Exclusive: Conor McPherson and Ciarán Hinds Talk Horror, Catholicism, and John Carpenter
Conor McPherson loves the supernatural. He adores ghosts and zombies. Some have even made it into his recent film The Eclipse, a drama that is not quite horror. Here again we must engage in the taxonomy debate. Horror generally focuses on the sense and degree of dread injected into a storyline, visuals, and sound. But where are the borders of horror? And what becomes of the films that float on the edge, like this very film we have here? How does the fan or marketer address them?
I believe both can enjoy The Eclipse (review here), but it merely bears only some of the markings of the beast. As a horror fan I expect more and want to be overwhelmed and hurt by vicious images. This film is quaint. Its lovely undead are reminiscent of the creatures in Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie -- another film that uses horror and the bizarre to disarm its audience but does not position itself squarely as a horror film, unsettling as it may be.
What can be quantified correctly is Conor McPherson’s devotion to the genre and his ambition to come up with new and intense ways to scare us along the lines of The Exorcist and The Shining. Dread Central had the pleasure to sit down with McPherson (below, left) and his lead actor in The Eclipse, Ciarán Hinds (below, right), to discuss horror, John Carpenter, Catholicism, and more.
Beware, my pretties, there are spoilers ahead.
Heather Buckley: The Eclipse was positioned at the 2009 Tribeca Film Fest as not a horror film, and it seems to me more of a drama with some horror in it. How do you describe it?
Conor McPherson: Well, originally, the story was based on a short story written by a friend of mine named Billy Roche, and the story was set against the backdrop of a literary festival, and this guy becomes obsessed with this writer he is driving around and how his life kind of unravels over those few days, but in the story he is married, he has kids.
My wife read an early draft and she said, ‘You know, in a story, it’s okay, you can get into someone’s head and sympathize with him as he becomes obsessed with someone else, but in a movie, women just won’t like him because you’re just watching this guy, you know, follow this woman around.' So she said, ‘If there were some way you could just get rid of the wife’, and a light bulb went off above my head, and I knew that if he were a widower, you would sympathize with him, and also that he could be haunted.
And I’ve always sort of been interested in the supernatural and all of that so I immediately thought of films like the Exorcist, The Shining, which, while horror films, have real credible, psychologically complex characters rather than two-dimensional slasher fodder, and so that was the kind of movie I wanted to make. And what’s really important about the film being scary is that this character played by Ciarán is grieving, he’s lost his wife, he’s in quite a dark place, kind of locked in there; but he doesn’t seem to be able to talk to anyone about it, he’s still very confused by it. So what he’s seeing, the ghosts that he is seeing, seem to be manifestations, perhaps of all of that stuff that he’s trying to figure out. What I really wanted was the audience to be shocked by it and scared by it because I wanted them to feel what he was feeling, sort of take us deeper inside his predicament, that he really can’t talk to anyone about this crazy thing that’s happening.
So what we have, that the Tribeca Filmfest maybe positioned it as … I don’t know … is a relationship drama, but really, what it needs is to not just be eerie, but really scary so that the audience can really feel what he’s feeling and go deeper with him in his journey to come out the other side.
HB: (to Ciarán Hinds) Have you played this sort of role before, and what attracted you to it?
Ciarán Hinds: Well, no. Certain work that I have done … whatever capabilities are lurking inside you … but this is probably a very emotional journey that I had to go on because of the grief and the guilt and the bereavement, but at the same time you’re playing an ordinary man. You’re not playing someone who’s heroic or anyone who has attitude; instead you’re a regular Joe who is trying to get on with his life and his family except the mother has died, and suddenly there’s all this bottled up stuff that hasn’t been dealt with, which is very interesting, because in the end that is seen through the storyline.
The more you bottle it up, you keep a lid on it, the more possibility that something, sometime, will explode on you in a way that you even can’t comprehend yourself, and there are things that we go through in our daily lives, awful thoughts or even pleasant thoughts that just arrive unbidden, you know, unlooked for but just arrived.
It’s the head, the brain being a conductor for thoughts that arise and filters them, but because of the state that he’s in at this moment, this emotional, the heightened state of his emotions, these things sort of go to the extreme, so when you see these images that he suddenly sees, whether he has summoned them up or they manifested themselves, they’ve a lot to do with the blockage, the psychological place that he’s in, and they’re quite shocking, actually; you know, they really jolt.
HB: (to McPherson) Does your film deal with more of the ambiguity of the supernatural and sort of what it would be in an existentialist sense?
Conor McPherson: What I’d like it to be is both, or either. It could be the ghosts that he sees could be a premonition of something that’s going to happen, which does when he sort of perceives the death of somebody, and when he sees his wife towards the end, and she seems to sort of allow him to move on and have, maybe move into a place where he can have a positive outlook. Is that coming from her, or is that just coming from within him?
So it really plays on the idea that ghosts are mystery and will remain that. I hate films where it’s kind of like, they’re a detective ghost story, like ‘We have to find out what the ghost wants and then we can set the ghost free!’ I hate that kind of movie. What I want is for ghosts to be really mysterious; I don’t want to understand them. I want them to be really thought-provoking and freaky.
