GORE IN THE STORE
INTERVIEWS FILM BLU-RAY DVD & BOOK REVIEWS
Filmmaker Lee Cronin’s directorial feature debut THE HOLE IN THE GROUND centres on mother Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) and her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey). Trying to put an unhappy past behind her and build a new life on the fringes of a backwood rural town, any hope of peace for Sarah is short lived. After Chris disappears one night and following an unsettling encounter with her neighbour, she starts asking whether the disturbing changes in Chris are linked to a sinkhole in the forest that borders their home.
In conversation with FrightFest, Cronin discussed his attraction to horror and his immediate intentions as a storyteller. He also spoke about the influence of real world fears and the unbelievability of reality, and his continued interest the domestic.
FrightFest: As a writer you could have gone down either the literary or the cinematic route, so why the latter?
It’s funny, because in the process of trying to get my first feature film made, there were times when I thought: ‘Why am I going through all this hassle? Why don’t I just write a book and tell my stories another way?’
… I am the youngest in my family by about nine years and I was heavily influenced by quite intense horror movies at a very young age. So when I was seven or eight years old, my siblings were at that fourteen and fifteen stage, hunting out horror movies and of course letting their little brother watch things he shouldn’t watch. I saw THE SHINING, JAWS and POLTERGEIST, and my father actually showed me THE EVIL DEAD and THE EVIL DEAD 2 when I was around nine years old. And because horror is such a visual medium, I think it just really stuck in my mind that that was the way to tell a story.
What’s interesting moving forward is I’m not necessarily defining myself as a horror filmmaker; it’s the tools that come with those horror movies that interest me, in terms of telling mysteries, tall tales and tension filled stories. Again, I think why I’ve chosen the cinematic medium is that the horror space, that thing that got under my skin so early and the visual moments that stuck out to me, like Ben Gardner’s head popping out of the hull of the boat in JAWS, was the first time I remember being scared. I’m sure I was scared at other times in my life, but it was the first time I was scared by a piece of entertainment. And all of those moments that stuck out for me, including the hag in room 237 getting out of the bath [in THE SHINING], they’re all visually driven moments that defined how you tell a story. I’m guessing, just dipping into my own mind now to that answer that question, that’s where it came from.
FrightFest: If we find ourselves drawn to a particular type of story when we’re young, does a compulsion form to want to try to do it for ourselves?
Couldn’t agree more, and I don’t think there’s any escape from your influences. I can appreciate so much contemporary cinema, but I don’t think I can turn around tomorrow and direct a movie like Yorgos Lanthimos just because I like it. … Whatever becomes insidious and gets under your skin when you’re young, I think it sticks. And those years when I finally started to understand movies and entertainment, I wasn’t watching BAMBI and FANTASIA, I was watching movies like THE SHINING and POLTERGEIST [laughs].
… Around that age I would always be trying to create homemade interactive horror experiences. I’d be trying to turn my hall, stairs and landing into some form of ghost house or ghost train - I was always intrigued by the element of surprise. Yet, I would say moving on in my life, it just so happens that maybe seven of my top ten movies are horror, but when you spread that list out to thirty or fifty, that seven might only grow to ten in the horror genre, so it’s a strange one.
FrightFest: The visceral reaction that horror like comedy provokes could be perceived as tapping into the natural human instinct to please. Whether a terrifying or delightful experience, the role of a storyteller is a privileged one - creating a pleasurable experience that evokes emotional responses and a shared emotional experience.
… I love the idea of not scaring people so that they feel horror or terror, but it’s the ability to move them in any direction that I think is a great power. What I’ve realised in the past five weeks since the film premiered at Sundance, and this isn’t necessarily forever, but right now as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, my goal is that I want to put people in a dark room, and I want to move their asses closer to the edge of that seat. So whatever stories I mine or I find, or I develop, I am always looking for that little golden ticket that allows for me to do that. And where that comes from as you say, a willingness to please, is probably true because my own personality outside of creating horror is usually fairly buoyant if I am in a social situation. I tend to try to entertain and again, being the youngest in my family you take on the role of the clown very quickly.
FrightFest: It’s a commitment to make a film, requiring you to give up a period of your life, that requires everyone to believe in it if the audience are to do so. What compelled you to believe in this film and decide to tell this story at this particular point in time?
… The film itself was not a light bulb moment; it was definitely a developmental process around a number of things that were circling. I suppose the fantastical thing that captured my imagination was the story about a man in Florida, who was in his armchair in his sitting room, and a small sink hole opened up right beneath his chair. He fell underground and they were unable to rescue him, and I just thought that was a fantastical version of crossing the road at the wrong time, and getting hit by the bus. Just the level of bad luck for something like that to happen, it was real, but felt so unbelievable, and so the sink hole notion and topic captured my imagination.
