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Interview: Director Ciarán Foy and Producer Trevor Macy on Netflix’s “Eli”

Saturday, October 19, 2019 | Interviews

By PATRICK WOODSTOCK

Coming to Netflix this Friday, ELI delivers something entirely unexpected but undeniably effective – a horror movie that begins somewhere adjacent to THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE before a series of twists and turns hurtles it off into unknown territory.

Eli (Charlie Shotwell) is a boy with an unnamed, horrific condition that forces his isolation from the outside world – and drives his parents (Kelly Reilly and Max Martini) to bring him to a medical facility in an isolated, castle-like house. As he grows suspicious of the head doctor (Lili Taylor) and meets the mysterious Haley (Sadie Sink), Eli comes to suspect that his parents may have placed him in mortal danger.

We sat down with director Ciarán Foy (CITADEL, SINISTER 2) and producer Trevor Macy (THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, GERALD’S GAME) to talk about the process of putting together this genre-bending film.

So, neither of you are strangers to this kind of haunted house story – with SINISTER 2 and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE respectively. What draws you to this type of story, and what drew you to the script of ELI specifically?

Ciarán Foy: For me, what drew me to the story was the freshness of it. I read it at three in the morning in one sitting, and – you know, we’ve seen a lot of haunted house stories, and you look for an angle that feels unique. Straight away, this had stakes and empathy, literally because of Eli, this boy in a bubble, who you feel for. It already has a tension to it, because there’s a sense of Last Chance Saloon, that they need to find a cure for this kid.

So, the unique angle of it kept me glued – sure, it’s a haunted house, but it’s very different. It’s a clean house. It’s got a gothic feel to it, but at the same time, it’s a medical institution. And then, the kind of tense questions started to seep in as to what’s really going on here, who’s telling the truth, and who’s telling lies – and by that point, I was glued. And then obviously, without spoiling anything, it takes a turn that caught me completely off guard.

I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying it was the freshness and uniqueness of this character, and his predicament that drew me to it.

Trevor Macy: I liked that I didn’t see the twist coming in the script! I look at a lot of scary scripts, and I’m always super happy, and more than a little surprised when one of them gets me. It was a Black List script, so I’d heard about it, but I hadn’t read it. I thought if I put myself in the shoes of the audience that this would be a fun one.

Going off that this was a Black List script – I wanted to ask you about Netflix. In releasing this movie on a streaming platform, was there a creative freedom that you wouldn’t get if you were releasing it theatrically? Was it always planned to be an online release?

TM: Well, we made the movie with Paramount Players. There was a twisty road towards us getting involved with it, but it started with Broad Green inviting me onto the project, back when that company existed. I met Ciarán, and we decided to work together on it and then we sold it to Paramount Players. Paramount – I don’t think I’m dissing anyone to say that this is not about the movie – Paramount Players decided to change business plans.

Obviously, I have a long-standing relationship with Netflix, so I was super happy to see it there. I always find original or fresh-feeling horror movies are so amazing with Netflix. I had that experience with GERALD’S GAME, HUSH, and even BEFORE I WAKE. I’ve always been so pleased with how they’ve handled movies – they tend to understand what these movies are, and who they’re for – and really push it out there. If I go by how many people I want to see a movie, I love Netflix for that reason.

So, it was a windy road to get there, but we ended up in the right place.

To me, a lot of the movie’s appeal is in how it mixes genres – it’s a haunted house movie, but also part medical horror, and so on – do you think Netflix has a role in carving out a space for movies that would be hard to market otherwise?

CF: I think what really knocked my socks off was the trailer – and seeing what Netflix was able to do. For theatrical, there’s such an element on opening weekend that a mild panic sets in about how to get as many butts in seats for that opening weekend. Sometimes, that can mean that everything and the kitchen sink is in the trailer, and you’re almost giving it away.

Netflix has a confidence whereby – to me, it almost feels old-school, how a movie was able to stay over a longer time in a theatrical release, and word of mouth was allowed to build. It’s not just about when this drops on October 18th, it’s about the many weeks after that, and word of mouth growing. What I loved is that we were able to market it in such a way that – the twist being so key – there’s not a frame from the movie after a certain point in that trailer, and yet it’s entirely compelling and would make me want to watch the movie. So, we get to keep so much of the juicy stuff for the audience to discover when they watch the movie.

TM: It’s funny – some things are natural fits for streaming, and some things are natural fits for theatrical. I love the care Netflix takes of these movies. The trailer for this movie, I think, “I’d see that in a theatre,” so this is one of those things that could have gone either way. I tend to think they find a bigger audience, and, as Ciarán said, given more a chance because Netflix is really good at embracing originality within the genre.

Eli – Kelly Reilly, Max Martini, Charlie Shotwell, Lili Taylor – Photo Credit: Netflix / Patti Perret

This movie specifically is so based on keeping audiences in the dark, and you’re given a reason to distrust all the characters at some point or another – I’m wondering if that ability to keep the secret intact in marketing gives you more freedom to explore that in the movie itself.

TM: I think it does – in a sense, an audience is an audience. Our job – and the reason I thought Ciarán would be perfect to direct this – is to keep an audience engaged along the way, through all the twists and turns. We definitely felt empowered to do that in this case.

And who started the process? Which one of you brought this idea to the other?

TM: Ciarán was one of a couple directors we met –he stood head and shoulders above everybody. But I hadn’t been on long – I think I’d been on for a month or two, and then met Ciarán.

CF: It was close! [Laughs]

So much of this movie rests on the shoulders of its actors, but especially Charlie Shotwell who plays Eli. Can you talk about the casting process for that part?

