Director Sean Garland talks to Michael Wynne about his first filmic foray into frenzied psychological horror, Irish-style
Over the summer the Irish Film Institute held a private screening of Banshee Blacktop, director and screen-writer Sean Garland’s first-time venture into horror-drama, an anxiety-ridden, high-octane-intense epic shot chiefly in the desolate bogland of the Irish north-west. Featuring the gutsy portrayal of a manic, harassed (ex-) monk by well-known Dublin theatre director and actor Liam Halligan, the emotional shocks of Blacktop stem from ancestral curses, atavistic myth-lore, and the uncultivated, elemental landscape – the outer reflecting the tumultuous psychic terrain of the characters in the midst of their being pursued by unaccountably vengeful forces.
With a number of shorts, music videos and an internationally acclaimed documentary on his résumé, this is Garland’s first venture into feature-length movie-making, and one over which he exercised full control: as well as writing the script – for which he’s been described as having a poet’s way with words – he also wrote the score. While the tired word “gritty” fails to serve justice to the textured bleakness that saturates the film’s atmosphere and visuals, there are nonetheless shades of contemporary fast-paced American noir present; just as much, Garland’s influences owe themselves to films characterized by traditional story-telling and by haunting suspense accomplished in an artistically leisurely way, films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Night of the Hunter and Neil Jordan’s modern fairy story The Company of Wolves. Indeed, it was through his stints as a crew member on such high-profile projects as Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire, and Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, that Garland cut his professional teeth. On the strength of these credentials, he had the good fortune to be invited to the California studio founded by Francis Ford Coppola, for the task of completing the sound on his latest project. I ask him what that experience was like.
“It was terrific, hugely gratifying. We edited and mixed all our sound in the Zoetrope Building right there in the heart of North Beach. Sound Designer Jim McKee was a consummate professional; because he created such a relaxed, easy environment the work itself felt handmade, spontaneous. The history of the place was enthralling of course: I definitely felt the ghosts of The Godfather, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now in the hallways. Even when I flew back to Dublin Jim worked long hours in the studio then took it across the bay to finalize the mix at PIXAR.”
Whereas his original conception involved the kind of film that relies more on drama than out-and-out horror – “a kind of Whistle Down the Wind meets The Offence,” as he describes it – in the process the project became “more brutal and thriller-based,” a result he’s very happy with since this aspect “offsets the lyricism and sometimes hallucinogenic tone of the island sequences” and in doing so helps to attain his early aim of giving the supernatural elements a “natural feel,” thereby achieving overall “a stronger, more robust film”.
As a first-time feature director, were the unrelenting, rather visceral demands made on his acting crew something he found he had to steel himself to ask of them? “The truth is I pushed and exerted myself in the same way throughout the shoot, or at least tried to…simply to show them that I’m willing to go that extra mile. Making movies is physical work, labour intensive and mentally taxing.” It should be these things, he opines, in order – certainly in this instance – to “display that rawness,” adding, “I will always go out of my way to show the actors I’m right there in the trenches alongside them. The cast of Banshee Blacktop gave so selflessly of themselves.”
Rather than wanting to break the horror mould or upset the established conventions of the genre, Garland declares that, where he’s concerned as a film-maker, the emphasis is on storytelling, and insists that what he’d like to accomplish through his own contribution to the medium is retrospective, a “‘glance back’ to the genre when it relied more on character, story and tone than bloodletting or outright shock.” On the other hand, he admits that what attracts him is expressing “the kind of subtle suggestiveness that arouses an uneasy feeling in the viewer coupled with the occasional manifestation of physical gore. I mean, why not?”
On this last count he doesn’t worry about criticisms involving gratuitousness since he sees visceral violence as the logical stock-in-trade of the genre that makes horror what it is. This unhesitating thumbs-up for blood-letting may seem curious in one whose favourite films are often notable for their anaemic restraint; but it is the passion inherent in the vision – no matter what form that passion takes – that matters most for Garland. Nor is he surprised at the never-abating craze for the supernatural among cinema-going audiences, at a time when the strictly rational is so predominantly fashionable in many quarters: “What people want to see represented on-screen are their fantasies, their darker side, things that might not necessarily be easily explained away: this is what entertains certain types of film-goers and, in a way, all of us. This will never change.”
When it comes to funding, Garland says the entire process of the film’s three-year development was “very much fly by the seat of our pants,” and in fact the finished work, which he describes as an Irish/UK/US/Finnish co-production, was done in large part thanks to the grit and the imaginative resources of all those involved. Having no institution behind them he feels was a blessing, since the completed project is unsullied by the compromises involved in what he calls bodied decision making. This independent trend he thinks is emerging more and more in his chosen medium. “There’s a whole phalanx of new Irish filmmakers digging in the dirt themselves and unearthing exciting new films. They don’t wait for funding, they get on with it. We had to. And all that energy, impossible to cheat and replicate on most productions, is right there in the movie.”
While in Ireland we’re still very much at the infancy phase when it comes to indigenous, or semi-indigenous, cinematic horror-fantasy, Marina de Van’s critically successful Carrie-esque Dark Touch back in 2013 (a film that, like Garland’s, has a rural Irish setting) could perhaps be said to have helped shift things onward a degree. Still, like many of the auteurs he most admires, Garland has no intention of playing on the one creative note, and, to demonstrate this, scrolls down on his phone through an ideas-list as lengthy as it is eclectic in subject-matter (at the top is a note for a project on the life of the real Pocahontas as opposed to the sanitized Hollywood version). He admits, though, that movies with heavy leanings toward horror and the paranormal will always ignite his imagination. Any future projects in mind that he thinks might advance the cause of a distinctly Irish brand of this perennially popular genre? “You’ll probably roll your eyes at this but for a long time I’ve had a plan to do a movie with Daniel Day-Lewis playing Dracula. I think he’d be the best yet.”
On the evidence of Banshee Blacktop, the possibility is tempting to contemplate.
There is a free screening of Banshee Blacktop at 21:30 in Meeting House Square on Saturday, 31st October 2015.