Interview with Stephen Fingleton, @ FEFFS 2015

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Interview with Stephen Fingleton, @ FEFFS 2015 (Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival)

We had the chance to meet Stephen Fingleton, a young and really talented Irish director, in Strasbourg in September at the “Festival Européen du Film Fantastique de Strasbourg”. As the movie is released this week in Ireland and UK, we are offering you the long exchange we had about The Survivalist.

I love to start interviews in an absurd way. So what would be, for you, the worst way to start it ?

What was this character thinking when he did this in your film ? Because I’ll be robbing you or the readers the opportunity to decide themselves what the character was thinking.

And sometimes an author does not have the clues himself…

You can make something, not fully knowing what you’re making, or the motivations behind your character but you can’t still feel it’s true. That’s a really good position you can find in one of my favorite films of recent years, The Social Network. This is a film you can watch every time, taking the side of one character then the the side of another. It is so finely balanced. The film doesn’t take sides. I really like that.

You know, the point is, if you’re asking question of why a film, why something happens, or why someone does something, it is a failure for the directors to convey what they intend, or it’s a failure of the person asking the question to approach the film the correct way which is interpretative. The literalness of our society does not allow complexity.

Bashar Al Assad was presented as the face of evil in the middle East three years ago… But finally he is seen as not as bad as ISIS. When you’re trying to manipulate someone to do something, or when you try to put a cross on a propagandic point, you tend to be misleading. He may be a very evil man, but if someone is trying to convince you of the fact that there is one way someone or something should be described, it is typically to convert you to their world view. Maybe their world view is right, maybe their world view is wrong, it doesn’t matter. Richard Dawkins says all communication is manipulation.

I think there might be a question that some journalist might ask you often about your film. I really enjoyed in a cinematographic grammar, there is a language that spots the difference between straight lines, like the one we can see in the opening credits, with the statistical lines, and more chaotic lines, wildlife line that subsist and you can interpret only if you are deeply connected to your environment. It seems symbolized by a magnificent shot, with the grass, when he tries to find the girl.

It’s the shot on the grass which is a very similar movement than what you described. We actually synchronized the line graph and that floating shot over the grass.

How did you came with the idea of this shot ? Was it already scripted ?

I knew we needed to see from above. He is in a field of tall grass, and the survivalist suspects the person he is looking for is hiding in the grass. But the only way he can be able to see them is, if he can see it from above : the bird’s eye view. God’s view. And the camera adopts that view. I always knew we would do that.

When I was planning to shot it I was wondering : why if we do this with a drone ? I started to think about it : a drone can move everywhere, you can see 360°. My director of photography preferred to do it with a more standard crane. Then the challenge was to avoid seeing the crew, there is a huge amount of machinery behind the crane.

It is a key moment in the story, because it is the first time in the story we see a wide space. Before we were just seeing the cabin. The way we approach the scene, myself and the performer was that his character was agoraphobic. He is totally vulnerable in this open space. And the language of the film changes slightly at that point.

This is a movie that makes you think. There are many things to interpret. One thing I really enjoyed, and I’m going to try to focus on that point, is the way you play with relics from an ancient civilization in your movie.

For me it is really interesting because, it is a way to do fiction with interesting objects, which are quite fictitious themselves. Relics are objects which have lost – or not – their symbolic. They cannot have a meaning without a cultural/historical view They mean nothing outside their environment or without an interpretation you can make of them.

I don’t know if you are a gamer, but it reminds me of The Last of Us. Society becomes a weird linguistic sign, made of lost pieces of paper or journals… Does a guy such as an errant keep things from the past to maintain the illusion that the ancient civilization is still existing or, are relics a reminder of the limits of a civilization ? The objects he keeps lose their first utility to become first hand objects, like the Bible he uses to make a fire with. He keeps objects he never uses. Can there still be something holy ?

I heard about the Last Of Us but I did not have the chance to play the game. With your question, I risk interpreting… The bag at the beginning does not belong to him. It belongs to the man he buried. The Bible has no significance. He finds photographs of the family. He does not care until he find the woman picture he can use. The harmonica is an interesting one. You may have not noticed this film. There is a scene when he goes out to the trash area. And he throws something away. And then he notices the abandoned chair of his brother. Do you know what he was throwing ?

I didn’t notice.

We never actually showed a close-up of it. But he was throwing away the harmonica. The idea was that the sounds of the harmonica reminded him too much of the fallen ones and the fallen songs. So he gets rid of it. But there are other objects he keeps. Which he hides, like the photographs he found. Relics can both show a link to the past, and reasons to survive. But they can also remind people of the unbearable trauma they’ve been through. In some ways they trigger memories of the terrible things that happened and that we never see.

About those relics, I noticed that he had several books in his cabin. I didn’t have time to get every references but I think I grasped Alice. I wanted to know if you can tell us which books these were and if there is a connection with the story ? Or were the books randomly chosen ?

Well there was a part in the script that we have not kept which is about Alice in Wonderland. There are actually many references to it in the film. Like the rabbit, the mushroom. Elements of the time shifting. There are aspects of a carol. There is also a central metaphor which was the red queen. The dialog is not in the film but the red queen is the hypothesis of evolutionary theorists that creatures have to change their shapes to avoid parasites walking on to their DNA. They have to keep changing even if their environment is relatively stable. We constantly have to run to stay on a better place on the board. The Red Queen always run to stay on the same place on the board.

Does a book remain useful in a fallen society ? Can you read books after the apocalypse ?

Well he doesn’t. He keeps mainly utilitarian books. Books of information he can use to stay alive. It depends on people attitude towards the past. Is it something they want to forget, or is it something they like to remember ?

