Director Interview: Liam Gavin

Following up with his review of The Haunting of Bly Manor, Hugh had a chance to chat with one of the series’ directors, Liam Gavin. 

 

Hi Liam, thanks so much for giving us some of your time today.

No problem at all.

 

I’m really excited to pick your brain about A Dark Song and Bly Manor, two really fantastic pieces of work.

Yeah, Bly Manor is everywhere right now.

 

How has lockdown been treating you?

It’s been incredibly busy. I’ve had almost a normal life in many ways; I’ve done a first draft of a script, a redraft of another script, I’ve pitched to some people in America and I am storyboarding  my next feature.

 

Crikey, it’s all go!

It really is all go. It’s one of those things where you work for yourself, as I’m sure you’ll know, so you don’t have a day off. You just have to keep going!

 

I’ve spoken to a few directors over the past months and they’ve all told me the same sort of thing, that in some ways they’ve never been busier.

Well, I think all of a sudden EVERYTHING has gone pre-production/development stage, so I’m hazarding a guess that there have been forty thousand million scripts written in the past few months that may not be of the highest quality (laughs).

 

Yeah, I think everybody who had a script in them now has that script out of them!

That’s right!

 

So you worked on The Haunting of Bly Manor which came out last week. I thought it was a really interesting piece of work. How did you come to be involved?

Simply because Mike Flanagan was a big fan of A Dark Song. He nearly killed himself on Hill House, and he has so much other things going on just now that he decided to get rising people in the horror world to direct a few episodes each.  We went up to Vancouver just before everything went south COVID wise, and I didn’t think we would be finished to be perfectly honest with you. But they were able to do a lot of post-production in lockdown.

In terms of the episodes you directed yourself, how much freedom did you have with that? Did you see all of the other scripts beforehand?

You had a reasonable amount of freedom.

Someone asked me the other day that if I wanted to do a one-shot, 20-minute thing, would they have let me? And they probably would have, I think. Had I insisted on it they would have let me do it. But if you did something like that it might feel like you’re chasing after the last series wouldn’t it?

So, they were pretty good. But you do have to fit within a paradigm. There was a certain look they were hoping to get, and you’d have to block it a certain extent their way. They were very, very supportive but I went in pretty prepared because I am always prepared on these things.

 

Moving onto a production like Bly Manor, which is just so massive in scale, must be unusual too. How did you find that step to a Netflix behemoth after working on A Dark Song?

When I did A Dark Song, I had a lorry. A small lorry. A glorified van! (laughs) And we had all the equipment forced into it, which was just dumped out on the first day of the shoot.

On this, there were trucks as far as the eye could see!

When you’re actually there, it’s still the same nine people you’re talking to everyday plus your actors. But then I’d go to lunch and there would be hundreds and hundreds of people. And I’d think “Who are these people? What do they do?”

It was, for about an hour, just sort of “oh my God”, but after that the work starts and you just get into it. It really wasn’t actually that much different from doing A Dark Song.

 

One of the things that struck me about the series was the look of it. The sets are amazing, the building just looks perfect for a horror film.

The building doesn’t exist whatsoever.

 

That’s amazing.

The building where Bly manor sits is just like four big cargo crates, the kind you get on a ship, stacked on top of each other either side of the main door. And someone had just written “BLY MANOR” in spray-paint on them (laughs). So, its weird for me to see Bly Manor on the show, because I still expect to see the crates.

They had these two whopping great big sets, you know the downstairs and the upstairs? But they are about a mile apart on different soundstages. They are very impressive, and when you’re there you really feel like you’re in a house for the first few days. You convince yourself that you could just pop upstairs, even though upstairs isn’t actually there.

Before you came to the show were you familiar with Hill House?

I had. It’s a bizarre coincidence because I don’t watch a tremendous amount of television, I tend to watch films. But I watched Hill House and though it was fantastic, just really, really good with a different idea in every episode but still had a great through-line. Everything was character based. And about two or three weeks after finishing it, I got a call asking if I wanted to do Bly Manor, the sequel to Hill House. And I remember just being like “What??!” (laughs).

I’m familiar with Mike’s work anyway, he’s become a  titan of genre horror.

 

I’m a big fan of his. Watching him move from low budget films like Hush to these amazing blockbuster horror titles like Doctor Sleep has been brilliant.

Yeah, it’s amazing.

 

So the two episodes you directed were very much in the middle of the series, and they had a lot of connective tissue to start tying the story together. Did you know how the story was progressing?

It’s another of those bizarre things where they were handing out scripts  and I think I got everything up to seven (I didn’t even get the one that’s deep in the past) so I didn’t actually know how it was going to pan out. You kind of assume that everybody knows what they’re talking about, and now that I’ve seen it all I can see that everything was fine, everything made sense (laughs).

