The Winter Lake
The Winter Lake

Scannain Talks The Winter Lake with director Phil Sheerin and writer David Turpin

Prior to its World Premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh, Scannain sat down with director Phil Sheerin and writer David Turpin to discuss their new Irish feature film The Winter Lake.

A dark and atmospheric coming-of-age drama, The Winter Lake was shot in Sligo in 2019.  The cast is led by two ‘Screen Stars of Tomorrow’ for 2019; Emma Mackey (Sex EducationEiffelDeath on the Nile), and Anson Boon (Blackbird1917). They are joined by Irish stars Charlie Murphy (Peaky Blinders, Halo) and Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones, Chernobyl). The film is a co-production between Tailored Films and EMA Films.

The film centres on alienated teenager Tom, and his troubled mother Elaine, who relocate to a run-down inherited farm in rural Ireland.  There, Tom makes a frightening discovery in a nearby seasonal lake.  The consequences of this discovery draw the uneasy duo into contact with their neighbour Ward, and with his charismatic but secretive daughter Holly.  As Elaine makes tentative steps toward forming a relationship with Ward, Holly draws Tom into a dangerous plan.  The four characters’ conflicting fears, desires, wills and weaknesses become entwined and build to a violent climax, as a dark story of family, secrecy and sexuality is played out against the bleakly beautiful countryside.

Irish director Phil Sheerin is a graduate of the prestigious Masters in directing course from the National Film and Television School in the UK.  His short films have won awards at the Galway Film Fleadh (Best Film for ‘North’ in 2015), Raindance, Aubagne, and he was nominated for a Student Academy Award. The Winter Lake was written by David Turpin, who wrote the award-winning film The Lodgers which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2017 and was also produced by Tailored Films.

The Winter Lake is an official Irish / Canadian co-production between Tailored Films and EMA Films and will have a theatrical release in late 2020.  The film was funded by Screen Ireland,  Epic Pictures Group, Wrap Fund, Telefilm Canada, Filmoption International, and the BAI, with the support of Creative Europe, and in association with Title Media, Creativity Capital and RTÉ.

How are you finding the experience of the virtual Fleadh? Did you manage to watch any of the films so far?

Phil: Me personally, no. I’m in the middle of a deadline for quite an extensive treatment so I’ll be dipping in as much as I can.
David: I’m kind of scurrying around trying to find somewhere where I have a good internet connection. I live in the country and our internet is not always the best for streaming. So I’m having to kind of find somewhere where I can actually watch something without everything being very juddery.
Phil: How has the virtual experience been going?

One of the things about the virtual Fleadh is that there’s been a social media component to it. People have been tweeting along while watching the film so as a filmmaker you can kind of get the live reaction to them watching in a way like that you’d get by being in the cinema with them. Although obviously not the same.

Phil: Oh I don’t know if I’d like that!
David: On the phone during the film? God!

That’s the new second screen experience…

Phil: It sounds like a nightmare.

The technology works. I was able to stream from my laptop to the TV with only one or two small periods of buffering. So from that perspective, it’s working.

David: It’s an extraordinary thing that they’ve been able to do, keeping the festival going under the circumstances. That any form of the festival is going is amazing.

It’s not ideal for you guys. Your premiere should be an event. It should be something that you can bring everyone to and that you look forward to, and then you can have lots of drinks bought for you afterwards.

Phil: It’s still a special festival, especially to everyone in the Irish industry. Me personally, I grew up with the festival. It’s the first one that I ever went to. It’s the first festival that I ever showed anything in. So it still feels amazing to be honest. 

And you’re bringing a west of Ireland film to it. But one of the things about the film is that it plays out of location, there’s no sense of a particular place other than it’s Ireland.

Phil: That’s kind of done on purpose. We wanted the film to feel like it has a bit more of a fairy-tale vibe to it. By making it very specific to a particular or a particular place in time felt like the wrong approach. The date when it’s set could be any time within the last 25 years and in that same time. It’s kind of a part of Ireland that feels a little bit forgotten or that just hasn’t caught up yet. That felt important.
David: The corollary to that is that the film does connect to some of the things that are happening in Ireland right now. Which is that urban life has become unlivable for some people and that those people are being forced into the countryside. And yet our government, for whatever reason, is not investing in infrastructure in the countryside. So life in the countryside can be remarkably isolating. I know that firsthand and I think that is also something that comes in the strange, almost kind of blankness, that Phil conjured in some of the locations in the film. You do feel out of time and out of place sometimes in rural Ireland. 

The impact of the last recession led to the death of the middle of a lot of small towns. I grew in Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow and it’s not a big town, but the middle of it is gone now compared to when I was young.

