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Lee Cronin on Directing
21 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Director Lee Cronin
With the nominations for the IFTA Awards announced, we continue to shine a spotlight on 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 with Director Lee Cronin, who earned his first nomination in the Best Director category for his work on his internationally acclaimed Irish horror, The Hole In The Ground. Starring Seána Kerslake (A Date for Mad Mary), James Quinn Markey (Vikings), James Cosmo (T2: Trainspotting), Simone Kirby (Jimmy’s Hall), Steve Wall (An Klondike), and Kati Outinen (Le Havre), The Hole in the Ground was picked up by A24 for distribution in North America after its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival in 2019.

Nominated for 7 IFTAs including Best Film, The Hole In The Ground marks Cronin’s directorial debut for feature film, while the script was co-written by Cronin and writer Stephen Shields, and produced by Conor Barry and John Keville for Savage Productions. Cronin’s previous credits include short films: Ghost Train (2013), Billy & Chuck (2011), Through The Night (2010), and Wilbur & Anto (2004).

More recently, news broke last month that Cronin had been confirmed as writer and director of the new Evil Dead film by co-creator Bruce Campbell.

Where did the idea for this The Hole In The Ground come from and why did you want to direct it?

“The idea for The Hole in the Ground was a slow convergence of smaller notions and thoughts. It was definitely not a lightbulb moment. Sometimes ideas spring into your mind in one instant, and other times it’s a slow creeping feeling. Something you have to pick at in the hope it’s worth the broken fingernails. One key driver was when I read a news article about a man in Florida who was sitting at home watching TV when a small sinkhole opened up beneath his armchair and swallowed him alive. He was never recovered. 

“It felt more like a horror concept than a real world one to me. It spiked something in me, but I wasn’t sure quite what that was yet. A title was born though, and at the same time I had this ticking notion around a young mother losing trust in her son. The pot took a lot of stirring, but it lead to the idea that made its way to the big screen.”

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

“I think the thing I knew from the get-go with The Hole in the Ground was that I wanted to create a distinctly Irish genre movie that could play to a wide and international audience. Despite its mythos, landscapes and heritage being Irish, I always felt this story could take place in any town at any time. It’s a simple tale, and, it’s personal and focussed on one character in a very intimate and intense way. All the way through prep and production, the focus was on enhancing this strong and singular POV and so many decisions were made in service of this.

“Inspiration during the process was wide and varied, but in terms of specific cinematic touch points - Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man and The Shining always proved useful references when communicating my vision.”

What is your general style of working with the team, cinematographer etc., and what is the most important focus for you during the whole production?

“I like the team I work with to be empowered and to feel very much in control of their departments. The buck of course stops with the director, but if you give creative people the freedom to explore with you, this usually leads to some really fresh thinking and ideas. I sometimes view my job as that of a filter, trying to catch the things you don’t feel are necessary whilst letting the others through the gates, all in the service of the blurry round the edges vision you are slowly trying to craft into something true and defined.”

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?

“I like the actors I work with to know they can explore their characters with me, to have input into forming who they are, but to also trust me when I lead them in a different direction. Trust is key; this is the most important thing in the relationship between director and performer.

“Even if you doubt the thing I’m asking you to do, if you trust the bigger picture I have in mind then that actor can take a leap of faith. I also think it’s important to keep communication clear and concise. Don’t go off on intellectual rambles on set, the time for that is over when you are at camera.”

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

“Independent filmmaking is challenging and scary but also super exciting and kinetic. The Hole in the Ground had so many challenges packed into a tight 24-day shoot. We had the stunts, practical effects (there’s very little CG in the film), multiple location movements, so there was a huge amount of management to keep everything on track. The production team were fantastic though, and everyone fought hard for the cause.

“I think my favourite moment was the second week of shooting when we dug into our first proper horror sequence (Chris eating the spider). Up to that point, we had shot a lot of smaller pieces of the film. I like to play atmospheric music on set to help set the mood for the scene I’m shooting, and I was playing some of Ennio Morricone’s amazing score from The Thing. Playback on the monitor along with this musical backdrop really started freaking some crew out and I starting growing in confidence that we were making something that was really going to get under people’s skin.”

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

“I guess after all of the strange and weird student shorts where I really hadn’t quite figured out what sort of filmmaker I wanted to be, my first professional short was Through the Night, which was made with the same core team as The Hole in the Ground. Myself and my producer John Keville wanted to make something simple and scary that could help us get onto the genre circuit.

“I’m not sure my style has actually changed a whole lot since then, but I have learned more and more about how to try and get as close as possible to the vision in my head. I think this comes with experience, but I also think it comes from having increasingly brilliant people to collaborate with.”

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?

“I like how much choice there is out there. I’m really excited at how horror cinema has really broken through into the mainstream. Alongside superhero movies and musicals, it’s probably the most bankable genre there is. I don’t really dislike any trends in cinema, but I would like to see more mature and event driven thrillers back on the menu. Movies like Silence of The Lambs or Seven, for example.”

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

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was an Amblin kid. It’s not all about Spielberg, but how his movies defined so much that happened in commercial and entertaining cinema in the 80s and beyond. I grew up on this type of material, and you just cannot escape those influences. I struggle to ever pick one movie, or one filmmaker, but I could list Spielberg, Sam Raimi, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Jackson, and Robert Zemeckis, as the directors who have directly influenced my vision of what movies are, and what sort of moves I want to make.”

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

“As I already said above, I always struggle to single anyone out. I’m just so impressed by how Irish cinema has grown into a global force of influence over the last decade. There’s so much talent, whether that’s in genres close to my heart, or in the more niche areas of art-house cinema. I’m constantly overwhelmed that there are so many confident and brave filmmakers really punching holes in the sky. It’s exciting to be a part of this. I remember when we were in Sundance in 2019, and, we were one of I think five Irish movies there. All very different in tone, but to think five out of around one hundred features were Irish, that’s a hell of an impressive batting average.”

Is there an Irish film over the last few years that you wish you had been a part of...?

“When I was young, Some Mother’s Son was shot in my hometown and I pretty much watched the production every day. This really ignited my passion for the process at a young age. One day I finally managed to wrangle a background gig with my dog in hand. We only ended up getting about half a second of screen time, and I always wished I’d had a bigger part so I could have truly tested my acting chops.”

We often are our own worst critics. What is your approach to constructive criticism and inward reflection?

“I think you have to take it. I think there’s no point in fearing notes or alternate points of view. I always try and search for the thought behind it. Not everyone is a brilliant communicator, and just because a note or a piece of criticism gets under your skin doesn’t mean there isn’t value in it; even if that value is to reaffirm your own faith in what you wanted to achieve in the first place.”

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

“There are lots of great bits of advice I’ve been given, by people from all corners of the industry. Although this question is aimed at directors, my answer is more linked to writing. I have no idea anymore who said this to me, or maybe I read it somewhere, but it was ‘If you want to be a writer, you need to write every day’ - I agree with this; even if it’s just the shopping list. Pick up the pen and write it down.

“I guess the message is this and it applies to all creative aspects of the business. Keep making progress, and keep doing it every single day. It’s the only way to stop yourself from sliding back down the greasy pole.”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

“I’ve been lucky to have a couple of film projects deep in development, along with a TV series too. These need constant attention, so they’ve kept me honest and just about busy enough to stop me from crawling up the wall and making a nest in the corner of the ceiling.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.





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