I always wondered if I would be able to offer safety and protection to those I love if confronted with the need to choose physical violence. Being an ex-cop/ex-athlete’s son, I received plenty of dirty pugilistic tactics in those halcyon days when folks didn’t bat an eye over playground scuffles. I eventually put Dad’s counsel to use on a particularly vile bully. It worked so well that my opponent’s face was exquisitely rearranged and from that point on, nobody, I mean NOBODY ever bothered me again. I knew I was able to employ similar techniques if it ever happened again and went through life with no worries. But that’s ME. What could/would happen if I needed to protect someone else? Could/would I be able to do it again? Would it be different? Worse yet, what if I was not able to deliver the goods? That’s very scary. That, I can assure you and this, I believe, is a key element permeating Ciaran Foy’s stunning feature film Citadel.
As an adult, I encountered an especially dangerous situation. After an extended sojourn across the Atlantic, I returned to discover my apartment had been burgled. It was an easy place to burgle, but unexpected since my beloved and I lived in a ‘protected’ building. Bikers and dealers lived there and as such, was one of the safest places for anyone to live (save for the potential of being caught in crossfire which, thankfully, never happened). But, burgled we most certainly were. The immediate concern was twofold. Whoever did it wasn’t especially concerned about the ‘protected’ aspect of the building and might well have been completely insane (we lived round the corner from an outpatient clinic specializing in emotionally challenged mental defectives), or, worse, the perp was a junkie (most of whom wouldn’t be stupid enough to hit a ‘protected’ domicile). This was someone who simply didn’t give a rat’s ass. They must be feared at all costs. One must be prepared to do whatever it takes to stop them in their tracks.
Worst of all, I had the gnawing feeling that the psycho would return.
Each night I’d rest easy with a baseball bat beside me and, sure enough, soon after the burglary and in the pitch of black, I heard a huge crashing sound. Lo and behold, a dark figure stood at the foot of the bed. Springing into action, I grabbed the bat and threatened to crush the whacko’s noggin like a watermelon. As quickly as he appeared, he disappeared.
A funny thing happened after this incident. My initial exhilaration immediately transformed into complete and total terror when thoughts of what could have happened had I remained asleep or if, God forbid, I tussled with the fucker and screwed up. And here’s the rub – my fear had nothing to do with what could have happened to ME. It had everything to do with what might have happened to my wife. Scenarios danced through my brain and I became so paralyzed with fear that I insisted we move in with friends until we could pack up and move as pronto as possible.
The worry and fear I experienced over this has only multiplied exponentially now that I’m a father. Could I? Would I? Damn straight! I’d be a take-no-prisoners pit bull if either my wife or daughter needed my protection. No fear in that at all. It’s the other fear, the one that cuts deep. That’s the fear none of us want to feel.
The greatest fear, they say, is fear itself and now, my fear boils down to this: What if I failed to protect? What would the consequences be? Not to me, per se – I don’t give a shit about ME, I care only about protecting those I love. How would this fear transform itself in the aftermath of FAILURE to deliver protection? These are very real things we all, to varying degrees, must deal with. They also happen to be the very things that drive Citadel, one of the best films of the year.
I’ve been blessed to see the movie a few times now and after my first helping, I’m equally blessed to have had a chance, via Skype, to interview its talented writer-director, Ciaran Foy.
Klymkiw: I was so lucky to see Citadel on a big screen at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. For me, it’s definitely a Big Screen experience and even though so many independent genre films get relatively modest big screen exposure at festivals and in limited theatrical runs for an eventually larger life on the small screen via DVD, VOD, etc., I can’t help but assume you crafted the picture with Big Screen at the forefront.
Foy: That’s very true. I think especially so in terms of the soundscape. Sound was an important big screen element when you’re going into a 5.1 sound mix.
Yes, the aural landscape, if you will, is alternately subtle and jarring, but it seems to me that your visual design always felt bigger than life and yet, in so doing, captured life and reality so much more powerfully than many similar genre films.
