Issue 134 – Served Cold

Savage

As his debut feature Savage – an arresting, violent and vengeful slice of Dublin life – hits Irish cinema screens, director Brendan Muldowney revisits some of his key inspirations with Jamie Hannigan…

BRENDAN: It was 1980, so the start of these video-nasties. I don’t think The Exterminator was a video-nasty, but video-nasties were about.

JAMIE: You would have been what, nine, ten?

Uh, no… Hang on a second… Eleven, I was eleven, but by the time it got to video it was ’82. So I was twelve or thirteen. All I know is that everyone was talking about it in school… Typical kid shit, the most shocking things are what everyone’s talking about: ‘They put someone in a mincer!’ I was dying to see this thing because of this infamy. I can’t remember it exactly, but this guy’s friend is either crippled or beaten up or killed by these thugs, and if I watched it now, it would probably be cheap and shit, but my memory of it was kickass! It was Robert Ginty going around with a flamethrower, trying to find out where people are and when they don’t speak – or even when they do – they’re all trussed up on a chain, and he pushes the button and they go down into the meat mincer… And then they have the money shot of the minced meat coming out! (laughs) Anyway, as a kid, I thought this was pretty cool.

So this was your first exposure to the revenge movie?

The Exterminator was the first one I saw, so I was exposed to the lower end of these things, and, as a kid, your morals are more…

Simplistic?

Yeah, and you’re not trying to intellectualise it as much. And then Death Wish… The weird thing about Death Wish is that I saw them in the reverse order. I saw Death Wish 3 and then I saw Death Wish II and then I saw the first Death Wish! What I was thinking about the third one was, it was perfect for me when I was young, because it was a comedy, it was funny, there were old ladies getting involved, setting traps for the thugs…

Like Home Alone?

Yeah! It was an action movie and a bit of fun. I didn’t think of it further than that: Bad guys get done by normal people. That’s the key to it, it’s not the cops, it’s normal people. Then – let me see – I saw Death Wish II, which I found really disturbing, because there’s a horrible rape scene with Charles Bronson’s daughter, and to add insult to injury, she tries to escape and falls through a window and gets impaled on a fence… It’s just horrible. I think that was when I first started to question what was going on with these films. And Michael Winner is to thank for that… I felt like he was wallowing in the rape, that he was enjoying that as much as he was going to enjoy showing the revenge. It was more about spectacle and he wasn’t really getting under the skin of revenge and vigilantism and the normal, everyday person…

What was the first film you remember doing that?

Oh, Taxi Driver. But it’s not even necessarily a revenge film. A good friend of mine said to me: Travis Bickle is just this ticking bomb that’s presented to the audience with the fuse lit. There’s no sort of character arc… He was always crazy, and he just gets progressively worse until he explodes… And yet, because Robert De Niro is playing it so low-key, that stuff really had an impact for me, because it reminded me that the actor doesn’t have to be everywhere, ranting and exploding. We can tell that through the world around him, do you know what I mean? The way it focuses on small moments, the way he drops an Alka-Seltzer in a glass and it just zooms down into it and then into his eyes… What I really found impressive about Taxi Driver was the atmosphere of everything around Travis, so you could feel it being claustrophobic. And of course, in the latter half, where he starts looking in the mirror and starts tooling up with all sorts of weapons. When you imagine revenge films like Death Wish or The Exterminator, they’re very simplistic: there’s a bad guy who’s done something and they get the bad guy. In Taxi DriverEveryone’s a bad guy, so he has no focus, and yet, there’s more dread in Taxi Driver than in any of those other films.

I think I saw Taxi Driver at the perfect age to have such an impact on me. Maybe seventeen, eighteen. About ten years after it had been made. But I think it’s perfect for when you are trying to get your morals, you’re getting more complex in your thinking. It probably got me at a perfect time. Straw Dogs I would have seen next. It would have been banned for a long time, so it must have been a bootleg VHS or something… Another interesting one, because this was an ordinary man –

Much more so than Travis Bickle…

Oh yeah, this is like an intellectual… What I liked was the Dustin Hoffman character having to step up, and to become a violent man… There’s a big jump now, but the next one I do remember seeing was when I was in college, which was A Short Film About Killing. The story is as simple as a man commits a crime – the murder of the taxi driver at the start – and the state executes him. That’s it. But what Kieslowski does is that he shows both murders as being as brutal as each other. What I took from A Short Film About Killing was the fact that the murder itself – he’s strangling the guy from behind – takes so long to happen. And not only does it take so long to happen – as the guy is dying, he’s kicking out the front windscreen of the car. So it’s got these details. He made it very real. He cuts outside the car for a bit, I think. There’s another car that drives by in the distance, in a wide… I tried to get that into Savage. I wanted to have, for the fight at the end, a woman in a car, driving by, seeing a fight and just driving on. But the fight took up the whole day, so I couldn’t get it. It’s a pity. The camera was going to be inside the car, with someone listening to pop music, someone else’s life and day. Just a quick glance and seeing these guys fighting, and then… just doesn’t want to know, and drives on. But anyway, this messiness in the detail which started with Taxi Driver and I saw it again with this. I liked the morals of A Short Film About Killing. I would have been brought up on the side of The Punishment Fits The Crime, and I remember when I was in my first media course in communications, doing a documentary about Amnesty International and to suddenly think about the rights and wrongs of the death penalty. Going beyond whether innocent people can be killed, going beyond whether the punishment they’re using is inhumane, going beyond that: asking whether it hurts us as a society to kill in our name. There were complexities in everything. A Short Film About Killing perfectly followed on where I was at that stage.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 134

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