The process of tirelessly working to secure forgiveness from a cherished individual in their life can be a highly emotional experience for many people. But once they receive absolution for the pain they unintentionally caused, their faith and conviction can be restored. That harrowing process is the main gripping source of tension in the powerful and acclaimed Irish supernatural horror film, ‘A Dark Song.’
The protagonist in the spellbinding drama, which marks the feature film writing and directorial debuts of Liam Gavin, does have relatable faults in her judgment and actions. But her determination to absolve herself of her self-described mistakes is one of the main reasons why she should be granted redemption.
‘A Dark Song‘ is set to be distributed on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.S. on Tuesday by Shout Factory, in conjunction with IFC Midnight. The home release will include such bonus features as interviews with Gavin, actor Steve Oram, actress Catherine Walker and director of photography, Cathal Watters; deleted scenes; storyboards and the theatrical trailer. The distribution of the Blu-ray and DVD, which can now be pre-ordered on Shout Factory’s official website, comes after IFC Midnight distributed the movie in select theaters, and on VOD and digital platforms, this past April.
In ‘A Dark Song,’ an unholy alliance between two damaged souls leads them on a disturbing descent into the depraved realms of black magic. A mentally and emotionally fragile mother, Sophia (Walker), is still grieving the murder of her young son, and is driven by guilt over the fact that she couldn’t protect and save him. So in a moment of desperate despair, she contacts Joseph (Oram), who’s an anti-social, alcoholic expert in the occult. Since he holds a grudge against humanity, Joseph initially dismisses Sophia as a despondent woman who can’t move on with her life after they first meet. But when she offers him a large fee to perform a ritual that would allow her to speak with her son again, he reluctantly changes his mind.
At Joseph’s request, Sophia rents a remote, decrepit cabin in the desolate wilderness of Northern Wales. Aided by the complete isolation, the two begin a grueling six-month series of dark rituals that physically and psychologically test them both. Joseph cautions Sophia that if the rituals are successful, they’ll summon both angels and demons.
However, the at-times harsh spells fail to deliver significant results for the first few months. Their lack of success leads both Sophia and Joseph to begin questioning what they’re doing wrong, and they subsequently blame each other for their defeat. They must both determine whether or not they should continue with the rituals, and how their overall experiences together will impact their personalities and future.
Gavin generously took the time to discuss writing and directing ‘A Dark Song’ during an exclusive interview from his home in Ireland over Skype. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that he decided to write a supernatural horror movie that features a grieving, reclusive mother who delves into the occult, because he wanted to create a unique genre story that could be made independently on one main location. He also mentioned that he decided to cast Oram and Walker because they’re both skilled and talented in expressing their characters’ distinct emotions.
ShockYa (SY): You made your feature film writing debut on the new horror movie, ‘A Dark Song.’ What was your interest in penning a story that focuses on the occult, and what was your writing process like on the script?
Liam Gavin (LG): I had been trying to get features off the ground for 10 years. The scripts I had written had all nearly gotten made, to the extent of being weeks away from production, and then they would fall apart, due to finances. So it was a bit of a curse for awhile.
Then someone said to me, “Can you write a film that would be low budget?” So in many ways, it represented the last roll of the dice for me. If I couldn’t get this movie made, I would have had to rethink what I was doing with my life.
I’m a big fan of genre films, and the last few films I had written were horror stories. This genre is what I also mainly watch, and I had seen a documentary about Aleister Crowley, who was an occultist in the 20th century. He had a massive impact on the culture. The ritual that’s in (‘A Dark Song’) is real, and Crowley discovered it. He tried to carry it out in a house, but he became bored about halfway through and stormed out.
The house is still standing today, but it’s apparently going to be knocked down. The people who have lived there have been convinced to commit suicide or go mad, so it’s not a good house to be in. So when I read about that, it seemed like it was a location that needed a story to be made about it. I thought, there’s an idea, because everyone’s doing zombies and vampires, and no one’s doing anything new So this was my interesting, new, one location film. But it took five years to get made!
SY: In addition to penning the screenplay, you also made your feature film directorial debut on the drama. How did penning the story influence your helming approach once you began shooting? How would you describe your directorial approach on the movie?
LG: I’ve made a lot of short (films), and have won awards for them. That lead to my features always almost getting made. I worked as a storyboard artist, so when I started making this film, nearly everything was storyboarded. So I know how to plan scenes out, since that was my job.
This film is very minimal, and by the last third, there’s very few words that are spoken. I’m a fan of very big, cinematic filmmaking, as opposed to just having the actors talk. I’m a director who also writes, as opposed to a writer who also directs. When I’m planning the scripts, I’m essentially writing storyboards.
SY: Speaking of the storyboards, what do you feel they’re important for an action-driven horror movie like ‘A Dark Song?’ What was the process of creating the storyboards for this film?
LG: The process was meticulous. We had 20 days to shoot the film, which is no time at all. We shot over the course of four five-day weeks. We had so many short, little scenes. There were more scenes, but we had to cut the film down by one hour-we went from two hours and 40 minutes, down to one hour and 40 minutes.
So the storyboards were so important to making the film, because I could just say, “do that and get it done.” Since we worked in those parameters, it meant we worked very quickly. We weren’t hanging around and trying to figure things out.
When you direct, you have an idea of what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So you just have to learn how to go with the flow, and accept that it’s an organic process. So it’s a balance between the planned and organic processes.
SY: ‘A Dark Song’ was shot independently on a short schedule of 20 days, like you just mentioned. How did filming independently on such a short schedule influence the creativity, and the way you could approach making the horror movie, while you were on the set?
