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Meet the 2014 Tribeca Filmmakers #35: Ivan Kavanagh On Putting His Own Fears Into ‘The Canal’

Meet the 2014 Tribeca Filmmakers #35: Ivan Kavanagh On Putting His Own Fears Into 'The Canal'

Irish-born Ivan Kavanagh has been directing films and shorts for the last ten years, beginning with his festival-success “Bandage-Man” in 2003. A lover of horror, he told Indiwire a bit about himself and a lot about what he calls “the unfairly dismissed and neglected genre.” 

Tell us about yourself: I’m from Dublin. I grew up in a household where films were always on. My father is a movie-buff and particularly loved classic Hollywood films and genre films, while my uncle loved foreign cinema, so I was exposed to mixture of films like Cries and Whispers (Bergman) and The Haunting (Wise), at quite an early age, and so I grew up loving both genre films and art house films equally and I think my work reflects this. I started making films in my late teens, using back-to-back VCR’s to edit and I knew from the moment I saw the very first cut I made, that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. With every film I have made I have set challenges for myself. So, with “The Canal,” I wanted to make a highly visceral cinema experience, filled with nightmarish imagery and scenario’s, to fill the film with my own fears, and to make a film where the sound was as important as the picture. I can’t wait to show people at Tribeca this year and I can’t think of a better festival for the premiere. 

Biggest challenge in completing this film? The film contains fictional documentary films from 1902. I wanted these films to look as authentic as possible, so we began the process by doing a series of tests on different camera formats. My touchstone film, look-wise, was Lumiere’s film “Feeding The Baby” made in 1895 and some of the other Lumiere films from that period. We tried shooting digitally and then adding various filters and grades, but there was something about the quality of the backgrounds in the original films that we just couldn’t recreate. We then tried shooting on 16mm, Super 16mm and 8mm using various B&W stocks. Although a couple of these tests came close, none of them were exactly what I was looking for. Then, by pure chance, I got in contact with a private collector in the UK of early movie cameras. He flew to Dublin with an authentic Universal movie camera from 1915, which had apparently been shipped to Europe in 1916 from the United States and was thought to have filmed some action in the trenches during World War 1. It had then been put in storage for decades. We used the lowest speed B&W 35mm stock we could get our hands on and did our test. When we got the footage back from the lab, it blew us away. There it was, almost exactly, the look of the original Lumiere films. 

Of course, because it was so old, even the owner of the camera and especially the film lab could not give us any guarantees that any of the footage would actually come out when we filmed it during the shoot (it was 50/50 they said), so there was understandable nervousness about us taking the risk, as there was no chance of re-shoots on this film. Added to this, the camera has no real reliable viewfinder, so all distances have to be measured and then the lens has to adjusted accordingly (so we could never be sure of exactly what we were getting!). 

But for me and my DOP Piers McGrail these were risks well worth taking and I think the footage used in the film speaks for itself.

Did you crowdfund? No. We were always so close with the funding and very nearly ready to go into production a couple of times, so we just held out for some of the usual funding channels. 

Did you go to film school? No, I’m self taught. I did consider it, but decided to use the money to shoot my first film instead. 

Any films inspire you? Probably too many to mention, but the films I find myself returning to again and again, over the years, for inspiration, are “The Shining” (Kubrick), “Rosemary’s Baby” (Polanski), “Fire Walk With Me” (Lynch), “After Hours” (Scorsese), “Winter Light” (Bergman), “The Ascent” (Shepitko) and “Don’t Look Now” (Roeg). 

I love all types of films and genres, but some of most vivid memories of watching films as a child are of horror films. I’ve always felt that the genre has often been unfairly dismissed and neglected. For me, horror films, at their very best, have always (from the silent era to the present) allowed filmmakers the possibility of pushing the boundaries of cinema (both in sound and in picture) and to experiment. I find the genre incredibly liberating as a filmmaker, as literally anything is possible. 

What’s in the works? I hope to shoot a western called “Never Grow Old” (working title), with Dublin-based Ripple World Pictures, later this year, which is very exciting. I’m also eager to work again with AnneMarie Naughton at Park Films, who produced “The Canal,” and I hope to do another psychological horror film with her soon. It’s at very early stages, but we’re incredibly excited about it, so I’m looking forward to the next stage of that. The horror films I like best are the ones that are deliberately paced, that have a gradually increasing buildup of suspense, dread and tension and so the scares are earned and emotionally motived. This is something I tried to do with “The Canal” and will hopefully do again with this new project.

Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about
their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and
what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up
to the 2014 festival. Go HERE to read all the entries.

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