WRITTEN BY CLARE BRUNTON
Vivarium Q&A at the London Film Festival 2019 with Director and Co-Writer Lorcan Finnegan, Co-writer Garret Shanley and Actors Imogen Poots and Jonathan Aris.
Comments have been mildly edited for clarity, and contain mild spoilers for the film. (One question contains the ending of the film)
Lorcan, this film shares some similarities one one of your previous short films, Foxes. Was Vivarium always intended to be an extension of the short?
LF: We made Foxes in 2011, and it was set in a ghost estate, these abandoned housing developments that were a result of the socio-economic crash in Ireland. Foxes was much more of a supernatural story but I think there were themes and ideas that we were interested in that we weren’t quite finished with. We wanted to do a bigger extension in much more of a sci-fi, abstract, surreal kind of way.
Garret, how did you develop the ideas in Foxes and how did they develop in to Vivarium?
GS: Foxes (you can watch it on Youtube) was people separated from a sense of community and separated from nature and the results of that. Taking it to a fairytale level and amplifying it, to show how people relate to nature by removing them from nature. Both films are looking at houses and estates and how we’ve chosen to live our lives separate to nature, with no relation to nature.
Imogen and Jonathan, when you first read the script, what was it about this story that attracted your attention?
IP: I thought it was so unique and deeply strange. I saw immediately it could work on many levels. It could be a very compelling story looking at the ghost estates and the housing crisis in Ireland and these unfinished estates where you’re essentially living alone. Aside from that, it was really the idea of motherhood that I found interesting, and the gender roles assigned to the characters in this realm. All of these things were highly relevant and potent. Then Jesse Eisenberg came on board as well as Jonathan, so it was just sort of a dream team.
JA: I thought the story was brilliantly compelling to read, but I approached it from the prism of playing this bizarre character. I found that such a unique challenge really, as you rarely get to play someone that odd. Performing it was equally crazy as I just got to turn up a few times and be odd in front of Imogen and Jesse and watch them react with ‘What an earth is this guy doing?’ very much as actors as well as characters. I didn’t really know either, so it was a unique experience, but a great film.
How did Jesse Eisenberg come to be involved in the project and what was it like working with him?
LF: We cast Imogen first as it’s basically Gemma’s story, and Imogen and I sat down and started thinking about who we would get to play the guy. Imogen actually suggested Jesse and I thought, that’s really interesting, that could totally work. I went out and made a quick call to the producers to see if it worked with our financing plan and all that and they were like yes, definitely. So I went back in and said do it, as Imogen knew Jesse. She literally fired him the script on her phone there and then and he read it in like two days or something. He loved it, he really responded well to it, I think Imogen kind of knew he would dig in to the strange story.
IP: Definitely, he was so incredible in the film. I do think it’s rare unfortunately, to find a male actor who’s willing to essentially play second fiddle in terms of the page count of the script, and he was totally game. He just wants to be a part of cool things and support women, which is great.
LF: Totally, he even slashed loads of his own dialogue, he was like ‘I don’t need to say any of that, it’s fine.’
How did you get that almost demonic performance out of the kid actor (Senan Jennings) in the film?
LF: He’s an actual demon, he was summoned. Nah, he’s brilliant, he was only 7 when we shot it, we saw a lot of kids, most of them couldn’t really relate to the character and understand. Senan actually read it, the whole script and he totally got it. He sent in a self tape and that was pretty bloody good, and then he sent in another one where he even did the whole rolling his eyes back and did the scream. We were like holy shit. So it was trying to match everyone else with him really, as he was the trickiest person to cast. He loved filming it, you’d be holding him back and then ‘let him act’ and he’d run on set and do his thing. His parents weren’t pushy, his mum was so normal, she was like ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with him’.
The production design is so striking, what did you intend with that?
LF: Even in the script from the very early stage, the house was described as being a little bit like René Magritte’s Empire of Light painting, there’s no wind, there’s no rain, the clouds are super still and odd. We did some tests very early on before anyone was involved to see the full cg drive through of the place, testing it’s scale, distance and all that kind of stuff. When we got in to prep production designer Phillip Murphy and I went through it all and he found some genius ways of reusing parts. We ended up building 3 exterior houses in a warehouse in Belgium and then using that as basically everything. We shot in the evenings, effects supervisor Peter Hjorth shot plates so we could extend the scene and therefore the environment. We used CGI to create a set that was exactly the same as our actual set for extensions, and then 2D matte paintings. The green colour of the houses, came about by reading a lot about colour theory and its effect psychologically on an audience. Green is a really interesting colour as in nature it can have a really lovely feel, but when you completely eradicate nature from the picture it can take on this kind of toxic waste, poisonous colour. It also bounces light back on the actors faces and gives them a green cast of skin tone which made them look sicker the longer they were there.
You mentioned Magritte already, but did you have any other points of reference when you were making the film?
LF: You kind of back pedal in to those things as it took a long time to get the film running. But there were things like Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, Todd Hayne’s film Safe, there was The Quiet Earth, Red Desert, Roy Anderson in terms of the lighting and the artificial.
GS: There’s a good British tradition of getting the familiar and making it really scary, changing the context. So you’d have a train station or a house with two kids living in and it’s just made terrifying and you’re not really sure why.
LF: There is something interesting in making the normal feel abnormal and kind of terrifying.
Where exactly did the lizard people idea originate?
LF: They were inspired by the brood parasite, the European Cuckoo, and it’s lifecycle. They rattle like magpies. There’s a David Attenborough documentary and it’s really interesting, but I remember when we were watching it again we were like ‘Jesus’. We were also at the time thinking about an original monster for nowadays like how Godzilla was the atomic bomb and the Daleks were Nazis.
GS: And our monsters should be estate agents.
Lorcan with Without Name and Vivarium you’ve made two quite interesting and idiosyncratic horror-ish, sci-fi-ish films. Do you plan to stay working within the genre?
Yeah, we’re working on two new projects, one of them is a supernatural revenge thriller about fast fashion and the exploitation of the East by the West, there's a Filipino witchcraft and spontaneous combustion element to it. The other one is called Goliath and it’s a kind of dystopian dark fable, a re-imagining of the David and Goliath story but it’s about creating monsters to start wars and steal national resources.