2 June 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Director Stephen Fingleton and actor Martin McCann talk ‘The Survivalist’
12 Feb 2016 : Seán Brosnan
Stephen Fingleton (left) and Martin McCann (right) at the IFTA screening of ‘The Survivalist’ earlier this week
Conceived as an idea by writer/director Stephen Fingleton as far back as 2010 (after watching the documentary ‘Collapse’ which deals with the premise of unsustainable energy), ‘The Survivalist’ is finally released to cinemas and On Demand today.

The film, starring Martin McCann, Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth, is a spare, tense thriller set in a post-apocalyptic Ireland where organised society has collapsed. It has been a resounding success on the festival circuit screening at Tribeca, Belfast and the Galway Film Fleadh to highly positive reviews. The awards season was just as kind with Fingleton picking up a BIFA Award for Best Debut Director and he is nominated for a BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut at this weekend’s awards ceremony.

Both McCann and Fingleton have also been chosen as BAFTA Breakthrough’s on the back of the success of the film. Closer to home and ‘The Survivalist’ this week had a special IFTA screening where it once again screened to acclaim.

Made on a budget of just £1m and shooting in Northern Ireland for just five weeks – the sheer scale of what Fingleton has achieved can best be seen when put next to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar nominated film ‘The Revenant’ – made on a budget of $135m and shooting for over six months. The contrast is not lost on Fingleton who states that all that matters is the story.

"Mr. Iñárritu and his excellent cast have a wonderful film with spectacular visuals", says Fingleton. "But I feel we have a stronger story and I think that can often give you an advantage over something with a dramatically larger budget". with McCann joking, “You can basically get 80 of me for one Leonardo DiCaprio!”

McCann first met Northern Irish auteur Fingleton in 2013 at the Galway Film Fleadh with the director eyeing McCann up as the lead for ‘Magpie’ – a short film prequel to ‘The Survivalist’.

“He was circling me wondering if I was good enough”, laughs McCann, “but he managed to squeeze me in thankfully.”

Fingleton adds: “We had an excellent casting director in Rose Wicksteed but Martin got the role because of his performance in ‘Magpie’ and because I was familiar with his work in ‘The Back of Beyond’ and ‘Jump’. Once I began working with him on ‘Magpie’, it turned into an audition for ‘The Survivalist’. It was the most expensive audition tape ever!”

“I pulled out all the stops in ‘Magpie’”, adds McCann, whose recent roles include ‘71’, ‘My Name is Emily’ and Oscar nominated short film ‘Boogaloo and Graham’. “I really wanted to be in ‘The Survivalist’.”

By 2013, McCann had already made a name for himself. He was nominated for an IFTA Rising Star in 2008 and won the Best Actor IFTA for ‘Swansong: Story of Occi Byrne’ in 2011. Fingleton was also on the rise after directing shorts such as ‘Driver’ and ‘Shirin’. It was ‘SLR’ – starring Liam Cunningham in the lead role – that cemented Fingleton’s glittering reputation. The film would go on to be shortlisted for an Oscar.

“The year I met Martin was the year ‘SLR’ screened at the Fleadh. Martin was in the audience for that and I think I am right in saying it impressed him. I was in a position where Martin had seen my work in its intended form and so was prepared to trust me on something as radical as ‘Magpie’.”

Despite ‘The Survivalist’ being made for only a tiny fraction of ‘The Revenant’, Fingleton certainly shares Iñárritu’s attention to detail. There was no score in the film with Fingleton stating that the sound design was the score.

“It’s very musical. Every decision was chosen very carefully.”

The sound was all re-recorded in post-production, created by Jamie Roden and his sound team at Goldcrest.

In a typical scene in the cabin, the sound would have several different layers including Martin’s breath, creaky boards, multiple layers of Foley depending on the action that’s happening and even different types of wind depending on the characters position in the cabin.

His cast received the same meticulous attention to detail. The three leads were put on gruelling diets, with McCann telling us more about what he had to go through in preparation for the role.

“Stephen sent me on a survivalist course at the Northern Ireland Survival School (@NISurvival), says McCann. "They showed me how to skin a rabbit, how to live out in the wild, what to eat, what not to eat, building huts and building fires – small little things that really helped.”

“Stephen was very astute about how a survivalist would move – you would try to conserve energy as much as possible and you would move quietly and with stealth and purpose in case people were around.”

With ‘The Survivalist’s’ fantastic triumvirate of actors receiving acclaim for their performances, how did McCann, Mia Goth and Olwen Fouere prepare for constantly tense scenes?

“You let the scene that Stephen has written play out and you emotionally feel your way through it,, says McCann, whose upcoming roles include the feature film ‘Calibre’, shooting in Scotland. “What you see on the screen is what Stephen has written but Stephen is clever enough to adjust certain things based on instinct to realize what works. If there is any falsity or any wrong move in this movie – you will see it. There are no pyrotechnics, no stunts, no car chases. There is absolutely no room to hide in this film.”

Fingleton adds: “We had a lot of long tracking shots in this film, some were two minutes long, and people didn’t even notice because of the strength of the performances.”

With ‘The Survivalist’ hitting audiences today, how does Fingleton think they will react to the film?

“It depends on the life of the release. It’s interesting because this will be on VOD as well so it will potentially reach a relatively wide audience", says Fingleton, who describes the next feature film he is developing as ‘Total Recall’ for the Julian Assange era. "I think it’s a film people will “find” rather than one a large audience will go to. My hope is over time it develops a legacy. Brian Henry Martin described it as a “landmark film” and you can only know when something is a landmark if you are some distance from it. So, it’s worth looking at it in a few years to see whether it’s a mountain or a hill.”

‘The Survivalist is in cinemas and On Demand now. ‘Awaydays’ (directed by Michael Lennox) and ‘Insulin’ (directed by Ryan and Andrew Tohill) - two short films that feed into the story of ‘The Survivalist’ and both written by Fingleton – will screen at Queens Film Theatre next week. Go to queensfilmtheatre.com for updates on these screenings. Check out the trailer for ‘The Survivalist’ below:

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