CF: I remember saying in the pitch – where you talk about how you’re going to shoot it, how you’re going to design it, how it’s going to look, and sound, and feel – I remember saying that this movie would live or die based on whoever we’d get to play Eli. He carries the whole movie on his shoulders, and if we got a 10-year-old who was okay, it just wouldn’t work. So, Annie McCarthy, who was casting director and I saw a lot of kids.

We needed to get a very natural vulnerability that didn’t feel performed or put on – and at the same time, there was a cleverness in [Charlie’s] eyes. So, I wanted to meet, and the one thing I wanted to see – and I felt it – was a sense of anger. As this boy progresses, and he starts to distrust the people around him – I wanted to see that he could do that, which he could in spades.

I felt a tremendous sense of relief when we finally found our Eli, because once you’ve got that, that informs the kind of parents you cast and everything else. Not that everything else was easy in regard to casting, but I felt that once we found our Eli, this movie could work.

So, you cast your Eli first, and you built the parents and all the other characters in the movie around that?

CF: Correct.

TM: The actors want to know that they’re working with good people, and the title character is important to everybody. We were lucky to draw the cast that we did, I think. They were all pretty excited about Ciarán, but they were all very excited about Charlie as well.

Eli – Lili Taylor, Charlie Shotwell, Deneen Tyler – Photo Credit: Netflix / Patti Perret

As you were alluding to before, it’s kind of a haunted house movie but it also has these science-based or futuristic looking elements. Can you talk about the process of coming up with what this movie would look like?

CF: I was nervous about what that would look like, but usually the reason you’re nervous is because you can’t point to something you’ve seen 100 times and say, “exactly like that.” That nervousness can be a good thing because it means that you’re attempting something fresh and different.

Finding the Goldilocks temperature between something that feels gothic, and feels ambiguous with regards to what this house’s past purpose was – was it a medical institution? Was it a religious institution? Was it a jail? What was it? – and giving that shell of a building a feeling that it was refurbished and retrofitted to be this clean house with a medical purpose was a nice challenge, and I think Bill Boes, our production designer, rose to that challenge.

I remember on my first visit to New Orleans, taking note of the humidity and the sense that there was always a particulate in the air there that I responded to, and thought, “what if anytime we’re outside in this world, the air felt toxic?” – because that’s how the world is to Eli.

And so, you flip that to the opposite when we’re in the house. When you’re shooting a haunted house, you tend to have smoke, and shafts of light, and stuff like that – I wanted to avoid that, and keep it clean, so the outside is what we’re afraid of, and what Eli is afraid of. Until he’s, obviously, afraid of the inside as well.

I also wanted to ask about the exterior of the house, which is really beautifully creepy and establishes what you’re talking about immediately. Where did you find that house?

CF: Yeah, that was a journey. The inspiration, I should say, for the house is actually a location in New Orleans about four hours outside where we were shooting called DeRidder Jail.

It was an arduous process to find a house because there’s very different architecture in New Orleans than what was described in the script, and what we wanted, but I eventually saw a picture of this place in a Google Search. Immediately, I responded to it because it did feel ambiguous as to what its nature was and at the same time had a foreboding feeling to it – and I was like, “I want to see this, this is perfect!”

So, I drove the four hours with production designer and the location guy and said “this is perfect! Let’s shoot here!” And – you know – Trevor and the producers, very rightfully, were like “are you insane? We’re not traveling four hours for this house!”

TM: I may have said something a little different from that – just saying! [Laughs]

CF: But I think everyone agreed that there was something to the look of this house, so what we did was, closer to where we were shooting, we built something of a façade – we built some steps, a door, an archway, and two windows on either side of the ground floor – so we could get some amount of real stuff for medium shots. And the rest of it was based on scans that the VFX guys at Spin took of this jail. They made it a little wider in post – because the actual jail was quite a narrow building.

So, it’s three quarters CG and a quarter real, but all based on a real location that was four hours away from where we were shooting.

I’m assuming that you designed this exterior first, and designed the interior to correspond to it? 

CF: Yes – we needed to find the shell of it first. It’s like a DOCTOR WHO telephone box in that once you’re inside you can deliberately not exactly follow the architecture. I wanted a lobby where there was a window right at the back of it, and obviously that jail location doesn’t have that. So, you take certain liberties, but it made sense to know the type of building we were using, what the windows look like – and then you start designing your interior.

Were there any specific touchstones or other movies you had in mind during production, or, because it was such an original idea, if you felt you were in uncharted territory?

CF: I think any of the horrors I really admire and respect with kid leads, like LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, or THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, or THE SIXTH SENSE were inspirations to a certain degree. But, as you say, it’s a unique mishmash of these kinds of movies and your CONJURING scary house movies, and the medical kind of JACOB’S LADDER by way of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST kind of vibe. So, it was a mishmash of things, but it wasn’t looking at one particular movie or two and saying, “like this!”

Which is actually great, because it allowed it to have a voice all to itself. We did the same thing throughout with the score – I didn’t want to point to a specific score and say, “like this!” We spoke about it, and philosophically came up with what it should be – which is exciting and nerve-wracking to do, because you’re not able to feel on safe ground and say, “as long as it looks like this movie, it’ll be great.”

It felt like we were trying something a little bit fresh, and that’s nervous-making, but it’s also exciting – and I couldn’t be prouder of the final result.

ELI is out on Netflix on October 18th. Find the trailer below:

Patrick Woodstock
Patrick is an MA student at Concordia University, with a love for writing about and researching anything horror-related.