Sean Breathnach (Pic: Marcin Lewandowski)
Beyond The Woods is a supernatural horror film set in an isolated house in the middle of a forest, where a gathering of friends is thrown into chaos by the opening of a mysterious fiery sinkhole. Stephen Porzio braved the woods with writer/director Sean Breathnach ahead of his debut feature screening at this year’s Underground Cinema Film Festival.
The film feels uniquely Irish. For instance, characters give serious thought about leaving their house to get more drink while bad stuff is clearly happening. Was it fun to take the American brand of horror – confined friends being terrorised by unknown force – and place it in a distinctly Irish setting?
You know, I never thought of it that way really, but you are right in your description. It was always going to be very Irish – you have to be true to what you know, and it is set here in Ireland after all. The cottage is very Irish, and the characters are all Irish. It plays to its strengths. We wanted to appeal to an international audience but the film was always going to be an Irish film. Though we do mention ‘Police’ instead of ‘Gardaí’ just to avoid confusion abroad!
The sulphur plot-point is a really good backdrop for the film. It serves as an ominous threat, as well as a symbol for the toxicity between the characters. Where did that idea originate from?
Like all good ideas this one has a solid base in reality, believe it or not. The idea actually came from an article I read in a newspaper. It was about a sinkhole that had opened up in China and locals were holding branches of trees over the hole and watching as they burst into flames. Some of the dialogue in the film comes directly from that article – “Gateway to hell! Fiery sinkhole opens up on Chinese mountainside spewing fumes at 792C”. I read that article at just the right time. I had the idea of the friends in the isolated house in the woods, and the dramatic conflict, and the terror, but I wanted to do something new with the horror element. Reading that article was the lightbulb moment. That’s when everything really came together.
The characters and their interactions feel quite naturalistic. How did you go about choosing your cast and did you take any steps to make sure they felt more real… maybe using improv?
I’m glad that comes across, because that was exactly what I was going for. Independent films, in particular, rise or fall based on the quality of the acting. It was my number one priority with this film – getting the right people both in front of and behind the camera. I had worked with most of the cast before on short films. I knew what they were capable of. I also crafted the characters around them. I did encourage improv, and I think it worked really well. But there isn’t as much improv there as you’d think, and that’s a testament to the quality of the acting. That being said, we didn’t stick rigidly to the dialogue on the script all the time. I had a direction for the scenes, some plot points to be hit, but if the actors found a more natural way of getting there then that’s the way we went. We did the same with the camera – we shot a lot of handheld scenes so we could follow the actors and keep things flowing. Páraic and Kieran didn’t thank me for that – I should have had a masseuse on set to take care of their backs and shoulders at the end of those long days shooting, or at the very least a hot bath – but you don’t get that stuff on an independent shoot!
Two moments in the film evoked memories of John Carpenter movies – the mirror scene in Prince of Darkness and the driving scene in In the Mouth of Madness. Was he a conscious influence and were there any other directors whose work you were channelling?
I am a huge fan of John Carpenter, and I love In the Mouth of Madness. When I wrote the film I wasn’t thinking of any films or directors in particular, but there’s no doubt that I am influenced by the films and books I’ve enjoyed since I was a kid. Particularly the mood of those movies and books, that sense of creeping dread. The build-up of tension. Showing the audience things before our characters see them so the audience knows the danger they’re in. There are little homages in there to a few of my favourite directors, and probably a few more homages that I amn’t even aware of. I’m sure I must channel the work of many of the directors I admire in some way – you can’t help but be influenced by the greats. But, yes, it was a conscious decision to keep the mood of the film Carpenter-esque.
There’s been a new wave of very solid Irish horror cinema – just this year there’s been A Dark Song, Without Name and Nails. Why do you think there’s been such a resurgence for the genre in the country?
I don’t know is the short answer! We’ve always been a nation of storytellers, right back to Celtic times. I recall my grandad terrifying me and my sister with tales of the Ban Sidhe, haunted houses and big dogs that would appear and disappear in the fog – so there’s no doubt we have a tradition of spooky dark storytelling. I don’t know why horror cinema has been on the rise in Ireland at the current time. But there have been a lot of great horror movies coming out of Ireland recently. Personally, I’ve enjoyed Ivan Kavanagh’s and Brian O’Malley’s work to name but a few.
Beyond The Woods screens on Sunday, 3rd September as part of the Underground Cinema Film Festival
Buy tickets here
The 8th Underground Cinema Film Festival takes place in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire from August 31st to September 3rd.