LG: Well, for the first hour of everyday, you have a bit of fun, but then you realize what you need to get done for the rest of the day. The schedule keeps getting tighter, and it’s like having one giant panic attack. We looked at what we had to do in 20 days, and think, is this possible? How are doing to do this?
The single biggest constraint I had was time. We had a very clear picture of what we needed, through the storyboards and rehearsals. I had a clear picture of what I wanted to achieve overall, but having to achieve that meant that we couldn’t film everything. When you end up watching a feature you directed, you look at what didn’t go right.
SY: Catherine Walker and Steve Oram star as Sophia and Joseph in the horror film. What was the casting process like for the two actors, since they’re the main two actors who are on screen, and they don’t have much contact with the outside world once they begin the rituals?
LG: At first, the film agencies that funded the movie wanted the (Joseph) character to be this warrior from the wasteland, and be a Clint Eastwood figure who rode in. But I was explicitly against that, as it wasn’t what I wanted.
The idea was to have a bloke who’s like a trainspotter. That’s a phrase we have here in Great Britain, and it describes someone who’s really interested in spotting a certain type of train. I wanted him to be that sort of character.
So I really wanted to get someone who you would see on a bus or in a pub, and is a believable character, instead of a mystic warrior from the wasteland. I kept seeing Steve in everything when we were hunting for actors. He’s also in ‘The Canal,’ which is another Irish film, and he was excellent in it. So I thought, I must cast him in the film, and with some persistence, I got him.
Catherine signed on through the Irish Film Board. We had cast someone else before Catherine, but she got spooked by the project. She thought we were actually going to be cursing ourselves, like what happened on the set of ‘The Exorcist.’ So she didn’t want to be in our film in the end, and I’m not going to force anyone to do anything they’re not comfortable doing. It is quite scary.
The Irish Film Board then said, “Take a look at Catherine-she’s been in a few films. She’s also one of Ireland’s leading theater actresses.” You can always tell if someone’s right for a role withing seconds. She’s one of those people-we could tell right away that she was perfect.
They have two very different styles of acting. Steve has these organic emotions, and Catherine’s a very precise theater actress and director, so she’s very craft-orientated. She gets her emotions out of that process, and very few actors can do that. She’s very contained in the film, but there’s still a sense of deep emotion there, which takes real skill and talent. To carry that level of focus and emotion through the whole film is amazing. She’d be able to switch the emotions on and off. When we’d finish a take, she’d go back to normal, which was unnerving.
SY: Once you cast Steve and Catherine in ‘A Dark Song,’ what was the process of working on the relationship between their characters, especially since they both have such strong personalities?
LG: We had about four or five days to rehearse together, and I really put them through it. I had come up with rough backstories for these characters, and I wrote a rough history of where they came from. I’m a firm believer that if you come across a person, they have all of this history inside of them; they’re not empty vessels.
So I feel that movie characters should also have a backstory. So I had (Steve and Catherine) fill in the stories with me; I sent them away for a day, and had them fill in the blanks on their own. They then came in the next day, and the both took turns telling us their characters’ life stories. It was really fascinating to hear how they thought their characters got to this particular point.
SY: Most the story in ‘A Dark Song’ is set in the remote house amidst the desolate wilds of Northern Wales where Sophia and Joseph perform their rituals. What was the process of finding the location where you wanted to shoot the drama? How did filming on location influence the shoot?
LG: The house in the film is an actual house that’s located in North Dublin. It’s in the middle of a housing estate. So you’ll notice that we never look out the windows, because you if you do, you’ll just see other houses and people playing football. So we also blew out the windows with lights, so it looks like there are some lights outside.
The interior of the house was also weird. We shot in July, but it was freezing in the house, so we’d have to wear coats and hats. But when we went outside, it would be 70 degrees. So we’d have to step outside to warm up. It was really bizarre.
Where we shot the exterior of the house down in Wicklow, which was about 40 miles away from where we shot the interiors. It was lovely-there was a lake there, and it was very different from the weird interior of the house.
SY: One of the most intriguing aspects of genre films is the type of music that goes along with the visual components, which helps in creating the characters and story’s emotions. What was the process of creating the score for the horror film, particularly in mixing the songs with the more natural sound design of the characters’ environment?
LG: The score was massively important to me. But we had trouble finding someone who could score the film. There were a lot of good proposals, as Ireland has a lot of really good composers. But we needed to find one who really understood what we were looking for.
I worked very closely with Ray (Harman), who we ended up deciding to be our composer. He created the score very quickly, over the course of about a week. We didn’t have test tracks, but I would list things that I wanted, like the creaking of a door, or lightening. He told me that there would have to be some musical notes, as well, or otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense!
He’d then go away and make some sense of what I wanted. We had this initial sound sorted on these tracks, and he would then go away to make the songs. I bowed my head to Ray’s wisdom on the music.
SY: The drama played at several film festivals, including Fantastic Fest and the BFI London Film Festival. What was your experience of bringing the movie on the festival circuit, and how did audiences respond to it?
LG: We first screened the movie at the Galway Film Fleadh in Ireland. That may not have been the best place for it, because it’s a drama festival, and we’re a horror film. But we got a good enough reaction, and a lot of critics liked it at the festival.
It wasn’t until I got to Fantastic Fest in Austin that I felt the movie was really embraced. I went into the theater, and knew it was a much bigger deal. I thought of this as the proper premiere, because it’s a genre festival. I remember also thinking that I should be more nervous, but I’m not sure why I wasn’t. When I left that screening, the movie was completely different, because it was then all over the press. We got a really big reaction, which took me by surprise, because I wasn’t really expecting it.
We then went to London, and got more great reactions. We then went to some of the other genre and arts festivals, and the positive reactions just kept growing, which I appreciated.