26 September 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
‘The Survivalist’ writer/director Stephen Fingleton talks to IFTN
13 Jul 2015 : Seán Brosnan
Stephen Fingleton – writer and director of ‘The Survivalist’ which screened to very positive responses at the Galway Film Fleadh
IFTN were at the Galway Film Fleadh last week where they caught up with Northern Irish writer/director Stephen Fingleton - whose debut feature ‘The Survivalist’ screened to a very positive response on Friday, July 10.

The response meant it was a festival hat-trick for the young filmmaker – as ‘The Survivalist’ – which was on the Hollywood black list in 2012 along with last year’s Oscar winning film ‘Whiplash’ - had previously screened to acclaim at Tribeca and Belfast earlier this year.

Starring Martin McCann, Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth, the film is about a survivalist who lives off a small plot of land hidden deep in forest. When two women seeking food and shelter discover his farm, he finds his existence threatened resulting in a very uneasy and tense living arrangement.

Also screening his new short ‘Awaydays’ (a prequel to ‘The Survivalist’ helmed by friend Michael Lennox who directed Oscar nominated ‘Boogaloo and Graham’) at the Fleadh, we managed to pull Stephen away from his very busy schedule for a chat.

IFTN: Three festival screenings and three very positive responses for ‘The Survivalist’ is certainly a very good start for your debut feature…

Stephen Fingleton: ‘Yeah, it has done relatively well. I wouldn’t say that it’s a film that people can’t ignore. But the more festivals we screen at, the more coverage we will get and the more advocates we will have. We could end up being distributed in the US, Britain and Ireland before the end of the year so it could be a pretty fast release.’

It’s Alchemy who have sealed the deal to distribute in the US isn’t it?

‘Alchemy have the US - and UK and Ireland is currently being finalized – there’s a deal being negotiated.’

‘The Survivalist’ begins with an extended period without dialogue and certainly has some harrowing scenes throughout – was the film a hard sell for you?

‘The script didn’t have any dialogue in the first 20 pages. So, when we made ‘Magpie’ (short prequel also starring McCann, Fouere and Goth) we made a film without dialogue to prove it could work. It was a difficult sell – the script was recognized as being a significant piece of writing but there was a lack of appetite among producers, financiers and, to a certain extent, sales agents to take on something as difficult as this. There was a combination of reasons for that. One of them is it’s a very director dependent project. Despite my short films, I wasn’t necessarily perceived as being a director that people were looking for projects for. I hadn’t come from a TV background or I hadn’t won a BAFTA. There’s also a lack of curiosity to even watch shorts if they haven’t been forced under your nose. So, it was challenging but I chose a route for the film where I knew it would get made.’

With this story in particular, you have had the short films ‘Magpie’ and ‘Awaydays’ and now ‘The Survivalist’ – is this a world that has been in your head for a long time?

‘The world is where the story came from and there are many stories to be told in that world. The best story I have is ‘The Survivalist’. But, there are interesting variations of that which can show different facets of it. ‘Magpie’ was the first film we made and it’s about the ways in which women might survive in such a male-driven and predatory world. ‘Awaydays’ is about the origins of characters who might already be prepared for what’s going to happen. So, it’s filling in spaces and shadows of the main story.’

And you chose not to direct ‘Awaydays’..

‘No, that was directed by my friend Michael Lennox. There’s a combination of reasons about why I didn’t direct but it couldn’t be in better hands and Michael made a very exciting and edgy film. He had a huge direction on the completed script – it was a completely different script when it arrived in his hands and I developed it with him.’

After directing your other projects then, did you find it hard to back away with ‘Awaydays’?

‘Not when you trust the filmmaker and Michael is someone I would like to work with again. It was a very strong collaboration and I am just excited to see more of Michael’s work.’

You are also taking part in the Northern Ireland Screen event here entitled Short Cut To Features where yourself and Michael Lennox are put forward as excellent examples of two Northern Irish filmmakers that have thrived on the short film circuit before making their first features…

‘It’s great to do that and myself and Michael actually share the same producer (Robert Jones) on our first feature films. It’s good for the two of us to talk about our different backgrounds and we do have very different backgrounds. I made guerrilla short films, he went to the National Film and Television School and it’s interesting that our paths have entwined so tightly along the way.’

With all your short films (including the Oscar shortlisted 'SLR') and certainly with ‘The Survivalist’ you have a very unique style – something that has been there from the start that leaves all your work very tight and polished – can you tell us a little about how you developed and maintained that style?

‘My editor (Mark Towns) is my closest collaborator. We have worked together for 11 or 12 years now and Mark’s tastes have had a significant effect on the pacing, the choice of shots and the protection we offer the actors in post-production. I think the most important thing to do when making short films is not to make them as though you are making short films. Don’t have short film soundtracks or short film stories – do something that feels like its’ a section of a feature film and a great feature film at that – a really fantastic, commanding one. You have to make films as though your eye is always on the prize of a massive, international audience or a discerning audience. Typically short films are watched by short film makers so they are particularly sensitive to cliché or over-familiar tropes. So, the primary thing to do when making a short film – from the first second to the last – is tell people that you are different and you’re good. Don’t accept scenes that you wouldn’t accept yourself if you were in an audience. Everything has to be interesting and be the best it can be. Everything has to have a sense of style so that you can earn your audiences trust in a very short space of time.’

So, what else do you have in the pipeline then – are you writing at the minute?

‘I am currently finishing a script for Working Title. It’s a thriller set in 2004 in London and it’s about a man who connects a number of corrupt institutions together and finds himself compromised thanks to his attraction to a woman. I am also developing a science fiction film for an American company which is quite a big budget affair. It’s kind of like ‘Total Recall’ for the Julien Assange generation.’

Finally, what films have piqued your interest at the Fleadh this year?

‘I watched ‘The President’ (directed by Galway Hooker Award winner Mohsen Makhmalbaf) and thought it was brilliant – a truly powerful allegory about power and survival. I also saw ‘The Wolfpack of Tribeca’ and thought it was a truly sensational documentary. I am going to see Mark Cousins documentary ‘I Am Belfast’ and I am very much looking forward to watching that – I think Mark is a genius.’

Stay tuned to IFTN for an interview with ‘The Survivalist’ lead actor Martin McCann.

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