Cian Geoghegan caught up with Tom Cosgrove, writer/director of Hillwalkers, which is screening at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh. The film follows five city friends out on a day out hiking in the Irish countryside. Things take a turn for the worse when one of them suffers an accident…
“I wrote a film that was set on a mountain. On the first location recce, I got out of the car and the wind was gale force.” Tom recalls, “And I know, up there, it more or less always is. It was hard enough to even open the car door or keep a beanie on your head once you got out. There’s a part of you that just wants to get back in the car and go back to your comfortable life.”
It certainly would have been easier for Tom to get back in the car and keep Hillwalkers as another unproduced script, a glimmer in his mind’s eye. Now that the film is finished, he is glad he powered through. Hillwalkers came together initially as an effort to offer work to his former students at the TU Dublin film school, whose academic careers were brought to an anticlimactic close by the first lockdown.
Tom’s early ambitions for Hillwalkers were more modest. “When we were starting out, I said I was going to do it on an iPhone. I was taking a lead from Steven Soderbergh and films he’s made like Unsane. I had a budget of €5,000 but once we changed it up to a mirrorless format with prime lenses it did get a little bit more expensive.”
“We finished principal photography with a spend of €13,650 and that was that. The film was in the can. I think the budget climbed after that as post-production costs mounted, but once I saw the film coming together, I committed to putting some more money behind it. Getting a proper score, a proper mix, all that kind of thing.” A lot of money was sunk into the project, though it was still microscopic by most film’s budgetary standards.”
As producer as well as writer/director, Tom had a lot on his plate. It didn’t take him long to find out the indie filmmaking lifestyle was far from glamourous. Case in point, what he coldly, with hints of shellshock, refers to as “Those deer heads.” He purchased a few mounted deer to populate the wall of the interior house scenes, and later to be found in a bloody, dismembered form in an exterior scene. It was with these props that Tom faced the shortcomings of work on his scale of resources.
“I bought those deer heads on DoneDeal and drove down to Kildare to collect them. On the Monday we were filming the interiors they were hanging on the wall and by Wednesday they had to be in a wheelbarrow. What I didn’t realise was taking them off the wooden plinth would almost break my will to live.”
“They had been stuffed and filled with cement-like substance onto which the wall plinth had been hammered with six-inch nails. What we intended to do was to remove the wood and hang this offal out of the end of it to make it look like they had been freshly killed. That simple idea left me with a hammer and chisel on the garage floor for five hours trying to break them free – and probably shedding a tear or two along the way for my life decisions.”
What influenced his DIY approach? “There were films like the first Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity” Tom tells me, “That transcended the low-budget label and became global phenomena. I think it became hard to ignore that, and as filmmakers we can refer back to these kinds of things. Technology has made everything much more democratic. You could shoot a film on a phone and people wouldn’t necessarily know at a glance.”
Even self-imposed restrictions can be suffocating, and Tom wanted to avoid the trappings of much self-professed ‘low-budget’ work. “I wanted to make a low-budget film that looked like a big-budget film. I didn’t want ‘low-budget’ to become part of the aesthetic, like a found footage movie. I wanted it to look extremely cinematic. As much as I love early Peter Jackson, it was people like Akira Kurosawa and David Lean, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott that had that kind of revered magic eye, who inspired me to make films. Maybe it was crazy to have those people in mind, but that was the look I aspired to with this hilariously small amount of money.”
That daring spirit seems to be paying off as Hillwalkers is awaiting its premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh. Tom has learned some lessons from tackling a project on this scale.
“It’s important that all of us in the industry push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and even if it fails, you can see how and why. Then you can be the person who tries again and brings it to the next level.”
Indeed, the stress of going it alone could be the only way to get anything made at all.
“The absolute worst thing in film is development hell. I made my last short film, which was quite successful, for TG4, but that was in 2006. Sometimes I would go back to my IMDb and it would look as if I had died. In reality, since that last short I had written a dozen feature films and a TV series, all of them stuck in development hell. Hillwalkers was taking advantage of a convergence of technology, of young talent that was hungry and just throwing caution to the wind and giving it a shot.”
In order to see it through, a lot of outside-the-box thinking was required. Tom decided to step in as camera operator to keep the shoots barrelling ahead on schedule.
“The film was shot in seven days and to shoot a film in seven days required an awful lot of unorthodox changes. For instance, I decided to operate the camera. I was going to need to move the schedule at a ferocious pace to shoot that many pages of material every day. I think having done that now, I would find it hard to go back to the old system of sitting back in Video Village and relaying orders.”
