Dublin-born director Ciarán Foy has taken his debut feature all over the world; all over that is, except for the countries where it was made and set. Citadel, a low-budget but extremely creepy psychological horror is set on an unnamed Dublin council estate, but was largely filmed in grey, wintry Glasgow, featuring a cast of actors from all over these two islands. Foy’s film was received to much acclaim at South By Southwest in March 2012, and despite being a home-grown film is only reaching these shores now.
Citadel is inspired by traumatic events that Foy actually fell victim to – a savage beating by violent youths that left him with a crippling case of agoraphobia, the fear of the outside world. In his film, Foy addresses his own demons by demonising his assailants, imagining a world where a working class Dubliner is attacked by hoodied youths who are revealed to be not social delinquents but actual monsters. Tommy, played by Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard (Ironclad), develops agoraphobia when his wife is murdered by the creatures, unaware of their true nature. When the blind but fear-sensing mutants return for his daughter, only a bullish local priest (James Cosmo – Game of Thrones, Troy) with secrets of his own can help him defeat the nightmares in their tower block citadel.
As Citadel finally opens in Ireland on Friday, 21st June, Ciarán Foy sat down with David Neary to discuss his film, its journey around the world and his own journey with it.
It’s been 15 months since Citadel had its premiere at SXSW. What’s it like to finally be bringing it home?
Obviously it’s my only experience with it being my debut feature, but from talking to people most of the time it’s the other way round – if the film gets a US release at all, it usually comes out back home first.
Because we premiered at SXSW, when it won the Audience Award there that began a bit of a feeding frenzy from distributors in the US to secure the film. So before we left the festival Cinedigm had agreed to take it and release it in the US. So it was following SXSW that I seemed to go around the world the opposite way – the US, then South Korea, finally coming around to Europe. So it’s kind of odd that the final stages of it are Ireland and the UK.
It’s strange, because obviously a lot of the iconography would make a lot more sense to people in this part of the world. I had people coming up to me in the States referencing the tower blocks and saying “Do people actually live there, or did you create this?”, as if it’s a complete fantasy environment!
A lot of people over there would hear the accents in the movie; my lead is Welsh, Marie (Wunmi Mosaku) is English, Cosmo is Scottish – and they would just assume those are all Irish accents, because I’m an Irish person and it’s set on an Irish council estate, with Irish characters. It’s going to be interesting to see how people respond to it here given the familiarity to things. It was all shot in Glasgow except for the interior of Tommy’s house, that was shot in Crumlin.
How do you hope Irish audiences react to it?
I’ve never seen Citadel as an ‘Irish film’. And that’s not being facetious or anything. I remember being asked in the US am I an Irish filmmaker or a filmmaker who happens to be Irish. I think I’m a filmmaker who happens to be Irish. So I hope they treat it like a regular horror. But even compared to low-budget horrors like The Purge, we’ve got like half a per cent of their marketing budget, so we just can’t reach that wide an audience. I just hope that people can watch it and see a horror film that feels like a ’70s psychological horror that gets under your skin. I just hope they respond to it.
You mix your own experience of real horror with the fantastical. What brought you to turn a real terrifying experience into an unspeakable nightmare?
I’ve always been a fan of fantasy and science fiction and adventure. The kind of movies I love are the kind I grew up with; Spielberg, Cameron, Zemeckis, Verhoeven. Those are my teachers. When the attack happened to me and I was left with this condition that I didn’t have a word for at the time, agoraphobia, and I was just scared out of my wits to even look at the front door, never mind leave the house, the idea of turning that into a movie was the furthermost thing from my mind.
But it was really when I went to film school and I was getting help for agoraphobia from the free counsellor in the college that the idea for the film began to develop. We were talking about body language and she was saying that when you’re afraid your body says you’re afraid. And she said it’s as if these “street predators”, as she called them, can see your fear. And that concept stuck in my head, the idea of something that could see my fear. I just thought if that was literally the case it would be so creepy. So I remember that evening going home, again adding nothing from my own life, and sketching the idea of a creature that was blind but could see fear.
