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Exclusive Interview: Writer/director Ivan Kavanagh on the rural, personal terrors of “SON”

Monday, March 8, 2021 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

In 2014, Irish filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh won international attention with his fifth feature, the creepy supernatural thriller THE CANAL. Following his 2019 Western drama NEVER GROW OLD, he has returned to horror and shifted settings to the American South with SON, now in select theaters and on VOD/digital platforms. It’s a twisted and disturbing study of maternal love pushed to its limits, and RUE MORGUE got to chat with Kavanagh about it.

SON stars Andi Matichak (Jamie Lee Curtis’ granddaughter in 2018’s HALLOWEEN) as Laura, who goes on a terrifying road trip with her preteen son David (Luke David Blumm) when they are pursued by a sinister cult from her past. In her desperate quest to protect her child, Laura is compelled to commit horrible acts–even as it becomes possible that the threats against them might only exist in her head. Beyond its disturbing and sometimes extremely bloody impact and richly eerie cinematography by Piers McGrail (THE CURED, WITHOUT NAME, LET US PREY), SON (reviewed here) is a showcase for two excellent performances by Matichak and Blumm, and confirms Kavanagh as a writer/director with a knack for combining the personal, the psychological and the visceral.

After telling an Ireland-centric horror story in THE CANAL, what led you to explore the dark side of rural America in SON?

I grew up watching American movies, and even before I went there for the first time, I felt like I knew the country inside and out. And I always wanted to make a road movie; I love horror, but I wanted to combine the two. Ireland is so small, though, that it would be the shortest road movie in the world; you can drive across Ireland and up and down it and around it in three hours. So America was a natural fit, and also, with the religious and cult themes, America is the kind of country, to me as a foreigner, that is so vast and filled with different types of people that it feels like anything can happen there. No matter how fantastical your story is, it could work there. Just for example, say you’re making a werewolf movie; everyone knows everybody in Ireland, so it would be impossible to hide who the werewolf is, because everybody would have had a pint with him the night before, you know? So America seemed like a natural fit for this story.

How did you come up with the combination of the reality-based cult theme and the supernatural side?

I wanted to wrongfoot the audience all the time, and have them constantly guessing as to whether Laura is insane or sane, is she imagining it or not? I was inspired to inject the cult element because of all the conspiracy-theory headlines about cults running the world, and I thought that if we added that into the mix, it would add to the uncertainty about Laura and her past. Also, there’s something very creepy about the idea that ordinary people could involved with that, and everybody could be in on it, even the doctors in the hospital. And then mixing in the supernatural adds that element of, is it all in her mind or isn’t it?

Did you do any research into real cults, or base the one in the movie on actual examples?

No; I’ve read a lot of stuff over the years, and we all know about them, but I didn’t base them on any particular one. It was more by instinct, really, and I always inject my own fears into my films. I’m a real neurotic, and I’m absolutely terrified of doctors, so all those hospital scenes were just frightening to me. Every time I visit a doctor, I’ve always felt like he’s in on something I’m not, or he isn’t quite telling the truth. So I was able to put that fear into the movie as well.

Are you a parent yourself, and if so, did that feed into how you scripted the film?

I am, and that’s how this got started. It all began about five and a half years ago, when my first son was born. He had a very difficult birth, and we were really, really worried about him for the first few months. We had a lot of sleepless nights; he was crying a lot, and we couldn’t quite figure out why. It was terrifying, but during that time, I saw how close he and my wife were becoming, that mother-son bond that’s so strong and so primal, and I began to think, is there anything a mother who loves her son wouldn’t do for him? Are there any lengths she wouldn’t go to protect him and keep him alive? With all of my films, I always begin from a very personal place, and SON just unfolded from that starting point.

How did you wind up casting Andi Matichak, who plays a more mature role here than she had in HALLOWEEN?

I had seen HALLOWEEN, of course, and I knew we needed to fill the role with a great actress who could not only pull off the part, but was instantly likable. I don’t traditionally audition actors; I just meet with them and talk to them and see what they’re like as people. And Andi Matichak is such a lovely person, and so intelligent and committed to her work, I just knew the audience would go with her no matter what she did in the film. That was crucial, because Laura does some very questionable things in SON, and if the audience switches off at any point and is not with her, the movie doesn’t work. So the moment I met Andi, I knew she was perfect for the part, because I knew the audience would love her and go with her.

Luke David Blumm is terrific too as David; how did you find him, and how did you deal with putting him in all those disturbing and bloody situations?

