The Movie Waffler Waffling With A DARK SONG Director Liam Gavin | The Movie Waffler

Waffling With A DARK SONG Director Liam Gavin

We spoke with the writer-director of one of the year's best horror movies.

Interview by Eric Hillis

A Dark Song is one of the finest horror movies of recent years, and in Liam Gavin it boasts one of the most accomplished directorial debuts you'll see this year in any genre.

We spoke to Gavin, who also wrote the film, about his filmmaking process, his cinematic inspirations and his own views on the occult.

The advice of scriptwriting gurus for first-time filmmakers is to write a movie set in a single location with minimal characters. Was it this line of thinking that initially inspired A Dark Song?

Yeah, very much so. I had been trying to get a script ‘over the line’ for a while and so nearly getting there again and again, so one day I just thought ‘right, low budget script’. I was well aware of the dictum of 'get eight people in a house and have them chop each other up’ so I arrogantly set myself a challenge of one location and just two people. I first learnt about the Abramelin (the ritual featured in the film) in a documentary, and  summoning up your Guardian Angel in a black magic ritual all in a contained environment seemed like a pretty good one location script idea. It’s also both hugely satisfying (and also a little bit frustrating) that no-one really mentions that it’s two people in a house, that we sustain the narrative. I think that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of.

How did you get the Irish Film Board and Film Cymru Wales on board?

I am both Irish and Welsh. My mother and father (God rest his soul) were both Irish but came over to Wales just before I was born and I have an Irish passport. I actually come from Connahs Quay in North Wales. It means that what was once a deep rooted identity crisis has magically turned itself into a co-production funding opportunity. It’s a weird world.

Most of the  movie takes place inside a large remote house. Were the interiors shot in a studio or were you on location in the house itself?

The interiors of the house were filmed in a semi-abandoned mansion(ish) house in North Dublin which is actually in the middle of a housing estate. We never look out of any windows in A Dark Song because if you did you’d see a bus shelter. It was weird as hell when we were shooting. We shot in July but inside the house we had to wear winter coats and boots, your breath would mist, the crew would have breaks where they’d step outside to warm up. Bear in mind it was 25 degrees outside. And all the weird bumps and clanking… we were there for three weeks.

The exteriors of the house on the other hand were shot in a lovely place in Wicklow. We were there for the hottest day of the year and we stuck Catherine (Walker) in a lake.

There was no studio stuff at all in the film, it was all locations, all real places. We did, however, art direct it within an inch of its life.

Steve Oram is something of a staple of British horror in recent years, and he's also directed in the genre. Did this help your working relationship, having a leading man who understands the genre so well?

Steve was fantastic to work with. He could have easily pulled rank if he wanted to but he didn’t. He trusted enough in me to let me get on with it. I think it was the (story)boards and the preparation; I don’t know, but he let me get on. It was a very happy shoot and one of the reasons it was so happy was because Steve is a very chilled guy, very easy going. He also looks entirely different in real life than he does on film. On film he looks tall, burly and middle aged; in real life he’s thin, youthful looking and average height. Sometimes I’d be talking to Steve only to look down and see someone else on the monitor.

The movie delves into the minutiae of occultism to a degree that I don't think I've ever seen before. Did you do much research into the field or is it an area you've always had an interest in?

I did do a lot of research, Steve and Catherine both did too. The Abramelin is an actual ritual and it’s carried out in structure pretty much as you see in the film. However, I was very explicit that we weren’t going to do or show any of the actual ritual in action. If you look at the film they’re always just coming out of things or going in. Call me old fashioned but I really don’t want to do a black magick ceremony.

I have to admit that I have no real interest in the occult in my own life. I’m a Catholic and I think one world acknowledges the other without shaking hands. I had an occult phase when I was about fourteen and I learned enough about it then to know it was far removed from the Harry Potter wand world. I think that certainly carried through into the film.

What are your own thoughts on the possibility of an afterlife?

I was an atheist for a very long time but read my way out of it. I think we're not made for this world but for another.

Which films and filmmakers have influenced you the most?

I love film. Few things outside of my family and friends have brought me as much happiness like film has.

I see myself as a mix of the East and the West. I watch an awful lot of films from Korea/Japan/China. I barely watched a film in English during the noughties. J-Horror (and K-Horror) would be very influential. What interests me is that it’s about mood and eeriness. Dark Water would be a real touch stone, its themes and its creeping sense of dread and hysteria. A Tale of Two Sisters as well has great moments (the ghost in the bedroom) in it that are sublime rather than jolty. Not just modern stuff, but also things like Onibaba and Kuroneko.

On the western side of things Kubrick would be a very real influence. He’s a kind of philosophical director in chief. Scorsese would be another, technically brilliant, he has a heart though where Kubrick has a head. Obviously the great craftsmen of Spielberg, Hitchcock and De Palma.

I take an awful lot from the British Social Realists as well, people like Alan Clarke and Ken Loach.

I’m also a huge fan of Big Stupid Hollywood, which I think I’m not allowed to like, but I do.

You previously served as a storyboard artist. How do you think that skill influenced you as a director later?

Storyboarding is what I do. Even when I’m writing I often storyboard out sequences then go and write them. I'm a very considered film maker. I think and plan everything before hand. This is not to say that on the day we don’t find new things, it’s just that we’re finding better ways rather than thinking about it for the first time. It’s from a vocabulary.

Refreshingly, A Dark Song never cheats the audience with fake jump scares, instead building a steady yet increasingly tense atmosphere of dread that never relies on shock tactics. This is much more difficult to pull off than simply alarming the viewer with a loud bang every so often, but for me it produces far more worthwhile results. Were you ever tempted to throw in the odd jump scare, or were you commited throughout to a more atmospheric style of storytelling?

I was very committed to the slow pressure cooker build that we’ve got going. I wanted the audience to feel that slow build into a kind of agitated dread. The way I pitched it was 'the feeling that someone was standing right fucking behind you'. Actually I think the harder thing was getting it into the script rather than in the film, as you’ve got less tools.

During the writing I wasn’t pushed but it was suggested to maybe put some jump scares in, but I was, in fairness, left to do what I wanted. It’s one of the better things about getting your money from soft sources in that they give you a bit more freedom. To be perfectly honest it didn’t even occur to me at the time to put jump scares in. I think in my film it would have instantly pulled you out of the film, the mood would have been broken. Although let's not be too harsh on jump scares. |They’re great when they're done right (Ben Gardner’s boat in Jaws) it’s just that they've been overdone, and yes it’s a bit cynical to rely on them.

There's a wonderful exterior shot near the end featuring some of the most ominous clouds ever seen on film. Was this a post-production effect or did the Irish weather do you a favour on the day?

That shot was the very last shot we took on the entire film. We had one day of pickups during editing which was mostly shots of the lake and Catherine’s walk from the house. I wanted one shot of the car driving in the distance, and as we were driving along in the Wicklow mountains that sky simply appeared in front of us. It was then a mad dash to try and get cars in position, going the right way before it disappeared and/or went dark. There was no phone signal and we had these walkies with about 30 seconds of power, so it was frantic.

Cathal (Watters, my D.P.) joked that people would think it was a composite shot. But it isn’t. That happened in Wicklow, almost it seems for us.

What can you tell us about your next project, which IMDB lists as The Furious Poets?

My next project isn’t actually The Furious Poets, though hopefully we'll get to that at some point. It’s a film whose working title is Writ’ in Water (I can guarantee that title will change). It’s my take on the undead. It will be very, very different than any other undead film you’ve seen. That’s the other thing I can guarantee you.

A Dark Song is in UK/ROI cinemas April 7th.