By MICHAEL GINGOLD
While many people across the world have been forced to confine themselves to their homes, a new film that takes that theme to extremes sees release today. Read on for our exclusive chat with Irish filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan on his second feature, VIVARIUM.
Debuting today on VOD from Saban Films, VIVARIUM stars Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg as Gemma and Tom, a young couple seeking a new home who are lured to a planned community called Yonder. It turns out to be comprised of street after street of identical houses, and the couple become trapped there, unable to find a way out, apparently the only ones around—for a little while, anyway, until a strange “child” enters their lives. This domestic nightmare (which we review here) is Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley’s follow-up to their award-winning folk-horror opus WITHOUT NAME and their acclaimed short FOXES, and a uniquely eerie viewing experience.
The timing of VIVARIUM’S release is interesting; you’ve created kind of the ultimate shelter-at-home horror movie!
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know if it’s the right movie to be taking your mind off things! It’s bizarre; Garret and I were talking about how it’s all very prescient, like with Tom developing this cough that he passes on to Gemma, and the weird illustration in a book of two people with the extinction symbol on their foreheads. It’s strange!
WITHOUT NAME was very much concerned with folk horror, and VIVARIUM goes in a completely different direction. Was that a change you were intentionally seeking to make?
Well, after we made FOXES in 2011, we were supposed to do VIVARIUM as our first feature. We started working on the script and figuring stuff out, but it was going to be a little expensive and complicated to make. The way it was being financed was as a European co-production between all these different countries, which meant it went very slowly. WITHOUT NAME was something Garret and I had been talking about as well, an idea about a kind of spirit protecting a natural area of beauty. And in order for it to protect that area, if you messed with it, it would make you the protector. We were inspired by a documentary called INTO ETERNITY, about, I believe, the Finnish nuclear energy waste plan. They were basically going to build this massive tunnel and bury that nuclear waste, then fill it up and leave warnings for people in the future who might go down there, because it’s going to be dangerous for 100,000 years, and how could you communicate with people in 100,000 years? You don’t even know what language we’ll be speaking.
So they were two very separate projects, but they both deal with our obsession with ownership, of land and development. In WITHOUT NAME, this developer goes down to measure an area of land that doesn’t want to be measured. And in VIVARIUM, it’s like that’s already happened.
How did you create the Yonder community?
We had to put it together from scratch. It was inspired by these ghost estates in Ireland, which are empty housing developments left behind after the recession hit around 2008. The script was very descriptive about what the place looked like, and the vibe and atmosphere of it, and the only way to capture that was to build it. We needed to be able to control the light and have no wind, no rain, no external sounds, no insects, so we built the facades of three houses in a warehouse in Belgium; it was three fronts of houses that were only about 10 feet deep. There was only one side of a small section of street, so we had to cheat the reverse angles back into the same background. Then we replaced the sky, put roofs onto the houses and made lots more of them in post.
We shot all the exterior Yonder stuff in Belgium first, but then all the interiors were shot in Ireland, so it was a tricky one, because every time they walked out of the house, they were moving across two different countries. The inside of the hole Tom digs was in Ireland, but the yard exterior was in Belgium, and the driving sequence of them trying to find their way out of Yonder was shot between four different locations in the two separate countries.
How did you arrive at your two leads?
Imogen came on board first; she read the script, she liked it and wanted to meet me, to make sure I wasn’t crazy! We met in London and got on really well; she’s very creative and interesting, an intelligent actor and a big movie fan and into art and stuff. So we talked about art, photography and films for a couple of hours before we realized we hadn’t even mentioned the script! She accepted the role, and then we met again a couple of weeks later to discuss who we’d cast as Tom, because I wanted her to be comfortable with who was going to be alongside her, and to keep open-minded about who would play Tom. I wanted to wait until we’d cast Gemma first, and then find someone who would go with her aesthetically and height-wise and everything. We talked about a lot of different actors, and we had a list, and Jesse Eisenberg was on it, and we were like, “Hmmmmm, Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, that’s very interesting.” They’re around the same height, almost the same age and they both have very interesting faces. It would be quite interesting as well to have Jesse in this role, which isn’t like what he has normally done.
And because Imogen knows Jesse from working with him—this is their third film together—she knows the kind of material he responds to. She thought he’d really dig the project, so I said, “OK, let’s do it,” and she fired the script over to him there and then, on her phone while we were having lunch! He read it about two days later and loved it, and we met in New York and hung out for hours talking about life and art and films, and he agreed to come on board, so we were set to go.
When you’re working primarily on one set with only a handful of actors, does it give you a focus you wouldn’t necessarily have on a bigger project?
It’s different. I really like shooting on location; making WITHOUT NAME was a real joy for me, though I’m not sure the whole crew would agree, with the lashing wind and rain. But with nature all around you, you can find shots, you can discover stuff, and things happen by chance with light and so on. But with VIVARIUM, it was our intention to create this environment that was completely devoid of nature. Everything had to be completely planned, and we don’t have that freedom to find shots and move the camera around as much, because if we tilted up, there was no ceiling, or if we turned the camera around, the wall ended and there was the studio. So it was a different approach, a different experience.
In some ways, I think it was appropriate for the project, because it has quite a theatrical structure to it, a three-act structure; it’s almost like curtains close and then they open again. So we were on a stage, in a sense, that looks like it was built because it was built, with the actors working in this artificial environment with artificial lights. It got us into the mindset of what the characters are going through, because we’d be shooting nighttime in the middle of the day, and shooting sunny daytime inside while it was raining outside. It was strange, and quite surreal.
The film is horrifically satirical about suburbia; is that based on your and Shanley’s personal experiences in any way?
Well, the first batch of suburbs that popped up around America were quite a good thing, to give everybody enough space to live and have a garden and enjoy a comfortable life. That model was copied later on by developers trying to squeeze as many houses into a certain area as possible, and then charging people exorbitant prices for them. Those suburbs freak me out a bit, because they’re manifestations of capitalist greed, really. For this film, we were particularly inspired by what was happening in Ireland with the ghost estates and all, but also around the world: Spain has the same problem, as does Greece, as do the States, when the economic crash came around 2008. Garret did have, I think when he was a teenager, an experience of trying to find his way out of a housing development where all the houses looked the same, and it kind of freaked him out. So there was probably a bit of residual fear there that influenced the script.
VIVARIUM is also a kind of genre parable about parenting. Is any of that based on your and Shanley’s experience?
I guess people who have kids might say, “Oh my God, this is exactly like my life,” but it’s more about the idea of Tom and Gemma being trapped into roles they hadn’t signed up for, and the child manipulating them to get what he wants. He’s basically a parasite, and his role in the film is to push and manipulate these surrogates. There are parallels, like how we open the film with a cuckoo chick ejecting baby birds from a nest and then calling for food, and the little child in VIVARIUM screams when he wants to be fed—which isn’t a million miles away from a real child. So there are those comparisons we were trying to draw—but not to say that kids aren’t nice or anything. We were careful about making sure it wasn’t some sort of anti-natal film.