Interview: Ivan Kavanagh, wri/dir of ‘The Canal’



The Canal introduces us to cinema archivist David and his family who move into a period house by a canal. Despite dismissing rumours that the house is being haunted, David starts having nightmarish visions when he suspects his wife is cheating.

Shane Hennessy caught up with writer/director Ivan Kavanagh to find out more about his latest horror film.


Where did the idea for the story in The Canal come from?

Well, I suppose I thought that a cinema archivist would make a great protagonist for a film, as he investigates for a living. Also I’m really into early cinema as well so I really wanted to recreate those old films, for years I’ve been trying to get the look of those films right. We tried a range of different film formats. We finally found that using a camera from 1915 with 35mm film running through it worked great. It came out with the exact look that I wanted. Also, a cinema archivist has probably seen every horror film ever made, so all his nightmares and dreams would be coloured by other films. I felt it could be very expressionistic and allow me to take the medium as far as I wanted to go.

Sounds plays a crucial role in The Canal. It’s very authentic. The music has a Carpenter-like texture to it. Did you have much input with the score?

Yeah, I wanted a very particular sound. I’m big into 20th century classical music and I wanted something that was very contemporary. What I liked about Ceiri Torjussen (the film’s composer) was that he did a lot of classical concert music and I knew that if could incorporate that into my film that it’d be perfect. Also I told him I wanted music that didn’t sound like music as such, so that it would blend with the sound design. Him and the sound designers worked hand in hand and we actually spent more time with the sound design and score than we did with the visual editing of the film. For me, sound is equally as important as the visuals in a film. The guys at Egg Post Production Dublin were fantastic collaborators, they worked for months on the sound and it’s an experience to hear it in the cinema.

The horror genre has a modern perception of being somewhat formulaic, is there an obligation to address those conventions by subverting them or do you prefer starting from a completely blank slate?

With David being a cinema archivist, it makes sense that it would begin with the most overused horror trope there is – he moves into a house where a murder took place in the past. And it seems to me that I could go from there and play with the genre. Maybe it happened in his head but maybe it’s real, but because of his obsession with cinema his mind is filled with these horror conventions.

The main character is haunted by obsession more so than anything else. It’s as though grief is presented as this force in his life rather than something otherworldly. Was it difficult to harness that ambiguity?

Well, any good horror movies are rarely about what they seem to be about. There’s always subtext. It was really hard to get that into the script, that balance between what’s real and what he’s imagining. Then when we got to the editing we got reinvent it again, in the shooting as well. Me and Rupert (Evans, playing the main character) had to take a stance on what was happening, but I wanted to leave it to the audience. My favorite films allow the viewer to take away a different interpretation to someone else. I’ve heard so many different opinions of what happened in the film, which means the balance worked. We tested the film with random people, we knew from getting different reactions. I myself have my own idea of what is happening, but anyone who’s seen it has an equally valid opinion.

What areas of the story did you carry out the most research on?

I’ve always been a cinema obsessive. So my research is instinct, mostly. I talked to a couple of psychologists about symptoms of psychosis and someone who is going into a psychogenic fugue, where they re-imagine their whole reality. What I really honed in on was the old films. Particularly Feeding the Baby from Lumiere. The background from that film is beautiful. It’s just trees growing in the wind with Lumiere feeding his baby. It’s the way the celluloid reacts to what’s happening within it, it’s so unique and you can’t capture it with modern stocks. So when we got the prints back from the 1915 camera, it was almost identical. As far as research goes, I like to look at paintings that help me to get into the state of mind. I don’t like to re-watch films. But if you’ve seen as many films as I have, it’s hard not to be influenced by them. In a way, the film is a love letter to all those films I loved growing up, films that scared me over the years as a kid – the ones I shouldn’t have been watching!

It’s fascinating that the old celluloid couldn’t be replicated on digital media. Is it something you fear for with the way cinema is going?Well, we tried digital, tried all sort of film stocks. Some came close, but people could easily tell them apart. I love shooting with film, if I could shoot everything that way I would. With digital you really have to work for the look of the film, the grade and all the rest of it. With film, as soon as it comes back from the lab, it’s interesting. Even the mistakes are beautiful. It’s the mistakes that you’re after! It’s the edge fogging, it’s the grain. I did a test years ago for a short film I was making, I didn’t rack the film properly and it was flickering as it went through the shutter. When it came back it had this ghostly effect. Pure mistake, but it was beautiful. I really miss that about film and nothing about digital allows that to happen.

Who would you say were your main contemporary influences?

Well, look-wise we looked at Don’t Look Now, and also Eyes Wide Shut. I love the way Kubrick uses expressionistic colours in that movie. That moonlighting scene (in Eyes Wide Shut) is just unrealistic, it’s a dream film. The moon in unnatural blue, the Christmas lights are fluorescent. As The Canal continues it becomes more unrealistic, we planned the colour palette of the film as it went along. So as we reach the end we used harsher reds. We didn’t have any natural light for many of the final scenes so it just came out of the blue. The Canal is a film of the mind, so it seemed completely right. Also, we looked at Susperia (1977), and some other Argento films. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger‘s Black Narcissus (1947) also, especially the flashes to red, green and yellow. I wanted to use colours expressionistically and unnaturally. It suited the character.

A word on the cast. The detective character (Steve Oram as Det McNamara) is the perfect asshole. Did you have a difficult time assembling such a good blend of people to play the roles?

Well the child (Calum Heath, playing Billy) was really difficult to cast. I didn’t want a “child” actor, I wanted a kid who could act. The casting director went to schools around Ireland and we auditioned about 200 kids and did improvisation and line readings. Eventually we found Calum, to play Billy. He was only 5 during production but seemed to have more natural acting ability then most actors I can remember working with. It was just astounding. Rupert (Evans, playing the main character) was the most difficult to cast as he needed to be handsome and attractive personality-wise, but also very vulnerable.  I saw him in Agora (2009), there’s a moment where he gives a line-reading that was completely unique. I thought that if he could give me a lot of those moments here, he’d be perfect. Then, once I spoke to him, he had the vulnerability that was needed for us to be with the character throughout the film. As far as the detective is concerned, because the main character is so influenced by movies, I think he needed to be the movie-est detective I could find! Steve (Oram) is like something out of The Sweeney. It may be a interpretation of what David thinks is happening as the story is told through his point of view. I’d seen him in Sightseers, he’s a master of improvisation. Rupert would always stick to his lines in their scenes together, but Steve would improvise around them. I wanted an international cast as I didn’t want the film to be grounded in any one country to keep the dream construct attached. If it’s set in Ireland it’s not an Ireland people would be accustomed to, it could be in London. So the casting took a long time.

What projects do you have coming up?

I’m working on a TV series with a US network. It’s a supernatural series and we’ve just finished writing the first episode. I can’t say too much more about it but it’s being announced to the press very soon. I’m also writing another psychological horror movie and there’s a few offers from America with regards to directing, so I’m just weighing everything up for now. The film was a success in America, critically and audiences seemed to really respond to it.

The Canal is in cinemas from 8th May 2015.


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