People can become so distressed after surviving a traumatizing experience that they lose all faith in humanity and the will to live. But their need to protect their loved ones from experiencing the same fate can become so overpowering that they’re driven to do whatever it takes to save their lives. This is certainly the case with the main character, Tommy Cowley, in the new Irish horror thriller ‘Citadel,’ which will be released in select theaters on Friday. Tommy suffers from such extreme, continued agoraphobia after witnessing an unprovoked attack on his wife that he’s emotionally forced to consider how he’ll protect their newborn daughter.
‘Citadel’ follows Tommy (played by Aneurin Barnard), who lives a quiet life in a decaying apartment complex with his pregnant wife, Joanne (portrayed by Amy Shiels). On the day they’re set to move out, Joanne is fatally attacked by a group of feral children. Tommy becomes so traumatized by the events that he locks himself and their newborn daughter in his new flat in the dilapidated suburb of Edenstown.
Tommy soon finds himself terrorized by the same group of children, who are determined to take his daughter. He seeks the help of an understanding nurse, Marie (played by Wunmi Mosaku), and a vigilante priest (portrayed by James Cosmo), to free himself of his fears, and once again enter the place he fears the most-the abandoned tower block known as the Citadel that used to be his home.
Filmmaker Ciaran Foy, who made his feature film writing and directing debut with the horror thriller, generously took the time to sit down with us recently in New York City to discuss the movie. Among other things, the filmmaker spoke about where he came up with the inspiration for ‘Citadel,’ how having a limited budget and short shooting schedule place restrictions on what he could shoot for the film and how he reacted when he heard he won the Midnighter Audience Award at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival.
ShockYa (SY): You directed and wrote the screenplay for ‘Citadel.’ Where did you come up with the idea for the story?
Ciaran Foy (CF): The film is something I describe as a half psychological horror, half autobiography. When I was 18, I was the victim of a vicious and unprovoked attack by a gang of youths. It left me with a condition known as agoraphobia, which the main character suffers from in the movie. So it was kind of my struggles with that, and my battles with agoraphobia, and my eventual recovery from that trauma. My struggles, mixed with my nightmares and how I saw the world as a frightened 18-year-old, was really where it began.
SY: Did you mainly draw on your own experiences when you were writing the script, or did you do any kind of research as well?
CF: Well, it was mainly drawing on my own experiences, and when I was getting help for my agoraphobia. When I was at film school, there was a free counselor that I would see once a week. A lot of the stuff that she would say ended up being the catalyst for the movie.
Like we were talking about body language one day. She was saying when you’re afraid, you’re body says you’re afraid. It’s as if these street predators can see your fear. So you can walk down the worst area that you can image, but if you look like you known where you’re going, they don’t see you. I just thought that was a really creepy concept.
I was like, what if that was literally the case? What if there’s a creature that was blind, but who could see fear? So a lot of it came from that.
I did a little bit of research in that I met with people who suffer from chronic agoraphobia. Those kind of people have not left their house in 30 years. That was a real eye-opener, in that it’s a debilitating and completely irrational fear. So there was a bit of that.
The area where the movie takes place is pretty much a nightmarish collage of where I grew up. So I would say a vast majority of it is spearheaded by stuff I’ve seen or gone through.
SY: Did you base the location of the film on your hometown in Ireland, or was it a mix of areas?
CF: It was a mix of different areas, but all where I grew up. So basically where I lived. I come from a working class neighborhood, and there was a worse area than where I lived. It was a bit of where I lived, and that area.
One of the reasons we shot the film in Glasgow, Scotland was because there isn’t a high-rise in Dublin anymore. Glasgow has a sea of them on the horizon. So, like I said, it was kind of a nightmarish collage of the various neighborhoods I grew up beside.
SY: Even though the film is set in Ireland, and shot in Glasgow, like you mentioned, do you think audiences worldwide can relate to Tommy’s initial fear of being attacked again?
CF: That’s only something that I’m just discovering with the movie. We premiered the movie at SXSW back in March, and that was the first time I had seen it with an audience. We literally just finished it in time to get it into the festival.
Since it is quite personal, I always thought, if this works at home, I’d be happy. I made it for the 18-year-old inside me. So if it works at home, good job done.
So it’s really surprised me that as I traveled the world with it since March, I’ve been to South Korea and all of Europe and Canada and the U.S. Wherever I go, people respond to it. It’s making me realize that it does have a universal appeal and fears.
I think in many respects, where it’s set, there’s nothing particularly Irish or British about it. You have these working class counselor sites littered all over England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. I don’t know much about the projects over here (in the U.S.). But in many places, they’re faceless places that can be anywhere. The journey of the main character is something that many people relate to.
SY: How have audiences been reacting to ‘Citadel’ so far, not only at SXSW, but also at the advance screenings of the film? Have you been receiving positive reactions?
CF: Again, it’s really weird. Wherever I go with the movie, there’s a slightly different reaction. For some bizarre reason, every North American screening I’ve had, there’s a scene where Tommy gets into a fight with the children, and he slices the throat of one of the feral kids. There’s a rapturous cheer. I don’t get that anywhere else in the world.
In South Korea, for example, they react to more subtle moments, it’s weird. In one scene, Tommy’s going down the stairs, and he hears something and turns around. The latch on the front door is moving. The whole audience goes, ohhh. When the syringe is on the ground, ohhh. I don’t get that anywhere else in the world. So it’s weird to get the different reactions.