Yes, we had a fairly extended series of preparatory discussions about the aspect ratio and at first I was thinking in terms of the aesthetic and practical pros and cons between a 2:35 landscape or something closer to 1:85. Trying to capture Tommy’s agoraphobia was a big part of this and my initial feeling was to go wider. At the same time, I really wanted to build in much longer, more extended takes to capture Tommy’s condition. However, working within modest means you begin to realize that cinemascope-styled frames need more lights, more art direction, and that extended shots take longer to plan and shoot, especially with actors getting their marks and so on. We eventually settled on the 16:9 aspect ratio.
And of course, planning within exigencies of production doesn’t have to mean compromise, but actually allows you to use your palette in ways that are far more effective in terms of capturing what you wanted in the first place.
Yes, and though to capture agoraphobia the feeling was to go wider, I eventually agreed with my cinematographer that it was best to choose wide angle lenses and often shoot close up, using a claustrophobic approach to capture Tommy’s terror and heighten it for the audience.
Yes, even the wider exteriors felt like Tommy was boxed in amongst all those endless towers in the housing project he wanders through.
I also loved punching in close on Tommy and using the camera to allow us to be staring directly at the fear in his eyes.
The film affected me on so many different personal levels and as such, almost by extension, I couldn’t help but feel that the film was deeply personal. Did it come from something very close to you?
I tend to describe Citadel as 50% psychological horror and 50% autobiography. When I was a teen I was the victim of a vicious unprovoked attack by some young thugs in Dublin after seeing a movie. I was beaten repeatedly on the head with a hammer and threatened with a dirty syringe. The attack left me with this condition of being agoraphobic. My battles with it, my recovery and my love for genre films are all things that eventually led to Citadel. I should say that the project had a somewhat more straightforward genre incarnation, but as I discussed it with people we’d invariably get around to where it was coming from and they’d say, ‘Oh, why don’t you tell that story.’
The horror in your picture, especially the stuff with Tommy dealing with his fear, kept forcing me forward to literally move to the edge of my seat, lean forward and thrust my point of view ever closer into the image.
I always wanted to present an extreme version of a subjective experience and as I wanted to put the audience in the mind of an agoraphobic, I think I was forced – to do anything like this, really, you are forced – to do so within the realms of genre. To put an audience into the very state of being an agoraphobic, I think that fantastical genre films work best because agoraphobia itself puts you in a state that’s just so irrational. It’s an irrational fear because you’re seeing things in the shadows that aren’t there and hearing things that aren’t there, so what I wanted to do was make sure that everything was witnessed from Tommy’s point of view. In fact, I never cut to an angle that Tommy couldn’t see.
Yeah, when I first wrote about the film, I’d only seen it once and was sure of that, but for some reason, not 100% sure.
Well I broke that rule once because I figured that if I didn’t show what happens to a particular character, everyone would think he was going to come back at the end.
I’m totally crazy about Aneurin’s performance as Tommy. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, really – you captured so many great shots of him inhabiting the role so totally that I even remember his body language in those seemingly endless shots of Tommy pushing the baby carriage through the projects.
Yes, I’ll always remember young fathers pushing baby carriages in the working class neighbourhood I grew up in. This is why it was so important to cast someone very young – someone in his late teens or very early twenties. The problem with that, though, is so many actors in that age range are so extroverted, confident and good-looking that many of them have a hard time carrying themselves the way they need to since they themselves haven’t had times in their lives to experience failure.
So how did you guys work together? How did he prepare?
Well, as it turns out, Aneurin had similar experiences as a teen with constantly being bullied, so he understood Tommy very well in addition to attending group sessions specifically with agoraphobics. It was great, really. Aneurin and I had developed a short hand about things like what would be going through your mind if you were anxious or paranoid.
I recently talked to William Friedkin about the intensity of the performances in Killer Joe (2011). He went into a lot of detail about using sense memory with his actors, and I’m like, ‘Whoa!’. Sense memory is, to my way of thinking, potentially a dangerous place to go – even for professional actors. Then again, ‘Danger’ is Friedkin’s middle name. You and Aneurin, on the other hand, had some mega-sense-memory going on – so much so that it’s in body language where it really pays off.
When I was in film school I was lucky to have access to a counsellor. One thing I’ll always remember is when she talked about body language. She said that when you’re scared, your body says you’re scared, but if you walk through the worst area imaginable and look like you know where you’re going, the thugs, the street predators don’t see you. What they see is fear. I remembered that and thought, so what if there was a creature that was blind, but could see fear? That was the original predator I sketched out in the early versions of the story. That’s what really began that weird fusion of escapist films I love, the iconography and the experience I grew up with.