Isn’t a book, as it is shown in the film, coming back to his deepest roots, like maybe some of the most beautiful poems are meant not to be read, and to remain closed in a world that can’t understand them ?

You’re actually tapping upon a central question of human civilization. What is the point of all our creation ? When there will be a time when no one can read the words we’ve written. When no one can hear the music. No one can see the films. When the sculptures have crumbled into dust. What was the point of our creation ? Can our creation exist if it can fall silent ? There is no significance in a cosmic sense to why we are hear or what we do. But at least it defines us. There is something deeply interesting about recognizing your defining traits. Our art will only exist as long as we do. Our art will disappear with us.

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The movie is for me really literary in this way. It reminded me of Robinson Crusoe. Is it a re-interpretation of this literary figure ? We were talking about creation, and it is an important point in this novel. He tries to recreate civilization to remain human. Whereas your character tries to avoid any contact. And he doesn’t really do anything else than surviving. Is your film a new way to define the fact of being lost ?

A survivalist does not to rely upon anything. The only thing he wishes to rely upon is himself. He is a representation of that character. But he is someone who has made the correct bet : industrial capitalism will collapse. That bet is correct and he’s still standing. So it is not a version of Robinson in that way, who symbolizes the glory of western civilization.

My main literary influence would have been John Wyndham. Because he always depicts a really polite collapse of civilisation. There is also Angela Carter. Who is a brilliant English novelist, who wrote a post collapse book, which was from a female perspective, which is more speculative fiction than science fiction. Orwell’s1984 would be speculative fiction rather than science fiction. It is the genre I had in mind.

There is a political level in your film because you focus on the roots and the value of a nearly financial trade. Even when capitalism collapsed, you are still forced to sell your body and yourself. What is the difference between our world and the world you depict in The Survivalist ?

Of course it is a critique of capitalism. More specifically the relationship between the rational market and the our evolutionary heritage.

[We get interrupted by an old couple having a glass of wine in the hotel’s salon. They are starting to chat with us as if we were customers, and then to stare at us as if we were out of a freak show]

I saw a lecture by Rafael Correa, who was the president of Ecuador. He made an analogy about a woman in the desert, who is about to die, and who is too far from civilization. And she crosses a man who tells her he will give him water if she sleeps with him. And she agrees.

The capitalist would say it is a fair exchange. She knew what she was getting, and the man was providing a service in response to an aid. The Marxist would say it was a rape. Because she had no choice. If she didn’t accept, she would have died. If you do not accept the terms of the state of the market economy you will starve.

About the end : it can be consider as “happy”, as some things can move on, and you realize it is possible to transmit something in a sterile world with a birth of a child, but in the other way, it seems this perpetuation is for nothing. What is the point to survive in such a world ?

That is for audiences to interpret. Eveything you need to know is in the final expressions. It is more something I would ask to the audience.

I had a question about the ultimate vision. If it is a fable, can we connect it to the most recent Syria events, with the refugees ? Civilization here looks like a prison from the outside. Can civilization exist without the notion of frontier ? Sometimes society is a form a freedom, if you live in democratic world, but here the remains look like a prison, a concentration camp. It is paradoxical.

I visited Auschwitz two weeks before we shot the film. It was an influence on what the decisions the character made. Particularly Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz : that book is about how you survive in circumstances without hope.

About the concept of civilization and frontiers : nations did absolutely require frontiers in order to self defense. I think communities are the bases of civilizations, and they have limits. You cannot have a community of seven billion people in any meaningful sense. But the concept of civilization without frontiers is something I believe in and many people do. The idea that we can move where we would like to be. But Nation-states have so far the best proved system of protecting ordinary people. If we don’t have nations, it makes individual communities more vulnerable. If nations were collections of communities it could be interesting, but they are not.

There is a strange thing about the fact that civilization looks like a camp. There is actually a warning side, but on the outside. There should be a warning in the inside, a warning like the one Dante reads before going to hell. “Abandon all hope” if you cross this limit. They talk to an end of things in front of the door of a new beginning.

There are many way of interpreting the end, and what this place is. It is clearly not a place full of joy. But that’s not what matters. Can you survive there ? This is all what matters in the end.

I had a specific directing question : how did you direct Martin Mc Cann ? How did he prepared for the shooting ? Was there a real implication in a stanislavskian way ? Because there is one thing really successful, due to his huge talent. The way he uses his eyes : he looks like an afraid wild cat, but is also calm about his environment.

He is simultaneously secure in his territory and terrified of the unexpected. I never studied acting. I’ve merely learned from my mistakes as a director. With Martin we did a short film before Magpie, where he played a similar character. We had a basis for the character we then adjusted, and added a deeper background. He went on diet for 9 weeks. He lost a lot of weight. When we shot, we were always thinking about what the character would do, and what would be true. We wanted it to look real. My main job was making sure he was not actually acting, but to make sure he was studying how to be the character. Which he had a tremendous capacity to do.

[The interview had been made on the end of September, but as there is the Six Nations tournament going, it makes sense again]

To end on a lighter note, I wanted to know if you enjoyed Rugby. As the world cup is going on, who do you think, between France and Ireland, deserves the most to be ass kicked ? One thing I like about french irish relationship is that there is a friendly rivalry. We love to hate each other.

Hahaha ! I would say France, clearly ! There is no question about that. We are the underdogs. Being Irish is all about that : being an underdog. That’s quite a powerful quality. But one other thing I like about rugby, is that people from all different community support the team. The football team is different, because it is not united between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

If you had one last thing to say ?

I would say a word for the french audience : we don’t have a french distributor. I guess I would say that if you would like to see the film, contact your favorite film distributor, and say “I want to see the film”. If they can’t find the film legally, I’m sure they will find a way of seeing it.

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Interview made by Jean-Gauthier Martin



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