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Interview with Jason Figgis – Director of Irish Horror ‘The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann’
21 Oct 2014 : Seán Brosnan
There are not too many people who know more about the realpolitik of making a horror film in Ireland than director, writer and producer Jason Figgis.

Despite making a name for himself by shooting a documentary with enigmatic magician Uri Geller – Jason Figgis, and his production company October Eleven Pictures, has become synonymous with the more dark and debauched side of filmmaking of late, with films like ‘3 Crosses’, ‘Railway Children’ and ‘Blood’ broaching subjects such as revenge, the apocalypse and incest respectively.

Here, Figgis talks to IFTN about his new film ‘The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann’ – screening at IFI Horrorthon later this week starring Ellen Mullen and Adam Tyrrell – and how all is not as it seems in his latest horror.

IFTN: Vampire movies are a dime a dozen these days and movies such as ‘Twilight’ and ‘Underworld’ and their countless sequels have taken a big bite (sorry) out of the genre’s credibility. This film looks different, definitely a darker and edgier take on the genre. Was that something you were conscious of when making this film?

Jason Figgis: I actually love that being the first question because even though this movie is about vampires, it’s also not about vampires. Nobody ever uses the word vampire in this film. None of the characters have sharp teeth. Do they drink blood? It looks more like they are consuming human flesh rather than just drinking blood so I wanted to make a film that people would assume is a vampire film but have no mention of the word vampire anywhere in the film. It’s funny that as soon as I sent out a little synopsis of the movie everyone thought vampire movie so I had to mention a sect of day walking vampires and send out a tagline promising a vampire film but I soon got rid of that. So that’s how I got round it by not broaching the subject of vampirism at all. This movie is more a story about a troubled teenage girl who has 9 classmates that have disappeared and the police believe that she is responsible for the disappearances. Her family has a history of mental illness, her mother commit suicide when she was eight so I think this movie is more about mental illness but we didn’t want to cast any aspersions on real mental illness so its’ obviously very firmly embedded in the fantasy and horror genre.

Tell us about the making of a film that you wrote, directed and co-produced. How did it go from an niggling idea in the back of your mind to a movie screen at the IFI?

In terms of the story, it was a real change of direction for me because what I wanted to do was create the story with the actors so I could breathe a lot more life into the characters. Especially since this is a primarily teenage-led cast I thought it was important to sit down and talk about the characters. So, I used to just go in to a scene with a very detailed treatment with no dialogue but a very clear idea on where the scene needed to go and tell the actors to get there naturally knowing all they know about their character and the background. I think it takes a certain type of actor to do this but it really led to some sterling performances in this film. Aside from that, I originally had a great line producer , a man called Jason Shalloe who organised a lot of the day to day, the schedules, but he subsequently went back to college. And I realised I needed a lot more scenes to make the film so my co-producer Matthew Toman who I now work with on all my projects, organised some fantastic nationwide locations. So, I was lucky that in order to see it through, I was surrounded by some fantastic people such as my DOP Alan Rogers who came on board to shoot this and subsequently shot my next two features. I kind of come from a guerrilla filmmaking background so I kind of had to know how to do every aspect of filmmaking in case I could never get the crew involved. I have shot past films myself but it was great to get Alan involved so I could work primarily with the actors.

A look over your filmography definitely suggests an affinity for the more dark and depraved with films like ‘3 Crosses’, ‘Blood’ and ‘Family’ serving as perfect examples. What draws you to such dark tales?

I think I’m attracted to the darker tales because there’s a curiosity there for that sort of subject matter. I mean there is definitely a lot more I would like to do and I have done very different stuff in the past. But in terms of getting a film out there, it’s definitely easier to be genre-specific with a horror film. Like ‘3 Crosses’ (released in the US as ‘Once Upon a Time in Dublin’) is now bandying around America and Canada getting good reviews and we only made that for 500 quid. It was an experimental feature film, a very rough, ready and raw film but it got nominated at the Underground Cinema Film Festival for best independent feature. People were intrigued by it and that definitely propelled us on to other things. ‘Children of a Darker Dawn’ is also doing well in the US and Canada as well when we sent it out last year. That was an apocalyptic movie that divided audiences because I stuck to my guns on my take on the genre. But as Martin Scorcese says, and I apologise for putting myself in the same breath as him, but I’m going to quote him anyway! But he said that he makes movies for people that like his movies, not for people that don’t and that’s the way I see it too.

You produce most of your films with October Eleven Pictures, along with your brother Jonathan Figgis. This self-production must give you great freedom when deciding what sort of film you want to write and direct…

It gives you complete and utter freedom! You know, I would love for some funding body to come to me and sit me around a table and give me money to make a film, but I also love shooting what I want to shoot, using the musical artists we want to use, the actors we want to use without someone else coming in and saying ‘no no no’. I like that ‘United Artists’ ethos of the 60’s and 70’s of leaving the filmmaker to make the film and not getting anybody involved from the offices upstairs. So, we do like that freedom, but obviously if someone from a studio came along I would say ‘yes please’!

With IFI Horrorthon looming ever closer (as well at the Bram Stoker Festival), what opinions do you have of Irish horror here in Ireland?

There aren’t too many horror movies coming out of Ireland. The ones that I have seen I have enjoyed. I really enjoyed ‘Grabbers’ (directed by John Wright) and ‘Stitches’ (directed by Conor McMahon). I thought they were both solid films but no there aren’t too many horror films in Ireland which is odd because horror, mythology and storytelling is ingrained into our psyche. We love anything to do with legend and we love telling stories so it’s definitely odd that we don’t carry this on with horror stories.

I am going to have to mention your cousin Mike Figgis (Oscar-nominated writer and director of ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ starring Nic Cage and Elizabeth Shue). With such a distinguished and well-known director on the Christmas card list, do you turn to him for advice at all?

Mike’s the kind of guy that if you need a question answered, he will answer it but I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like to ask him for help. If it was something that I really needed like I needed to be introduced to someone or something, I would definitely ask him but so far I haven’t needed that. Mike is such a nice guy, such a sweetheart and always open to any questions but generally I keep it at the cousin level and get in touch with him to see how he’s getting on rather than asking for help.

Finally, what else can we expect from Jason Figgis in the future?

I’m just going to keep making movies. I have three in post-production at the moment. ‘The Paper Child’, written by Bernadette Menton, which is about a grieving couple who are trying to come to terms with the death of their 9 year old and they think they know who’s responsible. Then, we have ‘Don’t You Recognise Me’, which is a found footage film, a kind of mockumentary, a very violent mockumentary, about a mentally handicapped young man who is murdered and his family comes together to get revenge. Then we have ‘Family’ which is another revenge film which is about a woman that comes back from Munich to find her brother has been murdered. Other than that, we will be hoping to get more films shot next year. We’ll keep marching on, banging on doors and trying to find an audience.

‘The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann’ will be screening at IFI Horrorthon which runs from October 23rd to October 27th. Read more about the horrorthon here.




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Interview with Jason Figgis – Director of Irish Horror ‘The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann’
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