Well, it takes a lot – and I mean a lot to scare me when I’m watching horror movies. The constant tension inherent in both the mise en scène and the performances contributed to a movie that frankly scared the living shit out of me.
I do think that the entire shoot contributed to that also. The shooting was chaotic. Locations would be lost at the last minute and new ones found that I’d not even seen before going on set – everyone was anxious. There was not a lot of time to do many takes and we had to do everything possible to keep up the pace of shooting five pages a day. In the mornings, we’d all be in the zone – a totally paranoid state because none of us ever had time to get down from it. The tension was there morning, noon and night. It really affected everything. The thing that was scaring me to death was continuity. Shooting in Glasgow, snow fell when we least expected it. We’d shot a good chunk with no snow, but luckily we were at a point where it was relatively easy to come up with the notion that it snows overnight while Tommy is sleeping. Oh, and with all the snow – Glasgow is a hilly city and often the ice made it useless to get the trucks to some of the locations.
I can understand the positive effect this would have in terms of capturing what you needed to, but how do you practically get through all this?
Your crutch is your storyboard and it’s always your storyboard that gives you this sense of confidence that if you shoot what’s on the page it will make sense in the edit. When certain locations became inaccessible and we had to change them, I’d often have to throw storyboards out of the window and that was scary. When I started to see the rushes, it was a great boost to my self-confidence.
I’ve had the good fortune to work with many filmmakers who do use storyboards and just the process of creating them and knowing all the shots needed to piece the film together effectively was always helpful when they invariably needed to be tossed. Storyboards are springboards you can use to launch yourself into uncharted territory.
Absolutely, even throwing them away, they still had a use. I remember thinking about Citadel as being a dark, twisted version of Dumbo (1941) with Tommy as our baby elephant who meets a mentor character who gives him a feather, a placebo, and it’s a crutch. Furthermore, even for myself as a director, I’d use the character of Tommy as that feather and the storyboards have a similar placebo effect. I held them so close to my chest and they were my placebos to shoot the film. If I’d gone in without them it would have been a disaster. I actually learned to enjoy going on set not knowing what the location was, winging it, but sticking to the rules of the story and the approach to visuals that the storyboards helped me design.
What’s your first truly indelible movie experience? Were there any movie epiphanies?
Without question it would be the first movie I was taken to, Return of the Jedi when I was five years old in 1985. It was a mind-expanding moment, I loved the idea of being transported to a place I could never see. I was raised on Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, Verhoeven and genre in general – being transported to worlds that didn’t exist. I was 13, though, when I realized it wasn’t enough to just visit other worlds you couldn’t visit. I got this sense of wonder from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) where I started to ask, ‘Why do I feel like watching this movie?’ It was then that I decided I really wanted to make films. It was feeling empathy with the character. Whether awe, horror, terror, wonder, humour, sadness, catharsis – every emotion I had watching that and other great movies expanded through character. The more real it feels, the more empathy I had for the character. It heightens everything. Being a geek at heart, I of course wanted to make horror, science fiction and fantasy movies.
The dystopian vision of Citadel brought me back to the 70s. I’ve got a couple of decades on you, so my childhood and teen epiphanies occurred in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. Even though your film has a contemporary and only ever-so-slightly futuristic reality, there was something about the squalor of the setting and the terrible beauty of Citadel’s exquisite rawness that kept bringing me back to a bizarre reverse image of this chilling terror I experienced when I first saw George Lucas’s THX-1138 (1971).
Every single one of those 60s and 70s films had an effect on me. Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) and The Omen (1976). When contemporary filmmakers remake films from that period, the new versions have a slick sense of production value that is rooted in the here and now, which makes them less scary. It’s the raw qualities of the 60s and 70s that made everything more real and hence scarier. I think I also always knew my first film would be low-budget – and the low budget was actually going to be essential to capturing those raw, realistic qualities that make genre films so scary.
It’s somehow a time when movies mattered. It’s nice to see movies like Citadel to keep reminding us that they still matter.
If anything, I’d have to say that the 70s are my favourite decade for horror movies.
Interview by Greg Klymkiw