Gavin Schmitt Interviews Director Conor McMahon and Actress Niamh Algar
Director Conor McMahon made the successful zombie film “Dead Meat” (2004). He really caught people’s attention in 2012 with “Stitches”, a horror-comedy with a bigger budget that was picked up by MPI and Dark Sky. With “From the Dark” (2014), he is again working with Dark Sky, and possibly releasing his best film yet…
Niamh Algar is a Dublin-based actress from Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland. Niamh is known for “Vikings”, “The Savage Eye” and “The Light of Day”. She recently completed work on “January Hymn”, and has been cast as the female lead in Lorcan Finnegan’s feature film “Without Name”.
Both of them were kind enough to chat with me on April 8, 2015.
GS: Niamh, tell us about your audition tape, and Conor, what about it really caught your eye?
NA: Well, I had been in what was called the Actor’s Studio in Dublin. It’s a place where actors go in and directors go in, and help each other with audition tapes. I was planning to go in and shoot an audition tape for Conor’s film, but they were closed, so instead we shot it in my car.
CM: It was funny because the scene was actually set in a car. So I thought she had gone through this extra effort to do the audition in a car so it’s in the proper setting. I didn’t know she had been locked out. As far as the auditions go, I had actually done them a week or two before, and she was scheduled to be there.
NA: I was sick, I had a flu, so I couldn’t appear at the actual casting with Conor. I e-mailed him to say that the tape was on its way.
GS: This is the second time working with Greg Newman and MPI. Have you stayed in contact with each other since “Stitches”?
CM: I guess he certainly would have been on my radar. But it was actually Kate McColgan, the acquisition and production consultant who works at the Dublin office of MPI. I was in there just talking about a couple projects I was working on. I had written a script and gave it to Kate to read. She responded well to it and brought it to Greg. So that’s how that happened.
GS: The cinematography is incredible, capturing the Irish landscape in one scene and then creating a sense of claustrophobia in another. How much is this good direction and how much is this Michael Lavelle?
CM: I think that would be 100% good direction. (laughs) No, no. It’s something we talked a lot about, how we were going to shoot it. It’s one of those difficult things because when you’re trying to shoot the darkness, you have to strike that balance between it being dark and still being able to see what you need to see. We did tests initially where we were only going to use lights that the characters had, so we experimented with that. Michael was pointing out that if you’re in a bog and your only light is from your phone, you might as well be shooting in a black room because nobody’s going to see where you are. So we were trying to find a balance, because I didn’t want it overlit either. It’s much scarier if you don’t have the presence of the lights and camera around.
GS: Likewise, much of the film takes place at night. Was there a lot of night shooting, or was it shot day-for-night?
CM: It was a mix of both. We were shooting during the summer, which is probably the worst time to shoot at night. It wouldn’t get dark until 10 o’clock at night, and then it was bright again. Every night was a race against the sun. “Oh, here it comes again.” We had a very small window. But what it did give us an opportunity to do was shoot at dawn and dusk for scenes where it’s a spooky time of day, where it’s dark but you could still see everything. So there’s that 20 minute window on either side of the darkness for that.
GS: Niamh, you carry the second half of the film almost single-handedly, with very little dialogue. Was that a concern for you?
NA: When you have no dialogue and you’re the only person there, it’s daunting. But also a challenge, and if you can pull it off it’s kind of kick-ass. There was a lot of expression, a lot to show how she was feeling in each situation. It was lonely. (laughs) It’s a role that actors hope they get in their career, carrying a role that doesn’t rely on dialogue.
CM: You had the bog creature to keep you company. I knew I had to get the right person. The first day of shooting was the car, very normal stuff. The second day was our first day shooting on the bog. She had to run through a muddy puddle or whatever. She just launched herself through it, fell over, kept going with a lamp in her hand. There was no asking for a stunt person. So that second day I knew I had the right person. Not many actors will let you put a spider on their face.
NA: No. (laughs)
GS: One scene features the forced removal of a very sensitive body part. How many takes did that scene need?
CM: I think it was one take. We might have done it a second time for safety, but once we had that rigged up it was sort of put together in a way where we really only had one shot at it. Sometimes that gives a scene a bit of an edge, because you know you have to get it right and you have to prepare what you can in advance of the shot.
GS: Can you talk briefly on the makeup process for the bog creature. It looks simple yet effective.
CM: A guy I got to know, Johnny Murphy… well, let’s go back. My reference point is real, there were real bog bodies they found that were over 2,000 years old. They were perfectly preserved when they were dug up. I collected images of these bog bodies and sent them to him. I wanted to cross that with kind of a Nosferatu-style vampire. Those were my reference points. So he started sculpting and we changed a couple of things. We worked to get the ears right and the nose right. Once we were happy with that he made a mold. Then it was just a matter of finding someone to play the creature. I wanted someone who was really, really tall and could be creepy.
GS: You’ll both be returning for “Strangers in the Night”, which is apparently about a banshee. What can you say on that?
CM: The banshee is kind of an Irish legend, and it’s well known in Ireland, but nobody has really made a film about it. It’s quite a scary character, one I heard stories bout growing up. I always wanted to do something with that mythology, so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped. And Niamh is back again.
NA: I get to play the bad guy this time. But Conor has given me no dialogue again! (laughs) I don’t think he wants me to talk.
CM: It’s been shot. We used the same crew we used for “From the Dark”. Michael Lavelle is back. And “Strangers in the Night” is just a short film, but hopefully it will lead to a full-length banshee film. This is something of a stepping stone.
GS: Conor, you said a couple years ago you were writing a script about a witch. Has that been transformed into another project or should we still expect it?
CM: We’re still waiting on that one. It’s still a film I’m really passionate about. It’s first getting the script right and then finding someone who will give me the money to make it. It’s definitely an idea I’d love to do. Sometimes you have ideas and they hang around a long time but they never really leave you. You have to be passionate enough about it that it will sustain over a couple years. With “From the Dark”, (affiliate link) things got off the ground so quickly, but other projects are several years in the making. Hopefully that will be the next one, but we’ll see.