And it was really while talking about that idea with people, and about the my personal inspiration for it, that I got the same reaction every time: “Man, you should put some of that in.” So it was just this weird fusion of my experiences with agoraphobia mixed with my love of genre film. And in an odd way, the more I thought about it, to really tell a story that is true to what it’s like to be agoraphobic, almost requires you to veer into the fantastic because it’s such an irrational fear. You’re seeing things that aren’t there and you’re hearing things that aren’t there. And that constant state of paranoia, to really put the audience inside the head of an agoraphobic, was my intention from the outset, to make an extremely subjective experience. To do that you’ve got to amplify things; to do a straightforward drama about a guy with agoraphobia from an objective point of view wouldn’t really be honest to what it’s like.”
In a sense Aneurin Barnard is playing you, albeit suffering through even more horrific torments. What was your working relationship with him like?
It was pretty intense, but it was interesting. On the page there was a lot of me in the character, which I didn’t really want to put on screen; I didn’t want to direct an actor saying “well what I do is…” or “back when I was you…” or something. I really wanted him to own the character and run with it.
So Aneurin brought a lot of his own experiences to it. He’s had a similar background to me, which is something that I had an instant rapport with. I wanted somebody very young to play this young father, but the hard thing was to find somebody who was that young but had that depth of emotional intelligence. I remember going through 22 guys in one day in London, and the thing that kept hitting me was “these guys are winners”. Their own experiences of life have been great; they’re young, they’re good-looking, they’re extroverted, they haven’t had that kind of experience.
So when Aneurin came in, straight away there was just a presence off him. He was talking about his background and I knew he was what we were looking for. On set he would constantly pick my brain about everything. Intimate thoughts. Everything.
It was very tough going. We had only 23 days to make this film, shooting four or five pages of script a day, and you throw into the mix gangs of kids in prosthetic makeup and two baby boys playing the baby girl – all the clichés about ‘don’t work with children and animals’, they all have a basis in reality. This in combination with the weather, which was the coldest winter Glasgow had on record, it was -19°C most days, and it’s just this very concentrated and intense ‘get-the-fucking-thing-shot’ environment.
Once he got to that level of anxiety he never got a chance to come down from it – it was literally ‘next shot’, ‘next shot’, ‘next shot’. I think it helped his performance. But at the end of a shooting day he and I would go to the gym just to become more tired. So it was a bit method like that. To hold a screaming baby for 11 hours is no easy task.
James Cosmo is a domineering presence in your film, maniacally chewing the scenery and yet not undermining the production. How did you manage to restrain him?
I had him in mind when I was writing the priest. And I remember describing in prep with James and Aneurin the visual of a lion and a mouse. In that sense I did have to pull it back down a bit. You meet James and he’s 6’4” or something like that – and the same width, he’s just this tank! He was shooting Game of Thrones in Belfast at the time and I was like “he’s not going to do it now…”, but he responded so much to it that he was basically flying between Glasgow and Belfast the whole shoot, going from being Lord Mormont to being the priest in Citadel.
He’s got a very formidable presence, but he’s one of the gentlest souls you’d ever meet. But he’s very astute with a script. And I remember him making some suggestions that, at first, because I’d written the thing and it took me five years to get off the ground, that I was like ‘I’m not changing that line’.
There was this line in the movie where the priest’s attaching some plastic explosive to the main gas riser in the tower and Tommy says to him ‘Where did you learn to do this?’ And I’d spent ages getting this blurb right about his backstory and how he knows how to do it, and James just said: “I don’t wanna say that.” So how do I find some diplomatic way around this to sort of say “no, no, you need to say that”? And he says “It’s better if I just say ‘Past life.’ That’s enough.” And I remember saying “OK, let’s try it, and see what it’s like.” But he was just so right! You can bring whatever you want to that, and it works so much better than some vaguely corny backstory. So he was a great mentor in that respects.
Citadel is set in Dublin but it doesn’t feel oppressively Irish as a story. Was this your intention?
