INTERVIEW: ‘LET US PREY’ DIRECTOR BRIAN O’MALLEY
Let Us Prey is a dark action-horror movie set in the fictional Scottish town of Inveree where a mysterious stranger (Liam Cunningham) takes over the minds and souls of everyone inside the local police station. We spoke to the film’s director, Brian O’Malley when it made it’s UK debut at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2014.
Just introduce us to the town of Inveree.
Inveree is a town which may or may not actually be the waiting room for hell, where a number of inhabitants including policemen and offenders find themselves in this police station on one particular night where they’re joined by a nameless vagrant who seems to know something about all of them and throughout the course of the movie he reveals their sins and their inner demons and allows them to effectively send themselves to hell.
Your lead played by Liam Cunningham. Tell us a bit more about him and the rest of the cast.
Liam was someone I’d worked with on a short film I did in 2004 called Screwback. We knew each other well so asking him to play the lead seemed like an obvious choice as I knew he’d play the character in the way I saw it, which was more understated and indeed that’s how he did it and it turned out late. Pollyanna [McIntosh] and the rest of the cast, I was introduced via the producer who suggested most of them to me and I met them all and felt they were all fabulous.
Pollyanna is known for The Woman which is a remarkable performance. She’s also in Bob Servant with Brian Cox and Jonathan Watson, a fantastic political comedy of errors. Jonathan Watson, actually I had been watching Bob Servant for Pollyanna and I became a bit obsessed with his character; I thought he was amazing. Then the producer Eddie Dick said to me “what do you think of Jonathan Watson for the character of Beswick?” and I said “yeah, absolutely.” I had been watching him for the last two weeks and I love him. I know in Scotland he’s known as a comedian whereas I didn’t have that perception of him. I’d only ever seen him in Bob Servant and thought his acting in that was remarkable. This has been a real challenge for him but also shows a side of him that’s probably unfamiliar to Scottish people whereas of course anywhere else in the world, they’ll take him for what he is.
Bryan Larkin again came through the producers. I knew he was the lead in Outpost 3 and I met him and he gave the most remarkable screen test. He literally had the role within about 15 seconds of performing the scene for me. Douglas Russell I saw in The Wee Man and thought he was great in it so I spoke to him over the phone and he sent me a casting tape that night which is the most insane casting tape I’ve ever seen, where he performs that scene where he’s raping and murdering the teenage boy, which is a pretty amazing performance.
Then there was Brian Vernel. I met a few people here at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh for that part and he really just nailed it. He had all the quirks and little hints of innocence but also the nastiness and I thought he played it beautifully.
Then of course there’s the brilliant Niall Fulton. We actually Skyped because it was fairly late in the day when Niall came on board. He asked for some indications of what the character might be like and I said think of Donald Pleasance in Halloween, and he said “Brilliant! I know exactly what you want.” Then he delivered the most remarkable screen performance and in fact there’s a little nod to Donald Pleasance in it in that he wears he beige mac and pair of glasses which is a very deliberate nob.
Hanna Stanbridge was the lead in a Scottish horror called Outcast a few years ago. She’s brilliant in it. I already thought she was terrific so when she was suggested to me I went to London and met her we had a chat and I knew she was up for it and that was a no-brainer. She gave an amazing performance which bears no resemblance whatsoever to what she’s really like; she’s really a sweetheart.
The screenplay was written by David Cairns and Fiona Watson. How did that land on your desk?
I had been directing TV commercials for quite a long time and one of the producers on the film, John McDonnell had been a line producer on commercials some years ago and he knew I was a big genre fan. I had already made two shorts which he was familiar with and fond of and thought I could be the man for job. He rang me up and said he had a script and I read it. Within about 10 pages I knew I wanted to direct it. I loved the setting, I loved the vibe of it. I was pretty much on board within the first act. I then worked on the film with the writer Rae Brunton for the next year and a half and got it to a stage where it more closely resembled what I felt was the best version of it that I could do. That was a very positive experience.
Is it a very different process going from directing commercials and shorts to directing a full length feature film?
