David Keating Interview

Wake Wood

With the release of ‘Wake Wood’ today in Irish cinemas, Robert J.E. Simpson talks to the film’s director David Keating.

At what stage did Hammer become involved in the production, and how did that change things for you?

We got involved with Hammer maybe 8 or 9 months before we shot the film. In many ways it was a good match because we were already making what some people might regard as a modern style Hammer film. I think without Hammer the film might have been a little crazier, they were probably something of a sobering influence — am not saying this is either good or bad, just a little different.

We had money from Sweden which meant we had to spend money there so we came up with a plan which meant we did our main shoot in Ireland and then after doing a first cut of the film we were able to go to Sweden and do a certain amount of stuff that we always knew we’d need, plus things I wanted to do a little differently, and then a few new ideas too.I know a lot of directors and producers always try to allow for another small shoot during post, if you can figure a way of doing it it’s a huge help.

According to local press reports production was about to start in the spring of 2008. What prompted the filming to be pushed back to the winter at such a late stage? Were those last minute changes a big problem for you?

Things have a habit of changing. You have to somehow manage to be extremely prepared and very flexible. The shoot was cancelled when we were about 2 weeks from principal photography. That was tough. My producers were in Dublin and we had a grim phone call and then I went to break the news to the team. Not the happiest moment of my life telling people we’re all out of work. I mean they would have been absolutely entitled to be pissed off, but they were very cool, very supportive, very considerate. So we put it all back together and started to shoot about 4 months later.

You shot the film in HD video? Was there an aesthetic or budgetary reason why you chose to film on video rather than film?

On a film production the decisions on how you spend your money are essentially creative decisions. I felt it was more important to put our money in front of the lens. We shot on quite an old HD system, the Sony 900. But I think Wake Wood looks good and this is down to Chris Maris being a fine DOP and also the exceptional grading job and post-production support we had in Berlin. I think too much emphasis is put on format these days. I’d settle any day for less image resolution and more time with a first rate colorist. We obsess about all this stuff because it’s significant but for an audience it doesn’t compare in importance to story and performance, not even close.

Were there any other complications on set that you can talk about?

We only had complications. We had to shoot a bovine caesarian section and make it look realistic. Try killing someone with a huge bull for a complication. We had to shoot out all our interiors first due to scheduling issues which meant we had no weather cover and got our asses frozen and drowned later in the shoot. The night we shot the big scene at the wind turbine with Eva and Ella our equipment couldn’t handle the ridiculous wind and driving rain.

Nine-year old Ella Connolly plays the central character of Alice. Can you discuss your experiences of working with such a young actor? Some of the sequences I watched being filmed were rather brutal and frightening. Did it concern you exposing a young mind to those ideas and actions?

She’d never really done any acting or stage classes or anything,  which may have been an advantage. She’s quite a strict young lady when it comes to punching and blocking [Ella is a practitioner of Taekwondo] but she was also extremely squeamish when it came to blood and weird stuff so I had to be very careful about that. Ella’s mum, Fiona Bergin, was a big help because I knew that if she said Ella was ok with something then we were on pretty safe ground. I was concerned that Ella might do stuff she wasn’t happy with just to please me and in one way that’s great but you have to be really careful with this not only for moral reasons which would be enough, but also very practical reasons too. It was a challenge, but an interesting one.

During filming I could see you and DOP Chris Maris had a very close working relationship. How important was that, and to what extent do each of you influence the visual aspects of the film?

Chris combines a funny mix of being technically very capable with a real art school kind of sensibility. We had a common language when it came to shot framing as I think we have quite similar taste, and he didn’t seem to mind me being a Nazi about the colour palette. Although that was probably less of a headache for him than it was for the art department. It was funny, I had done miles and miles of storyboards that I had up all over our offices and in the beginning I kept trying to get Chris to engage with me on the boards and discuss the decisions I was making and for a while it seemed like he wasn’t listening — but then I realised it was his way of getting himself into the whole thing and he really was thinking very hard about everything and was very serious about his preparation and then we got on great. He’s very good. The storyboarding thing I’m a big fan of but you can’t let it stop you being flexible when you’re shooting.



Wake Wood

DIR: David Keating • WRI: David Keating, Brendan McCarthy • PRO: Brendan McCarthy, John McDonnell • DOP: Chris Maris • ED: Tim Murrell •DES: John Hand • CAST: Aidan Gillen, Eva Birthistle, Ruth McCabe, Timothy Spall, Ella Connolly

One of the first films to fly the newly reformed Hammer banner, Wake Wood is an Irish horror film quite unlike any you’ve seen before. In a lot of ways, it can be accused of being a magpie, picking little bits from other movies but the big picture can only be described as a true original.

The story sees a young couple, David and Louise devastated by the death of their daughter Alice who, in a horribly disturbing scene, is mauled to death by a dog. They move to the small rural town of Wake Wood, where David gets a job as the local vet to a town full of farmers. Soon after they move to the town they notice strange things happening and unusual behaviour within the community. After accidentally witnessing a ritual involving farm machinery, blood-letting and rebirth, they realise that there’s more to this town than meets the eye. They are told that the ritual can bring someone back from the dead but only for three days and the dead person must be dead less than a year. Despite the fact that Alice is dead a little longer than that they take their chances and go ahead with the ritual. As expected, things don’t go as planned for the reunion with their daughter.