I’ve worked with kids in prominent roles in the last three films I’ve done, and I knew it was crucial that we find the right kid for SON. So we spent a lot of time looking; we auditioned about 500 boys, and I think we were about two or three weeks away from filming when the tape came in–a self-tape from Luke and his father. He was so natural on camera, it was incredible. It was a breath of fresh air, because a lot of the others I had auditioned felt like movie kids; you could see they were acting a mile away, and I wanted David to feel like a real kid. So I drove down from Mississippi to Atlanta the next day and met Luke and his father, and we did some improv and I talked to him, and I rang the producers there and then and said, “This is the kid, he’s amazing.” There was no difference between on and off camera for him; he was just totally natural all the time.

Also, I had a great ally in his father, who’s an actor himself. So I was able to get him to help me along as well, by doing some prep work with him. I told him, “You, not Luke, should watch Ingmar Bergman’s CRIES AND WHISPERS, because there’s a woman in that dying of cancer, and that’s how I want Luke to react to the pain he feels. So he was able to watch CRIES AND WHISPERS and convey that to Luke, and they practiced that, so by the time they got to the set, all I had to do was tweak the performance and push Luke a bit further to exactly what I wanted. He was so responsive to all my direction; I mean, that part would be difficult even for most adults, and he totally pulled it off.

As far as the gore and stuff was concerned, I had a kid in THE CANAL as well, and the way you get around that is to keep it like a game to the child, so they never really know they’re in a horror movie. You show them how everything is constructed, you introduce them to the makeup guy, the makeup guy tells them what the blood is made of, so it’s just goop to the kid, and it’s all just a fun game. By the time the end came, Luke didn’t want to leave the set, he had such a great time.

What was your collaborative process like with DP Piers McGrail?

It was great, because Piers shot THE CANAL as well, and also my Western NEVER GROW OLD, so we have a really close working relationship. We usually begin by, I send him hundreds of reference stills, and we then meet up for months before the shoot, and I discuss the look I want, and we hone down that–the kind of colors that should be in the film, all that sort of stuff. I wanted the look of SON to go from a sort of Norman Rockwell view of America to a TAXI DRIVER view of America, you know? A descent into hell. Then I go through the script with Piers scene by scene, and discuss the types of shots I want. We don’t shoot any coverage at all; what you see in the film is all the angles we shot. Basically, the movie is edited in the camera; there is a very limited way to cut one of my films, because we only shoot what we need and nothing else. So if there’s a close-up and a wide shot in a scene, they are the only two shots we did. If the scene consists solely of a wide shot, that’s the only shot we got of that scene. I don’t like doing coverage; I like selecting what the shots should be, and I like knowing in advance what every shot in the film is going to look like.

You found some great, atmospheric rural settings for the film. How did you find them, and how much of that was production-designed, and how much was filmed as it was?

The location scout and I scouted the whole of Mississippi for about two months before we shot. I handpicked all of those locations, and Mississippi is such an atmospheric place, especially coming from Ireland. To me, everywhere I turned the camera seemed cinematic and exotic, you know? Everything was so decaying down there, and looking like it was almost a part of nature, with trees growing over the houses, so I knew it was perfect for the film.

The biggest find was, I was seeking a particular look for the hotel where Laura meets the pimp, and we turned a corner and saw that amazing hotel with a gigantic factory behind it. I knew that was the one, because it looked so hellish–why would you want to stay there? But we built the interiors of all the hotels and motels; those were sets. I like to have control over all aspects of it, so I wanted to pick every color and paint the walls just like I needed them. I wanted the look to be very slimy and dirty, so I had them paint the walls in very garish, neon-type primary colors. Then I had our amazing production designer, John Leslie, paint all the walls with slick oil, so it was running down the walls and looked absolutely disgusting.

What about Jimmy’s house, and the place Laura goes at the end?

Those were actual interiors, both of them, but we heavily dressed them. Actually, you can buy Jimmy’s house; it’s for sale if you want it for about $8,000 [laughs]. That’s the cheapest house I’ve ever heard of! It was in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on the most rundown street I’ve ever seen in my entire life. We rang up the owner who was selling it, and said we were a film crew and would like access to it, and he said, “Yeah, the door’s open, just go in!” So we did, and it was this shell of a wreck of a house, and I brought John in and he dressed it like that. He put up hundreds of crucifixes and Bible pages all over the walls, and we handpicked all of the paintings and the beads. We had great fun with that set.

The house at the end, the exterior Laura pulls up to, that was the back of the house, and we would never have thought the interior looked like it did. That’s the actual interior; it looks like something out of a Gothic castle. That’s a real bedroom and a real bed that someone slept in, and we just stripped everything out of that house and left the bare minimum of just the bed and the symbol over it.

Mississippi was just perfect for the film; I’m so glad we shot there. Visually, it was the state I wanted to film in, so I was hoping the producers would be able to pull it off. It just so happened that their filming tax breaks are pretty good, so that enticed them. It’s a great place to film, and the people were so welcoming. They closed down their towns for us, and the streets and the highways. They really want productions to go there, and I totally recommend it.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.