Zoe Kavanagh on the battle to bring ‘Demon Hunter’ to screen
The Irish director's determination has paid off, with accolades and a big-screen release for her feature debut
This nation’s goth, gaming and gore communities – you know, the three Gs – will likely have chanced upon the work (or possibly person) of Zoe Kavanagh before.
Aged 30, she has established a reputation as the go-to director for all things gloomy, having authored stylish music videos for Bradford doom-metal legends My Dying Bride, Swedish prog-metallers Khoma, dark wave Canadians The Birthday Massacre and Dutch electronica pioneers Clan of Xymox.
“Clan of Xymox hadn’t really made a video in a very long time,” says the suitably raven-haired Kavanagh.
“So they really took a chance with me. And now we’re going over to Germany next month to make a second. It’s a great way to flex your muscles as a director and storyteller.
'I wanted to take a real-life tragic situation and make a horror film out of it'
"I’m currently making one for zhOra [the Tipperary sludge-metal act who will represent Ireland at the Bloodstock festival in August] set hundreds of years ago on a different planet, when these cannibal villagers meets this Prometheus figure. If you have an idea – no matter how crazy – we have the technology to make it there and then. And there’s no reason for it to cost more than a couple of grand.”
Her latest short film, a twisted, transgender, horror-themed reworking of Cinderella called Wounded Ella, played as part of last’s month’s selections at the increasingly influential Dún Laoghaire-based Underground Cinema programme.
“I wanted to take a real-life tragic situation and make a horror film out of it,” she says.
“Because it is horrific that some transgender people have no support from their family, or they live in a bad area, and they are afraid to leave home. And transgender people are usually horribly stereotyped in media. I guess I wanted to leave that behind, too.”
Wounded Ella has nothing on the true-life Cinderella story that sees Demon Hunter – Kavanagh’s debut feature – open in multiplexes this week. A wildly ambitious, ass-kicking, emo-flavoured Buffy that harks back to such sky-high concept actioners as The Crow and Army of Darkness, the film was initially inspired by the band of the same name and has been almost 10 years in the making.
“In 2008, I made a short film which was not very good,” says Kavanagh. “I was just experimenting on a camera and a computer. But I liked the character and I knew I was onto something with a female superhero.”
Teaming up with her regular writing partner Tony Flynn, the young filmmaker expanded the universe around her devil-slaying protagonist, Taryn Baker (named, perhaps unsurprisingly, after fantasy writer, Clive Barker).
“We wrote Demon Hunter: Retribution which was too big and too crazy ambitious. But I still wanted to be able to do something with this character, so I worked backwards. I came up with a web series.
"Half of my movie is six parts of the web series that Tony and me wrote. We shopped that around. We didn’t even get a single reply from people. So I thought: ‘Okay, well, no one cares about web series so how about a feature?’ So then I wrote an 85-page script.
“That passed through different production companies. We heard ‘no’ a lot. Lots didn’t bother to reply at all. At least a dozen outright ‘no’s. And there was even a moment that I was almost kicked off my own project before Tony explained to them that I own the characters. They wanted to make the movie without me. That was kind of funny.”
Bloody (not literally, of course), but unbowed, Kavanagh approached the film board for development money. When that earned yet another “no”, she resorted to self-funding. In 2013, she shot half the film with €18,000 of her own money.
By September 2014, having spent months working on set design with Lilla Nurie, not to mention another €11,000 of her own savings and an additional €10,000 loan, Demon Hunter was back in production.
“And then our lead actress pulled out two weeks before we were due to shoot,” smiles the director. “So I had to recast. It was panic stations. Luckily, I had some shots of the back of her head I could still use. The loan was approved. Everything was in place. The sets were built and dressed. The costumes were measured. The locations were booked. So we advertised for a lead actress. We got thousands of people. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t go through them all.”
Enter Niamh Hogan, an actor with a BA in Drama and Film from Trinity College, credits with Ofegus Theatre, the Dublin and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, and, crucially, a third-degree black belt in Shotokan karate, 15 WSKF Irish national kata championship titles, and gold and silver medals from the recent World Championships in Japan.
“Niamh just dropped right into it,” says Kavanagh. “She’s done a lot of stunt training with Jonathan East on Vikings. I didn’t have to tell her what to do. She knew exactly what was needed.”
And then came a two-year post-production slog: grading, special effects, additional fight choreography and still more personal savings.
“I just worked all hours,” says the director. “I did a lot of visual effects myself. The harder stuff I gave to a pro. But stuff like green screen and flash I studied on my own. I think it’s pretty solid. We applied for completion funds and received an email saying that they only support films with a chance of film festival and theatrical distribution.”
Oops. To date, Demon Hunter, the first part of a proposed trilogy and the movie your inner 15-year-old really needs to see, has won 15 awards internationally, including Best Director, Best Soundtrack and Best Feature at Fright Fest USA, and Best Director at Horrorhound (one of the US’s largest genre conventions).
'People don’t realise when they tell me I can’t do something, I’ll do it anyway'
The film has been acquired for distribution by Left Films in the UK – it opens there this week – and has been picked up in the US by Wild Eye Releasing; it opens there in August.
“It’s been tough and I’m in a bit of debt,” says Kavanagh. “But in Denmark, we won best action film; in the UK best editing. And the most important thing was to get the film made. I have two more features planned and I’m writing a Demon Hunter novel.
“Hopefully, in time, we’ll be able to expand her world. I feel like her hidden world of battling demons is a good analogy for getting the film made. Luckily, people don’t realise when they tell me I can’t do something, I’ll do it anyway.”
- Demon Hunter is in cinemas from June 6th through Left Films. Read our review here