Ivan Kavanagh: ‘My family knows if something happens, I’ll use it in a film’

The Irish film-maker on his new horror, Son, and the influences behind his work

Son is Ivan Kavanagh's first American feature and second straight-up horror, and will be released on July 8th

Son is Ivan Kavanagh's first American feature and second straight-up horror, and will be released on July 8th

 

A little more than a decade ago, this writer met Eran Creevy, the talented young English director who would go on to make Welcome to the Punch with producer Ridley Scott. Creevy, who had just completed work on the rightly acclaimed Shifty – a film that was named one of Empire magazine’s best films of the year in 2008 – was gushing about the work of an up-and-coming Irish film-maker named Ivan Kavanagh.

“Have you seen Our Wonderful Home?” he asked. “It’s not like anything else.”

He was not exaggerating. It really wasn’t like anything else. At a time when most young directors set out their stall with post-Tarantino crime capers, Kavanagh had plumped for full-blown melodrama of a kind seldom produced outside of classic Hollywood.

There’s nothing wrong with melodrama. There are pure and real emotions at the heart of good melodrama

The budget was tiny, the concept anything but. The tone fell somewhere between Leave Her to Heaven and Suddenly, Last Summer. The plot, which concerned a cash-strapped father hiding his financial woes from his family, felt eerily prescient, arriving, as it did, in the months before the financial collapse of 2008.

The Fading Light, Kavanagh’s audacious 2009 follow-up, concerned a dysfunctional family gathering around their dying mother. It provided an indelible platform for such young talents as Valene Kane, Emma Eliza Regan, Henry Garrett and Patrick O’Donnell.

“I was a big fan of Douglas Sirk and Dogme 95 at the time,” says Kavanagh. “Our Wonderful Home was my cross between a Douglas Sirk movie and Julien Donkey-Boy, which I was a big fan of, and I still am. I think it’s a great movie and my favourite of those Dogme films. So that was what I had in mind. There’s nothing wrong with melodrama. There are pure and real emotions at the heart of good melodrama. And that’s what I tried to do with Our Wonderful Home and that continued into Fading Light.”

Growing up in Finglas, Kavanagh was influenced by his father’s love of classic cinema and his encyclopaedic film knowledge. Directing movies, however, was, he says, akin to wanting to be an astronaut. It wasn’t until the digital revolution, when Kavanagh took out a bank loan, bought a camera, sound-recording and editing equipment, that he began to make such innovative micro-budget features as The Solution and Tin Can Man.

Growing up in Finglas, Kavanagh was influenced by his father’s love of classic cinema and his encyclopaedic film knowledge
Growing up in Finglas, Kavanagh was influenced by his father’s love of classic cinema and his encyclopaedic film knowledge

“I was pretty apathetic at school,” he recalls. “I spent most of my time staring out the window. I was so bored. The only thing I had going for me was writing. I had one teacher who used to make me read out my stories in class, which was really encouraging. But the idea of becoming a film director was completely out of my reach. 

“I hadlooked at the application forms for the Irish Film Board. And they seemed like an awful lot of work that could be put into making the film. So I just started making films on my own. I knew I loved films and I loved making films with my friends when I was in my early teens. And then somebody saw one of my short films and said to me: you should send it to a festival. That had never occurred to me. But it won a prize at that particular festival, then things pretty much snowballed from there.”

Kavanagh, as it happened, didn’t need to knock at the door of the Irish Film Board. The board came looking for him.

“Simon Perry from the Irish Film Board was a huge figure in my life,” says the director. “He saw a film of mine called The Solution at a festival in South Africa. And out of the blue, he emailed me and called me in for a meeting. I had no idea what it was about. It could have been to tell me what a terrible film I had made and to stop making films. I didn’t know. But he said magic words to me: I loved your film; what do you want to make next? It was beautiful.”

Watching Kavanagh’s early experimental films and devastating melodramas, one might reasonably have been surprised by his shift to horror with The Canal in 2014. That unlikely swerve was partly Perry’s idea and partly organic. The surprising figure of Ingmar Bergman, Swedish master of existential despair, was also a vital influence.

“I had an uncle who showed me a lot of foreign films like [Bergman’s] Cries and Whispers,” he says. “I saw that very early. So, my taste has always been very eclectic. It’s either a film I enjoy or don’t – and I don’t differentiate between genre or arthouse. But there were things I was attracted to in The Fading Light – like the sound design and the horror of the situation – that borders on a horror film. I think Ingmar Bergman, who I am a big fan of, did that as well. And certainly there are moments straight out of horror movies in his films. Those scenes of the woman dying in Cries and Whispers are horrific, more horrific than any horror movie.”