 

One of the big episodes you had you worked very closely with T’Nia Miller. She just blew me away in that episode, it’s a heart-breaking performance.

One of the risks of having a big production is that the temptation is to be big in your performance. And she didn’t, she kept it low and nuanced. She is so talented, and although it sounds like a cliché, she was a genuine joy to work with.

There were times where I’d be describing to her what we were going to be doing, and where we were in a particular episode, and she’d be like “but I thought we were here in this particular episode?” and I would be like “Do you think?” (laughs). So she kept us right on continuity while we all stood about with our scripts. We’d all be there scratching our heads asking “right, where and when is she supposed to be right now?” (laughs).

 

T’Nia had done so much great work in the build up to that episode in earlier scenes, and when the truth of her situation is revealed to the audience it really comes as a proper hammer blow.

Yeah I agree, she’s very very good.

She has a lot of experience under her belt, and I think that counts for a lot.

How were the kids to work with on set?

The kids were so professional. It’s the best way to describe them.

They had both acted in a lot of things, so nothing really phased them. And because there was only two of them, they were sort of doted on by the cast and crew. They had these sweets that were really super sour, kind of trick sweets, so we all had a try of them (laughs).

 

Throughout the series, now that you’ve had a chance to see the whole thing, it must be fascinating to see the range the kids give?

Yeah, it is. When I saw them again, I didn’t know how the rest of the series was going to play out. When they were in my episodes they were quite sort of subdued. But there’s an episode where Miles is at boarding school where he’s really good in it. I didn’t realise the arc they were going to go on was going to be as well developed as it had been.

 

Before I came to the series, I was aware of the novella but hadn’t read it. So it was good to watch it not knowing what was coming up. Have you read the story?

I read The Turn of the Screw many years ago when I was about ten, so about five years ago or so (laughs). But I haven’t read the other ones. I’ve read more William James than Henry James.

 

I’m making it a point to seek out those stories over the next few months. Those old-time ghost stories are so special, and they still hold their power today.

They really do. MR James has so many great stories too.

Now you’ve seen the show from beginning to end, what are some of your favourite moments or scenes?

I really liked the black and white one, I thought that was visually beautiful and very well told. It’s something I look out for a lot when I watch films and TV; as well as the strength of the acting, is it telling a visual story? And she (Axelle Carolyn) told a great visual story.

I liked Ciaran (Foy)’s stunt where the guy just gets whipped back inside the house. It was a brilliant effect and I will be nicking it in the future! I was with Ciaran a lot as my pre-production was during his actual production, so I was on set for a lot of his stuff.

I loved the performances in the final episode, I thought they were very nuanced and affecting.

I liked the underwater stuff, it was so cool. That lake was artificially built, which is astonishing. They heated it for when the actors went in! I put two people in the lake, and when The Lady of the Lake went under, she walked into a lovely warm and heated lake!

It was really cold, I think we shot at around 1am and all of the equipment had ice on the side, so its probably good that it was heated.

 

It’s crazy isn’t it? It was cheaper to build a lake than just find a real one!

Yeah! And all around the church is just this grim marsh, it was so dangerous!

 

The grounds of the manor are like the best bits from loads of different horror films; you’ve got the old church, the graveyard, the swamp, the lake!

They built the church from scratch as well! I had to go around the location on the first day and I would be asking the people around me “Is that real? Is this real? Did we build this?” because everything just looks so good.

Moving away from Bly for a bit, I have to tell you that I am a massive fan of your feature film A Dark Song. One of the best horror films of the last ten years.

God bless you! (laughs)

 

I’ve seen it three times now, and I get a bit evangelical about it. I think everyone in my circle of friends has been sent to see it by me at one time or another. Where did the initial idea for that come from?

It came from a documentary I watched about Aleister Crowley. He did one of these rituals in the Boleskine House to try and make a guardian angel appear. Now it can take months and months to do, and he got bored and walked off about halfway through. I think I read recently that someone just burned the house down recently, I may be wrong.

You know that way you’re looking for low budget horror ideas? Well here’s this guy in a house on his own trying to make a guardian angel appear, which is a mad thing to do. And I thought right, this will be good.

Tim Dennison, one of our producers, asked me in 2012 if I had any ideas for a low budget horror film and I said yep, I bloody do! Up until then I’d been nearly getting stuff done; it would be all ready to go and would just fall apart at the last minute for about a decade.

How was the casting process for the film?

We had someone that dropped out of the film who was in the Solomon role, and we had waited a year for them so it was really disappointing.

Then I was talking to the Irish Film Board about the sort of person they wanted. And they wanted someone cool and sexy, sort of like Clint Eastwood! And I was trying to explain to them that I wanted a kind of everyman, the kind of person you could meet at the bus stop. And Steve Oram kept appearing on the telly in different things, and I remember thinking that’s the kind of person I wanted. And then that idea grew and grew until it HAD to be Steve Oram. And they said fine!

