Steven Galvin chats to Damian Mc Carthy, whose latest award-winning horror short ‘Hungry Hickory’ is winning over audiences across Europe and in the US.
Tell us about how the idea for Hungry Hickory came about?
Hungry Hickory started as a scene in a terrible feature script I wrote a couple of years ago. Nothing ever happened with the script but there were a few good scenes in it that had some nice horror/comedy elements to them and this one scene in a bedroom in particular I thought I could turn into a good short film. The idea of a creepy little door with something behind it isn’t that original. It’s been done in everything from the Twilight Zone to Coraline but I think that’s why I wanted to do it, to see if I could take a horror cliché and do something new with it.
What about funding…
The film had no budget at all. It was the same as my previous films, I just made sure everything I put in the script could be achieved with no budget. I didn’t apply for funding. I just made it with what I had available. It’s even shot it in my own bedroom – my room doesn’t usually look this creepy or dank. It was made the same way I made He Dies at the End & Hatch. I’m very lucky to have talented friends and a great filmmaking community in Cork. My friend Noel and his wife Joh who did the special FX on Hatch, did both the monster FX and any building in Hickory. Paraic English is a very prolific filmmaker, his name appears in most high quality productions down here, he filmed Hatch for me so he was back for Hickory. Seamus Hegarty who shot He dies at the end did the lighting. We also had Neil Hurley on sound, James McColgan as assistant camera, my girlfriend Claire was AD, and my sister Linda helped with all the pre production so it was a very small hard working crew of people I knew. I cast local musician Valerie Hely from the band InValour after seeing her in a great short film called The Driving Test at the Cork Film festival. And Barry Callan played Hickory. Barry was also in Hatch so it was great working with him again.
What was the shoot like?
We shot the film in one day but it was difficult. Filming in my bedroom was a mistake for starters. The room was small to begin with but by the time we had built a fake wall, crowded the room with crew and equipment it was not the best location. I had made enough films at this stage to know space disappears quickly but nevertheless we ended up filming in a shoebox. Looking at the film it does look like she’s in this big empty room alone… although I’m sure I spotted someones elbow somewhere in the film. It was very uncomfortbale but I learned a lot from it as you do everytime you make something. It was the first time working with latex effects, monster FX too which was interesting. Joh O’ Reilly was the make up artist on the film so we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what this mad man/monster living in the walls should look like. Joh had done the FX on Hatch so I knew she had good ideas and ways to do them inexpensively. We shot two versions of the monster – the first a very featureless, hairless monster like one of the crawlers from ‘the descent’ but it just didn’t work.
It looked cool but it was too serious. I like the monsters to look a bit ridiculous or over the top, so when they scare you, you can laugh at it a minute later. I’m a big fan of 80’s horror movies like Fright Night and Return of the Living Dead, which have loads of monsters with character, so the final result was close to this kind of over the top design. It gave Barry Callan who played Hickory more room to perform too. I think it was a long day for Barry in this horrible make up in the tiny room under the lights. Barry was also the lead in Hatch where he spent a day in a bath tub of water which went from boiling to freezing over the course of the day. If I have any kind of a career in filmmaking I will owe a lot to him for letting me torture him.
It’s doing really well on the festival circuit – how important are festival screenings for you?
I think they’re important. You make films in the hopes a large amount of people will see them and hopefully enjoy them. Film festivals are great to see how it plays to a crowd. You could just upload it to Youtube or some similar site and watch how many views it gets or how people comment on it but I think the film showing on a big screen in front of a large crowd is where you hope it will end up. And when the film wins an award or gets invited to screen somewhere else off the back of one showing it’s all very encouraging to keep making films.
Hungry Hickory is your third ‘horror’ short – what’s the attraction?
I love horror films. Films like The Thing & Evil Dead II. So many great filmmakers started their career in horror and I think it is a genre that belongs to the low budget film maker as it forces you to be inventive with your scares. The bigger the budget the less scary the film. Making a good horror is a challenge too as I think you really do have to have a love of the genre to be a good horror filmmaker. You need to know all the cliches and accept that a horror audience is very smart and has seen it all before. You have to work hard to shock or surprise them or use what they know against them. It’s a great feeling watching the films with a crowd and that scare is coming up and you’re the only one that knows it so you watch the audience for their reaction. I keep saying I’ll make a really serious, chilling horror film but I find I can’t help but put some comedy in them which results in the films becoming very self aware, which I think is what generates that nervous laughter from a crowd. The sound of nervous laughter is the best thing in a horror screening. I know it’s working then.
How did you originally get into filmmaking?
I have just always wanted to be a filmmaker. I went to St. John’s college in Cork and spent 3 years there making short films and learning about editing and working with crew. St. John’s was great because the instructors were really into the course and were actually passionate about cinema and filmmaking. I made a few short films in St. John’s that I was very proud of at the time but I couldn’t get them screened in any film festivals or shown anywhere. Looking back at them now it is obvious why they didn’t get shown anywhere as they were fairly bad but at the time it was disheartening. After St. John’s I kept writing whenever I could and eventually I teamed up with a few former classmates including Seamus Hegarty and we made He Dies At The End.
The short films I’d made up to this had been too long with too much exposition like a bad feature idea squeezed into 10 minutes, so with He Dies… I really wanted to just make a very short, silent horror film that would be tense and creepy without ever really showing anything and would be completely non-violent as there was so much torture porn at the time.
He Dies at the End
What advice would you have for filmmakers starting out?
When writing a script just work on plot. Don’t start actually writing any dialogue or worry about formatting the screenplay until the plot is done. If you have an idea for a script and you launch into it you’ll lose your way 40 pages in. Map out the plot in detail first, taking notes or maybe samples of dialogue you’d like to have in the scene but the actual script itself should be the last thing you do in terms of writing it. And then rewrite it. I would suggest making as many short films as possible and learn how to edit as the edit is really where you see all the mistakes you’ve made in terms of camera placement, length of shots for pacing and coverage. You can take what you’ve learned from making a bad film and make a better film. And bad films are great fun to look back at years later. If you’re recording dialogue get the best sound recording equipment you can. It’s more important than camera as dodgy sound makes the acting look terrible and makes the whole film look cheap. Find like-minded people to work with.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just finished a new short film – another horror film called Never Ever Open It that I shot with Seamus again. I’ve just found out it’s been selected to screen in competition at the Abertoir Horror Film Festival [8–13 November 2011] in Wales. I think that’ll be the last short film I make. I’d like to tackle a feature film next. I have a script which I’m really happy with; so the foreseeable future is all about putting the crew together, hiring actors, finding investors and just getting a great Irish horror film made.