David: It’s funny that because I live close to Bagenalstown so whenever I was looking for for detail for the script I tended to pull it from there. It’s a nice place but there are shopfronts there where it looks like people went home 20 years and there are still things in the window, objects in the window that are so sun-bleached by this stage that you don’t know what they ever were. It’s just a strange white object. That was actually quite an import place in the conceiving of this film.

Can I ask how you two came to work together? Did you know each other before you started to make this film?

Phil: I was brought to the project by Ruth and Julianne [producers at Tailored Films].
David: I had seen Phil’s short films, and particularly his film North. And I think I had worked on the script for about a year and Ruth and I were talking about who might direct it, and that short was something that resonated for both of us. It was certainly why I so much wanted to work with Phil on the film.

Was it written with the west of Ireland in mind or did it just fit to film it there?

David: I live in the east and usually, whether you intend to or not, you pull from what’s around you and yet it, even though it’s quite a realistic film, there’s sort of a mythic or symbolic dimension to it. The otherworldly dimension and for whatever reason, I tend to associate those kinds of things with the west. That kind of mysterious mythic folklore for me seems to be something of the west. It was interesting for me, I wasn’t on the set that often, but I think from a lot of films and a lot of people’s misconceptions of the west we have this sort of set of cliched images of stony fields and the rest. But actually being there I was so struck by how cinematic the landscape is. By the grandeur of the landscape, which is not something that’s often captured in films about the west. And I think that our film does capture a bit of that. There’s a scene that I particularly love of Anson and Emma in a booth in a cafe, and the panorama through the window is so cinematic and so striking, so huge. I think that we get to see that side of the west here and often it’s not characterised that way.

That otherworldlyness is an essential part of the storytelling. How much of that did you bring to it Phil or in combination with Ruairi? [DoP Ruairi O’Brien]

Phil: That was pretty much all in the script. Everything was scripted and even stripped back a lot. A director has to take something and make it into something that they personally connect to, at a certain point it has to feel like their story. So the more mythical side of it and the magical realism were elements that I thought were vital. But then how we brought it to life was a lot of looking at films that I thought did it really well like Tarkovsky’s films. Like how things were done in Stalker that are sort of lo-fi but still feel very cerebral and very psychological. And something like Blue Velvet, where it’s a hardcore focus on the dark psychology that is done in a way that almost feels like a fairy-tale. So that was really important. Then Ruairi was an insanely good problem-solver. No matter what I wanted to do, he’d come up with a way of achieving it or at least getting very close to what we had.

Another thing that is striking about the film is the quality of the acting. Charlie Murphy has an almost flawless Lancashire accent.

Phil: Yeah she was pretty adamant to go with it, because early on we had chats back and forth about it. There was the question of does she have her Irish accent but that it hss been affected by living in England so long, or if the element of her character is to adapt to her surrounding so that she can fit in and find ways to survive. And one way to do that would be to adopt wherever you are. She was quite adamant to retain the accent and keep it hard as a way of showing how much she’s willing to change to fit in to be supportive and to find support. There’s a scene where she talks about it and then says that it’ll only be a matter of time before she’s talking like a “muck savage”.
David: I think that that is an important thing about her character and an important thing as one of the stings that the film is talking about is the degree to which people, and especially women, are expected to wear a mask simply in order to survive. Simply in order to be allowed to live you have to put up a pretence. I thought what she did with the accent is a very clear representation of that.

And then Emma Mackey does a very convincing Irish accent, which can be difficult.

Phil: I wasn’t worried about her weirdly because I thought she was British. And then when I found out that she was raised in France, or at least lived in France for a very long time. Once I had seen that she could do that I knew that she definitely must have the ear for it. She must be quite musical. I thought she was great. And also amazing to work with. The level of commitment, and also what David was alluding there, the mask that she had to wear had to be a quite tough one. There had to be a lot of armour going on, that brash exterior of someone that felt very confident and cocksure, but that at the same time would push you away or potentially push you away. You had to see how vulnerable and potentially damaged that she is. Just let you in so that you’d care about her and not overly judge her.
David: It’s a difficult thing. A lot of the movie characters that I really like are those noir heroines or anti-heroines. With a character like that, so much has to withheld and yet they still have to hold us while giving away very little of themselves. It’s a real balancing act to be able to draw us in and at the same time keep so much of it beneath the surface. Mystery is a very hard thing to play. Sometimes it’s not even that much to do with the script. It’s something that some performers intrinsically have within them, they have that quality, and I felt like she had it.

The Winter Lake will hopefully hit Irish and international cinemas in the not too distant future.