The most memorable thing about this film is its very visceral use of gore. The deaths her are all painful to behold (especially unpleasant is a farmer being crushed by a bull) and the detailed look at the machinations of the ritual is commendable and my favourite part of the film.

The chemistry between David (Gillen) and Louise (Birthistle) leaves a lot to be desired and the breakdown between them feels slightly contrived but the film is at its strongest when exploring the supporting characters such as the evil-eyed Peggy O’Shea (Ruth McCabe) and the creepy ringleader Arthur (Timothy Spall). The supporting cast are wonderful and Ella Connolly does a great job with the dual task of charming us and scaring the pants off us.

From the genuinely disturbing imagery to the inner domestic strife, this film is unsettling throughout. David Keating’s direction doesn’t mean to make us jump, it dares us to keep watching. I must say I was distracted by the film’s tendency to indulge in homage to other films a bit too much, particularly Don’t Look Now and Pet Sematary but there is plenty to enjoy in this solid horror film. It is action packed and the special effects are top-notch. If you enjoy a good splatterfest then this will be for you. However, if you like your horror films subtle then perhaps avoid Wake Wood.

Charlene Lydon

Rated 18 (see IFCO website for details)
Wake Wood
is released on 25th March 2011



Report from the set of 'Wake Wood'

Wake Wood On Set

All images © 2011 Robert JE Simpson, www.avalard.co.uk. All Rights Reserved.

Robert J.E. Simpson reports from the set of Wake Wood as Hammer comes to town.

It is October 2008. Following a journey of several buses and several hours I find myself standing on the outskirts of a clearing in a wood on the Donegal side of Pettigo – the real-life Puckoon. Night has fallen early, and there is an icy chill to the air. Only the glare from the filming lights, the red glow from an almighty bonfire, and the roadside presence of a couple of fellows with walkie-talkies belies the presence of the film crew currently engaged in one of the most eagerly anticipated horror films of the last 30 years.

Deep in the Irish countryside, director David Keating is helming the first theatrical feature film for legendary British brand, Hammer Films, since 1979. Hammer themselves are no strangers to the island, having made a number of shorts and two features here during the 1950s and 60s, but this is the first time they’ve brought their unique brand of horror to the island. Day-to-day production duties are being helmed by Dublin-based company Fantastic Films. Needless to say, geek that I am, I’m ridiculously pleased to be a first-hand witness to proceedings – spurred on by having spent the bus-ride over reading through my copy of the script.

Ubiquitous character-actor Timothy Spall is heading a group of ‘villagers’ in a strange pagan ritual under the guidance of Keating. Young Ella Connolly – playing the ten-year-old onscreen daughter of Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle – is being kept warm in the biting chill with heavy blankets. It’s a daunting and terrifying scene.

Wake Wood On Set

Soon DOP Chris Maris has his camera mounted on top of a gigantic stepladder, focusing all the attention on Eva Birthistle, co-star of Wake Wood, as she is repeatedly dragged across the undergrowth, through the leaves and down into the belly of the earth itself. The minutes quickly become an hour and I feel the pain of the cast as they are physically exhausted by the process. Eva is on course to joining the likes of Hazel Court, Barbara Shelley and Ingrid Pitt as one of Hammer’s leading ladies and, like her predecessors, is earning every moment of screen time.

This is a close-knit production, with every penny of the €2.5 million budget being used to the full. I’m struck by this repeatedly during the filming, never more than when , a few days later, we’re standing in the middle of an old run-down farmhouse somewhere near the Irish border. With filming moving to the upstairs of the old house, producer John McDonnell is inspecting the large iron supports that had to be installed to prevent the upper floor from collapsing. On a big-budget horror, I imagine they’d have built this set in studio, but the team here have gone for authentic, aged Irish locations. No space is wasted, with everything a few minutes drive away from the base at the Pettigo Inn, and each location doubling or tripling up. This isn’t that far removed from the way that the Hammer films of old were made, and something of that ‘family feel’ emanates from the crew. Even when tensions are fraught as filming risks overrunning, there’s still a good sense of camaraderie from the crew.

There’s an eerie silence and that particular drizzle that fills the countryside air round here. Even during the daytime shoots, the pagan ‘other’ of the fictional Wake Wood can be felt on set, aided no doubt by the prop department’s strange ‘instruments’, which are a permanent presence. Wandering around Pettigo itself during a break in filming one morning, I find a large section of the town is run-down and boarded up, only a short stroll from the heart of the village. It’s a familiar enough sight in Irish towns, but serves to give the village a ‘ghost town’ edge suitable for a horror film.

During the last week of October we’ve moved down to Dublin for the crucial opening scenes of the film, including the brutal sequences that take Alice (Ella Connolly) from her parents. Once again Eva and Aidan earn their crust as they stand in Deansgrange Cemetery in freezing temperatures, being repeatedly soaked by a huge rain machine. There’s sinister work afoot, but no horror film worth its salt would be complete without a gothic graveyard sequence, and this one sports a fantastic corpse that easily turns the stomach of us non-actors.

The week is peppered with unusual incidents including an unexpected snowfall that prompts some rescheduling and rewriting before the production wraps appropriately enough on Halloween, with much of the morning spent by the canals amid a constructed traffic jam. Pedestrians wander by, unaware that cinematic history is being created beside them.

Wake Wood On Set