Spotlight: Bernadette Manton, writer and director of ‘The Wake’

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Ciara Barrett takes a look at Irish short film The Wake and chats to writer and director Bernadette Manton about her latest film.

 

Bernadette Manton’s The Wake is a softly gorgeous and contemplative short film. As an observation on the Irish Catholic tradition of waking the dead, it presents a conflict between the religious and humanist approaches to dealing with loss, while maintaining sympathy and appreciation for both sides.

The touchstone of the film is Sorcha Kerins (The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann, A Christmas Carol) as Aoife, a seventeen year-old girl from Dublin who revisits her family homestead in County Clare for the wake of her beloved grandmother (Kathleen Devine). In the central role, Kerins displays an extraordinary emotional maturity as an actress, as well as a beautiful singing voice, which is shown off at various points in the film. Music, as a sort of bridge between Catholic ritual and raw, primal emotion is a crucial motif within the film, rendering it both literally and figuratively lyrical.

In conversation with Bernadette Manton, writer and director of The Wake, she has spoken about short film’s intended function as a medium for the “observation” of emotional states and the creation of atmosphere, more so than the straightforward depiction of events in a linear, cause-and-effect manner. Telling of the efficacy of Manton’s directorial approach is a flashback in The Wake, about halfway through the film, to a moment from Aoife’s childhood. She sits in a group of children around her grandmother, who is laid back in bed recounting tales of growing up in rural Ireland. Manton’s stationery and unobtrusive camera lingers on the scene longer than might be necessary for strictly narrative purposes, yet the point is not in the information the grandmother verbally conveys, but rather the overall accumulation of a feeling of memory, of Sorcha’s deep-rooted attachment to her grandmother, and, in Manton’s words, the sense that “the viewer is seeing something they shouldn’t be.”

In other moments, such as the deeply affecting wake scene, Manton’s camera is distinctly mobile, moving between the actors as they play out the scene in real time. According to Manton, the actors almost instinctually seemed to know how to play the scene – likely due to the fact of their familiarity with, and emotional connection to, the shared Irish tradition of waking. “Everyone,” Manton notes, “just knew what to do.”

The naturalistic performances of The Wake could be seen as at odds with its more self-consciously lyrical shooting style, which is evident in Manton’s lingering shots of the Burren landscape: here Aoife has an almost dreamlike encounter with singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke (whose music, along with Christy Moore and Donal Lunny’s, is featured on The Wake’s soundtrack). But in such a way Manton succeeds in representing that strangely surreal – and perhaps simultaneously hyperreal – atmosphere that surrounds moments of profound grief and emotional intensity.

Manton has confirmed that The Wake was an extremely personal film to make, inspired by her own experiences losing family members as a child/young adult; however, it should resonate with audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with the very particular (some might say peculiar) conventions of the Irish Catholic wake. Interestingly, Manton has expressed some degree of apprehension regarding Irish audiences’ reception of a film so explicitly in dialogue with – and even confrontational to – religious/cultural tradition, which is also linked so inextricably to personal feeling and memory. In her own words, Manton questions a greater Irish tradition of “doing it just because”; it is this quiet sensibility of individualism that lingers long after the final frames of the film.

Manton has described herself as a writer/director interested in “pushing the boundaries” of reality. Speaking about a planned feature which will revolve around a mature couple in charge of a funeral home brushing with the paranormal, and judging from her past work in the gripping and intense Blood (2011), Manton’s work will continue to be concerned with the testing of emotional edges, the blurring and crossing of borders (between bodies, between life and death) and the interrogation of human subjectivities. She is one to watch now in the beautiful Wake, just as she will be one to watch in years to come.

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Spotlight: Midnight Man

 

When a young girl innocently and playfully attempts to summon the mythical Midnight Man, events backfire as she discovers he is instead a terrifying figure bent on tormenting her. Paul O’Sullivan watches Midnight Man alone in the dark and chats to Irish director Rob Kennedy about his horror debut feature, which screens as part of this years IFI Horrorthon.