I’m also driven by that fear of crossing the road and maybe being hit by the bus. Not that it drives me, but it’s those real world things that terrify me. So I had this idea and from that I had the title that grew from there called THE HOLE IN THE GROUND. I thought it was big and brazen, and at the same time I was developing this idea about a mistrust that builds up between a mother and son, and afterwards their lives are shaken up. That probably came from quite a personal place, and the redefinition of relationships.
What’s interesting is when you face trauma in a family, you do come out on the other side changed, and sometimes you need to re-discover those relationships. So I was exploring that at the same time, and slowly it just all started to come together in this one story. I felt rather than the sink hole being a small part, I loved the idea of this enormous object in the centre of this tiny family units life, and what it might actually do and the damage it could cause. I just found that extraordinarily interesting, and that process probably took around a year.
… I remember my producer saying to me during that year I was trying to find this story that I couldn’t escape, going down so many blind alleys: “Dude, are you sure you want to stick with this because you are going to have to live with this for the next four or five years of your life.” And I don’t know why I said yes, but there was something in there that told me to stick with it. Ultimately, that was probably the characters - the mother son relationship, and the mother as a gentle hero that I wanted to create, because everything else can change from a plot function point of view.
FrightFest: In horror, the characters can become lost in the shadow of the tone of the piece, and yet that tone emerges through the characters. In editing THE HOLE IN THE GROUND, did you encounter tonal shifts where the intent to make a scene suspenseful for example, was transformed by the performances into something more subtle, sensitive or emotional?
… You can only work with what you have, so it’s always there somewhere in the minefield of what you’ve captured. But when you do go into that edit, what you’re usually worried about in the first place is whether the story works. Not that you’re not paying attention to your characters, but that finesse comes a little later. What I did find through the performances was that both the leads gave me such subtlety that I found myself being able to linger. That was probably the key thing - I was able to linger longer with their faces and with the emotion that was coming from that situation than I ever expected. So the first cut of the film probably had a little less than that, and then you gain confidence as you dig a little deeper and you see that the story is working. Particularly with Shauna, I was able to look at her and say: “I don’t need to hang around here.” But that journey began late script stage when I cast her, and I realised her ability to say so much without saying anything. I actually started to cut dialogue; I cut about 30% out of the screenplay before we shot it, and I was continually dropping lines. So I think there was an evolution from before we shot it, but it is truly seen through once you get into that edit suite, and you get your first six weeks under the belt and see what you have.
FrightFest: Films can be compared to dreams, and like dreams what they mean on the narrative and visual surface is a misconception. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is about the fear and anxiety of opening ourselves up, and giving ourselves over to our loved ones emotionally and/or physically. It is an act of faith and trust that we build our relationships with, and so this film is less about scares or terror, and more about a human anxiety that is nothing to do with horror, but is amplified or put through the prism of the genre.
… Beyond even the level of if you have a kid then this is scary, I was trying to dig deeper into that idea of if you have that moment of mistrust, or if trust is broken with anybody close to you. The example I would use, which again is something that would terrify me in the real world, and everybody has had this kind of experience, is somebody that you know and love, let’s say it’s a partner. You’re a year and a half into your relationship and you’ve had the natural ups and downs, and then you have that one level of an argument that you’ve never had before, and you see that person crack in a way that you have never seen them crack before. You see a flicker in their eye for that one brief moment, and you go: “I don’t know who the fuck you are!” And I’ve had those experiences maybe ten times in my life, both with family and romantic partners. You can get over it and move on, but there’s that moment where you see a little deeper into someone’s soul, and you realise that you maybe don’t know who they are.
That scares the living shit out of me because what it kind of suggests is that we are are ultimately all a little bit on our own. Then the hope I pull from that is the faith you have to continue with those relationships, and that’s a little bit of what Sara is. Despite her fear, she keeps on moving forward to seek some kind of truth, and doubts will always remain and cracks form in relationships, and they don’t always truly heal. But the strength of being a person is your ability to move forward in spite of those fears and those weaknesses.
Bringing it even a little bit further back, with any horror idea I have, the horror is just part of the scaffolding. What I am always looking for is that really basic thing. So my first horror short I made was called THROUGH THE NIGHT, about a couple in bed. It’s just set in a room and we have no real context, and the woman keeps waking up and acting strange. There’s distance between them in the bed and the guy is paying very little heed to what her problem is, and he gets his comeuppance in the end. The idea with that from very early on was very simple, which was I thought people of a certain age have shared a bed with another human, and do we really know who we lie down beside at night? So I think I am continually exploring the horror that comes from domestic circumstance. Where that comes from I don’t know because I enjoy my home life and relationships, but it’s interesting to explore the fears that can still linger when you lie down at night on your own, and close your eyes.
THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is releases in cinemas across the UK and Ireland on 1st March 2019 from Vertigo Releasing and Wildcard Distribution.
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