It’s similar and very different. The similar part of it of course is that you need to know what you’re going to shoot that day and you need to get it shot as well as you can. The difficult part is what you have to shoot in that day is vastly greater than what you’d have to do in a commercial where you’re doing 30 seconds in a day, maybe 30 seconds in two days. So in a film maybe doing four and half to seven pages a day and that was actually the big challenge for me. The technical side of it, the filmmaking process, I am very familiar with but having to capture that much drama in a day and make it look fantastic and be really dramatic was a real challenge but I’m very happy with how it turned out. I had to make compromises every single day but my experience as a commercials director led me to make decisions quickly that meant I could shoot the scene faster but maintain the integrity of what I intended the scene to have.
You mentioned that this was brought to you by a producer, but was there ever any doubt that this might not get made?
There’s always a doubt. John, and Brendan McCarthy, who I was familiar with, have a very strong record of bringing films to the screen, and Eddie Dick, who’s a well-known Scottish producer who has a very strong track record. There’s almost a risk that it wouldn’t get made. I had been in this position before with a film which had a fairly remarkable cast in place and it still collapsed at the last hurdle. I had a very realistic attitude towards it however when it did finally get the green light I was very pleased.
Does having your experience in commercials and getting the shots in the bag every day, does that make it an easier editing process?
The editor says it was the easiest assembly he ever did because the shots came in and he stitched them together and they were right. The challenge then on the next three and a half months we spend editing it was finessing that and also experimenting with the structure. What it did mean was we very quickly – within about two weeks – we had a film cut that told the story and worked very well and allowed us to indulge our time in not in actually fixing that film but finding the most interesting way of telling that story we already had. I’m one of these directors who plans everything in the Nth degree and I had fully storyboarded every single scene in the film before we shot a frame of it. I knew every day what I wanted to shoot and most days you don’t get entirely what you want but I always had enough footage at the end of the day to cut the scene together in an interesting manner. As edits go, from his perspective it was painless. I suppose it’s the creative side of the edit that’s quite time consuming but very pleasurable.
You mentioned you’re a genre fan but there’s always going to be influences, consciously or unconsciously. What filmmakers were you trying to emulate?
My biggest influence as a director is Sergio Leone and I think that’s probably apparent in this with my use of dolly moves and close-ups. The other director who’s influenced me along the way is John Carpenter – I think more for tone. I think the first time I watched a Leone movie, it was very apparent what the director was doing. John Carpenter on the other hand was brilliant at creating mood and that was something I always loved about his films and you’ll see that in this film. I love David Fincher’s very graphic approach to cinematography and I love the focus he pays to cast and performance. And then Michael Mann, there’s always an atmosphere to his movies. They’re always very beautiful and have a slightly heightened reality about them which I really love. I’ve been directing so long now that all their influences are mixed up now. I wouldn’t at any moment in a scene think, this is like him. I genuinely think “what’s the best way to shoot it?” but the end result always has echoes of those directors.
Leone and Carpenter both famously used music to great effect too.
Music for me in films is massively important. The music in this film is fairly remarkable I think. We pained over every single cue as hitting something. I am very much a director who sees the score as the other essential element of the storytelling along with the cinematography, the acting, and the editing. From a Leone and Carpenter point of view, the musical side of it was a huge influence and actually you’ll hear nods in this film to Carpenter’s score and you’ll hear a very subtle nod to Once Upon a Time in America.
You’re familiar with the horror genre, but do you think today’s audiences are harder to shock and scare. Have we become numb to the imagery?
My interest in horror was never specifically as a genre of horror. My interest was in specific directors who operate within the genre; the likes of John Carpenter or Ridley Scott with Alien. It was more to do with the work, rather than the genre itself. What I missed when I moved into my twenties and thirties with horror was films like those where they create this world and environment that you were immersed in and it wasn’t necessary like anything you’d ever seen before and that was almost what made it so appealing because it was removing you slightly from reality and you were immersed in this universe that was familiar but different. I hadn’t seen that for a long time and when I had the opportunity to do this, I wanted to see if I could create a similar atmosphere where the film had its own very distinctive personality and it didn’t feel like anything else you’d seen with a distinctive look, style, tone and sound and I think I achieved that despite the relatively small budget.
