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“It's one of the only remaining genres where you can push boundaries and be subversive”; Ivan Kavanagh discusses his horror, Son
19 Mar 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Writer/director Ivan Kavanagh on set of Son.
Following the Irish premiere of his unnerving character-driven horror at VMDIFF where he picked up the George Byrne Maverick Award from the Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards, we caught up with writer/director Ivan Kavanagh to find out more about his new film, Son.

The film managed to wrap principal production in Mississippi before COVID but was affected during post-production with Kavanagh moving from Sweden to Ireland briefly for this process. “We were very lucky with shooting the film when we did, as the next film after us into Mississippi was Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, which, as you know, was shut down, but later finished,” Kavanagh told IFTN

Although the film had to be completed remotely, Kavanagh felt that post-production went surprisingly smoothly. “During the edit we used a mix of screen sharing software called Evercast with my editor Robin Hill. Sound post began remotely using live sound sharing software with Aza Hand; the sound designer and composer on the film, but I was flying back and forth to Dublin after I had done a mix of Covid tests and some quarantining to wait for the all clear,” Ivan explained.

Son marks Kavanagh return to Horror, a genre most synonymous with the director’s work (Tin Can ManThe Canal), after a successful dip into the western genre with Never Grow Old starring John Cusack and Emile Hirsch. “I like horror because it allows me to experiment with cinema,” Kavanagh told IFTN. “I find you can push the sound and picture to its most extreme and the audience will still accept it in a horror movie.

“It's one of the only remaining genres where you can push boundaries and be subversive, which is really attractive to me in increasingly conservative times, cinematically speaking, Ivan continued. “I’ve also become more and more attracted over the years to pure cinema in the Hitchcock sense, using framing, sound, considered camera movement, POV shots and editing to create atmosphere, tension, and a visceral cinema experience. Horror allows me to do that.”

Kavanagh’s latest film, similar to his previous horror The Canal, is on the more thoughtful side, something certain horror fans would describe as an “elevated horror”; a term that Kavanagh is not keen on.  “I don’t like the phrase ’Elevated Horror’”, Kavanagh told IFTN. “I think it’s often used by filmmakers who think they are too good for or above the genre.”

“There has always been more thoughtful horror movies, as horror is perfect for exploring, abstractly, more serious themes,” Ivan continued. “Night of the Living Dead, for example, as we all know, explores racism, but can also be enjoyed as a pure horror movie, Dawn of the Dead, similarly, explores consumerism, if that’s what you want to see in it, and there are many more examples.

“I poured my own fears as a new parent into Son, as well as my of fear of hospitals and illness, and was, when writing, thinking about how male violence is passed down from generation to generation, and whether the mothers of these boys have any real control over stopping this if it’s part of the child’s nature, as well as thinking about motherhood and its boundaries,” Kavanagh explained. “If the audience wants to read all of that into the film they can, but alternatively they can just see it as a pure horror movie that I hope is visceral and cinematic, as I like nothing better than creating atmosphere and completely immersive cinematic worlds.”

Origins

Kavanagh started writing the film shortly after the difficult birth of his first son, which caused a lot of anxiety and worry for Kavanagh and his wife during the first few months. “I’m also a natural worrier, so that didn’t help,” Kavanagh confessed. However, during this time, Kavanagh saw first-hand how close his wife and son were becoming and how special the bond between mother and child can be. “This got me thinking about how far a mother would go to protect her child. Is there anything she wouldn’t do? This got me started on the script, which I mostly wrote during those sleepless and stressful nights.”

Son  follows Laura (Halloween’s Andi Matichak) who, having escaped from a cult as a child,  must face her past when its sinister members break into her home and attempt to steal her eight-year-old son, David (Luke David Blumm). Now the two find themselves on the run pursued by a detective determined to save them both (Emile Hirsch), but since his aborted kidnapping something has changed in David and the boy has become extremely ill. Following her maternal instincts to save him, Laura commits unspeakable acts to keep him alive but soon, she must decide how far she is willing to go to save her son.

Shorthand

Son sees Kavanagh reteaming with a number of previous collaborators including composer Aza Hand who acted as composer and worked on Sound Design on Kavanagh’s 2019 Western, along with editor Dermot Diskin, as well as DoP Piers McGrail and production designer, John Leslie; both of whom won IFTA Awards for their work on Never Grow Old.

