Having an extreme interest in the undead may seem a little peculiar to some. But if you’re making a living out of not only creating stories surrounding the undead, but laughing at them at the same time, it’s easy to see the appeal.
Irish filmmaker Conor McMahon has carved a niche for himself in the Irish film industry by specialising in this type of comedy horror. Just in time for All Hallows’ Eve, his latest monster mash comes in the form of killer clown ‘Stitches’, played by stand up comic (and stand up guy by all accounts) Ross Noble, who is hell bent on wreaking revenge on the kids responsible for his zombie-like status.
McMahon spent five minutes with IFTN chatting about all things horror, why he likes the idea of improv, and how, if you’re an old school friend of his, your one liners may have made the final draft of ‘Stitches’.
Conor, there seems to be a pattern in the subject matter of your films; ‘Dead Meat’; ‘Zombie Bashers’… Where does the interest in the undead come from?
It did start when I was about 15 or 16 and I was making stuff with my friends. We’d make all kinds of films, but whenever we made a horror one, they were always the ones that people would get the best laughs out of. So I sort of kept making them.
Your films always mix comedy with horror. Why is this, and would you ever just do a straight up horror?
I think it’s not that I wouldn’t [do a straight up horror], you’re sort of at the mercy of the ideas that come into your head, and the ideas that generally come into my head are a mix of horror and comedy. When I saw ‘Evil Dead 2’, that would have been a film that I guess inspired me a lot, and they combine horror with slapstick comedy and it’s just something that I move towards every time I sit down to write.
Before I sat own to write ‘Stitches’ I was actually trying to write a serious killer film but I kept putting comedy stuff into it, and I was almost ruining it. It almost wasn’t working, so it’s like when I started thinking of the clown idea, it just fit with my own personality better.
David O’Brien contributed to the script. What was the co-writing process like?
I’d been working on the project myself for about two years, I’d been writing lots of drafts, and after that long working on something you lose any objectivity. I just didn’t know where to go with it, so I sent it out to a couple of friends and Dave’s notes were the most critical but they were also the ones I agreed with the most, so that’s the way that happened. Then I got him on board to do another draft and we got on well together.
So you were responsible for all the gory scenes?
I just find it funnier when you just show everything and you leave nothing to the imagination, it’s a better way to play it
Some scenes are very graphic. How did the cast react when you showed them the script?
All of them are so young, most of them were like ‘oh that sounds like a laugh’, but sometimes people don’t know how much you’re actually going to show. My whole thing was, I did a couple of tests just in terms of how it would look, and I find the less you show almost the more horrific it is! When a film like ‘Reservoir Dogs’ comes out and all these people start giving out about it, they generally don’t really show a whole lot.
I just find it funnier when you just show everything and you leave nothing to the imagination, it’s a better way to play it. My whole thing was to just show everything in bright colourful light as opposed to if you were to just do a scene and there were just sound effects and kind of horrible noises it would not really be more discerning that showing the whole thing.
Speaking of cast, how did Ross Noble come on board?
Well obviously Ross was somebody that I really liked as a stand up, and probably just because of that hair of his, it’s almost like Krusty the Clown or Sideshow Bob, it sorts of clicked with me that there’s something clownish about him.
What I didn’t realise is that he actually used to be a clown, he used to be a kids entertainer, so he actually found it hard to play a bad clown. I’d ask him to juggle badly, and because he knew how to juggle, he would find it really hard to do it badly. The other thing was he was a massive horror fan, so the minute he read the script he was, like he said “he had me at knife in the face”, so he was mad into it. He just liked the idea of doing a horror film as opposed to a kind of serious drama I suppose.
Comedian Ross Noble is a huge horror fan
This is his first feature film role. Did he want to get into film or did your script sway it for him?
What he said to me was that sometimes he would have been offered the kooky best friend or other kinds of roles, he always has his stand up so he doesn’t necessarily have to do film stuff, so I guess it’s more he thought this might be a bit of a laugh.
A lot of the cast are quite new to the acting game. How involved were you in the overall casting decisions?
I would have been involved in all the casting for this film. Because it’s certainly a bigger budget than anything I’ve done before, a lot of this stuff had to be approved, you have to get approval off the Film Board, off producers, that kind of thing. So there was a little bit of back and forth but in general I would have seen everybody who was cast in it definitely.
The core characters all have a back story. Were any of the characters based on people that you know from real life?
