The Late Men, the first feature from Irish director Van Poynton premiered at the 14th Melbourne Underground Film Festival and the film received a special “Award for Innovation in the New Cinema” as well as Don Baker being awarded Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film. The awards follow on from the film’s nomination earlier this year in South by Southwest (SXSW), Texas, for Excellence in Title Design – you can check out the sequence below. The Late Men was produced by Ciarán Fogarty, Luke Page, and Poynton, and co-written by Poynton with partner Matthew J. Keats, who are together known by nom de guerre The Executive Branch.
Steven Galvin spoke to Van to find out more about his “apocalyptic crime thriller”.
First off, congratulations on a successful Melbourne…
It was great news. Richard Wolstencroft (MUFF festival founder/director) was so enthused about it – it was really exciting, additionally so because he agreed to give the last short we made, Flesh/Blood, its world premiere. And they did this really well-programmed retrospective of screen heavy Lawrence Tierney [mastermind Joe in Reservoir Dogs], with his nephew as festival guest. Our slot followed the Robert Wise noir Born to Kill. What a festival! We were happy with all that alone, so with getting a specially created award for direction, and the richly deserved acting award for Baker, we now officially love MUFF! And Wolstencroft says the Award for Innovation in the New Cinema is now an annual category, so the honour is truly great.
How did The Late Men originally come about?
Reading about peak oil and climate change I realised terrible things are afoot, so I decided to give up filmmaking to pursue issues of ecology and justice for the rest of my life. Luckily my long-time collaborator, the notorious Matthew J. Keats, was having none of it. Demonstrating a sharp appreciation for the dramatic potential of global catastrophe, he convinced me to simply weave my apocalyptic concerns into the crime thriller script we’d been working out. I couldn’t resist and so I let reality slide, in a sense, to refract it through make-believe. And The Late Men became, for better or worse, a singularly unsparing motion picture experience.
What influences are bubbling beneath the surface?
Dead Man’s Shoes (Shane Meadows, 2004), Pusher (Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996), and Tin Can Man (Ivan Kavanagh, 2007). I also think the novels No Country for Old Men and The Road, which I read in quick succession six years ago, in a way inform the story and its imagery. And just generally, for a picture our size or where economy counts at all, Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945), the definitive shoestring noir, is one every director combining limited resources with an honest worldview must check out before shooting a frame. Same applies to Tin Can Man, which was made with probably even less, materially, but is at least as unforgettable.
Can you tell us a little about assembling the cast
Luke Page (producer) helped me cast over the course of several long days in Ballybough Community Centre, who were great. Luke ended up filling in one of the roles too and viewers will, I’m sure, agree he excels on screen. Through Vinny Murphy’s first-rate acting class, The Screen Project, I found Stephen Murray and Clyde Mowlds, and I remembered liking Andie McCaffrey-Byrne from his class too. Fishpond was a huge factor in casting, I spend months on it. Siobhán Callaghan came from a class taught by Stephen Murray.
Neil Sheehy gave such a breath-taking audition that I cast him even though he’s nothing like how we imagined the character. I had to rewrite the role for him (not entirely successfully, which protracted the edit somewhat.) But neither Keats or I could ever have come up the characterisation Sheehy brings. He’s just one of those ethereal factors that afterwards you’re thankful you risked, the wonder stuff.
My initial plan was to play Smithy myself. But somebody who I’m now indebted to told me that casting myself (a non-actor) in one of the major roles, in what was my feature directorial debut, could prove a humiliating disaster. Consequently, then, the unstoppable Stephen Cromwell was cast and history made.
And Don Baker and Tony Murphy were both so energised by the script and so enthusiastic to play their respective roles that – like with Sheehy – their casting altered the characters with, I think, sublime effect. They share no screen time but they’re both a force of nature.
And the crew…
The cast lead to the crew, unexpectedly. Ciarán Fogarty (producer, props) came recommended through Murray and Murphy, who’d both just been cast and were eager to help. Ciarán then brought on John Doran (stunt coordinator) and Colin McKenzie (assistant director), who’s a DP by trade but, as a pro, could see we badly needed an AD and, then perhaps just out of human decency, stepped in! Luke was really just helping out but ended up doing so much for the shoot he got a well-earned producer credit. Without those four guys there wouldn’t be any Late Men, or at least anything worth seeing.
You used Don Baker for the Soundtrack
Don was eager to explore the possibility of him contributing music but I’d been dead set against using incidental score or anything beyond a few minutes for super-specific scenes. He gave me a really rough recording of him playing – that initially, being a total philistine, I didn’t even think was that good! – so I started cutting the title sequence to it, and overnight the music was indispensable. He gave me other pieces too, all fresh recordings. Everything he gave me is superb but it’s only used four times in the movie, never at great length, so the remainder will be used on trailers, etc. It gives the picture that something extra special it so richly deserves. Don really seals it, and steals it, with the harp. And then he acts. Don’s The Late Men’s greatest gift.
You’ve been writing with Matthew J. Keats for a while now.
In 2009 Keats and I wrote a 30-minute short called The Late Men, set mostly in a school building with characters called Pidz and Smithy, which we naively believed could get funded despite us not knowing anyone. Those elements are virtually all that survived the transplantation of the script from Greater London to Greater Dublin – I’d moved back to Dublin after years in London – and its extension from 30 to 90 minutes. And what was originally just a psychological crime thriller became an apocalyptic crime thriller. It is still quite psychological but apocalyptic psychological crime thriller is quite a mouthful. Keats and I are known together as The Executive Branch, and we write pretty much everything together.
What was the move from Shorts to Features like?
By the time it came to the shoot it had been three years since I’d shot anything – since award-winning horror short Where the Monsters Go, so without the pro crew I think things could’ve gotten ugly. It took me a few days to get into the swing but what made allowances was the sheer speed setting up when of shooting with (mostly) natural light. Having become accustomed to the time it takes to set up lights, it was liberating to be able to pretty much just shoot without waiting for a whole department to make their magic. If one (non-human) thing rescued this picture from its out-of-shape director it’s the extra time using available light gives you.
Have you any Future Projects lined up?
The Nightmare of My Choice is hot on the heels of The Late Men. It’s a Christmassy psychological thriller, more madness in monochrome. Keats and I co-directed this one and I’m cutting it right now. The public has the rest of 2013 to prepare themselves for the Choice, and for the indomitable screen presence of Ross Forder, our lead, a mystery Englishman in Dublin. We’re rather excited about that one. And soon we’ll commence different projects as directors, still in close collaboration, but Keats’s will be set and shot in England so we don’t care about that. Mine, however, will be set and shot here in Dublin, is nearly fully cast and should be another visceral thriller. Keats’s promises to be similarly diabolical and, as always, I can’t wait to read whatever it is he’s been cooking up.