 

He is utterly mesmerising in that performance.

He is.

And Catherine (Walker), we got through the Irish Film Board. They wanted to cast her as slightly younger, and they had Catherine on their radar. Catherine is one of Ireland’s leading theatre actors, and I thought that sounded great because what we were doing was basically a play.

So I met her and we got on fine, and then it was just the three of us in a house in North Dublin. The inside of the house was in the middle of the city, and the outside, via the magic of film, was thirty miles away in the country.

 

What was the filming process like? It’s such a claustrophobic film at times.

It was incredibly great. The crew got on instantly, and there was never any shouting or arguing throughout the process. And it could’ve been a nightmare because we were basically in this manky house where the water didn’t work and we had to get special toilets in. After a few weeks we did feel like we were going a bit mad.

We shot it in the middle of the summer, but the house was so freezing, you could see your breath frosting in the air. And then, when we were getting the train home at the end of the day, it was like 75 degrees. You had people staring at us like we were mad, wondering “What’s wrong with them? Have they got circulatory problems?” (laughs)

 

How much research did you need to do?

What happened was that it grew; when I started looking, there wasn’t much on the internet about it and every few months I would check again and there would be new stuff there that we could use. I was very careful not to use anything from the actual ritual, because call me old fashioned, I don’t want a black magic ceremony following me around for the rest of my life!

I keep on saying that it’s a bit like a kung-fu fight. Real fights don’t look like kung fu fights, but they make sense as fights. Like a heightened version of what really goes on. Because, the real ritual is a bit boring. One of the great problems with it is the boredom of doing magic squares and the incantations day after day after day after day. It needed a bit of oomph to it.

That’s fascinating, I’m exactly the same. I don’t know how much stock I put in these things, but at the same time I don’t think I’d be willing to take the risk (laughs).

Yeah exactly (laughs).

 

The demons that appear in the last act, and the Angel itself, are so unlike anything I’d seen before.

I kind of decided early on that rather than have demons that were ornate and traditional, I went for something quite simple. They are covered in mud and look quite tribal. I’m not going to lie to you, principally that was cheaper to do than big prosthetic rigs and stuff.

The biggest day that we had was with all the demons, and we did the Angel on the same day which was a total nightmare. We nearly didn’t get it and we couldn’t go back to it, so it was a real panic-day that we had to get through.

The Angel herself was envisaged very differently than how it turned out. I had drawn what I wanted; the Angel in the room with just its back lit, with dawn breaking behind her. When Cathal (Watters, cinematographer) saw it he said “yep, I know exactly what you want”. And when I saw what we had, I explained that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but we had to just keep rolling on. It ended up big rather than subtle, and I think you have to run with these things.

 

The Angel is amazing. I don’t know precisely what I expected to see in the room, but what was there was completely original and different.

For ages I was trying to bring it down, but I just leaned into it eventually and went with what we had. At one stage, around Christmas of 2016, there was just me and a bloke called Declan working on it. The company that were going to do the VFX dropped out, and we were just left to do it. I remember pushing and pushing and pushing him, and I felt so bad for him (laughs).

 

Well you and Declan did a remarkable job.

(laughs) Thank You.

Just before I let you go, we always ask our guests what their favourite horror film is?

The Exorcist is my favourite. It’s philosophical, it deals with the subject seriously and makes you take it seriously. It’s asking big questions regarding the nature of good and evil, the nature of freewill. It’s a powerful film.

I also like a lot of the Asian horrors too, and a lot of aesthetics from those films went into A Dark Song. A Tale of Two Sisters is great, really atmospheric. And I’ll tell you what’s a really big influence on me, it’s an absolute masterpiece of Japanese Horror: Dark Water. I think it’s a phenomenal, subdued, dark, horrifying piece.

 

I’ve never actually seen Dark Water, I will need to rectify that.

I think it has been very influential to everyone coming up now, it’s a brilliant slow-burning horror.

 

Do you have any projects on the go at the minute that you’d like to talk about?

At this very moment I am doing financing of ‘a thing’, so it’s on the forefront of my mind. I had meetings today about it, so it’s moving ahead well.

The Bly thing going on all around me right now is great, but I’m just so focussed on this other project. It’s quite a big horror film in scale, very much like A Dark Song in that it’s grounded and real, taking itself seriously. But I can’t even talk about it……. (laughs)

 

I will definitely keep my fingers crossed that it all comes off, I’m excited to see what comes next.

Thank you so much

 

Best of luck Liam and thank you for giving us some of your time. It was such a pleasure talk with you about one of my favourite films.

Not at all, thank you so much for having me, you’re very, very kind.

 

By Hugh McStay

 

The Haunting of Bly Manor is streaming now on Netflix and you can catch A Dark Song on Amazon Prime


 

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