Interview: Stephen Fingleton, wri/dir of ‘The Survivalist’

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Stephen Fingleton on set

In a kill-or-be-killed world where starvation is rife and strangers are always dangerous, The Survivalist lives off the grid, and by his wits. When a starving woman and her teenage daughter discover his forest refuge, his loneliness drives him to overcome his suspicion and strike a bargain with them in return for bed and board. But as desire becomes stronger than necessity, the exchange becomes an uneasy, ongoing arrangement which threatens not only his carefully constructed world but also his life.

Sean Finnan spoke to the film’s writer and director Stephen Fingleton ahead of the film’s release.

 

Where did the idea of The Survivalist come from?

I have been writing scripts for a long time all of which were far too big budget for me to make. And I wanted to write something which I would be able to shoot on a budget I could raise myself. So I was looking for that kind of science fiction film that didn’t need any special effects. I came up with the idea for The Survivalist based on a documentary about peak oil I saw, called Collapse [2009] about how resource limitations would lead to a collapse of industrialised society – a fantastic thesis. I started imagining what I would do to survive and I realised you could tell the story of what civilisation would be like from the perspective of someone who sees it coming, someone who is ready, someone who is prepared. And you could have a conflict between that sort of character and a group of people who weren’t prepared. That was the engine that drove me to write it.

 

There is a strong environmental sense in the film, in some way a return to nature after the collapse of civilisation. But also there seems to be a lot of precarity with nature in the film too. I’m thinking about the seeds in one way… how important they are.

Well, the seeds are effectively the currency of the future. Characters actually risk their lives for seeds, which would cost pennies today. It is a civilisation where society is taken out of the equation and you have the bare necessities, the functional things we need to survive. Nature is far more dominant then we are.

 

It is interesting to put people in that situation where the institutions of society are completely absent. You see a different side of human nature, a side of human nature we are not used to.

Yes exactly. I wanted to have a very different stance to what people have done before.

 

The film doesn’t really rely on dialogue as such but it has really strong visual impact and is strong with symbolism.

I love symbolism and I’m a big fan of Carl Jung.

 

Even one of the early scenes, where he’s ripping up the first page of the bible and putting them into the fire, and also old photos – as if the past has to be forgotten about in order to survive in this new landscape.

There is that deliberate amnesia the survivors have, which is a running theme throughout the film, they don’t talk about the past. The past is full of trauma. The past is something that can lead to weakness in decisions. That is something I found very interesting. There is also the lack of exposition; it doesn’t really matter where they’re from. What is most natural is silence. What is there to say after the terrible things that have happened?

 

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Did you write the film with Martin McCann in mind.

No. I didn’t write it with anyone in mind. Martin was somebody who came into the frame late in the process and proved to be absolutely brilliant. I made a pilot for the BFI call Magpie with Martin and we collaborated so well on that that I knew I had found my lead for the feature that pilot led to.

 

He carries The Survivalist brilliantly. I’d say it’s a tough role to play.

I don’t think there’s a challenge that Martin can’t do if he is not putting his mind to it. He’s got a great face; he’s tremendously communicative. And it’s a role that’s all about the communication in his eyes. He can do so much with his eyes. You get to trust his senses – if he feels it inside, you feel it on-screen.

 

When you were writing the film did you feel the lack of dialogue  hard to keep the momentum of the story going in the writing phase of it?

Well, dialogue should reflect the drama it shouldn’t be the basis of the drama. And the conflict is very simple: there’s three people in a cabin and there’s not enough food for all three. Every scene is bound to be rich with physical tension.

 

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Olwen Fouéré and Mia Goth carry that tension brilliantly. They are tough roles to play as well – they are very physical. 

They are completely committed to the rules and also very brave in not overplaying anything. It’s all about minimalism. They are not trying to be liked by the audience; they’re just trying to do what the characters would do, which I love. They just want to do what is true. They are very tough woman.

 

Something that I found uncomfortable through the film was the toughness for women in this kind of situation. Not just the physical strength that is shown in the film, but also the fact that he has the gun. 

Well, the gun is a phallic symbol invented by man to wreak violence upon others. I’d be interested in the penis size of whoever invented that weapon. I guess it wasn’t substantive. The inventor of the musket I suspect was not well endowed, which is reflected in the film to some extent in that Martin is very impotent in the story because he can’t fire the gun. He is so limited with shells. But the women know his weakness – and that real weakness is his desire, and desire comes from within. The scene where they plant the seeds of what they want in Martin’s head is brilliantly portrayed by Martin. You can see it coursing around inside of him like venom and he’s got no control over himself. It’s an example of how women can even the odds in fiercely uneven and societies.

 

That planting the seeds is a recurrent theme throughout isn’t it.

Yes, absolutely. I don’t want to use the term “feminist” but the film is very interested in the respective gender positions.

 

There are some moments in the film where you notice images of what we would associate with the violence in the North. Maybe in the marauders’ outfits and also the sentry.

Yes, well it is an interesting film in the sense that the characters have probably all lived through the Troubles to some extent, maybe not Mia. But it has no meaningful context in the world they find themselves in. It has been surmounted by a trauma far more devastating. It has washed away all before it. It’s a post-Troubles film in a very literal sense. I did like the specificity of the weaponry they would have and the inevitable echoes of the iconography of the conflict – but that is more because that is the clothing they have to hand and that these are the weapons that would be dispersed in this society.

 

 

The Survivalist is in cinemas from 12th February 2016

 

 

 

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