In the age of indie filmmakers turned blockbuster directors, Irish writer-director Ciarán Foy is charting his own unique path to major motion pictures. His 2012 feature debut, “Citadel,” was a small-budget psychological horror film about a widowed father suffering from agoraphobia, and it turned more than a few heads while tearing up various midnight sections on the festival circuit. Foy, an obsessive genre fan since childhood, ended up winning the Audience Award at SXSW and the Best Horror prize at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, but the critical acclaim and growing cult status of his breakout film didn’t grant him the instant success as some of his indie-minded contemporaries.
As Foy told Indiewire while discussing the horror sequel “Sinister 2,” the only thing his debut provided was a handful of “horrible screenplays,” from boring horror plots to phased out found footage movies. Fortunately, “Citadel” did have one promising fan, and it would only take a couple of tweets for Foy to carve a path into the Jason Blum horror hit factory. With “Sinister 2” out in theaters and a new original thriller, “The Shree,” already lined up to go at Blumhouse Production, Foy is slowly but surely capitalizing on his love of the genre and finding his own way to Hollywood success. Read our full interview with the director below.
“Citadel” is one of the scariest indies of the past decade, and now you’re beginning this fortuitous relationship with Blumhouse Productions. What is about the horror genre that makes you so driven to stick with it?
I’ve always been the fan of genre, and not just horror but all genre — science fiction, B-movies, etc. They’re the only movies that ever interested me in becoming a filmmaker. I was raised on a diet of Spielberg, Cameron and Cronenberg and all that kind of stuff, so the extraordinary is always something that’s appeared to me. From my earliest short films, which I dare not watch again, which I made when I was 15 or 16 years old, they were my version of “Predator” or whatever. Those were the movies I made.
Where I came from in Dublin it was like, “What are you doing? This is not going to lead to a career.” I kept at it more as a hobby and went to film school back home, and again genre was just so important to me — we’re talking early 21st century here. Back then it was sort of a dirty word, it was the kind of movies that were different, but me and few friends in college were kind of like the black sheep because we just wanted to make genre stuff.
How did you spin what was at first a hobby into a full blown career?
Film school helped somewhat, but mainly because it led to our graduation short, “The Faeries of Blackheath Woods,” which is now on YouTube for anyone who wants to watch it. I certainly wouldn’t [laughs], but it won a lot of awards at film festivals and got me attention in London with an agent. So then producers came out of the woodwork asking if I had any ideas for future films. “Citadel” was always in my back pocket because it was based on something I went through. I went through this bad path in my late teens and suffered an attack followed by agoraphobia and all that kind of stuff, so I tried to combine the stuff I knew of and I could relate to and it was set in a similar era I grew up on. So with that film I tried to combine what was familiar to me with my love of the genre so I wouldn’t make something that wasn’t completely derivative or yet another zombie film.
“Citadel” premiered at SXSW and won the Audience Award, which got me representation in Los Angeles, and then as it went around the world I was being sent scripts from Los Angeles about directing. Most of them — probably 98% of them — were horrible. There were a ton of found footage films [laughs]. But I just assumed that this is how it plays out — you keep getting sent scripts and when the perfect script comes along you just do it, but it doesn’t work like that at all. You’re hot for three minutes, but if you don’t have that followup script in your hand, you’re kind of forgotten about. So 2013, for me, was like, “Ok, I’m back to square one. What do I do?” I ended up writing two scripts that year — one science fiction, the other a horror film — and I was trying to get them off the ground the same way I got “Citadel” off the ground, which is a very long process, but then out of the blue in January 2014 I was looking through Twitter and Scott Derickson tweeted about “Citadel” and Netflix and how everyone needed to check it out.
I just replied to that tweet saying thanks, and he started following me and asking a dozen questions about “Citadel,” and he mentioned to me, “I think you’d be the perfect director for ‘Sinister 2.’ Would you like to read the script?”
It happened that quickly?
Yes! It was completely surreal.
How daunting was it for the original director to offer you the chance to make a sequel to his hit film?
