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Interview With Ivan Kavanagh Director Of The Canal
By James W, Friday 22nd August 2014

Ivan KavanaghInfluenced by Don’t Look Now and Suspiria, Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal is a disturbing, psychological thriller that contains some incredible moments of horrific bleakness. Starring Rupert Evans the film charts a descent into madness that becomes more and more extreme as the film goes on.

We chatted to director Ivan Kavanagh ahead of its English premiere at FrightFest about this movie and what else he has planned.

HC: Where did the idea for The Canal come from?

IK: I've always loved horror films and some of my most vivid memories are of watching and being terrified by horror films as a child. Also, horror films allow you to push cinema to it's very limits, both in terms of sound and picture, almost to breaking point if you want to. You can literally do anything in terms of experimentation, especially in sound and editing, which can be very liberating for a filmmaker. So this has always attracted me to the genre. The initial idea for the film is quite difficult to talk about it, as that would give away the end of the film, which I can't do, but I will say I did always want to make a film about a cinema archivist, which I always thought would be a great subject for a film and one I hadn't seen before. They basically investigate the past for a living, and this is what our main character is doing throughout, as he tries to find out how and if the past relates to his present. Also, there's that haunting idea that everyone you see in films from early cinema is dead, so, like he says in the film, "it's like watching ghosts". This seemed to me a great starting point for a ghost story.

HC: Did it take a long time to write?

IK: It took about two years from conception to filming, which is very quick I believe.

HC: You assembled an amazing cast, Rupert Evans in particular gives an outstanding performance, how did he prepare for the role?

IK: I usually spend a lot of time casting and it took a very long time to find the right actor for the main role of David. I don't audition in the usual sense, I just like to watch their previous work and then have an informal chat to the actor. I get a sense of who they are and see if there's anything in their personalities that might suit, add to, or enrich the role. When I first talked to Rupert I knew at once he was the right actor for the part. David needed to be handsome, but also needed to have a sense of vulnerability about him too and Rupert possessed that quality. I don't know about Rupert's personal method of preparation, but he was incredibly prepared each day and willing to explore the role (which goes to some very dark places) as thoroughly as I wanted to. Another method I use, which I think may have helped Rupert, is I have the actors interviewed quite intensively in character before we begin filming. So he and all the actors, as if they are real people, will answer a series of very personal questions about their lives and they have to think on their feet and answer as their character would. This not only gives me a chance to see if they truly understand and know their characters, but also gives them a chance to know their characters inside-out before we begin.

HC: The film has some incredibly bleak moments, what was the atmosphere like on set?

IK: For me the best and only atmosphere for creativity is a relaxed one, where everyone feels safe and free to experiment and to do the best work they can possible do. If there was a gloomy or unhappy atmosphere on set I don't think that would happen. So it was actually a quite fun set most of the time and any tension that was on set was more about the very tight schedule than anything else. In terms of the little boy Billy (played by five year old Calum Heath) he never knew he was in a horror film. It was just a game to him. So all the horror elements were kept away from him. He had a great time and loved every minute of it. He's an amazing little actor, highly intelligent and always totally in the moment (which a great quality for actors of any age). I'm looking forward to the day, 10 years or more from now, when he can finally watch the film!

HC: How would you describe the film as it touches upon a number of genres?

IK: I think, if I had to categorize it, it's a psychological horror film, but one that is deliberately paced and I hope emotionally driven and has quite a disturbing and serious theme at it's heart, when we finally find out the truth about what happened. It's actually quite hard to talk about without giving anything away! I definitely wanted to create a terrifying highly visceral cinema experience, where sound and picture were of equal importance, that would hopefully linger in the memories of those who had seen it and would be watched more than once. I wanted to create the feeling of a nightmare, and that it would become more and more nightmarish as it went along. This is why some of the imagery should feel raw and uncensored, just like in nightmares where you have no control over the images that appear in your mind and after you wake up you wonder how you could ever have imagined such a disturbing thing. I also wanted to make a film that was almost 100% from one character's point of view, so that all the events of the film (and perhaps even people in the film) would be colored by his view of events. The problem is that he may be losing his mind and therefore what you're seeing may not be all that reliable. Or else, he's telling the truth and the explanation is supernatural. Or both. I've heard many different interpretations of the film and for me, they are all equally valid. Also the fact that our main protagonist is a Film Archivist meant it would allow me to play and experiment with the horror genre a little bit. Here's a character, who, through his job, must have seen every horror film ever, and so knows all the plots, and so it seemed correct (and fun) to me that he effectively steps into his own horror film, complete with the most popular starting point of all horror films, that of the old house with the terrible past. It's quite a knowing or self-aware horror film in that respect, I think. I thought this aspect would also add to the ambiguity that I definitely wanted the film to have. Is the haunting real or is it a figment of his cinema soaked mind? There's also the old film aspect of his job, which I thought was a little like found footage (which is basically what he does for a living, is find footage!), which I thought would be interesting and give me a chance to recreate these old films using a camera from 1915.

HC: The Canal has some incredibly realistic effects sequences, were these mainly practical effects?

IK: Yes, I wanted all the effects to be practical. I'm not huge fan of CGI (or at least the overuse of it) and wanted there to be an old-school feel to every expect of the film. The practical make-up effects were done by the Dublin based company Bowsie Workshop, who did an incredible job I think. The direction I gave them was that the effects should seem visceral and real (almost like a documentary) and I didn't want to cut away and create the effects in editing. I wanted to do everything in one shot if possible, so that the camera's gaze seems unflinching, which not only adds to the nightmarish feeling, but also treats the violence as something serious, horrific and terrible, which of course is the correct way to treat it, especially at the end when you find out the tragic awfulness of what happened.

HC: You’re a man of many talents being not only a director but a producer, composer and writer. Do you have a favorite role?

IK: I'm not really a producer, that would be an insult to real producers! I made all of my early films with literally no money, so I'm just a guy who cobbled together a camera, some sound and editing equipment and began making films with friends. I just stuck my name on the credits as producer because every other film had a producer on the credits so I thought it would look funny without! So that would be my extent of my producing. But I did write, direct, edit all my previous films and wrote some of the music and did the sound design too. In fact, The Canal is the first time I have ever worked with another editor and sound designer and I was very fortunate to find amazing collaborators in my editor Robin Hill and sound designer Aza Hand who were willing to push things as far as I wanted to go and really experiment. We had great fun. The same would go for the DOP Piers McGrail. I hope to work with them all again on my upcoming films. But, to answer your question, I love all aspects of filmmaking, but if I had to choose a couple of things it would be working with actors and sound design, which I usually spend months working on.

HC: So, what are you working on at the moment?

IK: There's a lot of things in the air at the moment, including some possible TV, a western, another psychological horror film and a few scripts I'm reading by other writers too. I'm just waiting to see which one lands first!

HC: Ivan Kavanagh, thank you very much.


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