In relation to shocking audiences, I think all you can really do is identify shocks and scares in your film and do them as well as you can and that’s hugely important because if you’re making a horror movie and it doesn’t have those in it, you’re fighting an uphill battle. For me, it was just as important to make sure the characters were engaging because I felt if the characters were engaging and you invested in them, you’d feel their loss more when they were killed. And if the film had an atmosphere and a vibe to it that felt unique, you’d invest in it a little bit more. Certainly from my perspective, I’m interested in doing more with the horror than simply capturing horror. I’m interested in creating the environment and telling a strong story.
Now you’re finally getting the film in from of audiences at festivals. Do you enjoy seeing their reactions?
I’ve actually sat in all the screenings at all the screenings. I sat in both Brussells ones and at that festival they went down really well and at that festival they scream and cheer and whoop and the screen when stuff happens which is brilliantly. Bizarrely, and I wasn’t expecting it, we got that at the screening at the Filmhouse. There’s one particular moment in the film, when you read the script you know that’s potentially when the audience will cheer at the screen, and they did and it was absolutely amazing. I will sit through it again tonight because Thursday was the first English speaking audience and they got a lot more of the little subtleties of the humour than we did abroad but I’m really curious about tonight.
What about the critics? Are you interested in their reaction?
I have friends in film who have advised me not to read them but we got a remarkable 10 out of 10 review from Starburst magazine two days ago. It was kind of the perfect review because the reviewer got all the subtleties in it that we didn’t know if people would pick on and we didn’t really mind such as is it actually set in a real town or is it set in purgatory. There’s a notion that everybody in it is already doomed and it’s just a question of then pushing the button. He picked up on all that stuff and everything I was trying to achieve stylistically and tonally so that was really lovely. It’s such early days and it hasn’t been reviewed by that many people. Of the rest of the reviews, there’s a mixture. Because I was very specifically conscious of a horror audience when I was making this and I was under no illusions – this is not a mainstream film. You won’t choose to see this or a Jennifer Aniston film; you will go specifically to this film. People who are into horror have really liked it and that was what was most important to me.
Do you still think it’s important to see the film on a big screen and have the communal cinema experience?
The thing about horror movies that you don’t get in any other genre, is the audience interacting and engaging with the screen and effectively engaging with each other whilst they’re experience it and that’s kind of remarkable. You don’t get it in sci-fi; you get it in comedy because everyone is laughing but there’s something about being scared and terrified with a group of people when you’re in no danger whatsoever that’s quite thrilling for people and you won’t really get that in your living room. Horror lends itself to a unique cinematic experience.
The film distribution model is obviously changing with the rise of streaming, but would you prefer this film find an audience in the cinema?
I want it to find an audience and I would love it to have a cinematic life. What is important to me is that it’s seen and that it’s seen by horror fans and if they access that through cinema then that’s really brilliant for everybody. However if they access it through Blu-ray or download, or Netflix then that’s the way of it. Times are changing; I accept that. What’s most important is that the audience is actually found and that they enjoy it, regardless of where they are. I sincerely believe that the likes of Netflix provides a bigger audience than you could possibly achieve through cinema; you’re talking literally tens of millions. If you access tens of millions of people through cinema then you’re going to have one of the biggest hits ever. These online resources provide a remarkable platform to access a wider audience.
What else have you got in the works right now?
Bizarrely I’ve got quite a few bits and pieces. Any first time director will say the same thing. When you’re trying to get your first film made you’ve got loads of ideas and one of them then gets going. I’m working on a ghost story at the moment called The Lost Station, which we’re working on the screenplay for. I’ve written a screenplay for an extended version of one of my short films called Crossing Salween which is set in Burma about a young child having survived a massacre by the military junta, and she’s trying to escape to Thailand. I also have a Spaghetti Western horror movie that I’m developing that I’d like to do. Also as a result of this film I’ve been approached about a number of other of action-horror related projects that I’m interested in. So it seems that it takes you a decade to get your first movie made but all things being equal and with a little bit of luck, the second one might come slightly quicker than that.
Let Us Prey is available now on VOD, DVD & Blu-ray