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Gerry Stembridge Talks ‘Alarm’
06 Nov 2008 : By Roisin Cronin
Alarm
Director/ Writer Gerry Stembridge (About Adam, Guiltrip) talks to IFTN on the eve of the release of his new psychological thriller ‘Alarm’. Stembridge chats about eerie commuter towns, his leading lady Ruth Bradley and creating terror out of the ordinary.

Gerry Stembridge is known for his many writing and directing talents including the hit radio series show ‘Scrap Saturday’. He is writer of ‘Ordinary Decent Criminal’ and ‘Nora’ along with directing the hit romantic comedy ‘About Adam’, and ‘Guiltrip’ as well as last year’s satirical sketch show ‘The State of Us’.

‘Alarm’ marks Stembridge’s third project produced by Venus Productions after ‘About Adam’ and ‘Black Day at Blackrock’. Set in Dublin’s commuter belt, the thriller stars IFTA winning actress Ruth Bradley (Stardust), Aidan Turner (The Clinic), Owen Roe (Intermission), Tom Hickey (Garage), Anita Reeves (Adam and Paul) and Emmet Bergin (Veronica Guerin). Following a traumatic experience Molly (Bradley) moves from the city to a commuter housing estate outside Dublin where her idyllic suburban life quickly begins to unravel as paranoia and suspicion of her neighbours and her boyfriend (Turner) begin to set in.

IFTN: Gerry, where did the idea for a psychological thriller come from?

GS: The main reason is that I love thrillers. As a general proposition, I didn’t care for the tendency towards the more gruesome slasher films, not in the squeamish sense, but in that everything goes over the top and when it goes over the top, it stops being scary at all. Just because you are seeing blood spurting out from someone’s eye doesn’t mean it’s believable.

A good example of it however is use in the French film ‘Caché’, where there is one incredible violent scene and because there is only the one, it is more shocking and it comes out of nowhere. I really wanted to write a thriller that tries to get at the ordinariness of being afraid and how paranoia builds up in you. I’m very much aware myself of this in daily life, in this somewhat paranoid culture where community life doesn’t really exist. I was burgled myself once and though there was no real scary story to it, because of the uneasiness it created inside me I thought ‘how do you get at this in a film?’ Really I was trying to get at the underlining uncertainties and fears which I think are very much part of modern life. It seems to me that Ireland in the last ten years or so has become more fearful, more withdrawn in itself and more suspicious. We seem to be moving into a more American tradition way of living in a paranoid culture and I wanted to find a way to explore that.


Ruth Bradley in Alarm

How long has ‘Alarm’ been in development for?

Way too long! Although I take a really important comfort in that. I sat down to write it six years ago. At the time, when I finished the first version and it went through huge changes with time changing and the refining of the idea, I discovered it was a far more difficult idea to get at than I thought it would be. The other thing that was odd was that I also thought this was going to be easy to finance as it was written as a small film. It’s quite claustrophobic, as you see there’s a house and there’s a few characters. It never worried me what kindof budget I would have once it was written.

One of the problems I ran into, and here is the upside of taking so long, people kept pointing to the fact that the lead character is a young female and that if you need a star to carry that role then you need a budget to carry that so it was nearly a Catch 22. Someone actually said to me they would be interested in the film if it was a bigger budget. But I wanted to make a more claustrophobic film. I think once it gets bigger, and here is my other problem with the Hollywood thrillers, is that they become so glossy and star laden and that takes the reality of the thrill out of it.

Ultimately the film is carried by the character of Molly. Was there a lot of pressure to find the right person for the role?

If it hadn’t taken so long to develop, I wouldn't have gotten Ruth Bradley for the role. She would have been too young as she has only recently come onto the scene. I didn’t specifically have a person in mind but I did after I encountered Ruth. I met her nearly four years ago at an extended workshop which I was doing with young actors and Ruth was only about 19 or 20 at the time. I thought she was fantastic and across the week’s workshop I thought her creativity was very interesting and so she was planted in my head. So when I got the money to do the film, she was at the top of my list to do it. The film completely stands and falls upon her performance. Ruth was so strong in my mind from the start but I actually only saw two actresses for the entire history of the project. There was another Irish actress who I also though would be very good but I saw the two and made the decision.


Stembridge directing Bradley on set

You use the commuter town as an eerie and uncomfortable place for the film…

 

There is a disconnect of some kind there. The weird thing was when we were shooting ‘Alarm’ there was real a case of art imitating life, in the sense that in the film I had deliberately written it to be set in the winter with people leaving in the morning off to work in the dark, commuting to Dublin or wherever, and then as darkness falls the cars return again. But in the between time, there is nobody. There is a scene in the film where Molly is walking home during the day when she sees a car outside one of the neighbours’ house and then becomes suspicious when she sees the blind in the window move above her. That’s what struck me about those places - it’s the kind of place that every movement you see during the day might well be a cause for suspicion.

You previously worked with Owen Roe on Scrap Saturday – how was it working again with him?

Fantastic. It’s terrible because if I was a theatre director, purely we’ll say, I’d be doing six or seven shows a year and therefore would have six or seven opportunities to cast Owen Roe, which I would have loved to have done, but this film is the first I’ve made in six years. You know sometimes the roles don’t always fit so you’d love to seize an opportunity.

People always say “what’s the compensation between a low budget film and a high budget film?” And one of them for me, this time especially, is that casting is entirely in your hands. When you’re operating at a low budget, very often it’s the better deal.

With this film, to be able to have a chat with the producers and say I like so and so and what do you think, then throw a few names around and then pick up the phone, it’s just fantastic. We didn’t even have a casting director. It was just myself and the producers. Don’t get me wrong, I mean there is nothing wrong with casting directors, but why would you need a casting director when there is no unknown?

How has making this film differed from your previous experiences on set?

Nothing. I mean if I’m writing something I would definitely like to explore some of the different ways and angles of filmmaking. Because even though this was a low budget film it was still done quite traditionally in terms of crew style and shooting style.


Alarm

What interests me now is that the technology has made it so much easier and I’m fascinated by that and partly I don’t know enough about it. I’m a very firm believer in that there are professionals out there who know how to use a camera and how to light a scene and I’m not one to do it myself because that is what the professionals are there for and to give them their own kind of creativity.

What fascinates me now is the ability of the camera and sound and it’s much less obtrusive element. An example is that say you’re shooting an urban movie, well if nobody knows you’re shooting it then urban life continues, I love even the few shots in ‘Alarm’ where Ruth is riding the Luas. All that had to be done without setup because the Luas wouldn’t allow us to take over a carriage. We just grabbed the actors and did it but I just think we would have been able to do that even better if we were in guerrilla filmmaking mode with small equipment and smaller cameras - so I would be very interested in that if I could came up with a story for it.

 What projects are in the pipeline?

 I’m writing myself and also there is a very good script which I’ve been asked to direct which I would be very interested in. The only reason I won’t go into any detail with you is that I’m immensely superstitious. It’s like putting a hex on a project.

  • 'Alarm' is released on 7 November 2008 in Omniplex Santry, Movies@ Dundrum and Swords, Vue Cinema in Liffey Valley, The Savoy and the Lighthouse Cinema.
  • Check out the trailer for 'Alarm' on IFTN here.




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