Well, when he said that, half of my brain was incredibly flattered and the other half was a little bit hesitant in that I sort of assumed it would be a quick cash-in sequel with another Ethan Hawke and he’d just watch another bunch of movies. I read the script being very skeptical initially, and what really struck me was how they expanded upon the mythology by presumably showing you what was going on in the background of the first movie, and the fact that this was predominantly from the kids interested me greatly. It’s something I’ve always responded to me. “It” is one of my favorite novels — I love when you can combine the macabre with childhood, or young people on the edge of adolescence, “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Let the Right One In,” those are some of my favorite horror films. So it was truly great. I had to pitch to the studio on Skype and didn’t physically meet anyone until I moved to Los Angeles that summer, and we were rolling cameras in August.
What exactly was the pitch that earned you the job?
Scott had vouched me and convinced Jason Blum that I was the right guy for the job, but the studio kind of needed to put a face to a name. I had to present what I wanted to bring to it. One of the things I loved about the first “Sinister” that I tried to bring to “Citadel” and wanted to bring to the sequel — and all of my favorite horror films, starting with “The Exorcist” and onward, have this — was how the performances were so earnest and real and compelling that you believed these are real people. When you do that, you just amplify any sense of terror and horror. When the characters are authentic, fear comes easy.
A lot of horror movies have that wink at the audience that it isn’t all real, but that isn’t my style. So I spoke about grounding it in that way, and the atmosphere I wanted to bring to it, because for me that is paramount for a horror film and something that I did relatively successful on “Citadel.” You need all of the departments to be singing from the same hymn sheet in order to make atmosphere work. I also spoke about working with kids. As much as I enjoyed the script, I knew it would live or die based on these two brothers and finding the right two kids for that. I think how I went about finding and directing the kids on “Citadel” worked out pretty well and I wanted to bring the same process to this.
What’s it like working with children when the project has to be so violent and foreboding?
To be honest, for the kids on a horror film it’s incredibly sort of surreal. There’s a lot of laughing when you have kids on a horror set, because for them every day is Halloween. They know Nick behind the Baghuul mask and you kind of have to stop them from pulling off any prosthetic makeup. It’s the furthest thing from what it feels like at the end. It’s up to you as a director to chart what you want the audience to be feeling at this particular moment, and then to communicate that to the performer.
There’s various techniques with working with kids, such as talking about something in their own life that they’re afraid of, and if that doesn’t work you can do a quick imitation. Kids are incredible at acting back what you’ve just done. You’d never get away with that working with an adult performer — they’d walk off set. But with a kid, when you’re 10 years old, you have a very limited vocabulary of experiences, so you just try to create the right performance and then everything else fits into place in that you know a certain camera angle will give off a certain level of anxiety because it’s at an eye level, or that shape in the set deign is the same shape as Baghuul’s eye. It’s a relationship between the kid performing and us on our end enhancing it and all of those things clicking to together.
You joined a franchise on the second installment. How do you balance putting your own voice in while staying true to what’s been done before?
One of the things that drew Scott towards me as his choice to direct this thing was the fact that I think we share very similar tastes and aesthetics and shooting styles. It wasn’t like talking somebody who has a different aesthetic and trying to get him to work in this pre-existing style. There’s a certain element that just came naturally — I was stepping into Scott’s world, so in a way it was something that was familiar to my style. But again, no two directors are exactly the same, so there’s a certain amount of paying homage to how Scott shot the first film — especially with the old kill films, for instance — so you have to do that and you have to make it feel like that if it’s going to be a sequel to “Sinister.”
But the script was very much its own beast as well. They essentially took the comic relief character and have given him a more central role, and when you do that, combined with the emphasis on the kids, there’s a lot more moments of levity that come out of the situations naturally. It was its own beast on the page, so Scott confidently told me to run with it because it was my movie. At the end of the day, it feels like it’s part of the same universe but it’s got its own tone and feel.
“Sinister 2” is now playing in theaters nationwide.