5 July 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Ivan Kavanagh on Directing and Writing
07 Jul 2020 : News Desk
Writer/Director Ivan Kavanagh
With the IFTA Awards Viewing Season in full swing, we showcase Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry. 

We find out what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

We spoke to multi-award winning Irish Writer and Director Ivan Kavanagh who helmed and scripted the action packed western Never Grow Old in 2019. The Ripple World feature, which starred John Cusack, Emile Hirsch, and Déborah François, was released in US cinemas in 2019 to critical acclaim. Ivan’s other work includes Tin Can Man (2007) and The Fading Light (2010), which picked up the award for Best Irish Film at the Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards during the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2010, and screened in the World Cinema section of the Pusan International Film Festival 2010 in South Korea.

Ivan's critically acclaimed psychological horror, The Canal (2014) produced by Park Films, had its world premiere at the Tribeca International Film Festival 2014 in New York, and was subsequently released in cinemas worldwide to critical acclaim. Ivan is currently in development with his film Son (Park Films), a psychologically gripping horror film, which he wrote and will direct, and is attached to direct an adaptation of Jon Bassoff's acclaimed crime novel The Disassembled Man.

Where did the idea for Never Grow Old come from?

“I had seen a lot of westerns as a child, as my father was a fan. I began thinking about a character that appears in almost all westerns, the undertaker, who was usually portrayed as a weasily character who creeps out when someone is killed and drags the body away for money. Then I began thinking, what if I portrayed the character as a real person? With a real life and worries, with a wife and children, who is struggling to get by. This sent me down a rabbit hole of research into the period and made the writing come quite easily and quickly after that.”

“I also wanted to make a film about the immigrant experience in the US, about US xenophobia, religion, greed, and about how the entire country was built on violence, starting with the genocide of the Native American and in doing so, I hoped to make a film about the America of today. I think in recent months, some of the themes of the film have become even more relevant and prescient.” 

What was your approach to making this film, and where did you take inspiration from during the process? 

“As I mentioned, extensive research into the period was the key. Luckily for me, it took quite a long time to get financed, so I had a lot of time to build up exhaustive databases of photographs, paintings, drawings, letters and correspondences, from the period, which I was then able to pass onto the various HOD’s once they came on board. I asked them not to look at other westerns, but to go back to the source, the research, the photographs, in the hope that we might come up with something a little more original, grounded in a gritty realism.”

What is your general style of working with the HoDs and Crew, and what is the most important focus for you during the whole production?

“One of the most important aspects of being a director is to bring on like-minded and talented collaborators who can help me realise the film that I want to make. It is also important for me to hopefully create an atmosphere of freedom in which they can be at their most creative. Piers McGrail, DOP, and I had previously worked together on The Canal, and I have worked with him again on my new film SON. He and I have a very similar taste in movies, and so he was easily able to understand the look I wanted from referencing films like Heaven’s Gate, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which he knows and loves as much as I do. Piers is a very gifted cinematographer, one of the best working today, and is always as willing to work as hard as I do in making the film as best it can be. Working with him is always great, and extremely creative.” 

“John Leslie, Production Designer, is certainly the best Production Designer I have ever worked with, and his work on this film, and his attention to detail is just incredible, up there with the great Jack Fisk as far as I’m concerned. There were no sets in this film. Every single building was a real functioning building that John and his team meticulously built. And as far as there being a most important focus for me during the whole production, there is none. It is ALL important, every single aspect of the film, no matter how small, contributes to the final look, feel, and atmosphere, of the film.”  

How do you like to approach working with actors in general to get the best results and what advice would you give to aspiring directors on this front?

“Casting is key and I spend a lot of time casting. I usually go with my instincts on actors, and usually know whether they are right or not the moment they walk in the room or when I speak to them. I can’t really give any general advice on working with actors as they are all individuals with individual wants and needs when it comes to acting and what they require of me as a director. John Cusack for example, who plays Dutch Albert, liked to intellectualise and analyse every aspect of his character and every scene he was in, therefore we would spend a lot of time talking before a shoot, sometimes well into the night and early morning, but when shooting he gave me endless variations on scenes, never doing the same thing twice.”  

“Emile Hirsch was more instinctual and I found that if we analysed his scenes too much I’d lose the spontaneity of his performance, so we didn't talk about it beforehand. Emile was consistent in his performance, so I usually left him to shoot last. While Deborah Francois was always great whether we discussed the scenes or not. During the shoot however, I found I liked her first three or four takes best, as they were the most natural, so I usually shot her first.”

Tell me about your experience on set, and your favourite moment during production?

“It was an extremely gruelling shoot, with bitter cold winter temperatures in Luxembourg and Galway, with mud up to our knees, but strangely, this is also my favourite memory of the shoot.  I remember one particular day we had just dragged an actor, the great Sam Louwyck, who was supposed to be dead, across the mud, where Emile is supposed to be disposing of him. Everyone was covered in mud, the camera crew and electricians had to dig the cables and equipment out of the mud between shots, the wardrobe department had to stay up all night washing the clothes so they’d be ready, continuity wise, for the next day,  but I felt like I was in my element, and as I stood in the mud, I looked over at Piers and John Leslie, and both of them were smiling just like me, and I’m thinking “We’re making a western. This is amazing.” 

It really was a dream come true. The crew were just incredible on this shoot, and I felt backed up and supported by every single one of them.” 

What was your first role as a director (feature/short), and how has your style changed over the years?

“I began making short films in my teens. What’s great about filmmaking is that the creative problems you have on your first shoot, like actors, camera, lighting, sound etc, do not change, they are consistent, only the scale of the problems change, which gives filmmaking a wonderful sense of timelessness, and for me the joy of filmmaking, being on set, has never diminished, from my first film to the last.” 

What do you think of the current state of filmmaking in independent and mainstream cinema? Are there trends you’re excited about or that you like/dislike?

“Obviously, we’re living in very strange and uncertain times because of Covid, in filmmaking and all other aspects of life. Also because of the growing number of streaming platforms the chances of good films totally passing you by is ever greater now. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve discovered great films that I’ve heard nothing about, and have had little to no advertising.” 

What filmmaker or director’s work has influenced or inspired you the most? 

“It’s changed over the years, but the directors that have consistently inspired me, whose work I return to again and again are, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Aldrich, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Fuller, Douglas Sirk, John Ford, Maurice Pialat, Claude Chabrol, Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, and David Lynch.”

What other Irish filmmaker have you been most impressed by in recent times?

“I have two children under 5, and as I’m sure other parents will say, there’s very little time for film watching during this period and if my wife and I do watch a movie at night then we usually go back to older movies. We’re in the middle of a Joan Crawford season at the moment. Last month it was Barbara Stanwyck. So I haven’t been keeping up with Irish Filmmakers.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career, which you’d give to aspiring directors?

“In the 90s, before I began making films seriously, I saw a Q&A with Martin Scorsese after a screening of Goodfellas. Someone asked a similar question, and his answer I have never forgotten and always followed. They asked “What’s the most important characteristic a filmmaker should have?” and Scorsese said “Tenacity”. I’ve carried this through to every aspect of my filmmaking, especially in always fighting to make the film I want to make, without compromises.”  

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

“I was in Sweden when all of this hit, as my wife is Swedish, so, very unnervingly, there has been no lockdown here, not in the way the rest of the world is experiencing it.  And luckily, we shot my latest film SON, in Mississippi, just before Covid or lockdowns began.” 

Click here to read more of our interview series.



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