HB: (to Hinds) Did you approach the role that way: is it supernatural or is it just psychological?
Ciarán Hinds: No. I mean I haven’t talked to Conor about it at all. The idea is, if you have to make the audience believe in these people, they’re not coming from some melodramatic world or something, they’re very real people, who connect with each other, so when these extraordinary things from someplace else arrive, well, the audience can say, ‘Well we knew that was coming,’ or suddenly they go into another state, as Michael Farr does in his emotional state, so I think Conner just wanted to believe in this very supernatural thing. Michael Farr has this problem. He tries to find out what is happening to him, but when the big shit hits the fan, the audience will go, ‘Oh, he’s in deep trouble’.
It’s not like ‘Oh, we were waiting for that.’ It’s something bigger than they expect because I think it is, the moment when we see an image of this bilious character, which comes from an image of the father-in-law, when that projects itself on the screen. I mean, it’s pretty shocking, for this image that this man sees, but also the audience sees that this thing is major, this problem, this crisis that this man is going through, the fact that it is odd and that he can’t work it out, then suddenly, I think you can empathize with the state that he’s in.
HB: Is there anything that sort of inspired the visuals of this film? It sounds like you’re dealing with a lot of an emotional rawness and dread.
Conor McPherson: Yeah.
HB: If you look at Japanese ghost stories, like Kurosawa’s Kairo, there's this very haunting, unnatural, unnerving sense in the way that ghosts are depicted. Were you inspired in this sense? Or was it (Irish) folklore?
Conor McPherson: There’s a little bit of that, but I think definitely from other films. The Shining is one. Are the ghosts there? Are they not there? Also George Romero’s films. I mean, when I want to see something scary, I always think zombies look really scary, so we tried to make Jim Norton, the actor who played that role, to ... well, I wanted him to look like a zombie.
You know, a lot of the people who know me, they often like to think that I go too far, and they think that invariably, just eerie not even scary, but I really like it to be scary, and so there was that.
The Exorcist, of course, like with the whole, sort of incredibly heavy Catholic feeling of that film which I really like, it’s so good-and-evil, damnation and it’s dark and all that kind of Catholic imagery. I really wanted to get into that, the darkness of it, to be able to shoot people in silhouettes a lot, almost as if the darkness were inside them. So all of those things were really inspired more by cinema than by folklore.
HB: I do see a lot of directors with Catholic backgrounds including this potent sort of scariness and dread that gets pulled from their upbringing into their work. You certainly see it in Scorsese's work.
Ciarán Hinds: Well there must be of course, when they talk about confession -- you’re down there, you’re in the pit, with fire, everlasting damnation…
Conor McPherson: Pretty heavy stuff.
Ciarán Hinds: The residue is always around.
HB: Look at the Sistine Chapel; part is painted with angels, the other part with demons. Also the idea of always looking at the suffering man on the cross breeds that kind of imagery. Are you saying that this film is intense? Are you going to make another horror film after that; do you want to keep exploring that subject matter?
Conor McPherson: Yeah. Supernatural stuff … I don’t want to say that it’s all that I’m interested in, but it’s where I really feel.
HB: You can say it all, and we will love you.
Conor McPherson: Everything I do is supernatural. Everything. So, it’s just what I do. It’s the only way I can understand the world, it’s the only way I can tell a story, it’s sort of to pit characters against really, the unknown, not just the slightly confusing, or the bewildering, but against the total unknown, and sort of deal with that. It’s what appeals to me as a writer, I guess.
HB: It’s much more dramatic. I feel that if we look at horror, even comedy, they exist at either ends of the emotional spectrum, so it’s almost operatic to make a horror film. The intensity.
Ciarán Hinds: Of course at the time that we were doing it, I didn’t see it as ‘horror’.
HB: How did you see it?
Ciarán Hinds: I saw it as a drama, about a central character, a man who is suffering from grief, and psychologically needs to somehow clear this up. His visitations were either self-manifested, or were they visits? I don’t know, but then it’s become clear to me during the shooting of it that it’s about the other forces at work that are beyond Michael Farr’s comprehension.
I mean, he never really believes. It’s like the psyche of the story, you’re just hearing sounds, like a dog hears things. It’s simple, clean, what he is, he is not an extraordinary man, he doesn’t believe in the occult, but halfway through, we see him looking on the internet, what is it, what am I looking for, I know that something’s happening, but what the fuck it is?
I don’t even know. Is it aural? Is it visceral? And this just goes through the idea that you just don’t have imagery that you see as strange, out of focus. Is it human? Is it not? But he does equate it with his father-in-law. So when he is dealing with these events, he is slightly unbalanced, but the real motive (that I understood) was that something much more existential, something much more ‘out there’ was happening. Well, it was that and then it was the first image of facing Jim Norton with the car besides me while I was just driving along, just having a cigarette in a dream, and to turn around and go ‘Holy fuck!’ And you know, when you realize, hey, we’re in somewhere else!
