads into the film business, doing various low-level production jobs, then zipping home in the summers to work at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He also, he reveals, had a brief stint as Wes Anderson’s assistant on Fantastic Mr Fox.

“That was so weird,” he says, picking up the story. “I started as a ‘rack-and-pack’ runner, so I’d be packing up the sets and stages. And then I was offered the chance to become Wes Anderson’s personal assistant while he was doing the score because his French PA had some problem with her passport. So I ended up spending two weeks in Abbey Road Studios with Wes Anderson and [Oscar-winning composer] Alexandre Desplat, recording the music for Fantastic Mr Fox, which for someone who did sound, was just mind-boggling. That definitely helped me realise that this was something I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be sitting in that room in the future.”

And now he is, so to speak. The three-picture deal with Blumhouse means he’s now a legit full-time producer. And once the new film is done – like Host it will have a bit of a found-footage vibe, albeit one that reflects the unease and uncertainty of life as we step back out into the world – the plan is to move into production on the next two films in the first half of 2021. Which means by this time next year, Cox should have four features under his belt, with a whole slate of film and TV projects ready to go after that. Which is kind of incredible. “Yeah,” he laughs, “we’re not mucking about.”

Host is available to stream on Shudder and available on digital download now.

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