Shrooms director Paddy Breathnach talks to Sheena Sweeney about his influences, the mushrooming Irish film industry and the magic of a little encouragement.
Five American college students arrive in Ireland to go on a camping ‘trip’ with their old college buddy Jack. According to Jack, Ireland has the best magic mushrooms in the world, but in the best horror-flick tradition, psychedelic hallucinations soon turn into premonitions of death and teens start dropping like flies…
Paddy, you say you were really keen to make a horror movie – why was that?
I think ever since I did Ailsa a long time back, one of the things I was very interested in, even though it’s a long way from horror, was creating an atmosphere and a sense of characters in isolation. Moving with characters on their own, tracking them and having a very close connection with them, that’s something that horrors do all the time and I suppose that’s what I was interested in. It’s one of the genres that the images are often very beautiful and provocative, in a way that you don’t always get in drama. Sometimes drama can be beautiful in a more picturesque way, whereas horrors can have a melancholy about them or have tones that you might not get a chance to explore otherwise.
There hasn’t been a really successful horror movie here yet, although Isolation (Billy O’Brian) was one of the best. Why do you think that is?
I haven’t seen Isolation so I can’t really comment on that and whether it cracked it or not, but I suppose, you know, it’s not just horror it’s a wide range of things. In any movie industry anywhere, for any ten or fifteen films that get made, one of them cracks it, one of them is good. And the reality is that still not that many films are made in Ireland – Irish filmmaking is still quite young. In Hollywood you make a film – for better or worse – and you get all that received wisdom. You can react to it and say, ‘I don’t agree with you, I’m going to subvert that and go a different way,’ or else you can accept it and use it, but either way it helps clarify things and it pushes you on. At home I think we’re still at the stage where there isn’t received wisdom – we’re still reaching for those sorts of things. But I think all these things are gradually getting better and better. But why there haven’t been that many successful horrors…I just don’t think there’ve been that many attempts. You had Dead Meat a few years ago and then Isolation…
About the Irish film industry, what do you think about it now, do you think things have begun to change over the last while?
Well, I haven’t seen everything but I think maybe a few things, you know, Lenny Abrahamson’s stuff (Adam and Paul, Garage) and John Carney (Once) in a funny way maybe, because all those people have been around for a while, they’ve been part of doing stuff for seven, eight, nine years, and now they’ve done a few things, learnt a few things, they’re coming back with a bit of wisdom. There’s some experience being brought to things. And maybe it’s a good time in that sense. I hate the politics of these things…for me the film business is a collaborative thing between writers, directors, producers, actors, with everyone bringing something to the table. Possibly, at the moment directors are bringing a little more to the table or maybe there’s a confidence in the directors.
Do you think it has anything to do with changes in the Film Board or anything like that?
You know, I think…I think in the last couple of years it’s been a very positive thing, and maybe a couple of years ago it would have been quite different. And I’d definitely say Simon Perry (the then Head of the Irish Film Board) has a sense of the filmmaker about him. One of the good things about being in Ireland is that we’re quite critical of ourselves, we’re hard on ourselves and we don’t suffer fools gladly. But maybe the other side of that, and I’d be one of the worst culprits for this in some ways, is that positive energy and encouragement can have an amazing effect. When you actually try to stimulate someone and put your arm around their shoulder and say, ‘listen that’s great what you did. Well done. What are you thinking of doing next?’ It’s amazing how that can push somebody on, maybe someone who’s uncertain about where they’re going. I think there’s more of that now, there’s a nice energy at the moment.
Do you live in LA now?
Well I’ve spent the last six months here, but I’m actually coming back to Ireland in two weeks time. I might come back over here next year, it depends on the strike that’s looming here, a writer’s strike. It’s amazing how it affects the whole town and the industry, suddenly a lot of discussions stop happening, studios are sort of preparing for a possible lock-out. I mean none of these things might happen, but everything’s kind of moving on a daily basis. It’s quite an interesting time here but not a great for setting anything up.
Now, obviously your movie has quite an American focus. Would you say your idea of success is to do well in Hollywood?
To be honest with you, I kind of like eclectic things. One of the next things I’m planning is an Irish language Western set in the 1690’s, so that certainly doesn’t fit the Hollywood model. Then one of the things I’ve been thinking about doing for quite a while, which I’m doing with Mark O’Halloran (writer of Adam and Paul and Garage), is a musical about transvestites set in Cuba. So I’ve quite a lot of different things that I do, but one thing I found in particular after Man About Dog that did very well in Ireland but didn’t travel, was that good international sales are very important. You need to have some degree of commercial success so you can raise money to do another film later on and being able to trade on yourself as a director maybe lets you do things that aren’t as commercial. And particularly in the horror genre, I think the fact that this was an American cast, just opened up foreign sales.
I counted seven different Financial sources in the credits for the film. What was the budget?
The budget was about four million, but I couldn’t tell you all the sources.
The horror genre is often analysed as being about ‘Otherness.’ A monstrous figure can stand for things like sexual deviation in Silence of the Lambs or femininity in films like Cat People. Did you have anything like that in mind when you were working on this?
Well I don’t want to start talking about it too much because I don’t want to give away the plot. I think in this the otherness is the projection of fears that are based on stories. Then the question ‘are the sources of your fears real or not?’ is posed, and I think the horror and tension are caused by the uncertainty of that.