 

“Why do you like to be scared?” In the opening scene of Rob Kennedy’s Midnight Man, Alex explains to her friend Lauren the pleasures of a good scare: “Your heart races; your hair stands on end; your palms get sweaty. Like a rollercoaster. Or a bungee jump: the chord is there to protect you while you taste the fear, and when you bounce back to safety you get this tingly rush of relief.” Alex is obviously talking about the pleasure of a good scary movie, and I find the metaphor apt, because ten minutes in and my legs are tied, the rope is fastened, and I feel confident that my guide is in control. I dive in.

The plot of Midnight Man, like any good horror film, remains simple throughout, and never interrupts the carefully crafted tension and suspense. Alex (played by Philippa Carson) is a college graduate who at the bequest of her mother must spend Halloween night taking care of her feeble granny (Dorothy Clements) who suffers from Alzheimer’s. However, Alex has a penchant for giving herself a scare, and when she discovers a mysterious old box in a hidden corner of the house, her excitement clouds her sense of caution and she unleashes something that is more than she bargained for.

The film is based on an urban legend – not unlike the Bogeyman – that involves a game whereby the participant must spend the hours after midnight alone in the dark, armed with nothing more than a candle and some salt. The object of the game is to avoid the Midnight Man – only after you yourself invite him into the house.

One of the pleasures of Midnight Man is that it provides one with the opportunity to re-embrace the childhood fears that have long since been replaced by the banal, real-world fears of adulthood. I was reminded of my very own childhood torment, an invention of my grandmother’s, the ominously named ‘funny man.’ This malevolent figure with a disturbing double entendre in his name, kept me from straying upstairs while I was in my granny’s care. But every once in a while curiosity got the better of me and I would climb a step or two only to cautiously retreat again before the funny man sensed my presence. In Midnight Man, Alex not only climbs the stairs, but does so backwards and with the lights out.  However, and to my glee, her grown-up confidence and boldness are soon shattered when all manners of hallucinatory horrors befall her.

This return to childhood fears corresponds with the film’s more prevalent theme: the fear of growing old. As director Rob Kennedy explains, “one of the reasons I always felt that the old crone or witch in fairy-tales and horror movies was so scary was because she was a reminder of the decay of old age – particularly from the point of view of a child – and we’re afraid we’re going to turn into that monster. I also thought The Midnight Game was, in many ways, a good metaphor for dementia or Alzheimer’s. It traps you in a fixed period of time where the people you love and trust the most become strangers and your mind conjures your deepest, darkest fears, and Alex actually says something along those lines in the film.”

The action of Midnight Man takes place in a single location. It’s a set-up that works well in the horror genre, and in this case it gave Kennedy the chance to add more body to the fear and isolation of the old age trappings. “I think the single location is a double bonus for horror films. On one hand, it’s just a lot easier from a low budget, restricted schedule perspective, and on the other hand, it works in the film’s favour because it traps the characters and, hopefully, the viewers. And the best horror films make you feel trapped.”

With influences such as William Castle, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter, Kennedy aligns himself with the old-school horror directors, and was vehement in his disapproval of CGI. “I don’t think I’m alone in saying I absolutely hate CGI in horror films  – unless it’s absolutely necessary for something fantastic and far removed from our everyday experience, like a spaceship. When I see CGI for a monster, or blood, or fire, or even weather EFX in movies it pulls me right out of the experience and I think, “Oh, CGI.” Obviously CGI has its uses, but for me, when watching horror films, the only CGI I want to see is CGI titles; preferably at the end.”

“I think Midnight Man is a true audience movie and I want fans to be able to sit back and enjoy an old school horror film that doesn’t lean on gore for scares and has some humour too.”

I asked the director if he had any more projects in the works. “I like to keep moving so I have written another feature since Midnight Man wrapped, and I’m in the fortunate position of trying to choose between moving forward on that or going back to a screenplay from 2011, which was a quarterfinalist in the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting.”

“Also, I’m excited to announce we’re actually developing a US remake with Cassian [Elwes] and our American executive producers now.” But in the meantime, Rob will be heading out to Los Angeles to oversee the printing of Midnight Man in preparation for its premiere at IFI’s Hororthon on the 26th of October.

 

Midnight Man screens at the IFI on Saturday, 26th October 2013 at 23.00 as as part of IFI Horrorthon 2013 (24 – 28 October).

http://www.ifi.ie/film/ifi-horrorthon-midnight-man/

 

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