At home, the priest character gets a lot of laughs. What I realized is seeing it play at home versus around the world is that he’s got a very Irish sense of humor. Sometimes it translates, and other times it doesn’t. So it’s been really interesting for me as a film fan first and a filmmaker second is to see how movies are perceived in different parts of the world. I’d love to see if it’s the same with Batman, and if people react to different things. It’s quite interesting.
SY: Speaking of SXSW, like you mentioned earlier, ‘Citadel’ won the Midnighter Audience Award at this year’s festival. What was your reaction when you found out not only the film was playing at SXSW, but it also won the award?
CF: I was thrilled that it was going to play there, because it’s obviously a well-known festival. When I had seen what types of movies I was up against in the Midnighter’s category, big films like ‘(REC) 3,’ it wasn’t a case of maybe we’ll get the Audience Award. It was like, no, I’m just really happy to be here. I generally was, and had an amazing time in Austin.
I had left before the end. It was my wife’s first time being in the States, and had never been to New York before. I’ve been here a number of times, so we spent two days at the very end in New York.
I was actually crossing the Brooklyn Bridge when I got the phone call to say we won the audience award. At the exact same time, it sounds bizarre, there was this sea of people in green, dressed in leprechaun outfits. I didn’t realize that it was St. Patrick’s Day-I had completely forgotten. I was like, what is going on? I was on the phone, with this crowd of green people coming towards me. (laughs)
It was really surreal to find that out. It was something that I honestly didn’t expect. When you think of an audience award, you always think of films by Peter Jackson, where you can join in and yell every few minutes. ‘Citadel’ is not that, it’s quite a quiet, psychological film. So to get the stamp of approval from people meant more to me than any jury award, so it was really cool.
SY: Besides writing the script for the film, you also directed ‘Citadel.’ When you were writing the screenplay, was it always your intention to helm the movie as well?
CF: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a director first and foremost. I sort of write to direct. So at many points I felt that I wanted to direct a feature, and it was going to be based off my own experiences, so I ought to write it.
SY: Did writing the script help you with your directorial duties once you began shooting the film?
CF: Yeah, it does. In some ways what I learned from this movie was that you have to divorce yourself at a certain point. If you have two people on set, a director and a writer, and the director wants to change a scene, or the actor has a new idea on how to say a certain line, the writer would be going crazy on set. They’re like, don’t touch the script, it’s perfect. I found that on set, I would feel like Gollum from ‘Lord of the Rings,’ or something, battling the writer and the director. Eventually, I would go, the writer can go away, and I’ve got to direct it now.
James (Cosmo), for example, who played the priest, had a lot of cool ideas for how he would deliver things, or how he would change lines. Initially, I was resistant to that. But the more I embraced it, I was thinking, this is actually helping. I think it’s important to separate the two.
SY: Did the actors do any improv on the set? Did you take any suggestions from them?
CF: Yeah, there was a little bit. There was only 23 days to shoot the film, so it was pretty much a military operation. We were just trying to get it in the can. It was like, next set-up, next set-up. We could only do three takes, and then move on. We didn’t have enough time or the room to try complete improv.
Any suggestions that people had were usually just before we’d shoot the scene. It was like, what if I’d do this instead? James, like I said, had a new suggestion all the time. Many times, they were really good suggestions.
For example, I had a lot more exposition, like in the scene where the priest makes plastic explosives. I had a scene, which is still in the movie, where Tommy asks him, how did you learn how to do this? Originally, the priest went on this spiel that he used to be IRA (Irish Republican Army), and then he found God, and all this history.
Then James goes, I have a suggestion, I want to get rid of all of that, and just say, past life. I was like, what? You spend pages writing something, and you’re like, no. But he was right, it’s so much cleaner, and it makes you think. But that’s how people wonder. Maybe he just read it online, or maybe he is ex-IRA or is a crazy guy. It’s much more interesting than saying, this is how I know how to do that. He had suggestions all the time that improved the script.
SY: Since ‘Citadel’ was filmed on a limited budget, and had a short shooting schedule, like you mentioned, did that pose any challenges on what you could shoot and include in the film?
CF: It was completely chaotic, because we were shooting a week before snow fell. It never snows in November in Glasgow. We had one day off a week, and we shot the film six days a week. The day off, the skies opened, and the snow was dumped on the ground.
It looked like a Christmas postcard, and we were going after palates of gray and concrete. I was like, this is the worst thing that could happen. It wasn’t until the edit until I actually realized this added a nice feeling of isolation to the film. But what it did on a practical level was that Glasgow is quite hilly, and because of the ice, our locations became inaccessible.
So sometimes we would be finding a location the evening before we had to shoot there the next day. As a first time feature maker, your crutch is your storyboard. It’s like, at the very list, if I shoot this, it’s going to make some semblance of sense. When you suddenly start losing locations, you have to deviate from the storyboard, which is absolutely terrifying.
But it was the best thing that could have happened to me. As I began to watch the dailies, it was like this big confidence boost, like I can actually do this, and let go of the handle bars. So it was the worst thing at the time, but ultimately I think the snow was a secret blessing in disguise.
SY: Do you have any upcoming projects, whether writing and/or directing, lined up that you can discuss?
CF: Sure. I’ve got one that I was saying the name of, but the producers I’m working with slapped my wrists, and told me not to say the name of it. We have the announcement soon.
I’ve just been attached to a pretty big science-fiction film that I’m going to re-write the draft of the presently existing script. The aim is to shoot it at the end of next year. It’s set in a futuristic New York. That’s all I can say.
Written by: Karen Benardelo