And the idea that genre films are about trying to resolve a ‘Difference’ of one sort of another…
In a way the film deconstructs that idea of difference. It’s like: what’s the horror in the end? In a sense the Otherness is a reflection of you. That’s really what’s happening in it, the horror is you…In some ways it’s not strictly a horror film – it’s actually a mystery. The language of it, and the icons are horror but its structure is more like a mystery suspense, you know what I mean?
I do know what you mean, but I don’t know if I would agree…and this leads me into another question. I read you looked to Asian films for your influences and that really did come through. And I love that school of horror…
I think they’re very interesting, and while I don’t think that I completely tapped into it, I think did manage to get part of it. But I think they do two things really, which is that they create horror in a modern environment in terms of the textures and fabrics of a modern house, phones and modern communications where the ghost is literally in the machine, and I think that’s great…
Sorry to interrupt you, but just on what you were saying about it being a mystery, the reason I’m saying I don’t know if I would agree, is that I would see it much more in the vein of those Asian movies where it’s not really mystery as much as fear, it’s an attempt to create a sense of pure fear. I think it’s quite a Lynchian thing as well…like when Tara (played by Lindsey Haun) looks around from behind a tree down the pathway to see if she can see the Black Brother, yes, it’s mysterious but it’s more a sense of….
You sort of know you’re going to see this thing and this dread reaches you. Yeah. The other thing is – generally a lot of modern horrors do it, but the Asians do it very well – and that’s playing on female vulnerability by having female protagonists but then sometimes connecting that to rage. I think that’s an interesting thing. It’s something that’s often been done in masculine films in the past and I’ve seen it in female roles in contemporary horrors, like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and stuff like that. Where you have that idea of physical rage and very intense fear, so you’re seeing female roles where they’re not controlled, you know what I mean? Outside a very mannered, controlled social role, you’re able to lift the lid off the box. I think it’s interesting that in a lot of contemporary horrors women haven’t been afforded that kind of emotional rage…
Absolutely, because women are traditionally seen just as a function of the male lead….
Yeah, in the past, those going to see horrors would have been male and that’s not necessarily the case anymore. It might be the case in terms of the aficionados, the absolute anoraks of horror, but the female part of the audience has shot up a lot.
So that’s the reason you would explore the idea of female protagonists rather than you being a feminist?
[Laughs] No, no. Not that, but it’s just an observation about the Asian films…
And what Asian films in particular would have resonated with you?
I think some of the main ones Dark Water, Ring, The Grudge, and Two Sisters as well, in terms of atmosphere and design. And then Onibaba in terms of the visual side, and then there’s a whole series of ones like Whispering Stairs, and lots of the kind of B-movie, schlockier ones, that aren’t necessarily great films, but have lots of great sequences in them. So I watched a lot of those for the atmosphere.
I noticed in the production notes that Lindsey Haun said when you were casting her you sent her I Went Down by way of familiarising her with your work. Is that your favourite amongst your own films?
Well in different ways, but probably Ailsa and I Went Down. I have certain affection for them…
Were they good to you, those films?
I think different films have different strengths. For example in Ireland, Man About Dog did critically badly, but for me I got a great kick out of it because people went to see it. Some people who’d never been to see an Irish film went to see it and it just gave them a laugh and they enjoyed it and that for me is an important thing. And by that I don’t mean that everything has to do hugely well at the box office, but if it has a resonance, if it finds an audience that’s a great thing. In terms of Man About Dog as an action comedy, I think it’s quite well put together. But probably, the things you do earliest you develop an affection for.
You’ve mentioned Man About Dog a few times, did that hurt when it wasn’t received as well as you might have hoped?
Em. It annoys you sometimes, but because it did well at the box office it kind of mediates that a lot.
But do you not have the sense as a filmmaker, that you just want other people to like it?
It’s not the approval, what I would say is that you want it to be treated fairly…
And you felt that that wasn’t the case?
I think at times it wasn’t, because I think sometimes it wasn’t reviewed for what it was.
Within its genre you mean?
Yeah. It was very specifically for a young male audience, like films like Road Trip and American Pie and all that kind of thing. I’m not saying it was the same as those films, but it was in that area and I don’t think it was treated quite in the same way. And I think maybe there’s an expectation in Ireland for an Irish film that’s going out, that it will please everybody and that it will catch everybody in a certain way. And I think maybe there was a disappointment that it wasn’t another I Went Down. By all means, I’m sure a lot of comments about it might be very true, but I think quite a few missed what the point of it was. And I think also we were maybe a little bit unlucky, because I think some of the reviewers who’d seen it and liked it didn’t end up being the ones that reviewed it in the end. So you know, it’s a numbers game. Out of five to ten significant reviews, two of those could’ve gone a different way. Then, you know, it wouldn’t have felt quite as harsh. But you make your movie, you learn from it, and you move on.
Are you saying that if the Irish film community want the standard of Irish film to improve they have to stop viewing them as peculiarly Irish, and view them on an international scale where something like that would be compared to American Pie as opposed to I Went Down?
Or Intermission or another Irish film…
Right, yeah, something within the same genre as opposed to within the body of work of the filmmaker or Irish cinema in general.
I mean Jesus Christ, you know there’s a very wide range of films I might enjoy depending on what mood I’m in. Equally, in terms of the filmmaking community, Damien O’Donnell might make something brilliant in a way that I could never do. Like I think Heartlands was a fantastic film…
And finally, you seemed very comfortable with the subject matter of Shrooms, did you ever have a period in your life where you did a lot of mushrooms?
No [laughs] I didn’t. But there were other people involved in the project who definitely supplemented my knowledge…
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 119 in 2007.