There’s a lot of stuff about America they don’t tell you . . . things like union flips and chunks out of the budget that you haven’t made provisions for. We had natural disasters

Kavanagh is articulate about his influences, but there is nothing of the film bore about him. There is no waving of arms, no machine-gunning rants. Cries and Whispers, Bergman’s ruthless 1972 drama starring Harriet Andersson and Liv Ullmann, sounds like a founding text for the Kavanagh aesthetic. He is almost as fervent about Bergman’s later family drama Fanny and Alexander.

“Those dream sequences in Cries and Whispers are incredible, but they really are horror movieish,” he says, continuing with the theme. “There is this amazing scene in Fanny and Alexander where the evil stepfather makes Alexander sleep in the attic. And he imagines the ghost of the former dead children appearing over his head and vomiting on him. So, for me, it felt very organic slipping into the horror movie territory.

“Also, The Canal dealt with a lot of real emotions as well. It dealt with a break-up and there was a very warped misogynistic character at the heart of it. So, it felt like a very easy transition for me.”

Son is Kavanagh’s first American feature, second straight-up horror, third collaboration with cinematographer Piers McGrail, and fourth movie with producer AnneMarie Naughton, who first worked with him as a line producer on Our Wonderful Home. Genre films often arrive with horror stories attached: fans never tire of listing the many ways that The Exorcist, Poltergeist and The Crow were all cursed. Son was no different, even if most of the nightmares were logistical.

“We wanted to get that kind of pulpy road-movie feel, but when you’re making films in America, and with American producers, there’s a lot of stuff about America they don’t tell you until they get there,” says Naughton. “I mean things like union flips and SAG [the Screen Actors Guild] and chunks out of the budget that you haven’t made provisions for.”

The Mississippi setting added more woes.

“We had natural disasters,” Kavanagh says. “We had two tornadoes during the shoot. A tree was lifted out of the ground and planted down on one of the sets – which was kind of great. Because of all the union stuff, I had to rethink the scripts. I was rewriting scenes on my way to the set. But we went to the worst – but also the best – possible locations in Mississippi, the most horrendous looking, but so steeped in that atmosphere of decay. That was beautiful and perfect for the film.

“The Bible Belt. In Mississippi, religion is a living, breathing thing. Yes, they really believe in God. They really strongly believe in God and the Devil and all that stuff. But I always felt very uncomfortable. I’m an atheist. But I felt very uncomfortable sometimes, because they’re so religious.”

Drawing on the folk horror influences that informed such British classics as The Wicker Man, Son stars Halloween’s Andi Matichak as Laura, a kindergarten teacher who lives in a sleepy small town with her eight-year-old son David (Luke David Blumm from The King of Staten Island). One night she hears strange noises and is alarmed to discover an entire gang gathered around her boy. The local police (Cranston Johnson and Emile Hirsch, the latter reuniting with Kavanagh after the 2019 western Never Grow Old) aren’t convinced by her tale, but the mystery illness that strikes David down and Laura’s own past with a creepy cult raise many disturbing questions.

It’s impossible not to think about Rosemary’s Baby watching Kavanagh’s disconcerting seventh feature, but his influences were a lot closer to home.

‘We went to the worst – but also the best – possible locations in Mississippi, the most horrendous looking, but so steeped in that atmosphere of decay’
‘We went to the worst – but also the best – possible locations in Mississippi, the most horrendous looking, but so steeped in that atmosphere of decay’

“It started after the birth of my son, Sean, five years ago,” recalls the writer-director. “He had quite a difficult birth. Me and my wife were quite worried about him for the first few months of his life. But during that time, I could see how close he and my wife were becoming. I was watching that mother-and-son bond firsthand. And during those sleepless nights, I began to write down three o’clock in the morning ideas. Is there anything a mother who loved her son wouldn’t do for him? How far would you go to protect your son or to make them better if he was sick? And that was the starting point.”

He laughs: “My family know that if something happens, I’ll probably use it in a film. Yeah, but it’s there forever. My wife actually met me during the screening of The Canal in Sweden. She worked for the festival. She knew upfront what I was like and what kind of movies I make. So she only has herself to blame.”

Son is on Shudder from July 8th

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