Saturday, August 11, 2012

FANTASIA 2012: CITADEL (2012)—Q&A With Director Ciarán Foy and Producer Brian Coffey

In recent years, the tendency of horror films to hybrid with comedy has gained a huge fan base but I can't claim to be one of them or, rather, my initial amusement has dissipated as the horror comedy hybrid has become way too much the norm and an obvious low-budget (if not downright lazy) strategy at genre filmmaking. As much as I enjoy genre hybrids—and the complex if conflicted emotions they purposely induce—I sometimes hunger for pure fear and dread from a film that doesn't shy away from its thirsty roots in terror. For me, I especially prefer terror that arises from an encounter with something inhuman or subhuman, something monstrous. As Mario DeGiglio Bellemare explained to me, the word "monster" comes from the Latin word monstrare, meaning "to show", and is cognate with the English word "demonstrate", meaning "to show clearly". So monsters are not just evil creatures; they show, reveal and point to something. But what are they pointing to? And what is the need within me to have them point to something I can barely stomach? As if there is pleasure in surviving what I might be shown, especially if it is—let's say—something alarmingly revealing about class structure, socio-economic pressures or an unfounded trust in the touted tenets of civilization, including the way we raise and educate children?

Film after film at Fantasia, I found myself alternately amused, entertained, sometimes laughing out loud, sometimes grossed out and groaning, sometimes cheering on battle carnage; but, never truly frightened. Not until I caught the Canadian premiere of Ciarán Foy's debut feature Citadel (2012) [IMDb / Facebook] whose murderous feral children—perhaps not considered "monsters", exactly—nonetheless enflamed many of the fears I've developed as I've grown older. I walked back to Le Nouvel Hôtel after watching Citadel with one eye looking over my shoulder, nervous, insecure, and fearful that I might be mugged. I felt helpless and vulnerable. That hadn't happened to me in quite some time and certainly not with any other film at this year's edition of Fantasia. As Joe Leydon nailed it at Variety, Citadel "skillfully taps into primal fears and urban paranoia." It is "intensely suspenseful."

Leydon also states that Citadel "will be especially nerve-wracking for any parent who's ever doubted whether he or she could overcome immobilizing fear and spring into action to defend an endangered offspring. Foy exploits that cruel doubt with ruthless efficiency in this impressive debut feature." At FEARnet, Scott Weinberg writes: "Citadel employs simple and effective horror tropes in service of a film that has something a little bit angry to say about crime in low-income neighborhoods, but says it in a frank and starkly entertaining fashion." Quiet Earth claims that "Citadel is one of those films that works not because it has a groundbreaking setup or movie monster (it doesn't), but rather because it fully explores its main character's conflict."

Remember the brutal street gangs kicking old people to death in Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange (1971)? Or the elusive red-hooded dwarf child in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973)? Or the deformed children in David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979)? Or the demon delinquents in Heartless (2009)? Foy successfully resurrects a familiar fear of the threat posed by youth gangs and infuses it with agoraphobic undercurrents and paranoiac tension.

With a strong central performance by Aneurin Barnard—last seen as the squire in Ironclad (2011)—a grating metallic sound design, a digitally weathered palette, and a refusal to submit to tough love as remedy, Citadel suggests a real horror to fear in the socioeconomic climate of today's world.

Citadel has won multiple awards on the festival circuit, including the Midnighters Audience Award at South by Southwest 2012, the H.R. Giger Narcisse Award for Best Film, the Silver Méliès for Best European Fantastic Film, and Special Mention from the Mad Movies Jury at Switzerland's Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival 2012, Best First Irish Feature Film, Galway Film Fleadh, and—most recently—Best Director for Foy and Best Actor for Barnard at PiFan (Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival).

Admittedly thrilled to be invited to Fantasia's sixteenth birthday party, Ciarán Foy described his first feature film Citadel as "half psychological horror half autobiography", insofar as when he was 18 he suffered a vicious and unprovoked attack by a gang of youths. He was beaten with a hammer and threatened with a dirty syringe against his throat. That trauma left him with a severe case of agoraphobia, which he battled throughout his early 20s. Citadel is his story about his eventual recovery from that trauma mixed with his nightmares and paranoid imaginings.

