THE CANAL INTERVIEW: Ivan Kavanagh and AnneMarie Naughton
Interview conducted by Hamzah Sarwar
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with the talented director of The Canal, Ivan Kavanagh, and the film’s producer AnneMarie Naughton at Nottingham’s Mayhem Film Festival to discuss the film at length. It’s an intoxicating, nightmarish genre film that sits deservingly in my top 5 of 2014.
Hamzah Sarwar: How did The Canal come about? What was the genesis of the project?
Ivan Kavanagh: The initial idea was to make a film about a cinema archivist. I’ve always thought that an archivist would make a fascinating protagonist for a film because he investigates for a living and it’s essentially what this character is doing; he’s investigating what happened to his wife and what happened in the past. It also gave me the chance to explore early cinema as well and recreate old films which is something that I’ve always wanted to do. The look that I wanted was very particular, there’s one film we looked at called Feeding the Baby by Lumière. It had this amazing quality, not in the people but the background as there was something about the way the trees moved in the background. For years, I’ve tried different methods to recreate that look and I’ve tried 8mm, 16mm and super 16 but nothing could do it until me and Pierce McGrail (the cinematographer on The Canal) used a camera from 1915 to recreate that look. So that’s where the initial came idea from. Also, I made another horror film back in 2007 and really wanted to get back to the genre because I found it really liberating. As a filmmaker you can do absolutely anything in horror, you can push the sound, the vision and the editing to almost breaking point. You can have real fun with it and I’d also worked with AnneMarie on previous films and was eager to work with her again. I showed AnneMarie the treatment and we went from there I think.
AnneMarie Naughton: Yeah we developed it from the start together with our local funding body.
HS: In terms of the ghostly influence in the film, I’m really interested to know whether you were influenced more by literature from the likes of MR James and Edgar Allen Poe or more from imagery in film.
IK: To be honest, I don’t know because I don’t analyse it that much. As a child I was always fascinated with films, I was one of those kids who hardly ever went out and was always in front of the TV watching films. I was obsessed with films, it was never something that I thought that I could do for a living. I remember my uncle had a magazine called ‘Movie’, which was out in the 70s, I was obsessed and started cutting out the pictures and pasting them all over the walls ruining them. Literature as well, I love Edgar Allen Poe and MR James. That feeling of dread that MR James has, but I didn’t draw on anything in particular. It’s an accumulation of influences rather than something specific.
HS: So when you have a script arrive at your desk, is there something in particular in the idea that you look for? For The Canal, what in particular stood out?
AN: Approaching this project was a little different from others because we’d worked together before so there was trust there. Ivan had explained the original intention and outline of the story so that helped put some confidence into the process. Separately it’s always about the story itself that comes through in the script and the filmmaker is really important because it’s a really long lasting relationship.
IK: It’s a constant and you really have to get on with your producer. I always reach a point in the middle of a film where the pressure becomes so much and you think “God, I can’t go on with this!”. And I think a couple of times in this shoot, AnneMariehad to talk me down off a ledge (laughing) and that’s great. So that’s what I look for someone who’s going to calm me down and keep me focused in those moments! And to raise the money of course, that’s the main thing. Not only as a counsellor!
HS: You’ve talked a lot about The Canal having a feeling like a nightmare, how important was this dreamlike imagery in your narrative?
IK: Oh it had to have that lucid quality that dreams have, that free-flowing nature where anything can happen when you’re never quite sure what a dream is and what’s not. I definitely wanted that right from the beginning. With the imagery, me and Pierce McGrail planned the film meticulously because we had a lot of time before and we knew it was going to go into production, but weren’t sure when. We met quite regularly for about six months and just planned everything. I had storyboarded a lot of sequences and we’d planned certain shots so we knew exactly for almost every scene how we were going to shoot it. We planned the colour palette and knew it was going to look even more unreal looking as we went along because the further we go into the film, the further we venture into his mind. That’s when the film can detach itself from reality when colours can come from an unnatural place, when reds saturate and all the primary colours are prominent. That nightmare quality was primary I think.
