11 December 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network

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KIFF Spotlight: Director John Farrelly discusses The Sleep Experiment
12 Oct 2023 : Luke Shanahan
The Sleep Experiement
We caught up with writer-director John Farrelly ahead of his debut feature film’s screening at Kerry International Film Festival.

John Farrelly is the writer, director, producer, and editor of microbudget horror film The Sleep Experiment. The film is based on a ‘creepypasta’ (an urban legend with horror elements that circulates via copying and pasting throughout the internet) called The Russian Sleep Experiment. This is Farrelly’s first feature film.

The film follows two detectives who begin an investigation into a disastrous secret military experiment where five prisoners were kept awake for thirty days in a sealed gas chamber. The film’s timeline is split between the events that unfold during the experiments in 1961 and the detectives’ work in 1976.

Farrelly began working on The Sleep Experiment the summer before his final year of secondary school in 2018, and then continued working on the film while attending Ulster University over Christmas breaks and summer holidays. Prior to this, Farrelly made a number of short films, and in 2017 he won the Young Filmmaker of the Year award at the Limerick Fresh Film Festival for his short film Choice.

We sat down with director John Farrelly to discuss the origins of the project, working on a microbudget, and what he plans to do next.

IFTN: Where did the initial inspiration for the film come from?

JOHN: “I've always been fascinated by the urban legend of The Russian Sleep Experiment and believed it could be transformed into a compelling movie premise. Initially, I started working on a short film based on this idea. However, as the script developed, I realised the story warranted a full-length feature. Rather than setting the story in Russia, as in the original legend, I chose the Porton Down research facility in England as the backdrop, drawing inspiration from real experiments conducted on innocent civilians there.”

IFTN: The Sleep Experiment is your first feature film. What lessons did you learn from directing shorts, and how did you apply these to directing your first feature?

JOHN: “I couldn't have made this film if it wasn't for the invaluable experience of making shorts for over ten years. Short films serve as a fantastic platform for honing the craft of filmmaking, from scheduling, auditioning actors, managing a crew and attempting to fix it in post. I approached this feature as if shooting nine separate ten-minute short films. Although creating a feature film presents its own unique challenges, the foundational skills acquired from shorts were instrumental.”

IFTN: How did you go about balancing the drama and horror elements of the script?

JOHN: “I aimed to establish a strong connection with the characters early in the film. To ensure that as the horror elements unfold, the audience is deeply invested in the characters' ordeals. We introduced each character's backstory and motives in the first half, creating a poignant contrast when the experiment begins to unravel horrifically in the latter half of the film.”

IFTN: Did you shoot on location, or did you have to build a set for the bunker?

JOHN: “We were fortunate to secure an old factory that we adapted for various scenes, including the bunker and police station. While the location required some modifications to align with our script's vision, our approach was decidedly run-and-gun. For instance, we used cheap wallpaper to mimic the look of brick walls where needed and different props from second-hand shops.”

IFTN: How did you approach funding this project?

JOHN: “Funding for The Sleep Experiment was definitely a creative hurdle, given our micro-budget budget.”

“Spanning four years, the project was a balancing act of passion and financial innovation, carried out while juggling work and college commitments. We managed to scrape together funds from our own savings and the kindness of supporters who believed in what we were doing. To stretch every penny, we all wore a bunch of different hats and learned as we went, ensuring we stayed within our budget. For example, our lead actor, Tom Kerrisk, also worked on the film as a composer, an executive producer and a casting director. The whole team's ability to adapt and jump into different roles ensured we didn't cut corners.”

IFTN: What can you tell us about your next feature film, An Taibhse?

JOHN: “An Taibhse is an Irish Language Folk Horror film, the first one ever made, I believe, set during the tail end of the famine. The story follows Éamon (Tom Kerrisk) and his daughter Máire (Livvy Hill), who are tasked with caretaking an isolated Georgian Mansion through the harsh winter. Unbeknownst to them, a sinister supernatural nightmare awaits. The film was shot in Wicklow during the winter months last year. We've just completed the post-production and are excited to release the film in cinemas next year.”

KIFF is presenting a double bill featuring John Farrelly’s The Sleep Experiment and Ian Hunt-Duffy's Double Blind on October 20th, 2023.

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