Conor McPherson: We’re in Dawn of the Dead.
Ciarán Hinds: And I said, how did I get up here, I’m not a horror specialist, but suddenly I was in it. And you want to work that way, to keep it as open as you can, to where you go in emotionally. How much level of grief do you use, how much do you bottle up, and you say, no, it’s ok? And you know, not without explaining everything, but to just offer it up, and let people decide, they’re on their own journey through our little aria, our opera.
Conor McPherson: To me, there’s nothing ironic about it. To me, this is absolutely what we’re doing. I don’t want it to be. I mean, the thing is, when we watch it with an audience, they do scream, and then they laugh. And I think they laugh at themselves. They’re like, ‘I didn’t expect this to happen in this film. I thought I was watching some European art-house movie, and now suddenly it’s like a zombie movie.'
To me, that’s totally legitimate, it’s not like I’m trying to say that aren’t horror films kind of funny? To me, that’s totally where my heart is, and that’s where I want to get to.
The best scares, if you can do them, they come because people really, not even don’t expect it, because it doesn’t seem like a point in the story, or something like that is going to happen, because you don’t think it’s that type of film. That is like, such a booby trap, and you know, people freak out, they freak out in a way that even if someone goes into a restaurant …
Ciarán Hinds: This wasn’t on the menu.
Conor McPherson: Exactly!
Ciarán Hinds: And you know it isn’t on the menu, and they know something’s odd, but then you present it straight up and that’s when, I think, it comes, there’s no preparation.
Conor McPherson: We have an audience who never knows about the kind of film.
Ciarán Hinds: So they’re sort of like lambs to the slaughter, in a fun way.
HB: It seems in your case that less marketing would create sort of the context for people to come and see this film because they wouldn’t know what they were getting into.
Conor McPherson: It was kind of disappointing because it was like, all it was supposed to be, and it wasn’t quite as scary. But I mean, this one, it was really hard to raise the money for this film, in terms of genre.
They say, what is it, and you say, it’s a kind of ghost story, it’s kind of a love story. Then they ask, yeah but which is it? But it’s both! Yeah, but well, who’s it for?
That makes it very hard, and now that we’ve made it and it’s got distribution, the thing is, I think it’s kind of strength now is to explain what it is and no one can say ‘It’s this.’
Ciarán Hinds: I think some people get pissed off at a certain point. It’s like why did you trick me then? And other people saying, well, we thought there was shock to it.
You say, well, what is the point of storytelling if everyone’s expecting, arriving, expecting, where’s our dosage? And, you know, just go and see what happens, and that’s hard, because everyone’s conditioned to whatever way you want to see, to see what you expect.
HB: What was it like to shoot in Cork?
Conor McPherson: I had always wanted to shoot in that particular town, which is called Cobh, because it just had all that old Gothic architecture, which really just gave us this spooky atmosphere, which is really, really important, obviously, to get the right mood going, so it worked really well for us, and it’s a really vertical kind of town with lots of steps, so it was like The Exorcist.
HB: “Falling down long flights of steps…” Would you like to shoot in Georgetown?
Conor McPherson: Yeah, I’d love to sort of shoot something in a place like that, that has tremendous atmosphere there.
Ciarán Hinds: You have to see the steps!
HB: (to Hinds) Are you a big horror fan?
Ciarán Hinds: No. Not at all.
HB: you don’t like being scared?
Ciarán Hinds: I don’t mind being scared, psychologically scared. I want some kind of nod at humanity, that this is just pure horror, and what seems to be on the menu these days is usually slashing torture, well that’s what I see around me advertised in the most amount at all. Horror used to…no, I mean, The Exorcist, The Shining, films made by great filmmakers, wherever they take you, fucking weird, where are we? I mean those are great films. And I’m not adverse to horror films and I’m interested in going to see one.
A lot of what are called horror films are slasher films, and there’s definitely a difference, and to make a good horror film is really, really hard. Do you call Pan’s Labyrinth a horror film, cause there are bits of that?
HB: Horror/fantasy probably, because there are bits of that.
Ciarán Hinds: It’s brilliantly made on many layers, so you go in saying, where am I going to go? I have no idea.
Conor McPherson: Halloween is a great horror film.
HB: John Carpenter knew about dread. I mean, The Fog? Amazing.
Conor McPherson: And Dawn of the Dead is a great horror film. I think it’s better than Night of the Living Dead. When Carpenter made The Fog, you believe that fog is real, that’s the thing, isn’t it? You don’t know that until you’re coming over the bay area, and you think, oh, there it comes, great, because it’s based in the possibility of our sins being revisited.
Big thanks to both Conor McPherson and Ciarán Hinds for taking the time to speak with us. Feel like something a bit different? Why not be one of those lambs Hinds mentioned and give The Eclipse a shot? It's not your usual horror film by any means, but that can often turn out for the best. Click here for the full list of cities and dates for Magnolia Pictures' theatrical rollout of The Eclipse, which began this past Friday, March 26th.
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