The unusual methodology had its advantages. “It puts you in such close proximity to your actors. You’re looking at them through the viewfinder. You’re able to reach out to them and whisper to them, which is part of the beauty and the intimacy of that arrangement. You want to do things delicately; you don’t want to tell them to do it differently out loud in full presence of the crew.”
“Maintaining that schedule was challenging, but it was also rewarding. I think actors generally prefer theatre because the performance is live and uninterrupted, whereas film is full of interruptions and things can get a little bit strange. [Hillwalkers] ended up being somewhere in the middle.”
Was there ever any uncertainty onset, with Tom wearing so many hats as director, producer and camera operator? Tom assured me he knew his crew well, and they all worked together seamlessly.
“You either know what you’re going to do and do it, or you’re going to fail miserably. I had a very good Director of Photography, another former student of mine, Ruairi O hOisin. Ruairi is an extremely talented young man with a great future ahead of him – and a great aptitude for lighting, maybe the best that I’ve ever seen. And we went around set together like Siamese twins. We just had a HDMI umbilical, that was the only difference.”
Hillwalkers is a horror film, about a group of middle-class professionals on a charity walk who get terrorized by a group of nefarious private landowners. Among the rogue’s gallery is Steevey, played by Mark Agar, who steals his scenes with a perverse and gripping performance.
“Mark Agar is such a talented young guy and had given so much of his skills to student films in particular. He was a guy who had a profile out there, who had talent, but more than that he had a willingness to show up at ten minute’s notice. If you wanted him to do a short film and you rang him up, he would probably show up that day and learn the lines and do a very good job.”
“I saw him in a student film playing a psychopath, and as I was on the margins of that shoot, I remember thinking I should write something for him because he’s really, really talented. Unfortunately for Mark, that became Steevey, a totally psychopathic lunatic.”
Agar’s character is a villain sure to make audiences squirm. His bone-deep sexual obsessions lead to a few uncomfortable encounters with the female characters.
“I had a great producer Ama Addo, who was also a student of mine. She was brilliant in helping me negotiate some of the trickier gender politics of the film. When you have a film that deals with sexual violence, you have to do it in a very careful way. In casting, I was very fortunate to get three brilliant talented young women: Áine Flanagan, Elise Brennan and Aoife Honohan. They were very strong women, very determined – and they had clear feelings about their characters, and Mark’s character, which helped us approach the subject matter properly.”
Embarking on such a self-described genre film, Tom found himself without many clear Irish models to compare himself against.
“I don’t feel like I’m necessarily following a path in terms of Irish genre cinema because I’ve been involved in the business for quite a long time, and for various reasons, the commissioning bodies around the country don’t have much of a love for genre cinema. I think they’ve tried to steer people more towards an arthouse product. I understand the reasons for that – genre films tend to be quite expensive.”
“So, if it’s genre here in Ireland, you’d probably be asked to make it elevated genre. Byzantium with Saoirse Ronan was very successful at this. It’s got a lot of interesting sexual subtext going on within it. I remember distinctly trying to get leverage on scripts that were out-and-out genre and being in a room where what was in vogue were Garage and Adam and Paul. And then if you want to do a genre piece, you’re out in the cold – but I suppose you’re only out in the cold if you choose to be.”
Indeed, the drive to get Hillwalkers made is its own small-scale Aguirre, a flight of what could be called madness were it to fail, brilliance if it succeeds. With the Galway screening days away, what are Tom’s hopes for the film?
“I would like the film to be somewhat successful, for it get put up by a streaming platform and for people to see it. I do have several scripts that I would like to pitch at people and hopefully get one of those off the ground – at all kinds of levels, from very low budget, to mid-budget, to €30 million.”
It would certainly be a nice reward for all the work that went in – from Tom himself, and from his dedicated cast and crew.
“I’ve been in situations making films where people are getting paid an agreed rate, but they’re very unhappy. Some days on these films I’ve seen crew not return. But Hillwalkers was an experience where nobody was getting paid anything, apart from the actors, and they were literally drowned to the bone half of the time with a smile on their face. To see that level of passion would give anyone inspiration.”
“It’s about giving people like that an elevated role in something, so that they feel like they’re going to get a chance, in their youth, to do what they want to do. Bringing people along for the ride, putting a feature credit under their belt – where they thought they were getting no credit at all on anything due to the damn pandemic – is more satisfying to me than the film itself. It’s a greater reward on a higher plain.”