HS: It definitely starts off as a more conventional horror story with the couple moving into an unknown but idyllic new home, but we soon start following Rupert’s character and are in his mind. It’s his disintegration which intrigues us. He’s always looking into the past and into old film, how much is it a case of the past haunting the present?
IK: Precisely. I mean he says it right at the beginning of the film. He’s talking about films from 1902 and before, he’s talking about all these people that you see on the screen are all dead. It’s like watching ghosts and it really is when you watch these films. I remember when I was doing some research and AnneMariewas able to get me over to the BFI to watch a lot of films. I was able to get them on reel to reel Steenbecks and there’s just this amazing ethereal quality to these films like you’re observing ghosts. It’s beautiful, you know. And also the character himself, he’s the kind of guy a bit like me who lives true films. So the way I saw it was when his disintegration happens and whether that disintegration is through the paranormal, totally going on his mind or both, when it happens it’ll be coloured by the films that he’s seen. There’s one point when he’s watching the second film where there’s a flash of colour that comes into it so the points between reality and fantasy become blurred. From then on in, you can’t trust anything that you see right until the very end.
HS: The role of Billy [child actor Calum Heath] is integral to this disintegration, what was he like to work with and direct?
IK: The casting was very important. I knew that I didn’t want an acting child but a real child; I didn’t want him to talk like a movie child. I wanted that authenticity of how a real child talks, how they stumble over words or get words mixed up and stuff like that.
AM (to me): Did you like Billy’s role?
HS: Yeah I thought it was vitally important and he was just awesome. The contrast he provided with the dark things going on and this childlike innocence throughout was amazing.
AN: That’s a relief. He’s an incredibly talented child. The direction that Ivan gave him, he just took to immediately
IK: Yeah he was just amazing, what I loved him about it was his intelligence. He was only five years old and he took direction better than some adults that I’ve worked with in the past. I mean you could tell him something and 25 minutes later, even the slightest nuance or a change in a line- he’d just remember it perfectly. It was astounding.
AN: His parents were working and his granddad was with him which made it much easier for him. The granddad just allowed him to it and let Ivan run with Billy. Rupert had a close connection with him. We looked after him and there was just this chemistry there before we started.
IK: you watch a kid and you can learn a lot about acting. He’s totally in the moment. I mean that scene when he’s eating breakfast with his father, he’s totally into the breakfast and he’s looking up and forgetting that he’s even in a film. Adults can learn a lot from that, that childlike consciousness when there.
HS: It’s interesting, why do you think children have played such an important role in horror over the years? You think about The Shining, the Omen. The great horror films have a strong child influence
IK: I think it’s because most of your fears originate in your childhood.
AN: It’s also a nod to real life
IK: A child isn’t rational which really adds to it. They’re so small and vulnerable. For the audience it translates as instant tension, that instant sense of dread because you don’t want anything to happen to the child. I think there are many reasons but these are definitely some of the main ones I think
HS: Rupert’s performance was brilliant, how did you go about casting him?
AN: I knew immediately via a Skype chat that he was the man. We went through a lot of Skype interviews. A lot of bigger names who had a bigger filmography than Rupert, a few people shied away. They knew it was a good script but they were nervous about it. We just went down an exhaustive list.
IK: By pure chance I saw Agorah on Netflix. Rupert was in that with Rachel Weisz and there was one scene where he talks to her with this one line. It was a really unique delivery of that line. It’s hard to explain; the way he did it - I just couldn’t imagine anyone else delivering it in the same way. I thought there’s something I can really expand upon. We set up a Skype call and the moment I met him, I just knew it was him. He’s a handsome guy (just like the character needs to be); he’s very charming but also has this beautiful vulnerability that the character really needed.
AN: He also really got the character. He said all the right things about the script and threw himself into it. He was brilliant. He was completely exhausted by the end. Rupert just went for it and was really great.
IK: We had a really great relationship which really grew. His trust was there. I worked with a lot of collaborators. Robin Hill, it was one of the best collaborations I’ve ever had and Piers McGrail was brilliant. The composer did an amazing job and the spectacular sound designer.