I did set it in school, there’s definitely an element of me just going to school, I don’t think I picked anyone individually but when I was in secondary school, if I’d hear something funny or a one liner, even back then I used to write them down and say ‘oh that’s a funny line’. You also hope that when you cast somebody that they’re going to bring something to it as well.
Was there a bit of improv on set?
A little bit. Not as much as I would have liked, but you can always get something more. You always do the scene as you scripted it, but then you’re always looking as a director to try and make it better, or if somebody themselves has a funny line, you just allow that.
Everything that I’ve done up to this film was always very rough around the edges. [This time] I remember looking at the monitor and going ‘Oh it looks like a proper film!'
You made ‘Dead Meat’ in 2003, and won RTÉ’s Storyland competition in 2010 with ‘Zombie Bashers’ in 2010. How do you think you’ve evolved as a filmmaker since then?
Well one of the things is, everything that I’ve done up to this film was always very rough around the edges. Like very, it was us running around with cameras, not really lighting, with small crews. I guess on this it was the first time working with a bigger professional crew, so it was interesting to see how that was different. I certainly think it’s the best lit-film I’ve ever done, I remember even when we were shooting and I’d look at the monitor and go ‘Oh it looks like a proper film!’.
Would you say you approached this film differently from the start compared to your earlier work?
It was more a conscious decision [to work with bigger crew] because some of the films I’ve made before, I’ve wanted them to be rough in style, but I thought for this clown film, I really wanted to see it all. And I wanted the film to be colourful, I thought if I made it kind of dark and grainy and grim it wouldn’t work as well. That was definitely one thing, working with a more professional crew that was the big leap I suppose in doing this project.
I suppose I was trying to write something that was more familiar to me as well. You know the way people always say ‘write what you know’? I guess that was one of the other things, I always wanted to write what I knew on this and just see how that worked rather than sort of writing characters that I wouldn’t have necessarily been that familiar with in real life.
A scene from 'Stitches'
You brought ‘Stitches’ to MIPCOM in Cannes in September and came back with a distribution deal. Was this the plan from the beginning?
Yeah it’s always a hope. It was quite interesting, we brought the film to Cannes to the market to sell it, and when you go there you do realise how much competition is out there, and how many hundreds of other horror films are being made. It was almost like I was sort of naively at the beginning going ‘Oh yeah we’ll make this and we’ll get a distributor and it’ll all come out’ and it was only when we got to Cannes I was like ‘Oh my God there is so much competition’. It was quite cool then that we did actually get a distributor on board.
What do you think saw in ‘Stitches’ that they didn’t see in any of the other horror films?
I think it had a lot to do with [Ross Noble being in it]. I think especially for an Irish-English audience, I think having a name in your film, it really helps. I think without that it would have been a lot harder to get distribution.
I think having a name in your film, it really helps. I think without that it would have been a lot harder to get distribution
As mentioned, you won RTÉ’s Storyland competition in 2010 with your series of shorts called ‘Zombie Bashers’. What impact does winning competitions like Storyland have on your career as a filmmaker?
I think the Storyland thing was cool because I went from Storyland then onto ‘Republic of Telly’, which is where I’m at now.
It’s always really cool to win because the reality is you hope any project you do enables you to make another project, and I suppose the ‘Zombie Bashers’ thing really helped in getting work in RTÉ. RTÉ is great, especially with this show (Republic of Telly), you’re shooting a lot of sketches and you’re shooting so much stuff it’s actually a great training ground for shooting for film, because sometimes what can happen with film is, you’re trying to develop it for a couple of years and you’re in that period not actually shooting anything so you can arrive and start shooting a film where you haven’t actually had any practice in about two years. So what’s really cool about all the other projects like Storyland and ‘Republic of Telly’, they kind of keep you on your toes.
Any wins as well I suppose, they renew your enthusiasm for making stuff, it’s always nice to get awards!
‘Stitches’ is released in cinemas nationwide from October 26. Conor McMahon wrote the script with David O’Brien, with McMahon also directing. John McDonnell and Brendan McCarthy produced for Fantastic Films with Ruth Treacy and Julianne Forde for Tailored Films in association with MPI media Group.
UK distribution companies Kaleidoscope Entertainment and Signature Entertainment in association with Eclipse Pictures in Ireland are distributing the film in Ireland and the UK. Ross Noble stars with Gemma-Leah Devereux and Tommy Knight.