By Deirdre Crimmins
The latest IFC Midnight release, THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY, pulls the audience in many directions. It’s a found footage film. It is catholic horror film. It is a film dealing with repressed memories and abused women. With so many different factors coming in to play I was eager to speak with director Aislinn Clarke about how she was able to arrange all of these facets into a tight 76 minutes.
At what point in the pre-production of THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY did you get involved, and what drew you to the project?
The producers came to me and were, at the time, still looking at several different directors. There was no script, it was just an idea at that point. They wanted to make a found footage film, and they wanted it to be a contemporary film set in an abandoned Magdalene Laundry. It was a very different project. I had always been interested in Magdalene Laundries. Obviously I’m Irish, and I had a baby myself when I was 17, and that was the year after the last Magdalene Laundry closed down. It felt like I could have easily been one of these girls. My mother had a good friend who was dragged away at 13, and had a very violent memory birth. When the producers came to me about possibly doing this film they were thinking about using GoPros. I think they were thinking of something more like GRAVE ENCOUNTERS. As we all know found footage films are on very well-trodden ground. If I was going to do found footage I wanted to do something that felt really fresh. All horror works best when at the heart of it there is something real. That’s the crucial part of making it work. I felt like the real drama, the heart of this story, was back in the 60s. It’s an awkward phrase, but this was the “height” of Magdalene Laundries.I suggested doing it like this and shooting in 16mm. It was important to me to do it like this, with sensitivity, about something, and dealing with the issues, rather than just using the issue as an excuse for scares. I thought I might not hear from them again, because what I was suggesting was quite different, but they really liked the idea. I’m really glad they did! I think it would have bothered me if someone else had gotten the job, and if they hadn’t cared.
So often found footage films don’t need to be in that filmed as found footage, but I couldn’t imagine telling this version of the story without it being a found footage film.
Like yourself, I’m a huge horror fan. I watch everything: the bad stuff and the good stuff, and all the stuff in between. When I am writing I come from that point of view. I want to make something that wouldn’t irritate me. Found footage has a lot of challenges, actually. It frees you up in a lot of ways. The budget of course, which was a consideration of the producers. This was a low budget film that had to be done very quickly.
Being that the film is found footage during a time when sound recording and film weren’t always combined in a single camera, how did you approach the sound design?
The reality is that they would have recorded the sound separately, not in-camera. I felt that separating the sound and visual would help with the texture of the film, and make it feel like a document of the time. We didn’t have a lot of time for anything, but we spent much of the time we did have on sound design. There was a post-production house in Northern Ireland called Yellowmoon who were brilliant. They do all the GAME OF THRONES stuff, actually. We focused on the texture and making it slightly gnarly. There were little touches we put in to underline that. Towards the beginning, when the two priests are setting up near the statue and setting up the various microphones it is to underline to the audience that this is the way it would have been done back then. A lot of my background is in theater, radio, and sound design, so it is something I think about a lot. Sometimes it gets overlooked.
You’ve mentioned that it was a quick shoot. How quickly was it shot?
It was 16 days. Really quick. One of the reasons we were able to shoot so quickly is that we had a lot of rehearsals, before we even got to set. Coming from the theater world, that seemed natural. And luckily I have yet to find an actor who doesn’t like to do that. For the most part we weren’t finding things on set; we all knew what each moment was about. And cutting it documentary style, there is only one camera. You don’t need to shoot reverses or anything like that. A couple of those monologues just involve Helena [Bereen] or Lalor [Roddy] nailing it. It was hard work. It was freezing cold. It had its own challenges.
The setting of the film is deceptively simple. At first it looks like a single location, but then we discover that the location is much more than meets the eye. How did you piece together the set for the film?
We knew we were looking for a Laundry, but then the script demanded certain things that a Laundry in Northern Ireland didn’t have. We had to splice it together from different places. There were three locations, really. One of them was an old house in Belfast that had been used as a hospital during the war, and had been empty since then. Then we used a linen mill, which had a big space for the Laundry. For the underground tunnels we used a bit of trickery. Some of that is underneath the house. It did have tunnels, I don’t know why. That was just next to the cellar room. But they weren’t long enough, so we used other tunnels as well.
The casting is quite spot on for these characters. How quickly did that come together?
The casting director, Carla Stronge, is here in Northern Ireland. She has cast GAME OF THRONES and is just amazing. Helena [Bereen] was someone I suggested. My husband had worked with her quite a bit in the theater. We did audition a number of other women too. Ciaran [Flynn] I knew from theater and I’d always really liked him. He wasn’t able to audition at first; he was in London. We auditioned loads of people but we just couldn’t find him. I brought up Ciaran again, we brought him in and he nailed it. The character isn’t an idiot, but he has a naivete that was really hard to find. Lalor [Roddy] was cast up to the wire. He was originally written as a slightly younger character, so Lalor hadn’t been put up for the part. He got in touch after seeing the script. He really wanted to do it. He was brilliant. There were other contenders for it, but he brought a lovely vulnerability to it. It was very necessary.