Asked to delineate where Citadel fits within a recent spate of films out of the U.K. dealing with violent hooded gangs (Heartless comes to mind), Foy answered that he didn't "set out to make a hoodie film"; he was merely referencing what he had directly experienced. Hoodies just happen to be the dress code of these delinquent gangs. His attack happened more than 10 years ago and it's taken more than five to get Citadel off the ground, so it's also not like he's patterning the film after any recent trend in horror. That being said, Foy admitted that David Cronenberg's Brood was a major influence on the film.

Citing the oft-stated admonition never to work with babies on a set, Foy said that he and his team did everything you're not supposed to do with a low-budget independent film. They had gangs of kids to deal with. Two twin boys were playing the baby girl, both of who got ear infections after a couple of weeks of shooting. They had been shooting for a week when all of a sudden the snow hit, making certain locations inaccessible. They had never had snow in November. "You combine all those elements that would make a shoot chaotic and stressful anyway, and then you put babies into the mix," Foy grinned, "Which made it interesting."

Asked which parts of the film specifically reference the working out of his earlier trauma, Foy said it was contained primarily in the first half of the film where Tommy (Barnard) is fearful of leaving the house. This reflected a period of his own experience where he was housebound purely out of fear. It was a threshold he couldn't cross. He had to force himself to go out the door. He couldn't even look out the front door without panicking. The front door became a monolith that scared him shitless, even just to look at it. There's a lot of him in the house scenes in the movie. Serendipitously, it was the letter from the National Film School saying he'd been accepted that actually helped him to get out of his house and it wasn't until he took advantage of free counseling at the school that he identified he had been suffering from agoraphobia.

When the counselor used the word "agoraphobia", it kicked off the DNA of Citadel, and Foy visualized Tommy's victimized body posture. The counselor said her research suggested that a pedophile could enter a room and identify a former victim based on minimal cues from their body language. Similarly, street thugs or would-be predators can almost see their victims' fear. As a filmmaker, he started wondering, "What if that were literally the case?" Which he found to be a creepy concept.

Other remnants of his experience filtered into the film in indirect ways. There was a bit of his Dad in the priest (James Cosmo, Game of Thrones), insofar as he's a grounded "pull yourself together" kind of guy. His dad had never heard of agoraphobia either and would often ask Foy, "What's wrong with you?" Some of his mother was in the character of the social worker Marie (Wunmi Mosaku), through her sense of empathy, understanding and altruism. In gist, Foy wanted to make a movie that was something of a love letter to his experiences and where he was in his own mind as a frightened 18-year-old. The voice that kept telling him the kids who attacked him needed to be understood capsized under the shock of his own experience, which instead affirmed, "No. They're something to be truly feared."

Foy settled on the film's strong one-word title after its initial working title Fortress of Fear, which Foy knew was terrible, so he reduced it to Fortress, completely forgetting about Stuart Gordon's 1993 film of that name. He went to the thesaurus to look up other words for fortress and found citadel, which reminded him of city, and he felt the word could equally represent the mind, or the tower block apartment within which Tommy barricades himself.

As to the difficulty of lead actor Aneurin Barnard maintaining a state of fear throughout the film, Foy said they didn't actually have rehearsal. During the "rehearsal period" they spent most of the time just talking in depth about what he had felt at certain moments in his experience and what Barnard's characterization of Tommy should be feeling, down to the sweaty palms and stinging eyes. As research, Barnard attended agoraphobic groups based in Glasgow. Foy and Barnard developed an honest in-depth exchange on set rather than through rehearsing scenes.

When the snow hit and they were scrambling to find new locations, and everything got thrown into the mix, the shooting became more like, "Let's forget about all that; let's just get the shot." In other words, an odd sense of panic. Barnard never had the chance to come down from his permanent state of anxiety, which ended up being a blessing in disguise for the film, which Foy feels whenever he watches the film. Producer Brian Coffey added that Barnard would also run for about an hour and a half to two hours each morning before arriving on set, basically exhausting himself in effect to maintain that sense of constant exhaustion in his portrayal of Tommy.