“For me, one of the most important aspects of filmmaking has always been to surround myself with like-minded creative people, who are willing to work as hard as I do, and who can help me realise the film I want to make,” Kavanagh explained when discussing his collaboration with crew.

“Piers McGrail; DoP, John Leslie; Production Designer, Robin Hill; Editor, and Aza Hand; Sound Designer and Composer, amongst others I repeatedly work with, are exceptionally talented people, who I also happen to get along with, like being around and working with, and who make the creative process fun, which is the way it always should be,” Ivan continued. “They are collaborators in the true sense of the word, bringing all of their ideas and skills to the table, often enhancing my original vision, but ultimately leaving the final decisions to me.”

Casting

Son also sees Kavanagh continue his collaboration with Hollywood star Emile Hirsch (Into The Wild), following their work together on 2019 ‘s Never Grow Old. “Emile and I had enjoyed working with each other on Never Grow Old and at the end of that shoot he said if there was anything else I thought he might be right for give him a call. So I sent him the script for Son and he liked it,” Kavanagh told IFTN.

“Emile is very professional and invested in his work; does a lot of prep before filming, which I like, and he responds very well to my directing style. He is also a very good upbeat presence to have on set; getting along with everyone.”

Andi Matichak stars as Laura, the lead in the film and comes off the back of her work in Halloween, which catapulted the actress into the centre of the Horror world in 2018. “I had seen Halloween of course, and liked her in that, and one of the producers in the US had worked with her previously and set up a Skype call for Andi and I,” Kavanagh told IFTN.

“I don’t like to audition actors in the traditional sense, I just like talking to them and seeing what they are like as a person. I saw at once that Andi was instantly likeable, highly intelligent, and charismatic, and I knew that the audience would like her and follow her no matter what her character did in the film, which was essential for the film to work,” Ivan continued. “It was an absolute pleasure working with her, she is a terrific actor, totally invested in her work, and she is certainly another creative person I would like to work with again.”

The casting child actors in horror films can always be tricky with Luke David Blumm taking on the role of David, Laura’s son in the film. Over 500 kids auditioned in New York and L.A. but Kavanagh and the casting team had to look elsewhere. “I knew, like the children in The Canal and Never Grow Old, that I wanted a child actor that seemed like a real kid on screen, not a movie kid,” said Kavanagh.

“When we couldn’t find any that I thought were right, I asked the casting directors to open the auditions up to local casting, so Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee, which is when we received an audition tape from Luke,” Ivan continued. “I knew the moment I saw it that this was the kid, so the next day I drove down to Atlanta where Luke is from and I met with him and his father, Matthew. I then had Luke do some improv and read some scenes on camera, which confirmed that I was right.”

Irish Premiere

Being selected for a festival back home is always a highlight with Kavanagh’s film debuting last Saturday at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival. “DIFF has been a supporter of my films for many years, which has always been a thrill for me as many of my most memorable cinema experiences were at the festival, starting when I was a teenager in the late 1980s when my uncle used to take me every year to see many great films,” said Kavanagh.

“It is very important that festivals stay alive, as supporters of new talent, presenting films to audiences that they might not get the chance to see otherwise, and because this worrying time will, hopefully, soon pass, and DIFF and other festivals, and their audiences, will return to the cinemas where they belong,” Kavanagh continued.

There is no doubt that horror is particularly well suited to theatrical spaces, with the emphasis on sound and the communal feeling of dread and relief that the genre brings. The film is set to release theatrically in the US, but distribution remains a constantly shifting landscape in the currently climate. “Right up the day before the release we still didn’t know the exact number of cinemas it would be playing in as the situation is so fluid in America. It’s really crazy,” Kavanagh told IFTN.

However, Kavanagh has been delighted with the reaction to the film so far; “I am just so happy that audiences will see it in any way they can.” Although the cinema experience cannot be beaten, as Son made the film with the cinema screen and sound in mind, Kavanagh was still enthusiastic about enjoying the film in a home cinema environment; “some of my best and most unsettling ways of watching horror movies in the past have been on my laptop, with earphones on, volume full blast, in a darkened room. This is also a great way to watch my film Son.”

A release date is expected to be revealed for Son when plans for Irish cinemas to reopen later this year.





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