AN: We had a lot of really talented people on the film, all with the same direction and focus. We had the same creative path which really helped.
HS: I found the tunnel sequences in The Canal particularly harrowing, where did you find these haunting locations and The Canal itself?
AN: We shot in Dublin; all of it was in Dublin. We had gone through all the canal spaces until we found the perfect one. The tunnels were separate and were a really hard find as they were a small space.
IK: it was actually only one corridor and we had to keep re-lighting it. It was a tough day, we had one day to shoot that entire sequence.
AN: It was basically the actors running up and down the same space which is about an eighth of what it looks like in the film.
IK: I wanted The Canal itself to be a place that I used to play in as kid and was in a very rundown part of Dublin. It’s a working class area that used to be filthy but I used to be attracted to it at the same time. Me and my friends used to play around there so that was the area that I wanted to shoot in, but when I back it had been completely renovated. It was too clean, too beautiful and there just wasn’t that atmosphere so then we had to find another Canal in Dublin that had that old feeling.
AN: We ended up scouting all the canals until we found it.
IK: Yeah that’s right, it was an industrial area and the instant you saw it, you just knew. I knew it had to be it.
HS: Without going into any spoilers, there’s a particularly shocking sequence in the tunnel that has got a lot of people talking. Is it something that you had initially intended?
IK: That sequence was one of the first images that came to me. I wanted to recreate the feeling of a nightmare. When you have a nightmare, they are uncensored and they’re raw and you have no control of the images that flash into your mind. So when you wake up you’re horrified at some of the things that you’ve dreamt. I wanted to recreate that raw and uncensored imagery. For it to be really visceral, in that moment we’re totally in David’s head and we have to see things in the way that he does. In that complete nightmarish way. That was the reason it had to be like that. He’s literally confronted by the horrors of what actually happened.
HS: Thinking about the blistering conclusion, did you play around with alternate endings?
IK: Yeah I think there were 3 endings until we reached the final one. It’s always hard to end a horror film the right way. If you get it wrong then the audience go away dissatisfied. I wanted to leave the audience haunted. I didn’t want to leave the audience off the hook like most horror films do. I wanted to leave them with a sense of shock that would linger with you for days and even months afterwards. Whether you like the film or not, you won’t be able to forget it.
HS: In terms of your next project, I know you mentioned that you’re working on something together again? When will we be fortunate enough to see something? Are you going further down the psychological horror route?
IK: It’s only at initial stages and were about to go into development with it. It’s a psychological horror film and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. Again, we’re at that stage where some of those images which are in my head are quite difficult to get down onto the page so people understand what I’m trying to do. I think we’re really going to push it this time and it feels like a natural progression from The Canal. I’ve also got other projects on the go as well, there’s an American TV series that I’m about to go into development with. And I’ve also been offered a film in America so we’ll see what lands first. AnneMarie and I are hoping to get our film made as soon as possible because it’s an exciting one and feels like the next step.
HS: So with The Canal, what are the plans for its release in the UK? Will it go theatrical?
AN: It’ll be in cinemas in UK and Ireland. France will probably be theatrical. The US has just screened it in cinemas, Germany don’t do theatrical. So it depends on the territory.
HS: The film’s done remarkably well on iTunes I see?
IK: Yeah it has. It’s really spreading which is really nice. It’s a lot about word of mouth. It’s going to be on VOD at the same time in the UK early next year.
AN: It’s looking like early next year in the first quarter for a general release
HS: So if you had to say a few words to entice people to see the film upon release? What would they be?
AN: It’s a trip.
IK: it is a trip and hopefully it’s like a hallucination.
AN: It also needs to be seen in the cinema with an audience with other people jumping in that intense situation
IK: It’s a really visceral experience with the sound and picture taking equal importance. So you can’t recreate that anywhere else. Then again, watching films late at night on your own on the laptop is an entirely different yet creepy experience. Some of the most memorable films that I watched were on TV.
AN: Just watch it! (Laughing)
HS: Thanks very much for your time!
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