Rob Kennedy talks to Film Ireland about his new short set in a haunted cinema.
Sit Beside Me is about an usher who becomes trapped in a haunted cinema after hours. One moment she’s sweeping popcorn, the next she’s battling a mischievous ghost. The inspiration for the film came from an old Ambrose Bierce short story: ‘The Suitable Surroundings’. It’s about how our surroundings alter how we perceive a story. I thought it would be interesting to make a horror film set in the environment in which they’re traditionally seen. I love going to the cinema. But at the same time, I’ve always found it a little bit creepy. Sitting in the dark with a group of strangers? Or alone? Sometimes the seats creak. Sometimes you hear some odd noises from your neighbours – particularly those behind you. Horror is often about feeling stranded, isolated. A cinema auditorium felt like the perfect untapped location for a scary movie. It has this palpable atmosphere of anticipation. And suspense. So I wrote the script.
My last film, a feature, Midnight Man, ended up being remade in Hollywood, a bizarre and exciting process but also a lengthy one. The negotiations and contracts took years. I was determined to go back to making a film on my own terms, relatively quickly, with a small crew. The biggest challenge was securing the location – a big thanks to Paul Ward of IMC Cinemas – arranging insurance, and working out the right time to shoot, which ended up being in the early hours of the morning before showtimes, when the cleaning crew were the only other people in the building. This definitely added to the creepy vibe I was chasing.
I operate camera on all my films, but Andrew Mahon, a longtime collaborator, figures out the lighting for me. He also built a nifty dolly track, which came in handy for the opening shot as we follow our doomed usher climbing the stairs with brush in hand. Billy Keane recorded sound.
I cast Lorena Weldon as the usher after seeing her in the TV show ‘Vikings’. She was able to convey fear with no dialogue in a way that really draws you in, which was exactly what I needed. Lorena is an exciting up-and-coming Venezuelan actress who has lived in Ireland for several years. Not only was she perfect for the usher, but she was also a breath of fresh air to work with.
This film was a proper indie effort. My girlfriend, Vicki Walsh, helped with scheduling and persuaded her multitalented family to get involved: Her mother, Susan, did makeup; her aunt Debby helped with costumes; and her sister, Sophie, had a big role to play. But I don’t want to give away too much…
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).