Key to insuring that audiences would care about his characters, Foy admitted, "I'm a geek at heart and I've always been a horror fan. When people talk about fear and terror, it's directly related to how you care about the main character. If you feel awe and wonder about a main character, it doesn't matter what the special effects are: you will feel awe and wonder about that main character. In a similar way, it was paramount that audiences connected with Tommy and identified with him. That became a challenge in the casting as well. I needed someone with an emotional range within that age—Aneurin was 21? 22?—and I also needed someone who visually from the moment they stepped on screen you could empathize with." Foy had worried that because Tommy was a reluctant hero that people might lose patience with him and start complaining, "Pull yourself together." But that's where the priest comes in and incorporates the voice of the audience. "Caring for a character is something I would like to see more in horror films because when you really care it escalates the fear and dread."

I expressed my interest in how he had differentiated the children within his story. Based on his own trauma, and as reflected in the script, certain of the children were presented as undeniably violent and dangerous; life-threatening. But then there is the effort to save certain of the other children, the baby, and Danny the blind boy, who came across as an inbetween character needing to be saved. I asked Foy what he was trying to say by way of these different kinds of children? "I wanted to have someone who would show the stages of childhood, from Elsa who is completely innocent, there's nothing wrong with her, to the extreme cases who are beyond saving, and then Danny in the middle to suggest that this would have been the route Elsa would have taken had she not been found. The hoods—as we called them on set—don't obviously represent real kids. Coming from where I was as an 18-year-old to now, there are of course so many socio-economic reasons why things are the way they are; but, when it happens to you, you see nothing but pure evil. Horror gives you permission to create a creature that allows you live out a fantasy that feels uncomfortable and wrong."

I followed up by asking him to talk about how he developed the film's grating sound design. Steve Fanagan was his sound designer and worked with tomandandy, who scored what Foy considers one of the creepiest scores ever: The Mothman Prophecies (2002). Foy had a short window to work with them and they cross-pollinated the sound design with some of the music. He added that it was a pity that the theater was not equipped to handle the full surround sound of the film, which he swears sounds even better.

Numerologically, the number three is ever present in Citadel. Near where Ciaran grew up in Dublin, there were three tower blocks, which kicked off the presence of trinities in the film. "You have Tommy, Joanne and the baby at the beginning. Then you have Tommy, Marie and Elsa. Then you've got the Father, son and the holy weird boy. Then you have the three numbers on the door, which represent the three towers and one of them was going to fall. There's no DaVinci Code thing about it but it was fun to give the film some more unity, or a rhyme as it goes along that works subconsciously."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Whoever says horror movies can't be meaningful (too many of you out there...) needs to seek the good stuff and be a little less ignorant in the process.
Citadel is a remarkable film. It has to be one of the best examples of using the genre to touch on a variety of subjects such as agoraphobia, urban decay, powerlessness in the face of senseless crime, the roots of said crimes, the incredible willpower to overcome crippling mental and emotional damage, and probably more.
Major kudos tho writer-director Ciaran Foy for not only choosing a very personal subject as a springboard and primary theme on which to base his film on, but doing so while delivering a fairly straightforward story. I kept waiting for the shoe to fall but he stuck with everything laid out from the beginning, and did it with an emotional resonance that is impossible to ignore (unless you simply don't have any real emotions...).
This is a major talent at work, completely in control of a variety of underlying themes that are never spelled out but are nevertheless present to those who care to notice (and if I noticed, most people can), as well as knowing full well how to stage true terror. Even without the themes, this would still make for a great horror tale, but it's elevated beyond that by the great skill in conveying pure emotion throughout (the main emotion being fear, which makes this a true horror film).
Flawless performances as well, especially from lead Aneurin Barnard.
I could go on but fuck it, you get the idea: films like this is what makes cinema great.
Thanks to Fantasia (and probably Mitch Davis) for programming it.