In my head I had always imagined it set in a fictitious council estate. Because this for me was a dark, gothic fairy tale of sorts, where different things represent different things. I didn’t want to say “this is set in this neighbourhood” because that’s generally sweeping everyone in that neighbourhood. So I had always seen it set in a fictitious neighbourhood. And because I’m from Dublin and always imagined making my first film here, I set it in some kind of weird parallel dimension to Dublin.
It was when we realised that one of the central images of the movie is the rectangle – because what represents the thing that an agoraphobe fears the most, and in a weird way the answer is a door, the threshold that they can’t walk through – that was what gave birth to the idea of a tower block as this giant door. It’s also a tombstone. In terms of composition we always try to keep Tommy trapped within rectangles. So I felt the headquarters of the antagonists needs to be a tower block, but by that time all the tall ones in Ballymun had come down. So we immediately started looking elsewhere.
We didn’t looked at places likes Hemsmead in London and eventually Glasgow, but what really struck me was that the visual iconography was the same. These council estates all sprung up in the ’60s and ’70s and they all have that vaguely Soviet, concrete, minimalistic look, with big patches of scorched grass and shopping trolleys. So I felt I was able to tell the same story there.
But what worked to its advantage in shooting it in Glasgow with actors from all around Britain and Ireland, was that it lent a sort of Twlight Zone-y feel of not being able to anchor yourself, to orientate yourself. Kinda like The Road, not being able to say exactly when this film is set, or where it’s set. It’s slightly anxious-making. It feels more dream-like. And that worked because I always saw the film in my mind as Tommy’s nightmare that he can’t wake up from.
The film addresses the issues of violence amongst working class youths, but skirts around the actual causes and potential solutions. There’s not much pity for these working class monsters, or redemption. How do you respond to accusations that your film is, on some level, classist?
I wanted to make a film that was honest to how I saw the world as a frightened 18-year-old. I was quite conscientious about it. I get slightly annoyed when I watch a film like Eden Lake, where you’ve got overtly middle class characters being hunted and tormented by working class kids. And I wanted Tommy, the lead, to come from that area. I didn’t want his BMW to break down in the middle of Shitsville and suddenly he’s chased by the evil working class!
Everyone in the movie comes from this area. I wanted to set it in a working class council estate with working class characters and within that there are good and there are evil. So for me the creatures – I mean, they’re inbred feral mutants, they’re not even kids! – I wanted to create a fictitious fantastical environment in order to give myself permission to do what I do in the end of the movie.
I think if they were regular kids it would be different, and I’ve read reviews where people have picked up on it the wrong way and seen it as some kind of totalitarian thing. There’s no redemption for the creatures, but then no one ever says that about zombies. ‘The poor zombies!’ No, they’re something that needs to be dealt with. And horror films allow you that platform to shock and provoke and tell allegorical tales like that. They’ve never been known for their political correctness!
Opening in the middle of summer is not easy for a low-budget Irish film. On the plus side, at least your film is not out the same day as Man of Steel…
We were actually meant to release on June 14th! Citadel was originally meant to have a release here in November, but our distributor in the UK was Revolver, who went under. So we’ve just got the film back, with Metrodome in the UK and Wildcard who are releasing it here. But we were originally meant to open on the 14th against Man of Steel, and it was actually Cineworld who contacted us and said “Just stay away from that weekend! We have sold-out screenings everywhere already.” It was great of them to do that.
Now that Citadel has finally reached home base, what comes next for you?
I’m working on a science fiction film set in a futuristic New York, about identity theft. I’m having a lot more levity in writing this script compared to the intensity of writing Citadel.
With Citadel getting such strong notices in the US, will that make it easier for you to get films made?
The fact that Citadel has done pretty well has made there be even more pressure to make sure it’s right and that I’m proud of the next one. I remember talking to Rian Johnson when he had just come off Looper and I said “Surely it gets easier, I mean with a budget of $30m!” and he said “The gap just expands.” And that’s just how it is.
Citadel is in cinemas nationwide this Friday, June 21st.