#Interview: Scannain Talks A Dark Song with director Liam Gavin
With new Irish/UK co-production A Dark Song set to World Premiere at the 28th Galway Film Fleadh we caught up with director Liam Gavin to talk about the supernatural horror.
When did you first start on the journey with A Dark Song?
It would have been about 2011. My English producer asked me if I’d any ideas for a film. A low budget film. The initial idea was that we were going to do a £60,000, knock-it-out type thing. And I had watched a documentary about Alastair Crowley, who’s a sort of very influential occultist from the late 19th/early 20th century. And he did the ritual that we do in the film in Loch Ness. The ritual, in real terms, takes about a year to 18 months. So in the film the ritual takes about 8 months.
The ritual is an attempt to summon a guardian angel, is that correct?
It is an actual thing, the ritual. And I watched that documentary and I thought that this was a suitably bonkers thing, to make manifest your guardian angel. And to do it all in one location. That would make a great one location idea for a film. And it’s around the same time that Tim Dennison, our English producer, said have you got any ideas? And I said “Yeah, I have”. And I went away and did a sort of treatment, over a 24 hour period, and came back to him. And he was interested, so I sat down, and in 9 days of just working 12 hour days I knocked out a first version of the script. Then Maggie (Mitchell), who was working at Samson came in. I was working on another project with Samson, called Written Water, which bizarrely it looks like we are going to do now, hopefully. That had nearly got going, and then it fluttered out. And she read this and she reckoned that David (Collins) would like it. Then David came onboard and he became the lead producer after that. And then we did a year and a half developing it. They have a really good team of development in Samson Films. None of the script in terms of its plot changed, but we really went to town on the nuances and the character arcs, and all that. And the budget raised of course. We spent a good deal of time getting it ready. Then we also had a long period of casting, where people were dropping in and dropping out, which went on for quite a while. We’d get one person in, and then we’d have to wait for another person to come in, and the first person would then drop out. Until, at the very end, we just got it all together. We got Catherine Walker and we got Steve Oram, and it just gelled at that moment. And that’s when it just all moved forward. Right up until the last moment it was touch-and-go whether it would all go ahead. To such a level that even when we were driving up towards the first day of the shoot, I still didn’t believe that it was going to go ahead, because we’d had so many false-starts during the whole process. I think it worked out as 4 years in total from me sitting down and doing the first draft to actually getting it done. But that’s the nature of getting your first film done, isn’t it?
There can be some pretty long gestations. Hopefully your second film won’t take as long!
Hopefully not! As I kept on saying to the crew, that statistically you are most likely to make one film, and that’s it. But we seem to have a lot of interest in our second film, at this moment in time. I suspend my belief until we’re under-way on that.
Was there ever an intention to move the film over to Wales or elsewhere in the UK, or was it always intended to be in Ireland?
I’m a walking co-production. A Dark Song is part funded from Wales (through Ffilm Cymru Wales), with the majority of the money coming from Ireland, and a percentage coming from Wales. But I am from North Wales, which is why it is set in North Wales, but my parents are both Irish, and I’m an Irish passport holder. And I’m all the time backwards and forwards, so the two countries don’t feel like they are different countries. Large chunks of my childhood have been in Ireland. There’s the Welsh element as well, so I am a walking co-production in a way.
It’ll serve you well having that passport now!
I know. I’ll still be able to get in to the other 26 countries!
What was your experience of shooting in Ireland?
Shooting in Ireland was really good, just because Irish crews, I think, are the best in the world to work with.They are so pleasant and so nice, and so professional. You have all the professionalism of British, with a pleasantness. And they don’t let you get above your station. I mean I knew going in “don’t shout at people if you’ve got an English accent!” The crew were really good. The shoot, bizarrely after all our problems with pre-production, went incredibly well, with only a few hiccups here and there. We managed to get virtually all of it done…when it could have gone so wrong. Like, we were shooting in the countryside for a week, and the weather could’ve ben awful for us, but it all went incredibly well. There were only two days where we were really looking like we weren’t going to do it. One of those was with one of the key sequences, one that if I did’t have it I wouldn’t have the film. It’s a scene with running up a stairs, and is a major character transition point, and it didn’t look like we were going to have time to do it at one stage. And I was thinking “how the hell can I get around that?” But we got it! On the countryside we were very, very concerned about the weather, but it was fine! Down in Wicklow. Wicklow doubling up for North Wales. I was up in the mountains in North Wales two days ago, and they’re not really that different.
It’s nice to see a horror made with practical effects…
We’ve made it with a sort of social-realist feel to it, as if this was an actual thing. And it is an actual thing as I said, and we’ve stressed the idea that it’s not magicians with hats on. It’s not moustache-twirling hocus-pocus stuff. We’re quite pleased. It’s elevated genre.a
Are you looking forward to the Fleadh?
I am. Everybody that has seen it so far has been part of the process, so we haven’t seen what it’s like in front of an audience yet. So we still don’t know what to expect. It’s a weird old thing, exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. The funny thing is, from having short films and that, different audiences respond in different ways, but there is a kind of overall feeling. So this will be the first overall feeling. We have got a good slot. We’ll just have to see how it goes.
A Dark Song, follows Sophia, a young woman who insists on renting an old house in the remote countryside so that she can hire an occultist. She needs him to perform an ancient invocation ritual, the Abramelin, to summon up Sophia’s Guardian Angel so her wish can be granted. She wishes to talk to her murdered child, a desire that consumes her.
A Dark Song features Patrick’s Day star Catherine Walker in the lead, with Sightseers‘ Steve Oram as the occultist hired in to help her. Frank star Mark Huberman and Poison Pen‘s Susan Loughnane also feature in the film.
It was filmed in locations around Dublin and Wicklow in the summer of 2015. Viva cinematographer Cathal Watters shot the film, with Connor Dennison as production designer. Bowsie Workshop assisted on the practical effects. Post-production took at Windmill Lane Pictures with editor Anna Maria O’Flanagan and Patrick’s Day composer Ray Harman. David Collins and Cormac Fox produce for Samson Films, and Tim Dennison producing for UK production company Tall Man Films. Funding comes via the Irish Film Board/Bord Scannán na hÉireann and Ffilm Cymru Wales.