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"Filmmaking is always a step into the unknown. The stakes are just a little higher now;" Conor McMahon & Ruth Treacy discuss Let the Wrong One In
16 Feb 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Let The Wrong One In
We caught up with writer/director Conor McMahon and producer Ruth Treacy to find out more about the journey of their comedy-horror, Let The Wrong One In, which navigated its way through COVID to film in September, and is currently in post with ambitions for a theatrical release later this year.

The film marks McMahon’s return to Horror after a recent stint directing for TV Drama on Mark O’Connor’s crime drama, Darklands. The genre is where McMahon is most at home, having cut his teeth as a director making horrors such as The Disturbed (2009), Stitches (2012), and From The Dark (2014) over the past two decades. “Most of the horror films I’ve made have been in the countryside, as it provides an isolated setting, but I’ve always wanted to set one closer to home,” Conor told IFTN.

Let the Wrong One In is a fast-paced comedy horror set on the northside of Dublin. The film follows 16-year-old Matt, who is a little too nice for his own good. When he discovers that his older, estranged brother Deco has turned into a vampire, he's faced with a dilemma: will he risk his own life to help his sibling, with blood being thicker than water? Or will he stake him before he spreads the infection further?

“Setting it in Dublin also meant I could lean into the local dialogue and humour that I’ve grown up with," McMahon explained. “It’s something I’ve been developing for a long time too, so it was really exciting to see it come to fruition.”

The film, which is a co-production between Tailored Films (The Lodgers) and McMahon’s own Workshed Films (From the Dark), is financed by Screen Ireland, MPI Media Group, and the BAI, in association with RTE.

Casting

“About 3 years ago, when I’d written the first draft of the script I decided to make a short promo to help sell the idea to financiers,” said McMahon when explaining how they cast rising Irish talents Karl Rice and Eoin Duffy in the roles of Matt and Deco.

“So myself and Michael Lavelle, who is the DOP and also a producer on the project, did a number of casting sessions back in Filmbase (RIP), and we initially found Eoin early in the process,” McMahon continued. “He had us all in stitches laughing and I knew I’d found our Deco.”

McMahon initially thought that Karl, who was 15 at the time, was too young for the part of Matt as they were looking at actors in their twenties. “At the time, the Matt character was the same age as Deco and was his friend not his brother. Michael had worked with Karl before and suggested to him to come along to the auditions. The minute I saw the two guys acting together, it just felt right and it clicked into place.”

Conor quickly rewrote the script to accommodate the new dynamic and then shot a promo with Karl and Eoin, which helped towards securing funding. “What also really helped was over the three years we all got to know each other better and had time to chat through every detail of the script. So when it came time to film that real-life brotherly kind of relationship was already in place.”

Producer Ruth Treacy felt that the friendship and connection between Eoin and Karl was palpable from the moment they began rehearsing together. “You can just feel the strong chemistry of their friendship buzzing from the screen when you watch the film, it’s great to see” 

“We were over the moon with the cast we secured overall - Mary Murray is equally hilarious and terrifying as Sheila, the Queen Vampire. Hilda Fay is a hoot as the boys’ mother whose ultimate dream is to land a place on ‘Winning Streak’. Lisa Haskins is fantastic as Deco’s sassy girlfriend Natalie, and the cast wouldn’t be complete without David Pearse as the slightly unhinged Frank, with his pet rabbit Nidge,” Treacy told IFTN. “We also had a wonderful ensemble of actors as the vampire hen party that caused carnage throughout Dublin.”

Although Rice and Duffy headline the cast as protagonists Matt and Deco, the cast also features Anthony Head as a taxi driver who moonlights as a vampire hunter. Head is best known for playing Rupert Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and was more recently seen in Netflix’s hit series The Stranger from Harlan Coben. 

“We were working with casting director Manuel Puro on the role of Henry, the taxi driving vampire hunter in particular, and it was relatively early in the process when Anthony’s name was suggested,” said Treacy when explaining how Head got involved in the project.  “Immediately it felt like perfect casting, but we weren’t sure if he would be interested in reprising the role of a vampire killer on another project.”

“However, when he read the script, he absolutely loved it - he said it was such a refreshing take on the genre and absolutely hilarious,” Treacy continued. “He was a complete joy to deal with and he also threw himself wholeheartedly into the fun atmosphere of the shoot and did a few of his own stunts too.”

When Head’s name was first suggested, McMahon felt it immediately made sense; “Who else would you call when you have a vampire problem?” 

“I got into Buffy quite late in life and it was only a few years ago I realised what a great show it was. I was delighted when Anthony responded so enthusiastically to the script,” McMahon continued. “He was so lovely to work with and was always looking for ways to contribute to the scenes and add humour."

Pre-Production

Filming was scheduled to take place in Ringsend, as well as the Bram Stoker Museum / Castle Dracula in Clontarf in February with the film fully in pre-production and a week away from filming when the first lockdown hit.

“It was a very surreal time,” Treacy told IFTN. “There were no real guidelines at the very early stages of it, as regards to what we would need to change in relation to our filming plans, so we did feel very much like it was a stab in the dark about the best way forward.”

“However, we began working with a Health & Safety (H&S) consultant Larry Sweetman and began devising Covid contingency plans for the shoot as best we could, but it was a rollercoaster of a time - every day brought new information regarding the virus and we had to be very reactive in terms of our planning,” Treacy explained. 

As the start of filming drew closer, Ruth and the rest of the production were faced with a complicated situation that could be triggered by their Health & Safety concerns; “we knew that if we shut down the entire production without a clear direction or backing from one of our funders to do so, then it would be an insurance risk for all the money that had been spent in pre-production.”

Thankfully, a recommendation was made by the national screen body before production attempted to get underway; “It was actually a relief when Screen Ireland did advise us to shut down - we knew that this was the safest and wisest decision for the safety of our cast and crew, and one we all agreed with.”

“We didn’t anticipate that it would take nearly 6 months before we were ready to get back filming again though, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted in early March last year just how the entire year (and this year) would have been impacted by Covid,” Treacy conceded.

At the time of the initial shutdown, McMahon recalled having concerns about holding on to the key locations and rescheduling shoot dates with the cast; “Mark Kilbride had put so much work into the house and it would have been a shame to have to start from scratch again. Making sure we were able to get Anthony back over, during a lockdown was another concern.”

However, the writer/director explained that he has learned to be “more philosophical” when faced with these kinds of obstacles. “You can usually discover something positive if you’re open to it. This extra time helped me re-work the script and have it in better shape when it came time to film. Also knowing that we would be able to keep our location (thankfully!) gave us more time to plan the shots.”

Let the Wrong One In is currently being edited remotely in Belfast with the aim of a Halloween 2021 release, with MPI Media group handling international sales. 

"The edit is going well,” McMahon told IFTN. “We had a positive response from a test screening last week. Again this is another way Covid is impacting us. A test screening would normally be done in a cinema so you could really get a feel for how people were responding live to the film. So we just had to rely on a Zoom conversation after people watched the film separately. It was still possible to get an idea of what was working and what areas needed more TLC.”

“As regards to the release of the film, I think I will be really sad if I don’t get to show this film in a cinema. It’s really where a horror/comedy comes to life. Also being able to travel to different festivals was always such a privilege, and again to not be able to do that would be a real shame. But you never know. Fingers crossed that vaccine works!”

Planning and Preparation

The film finally had the opportunity to film last September after the first lockdown was lifted, and the production was conducted under strict COVID guidelines. “We had a lot of time to prepare in the intervening months between March and August when we resumed prep!” Treacy told IFTN. 

“Myself and producers Trisha Flood and Julianne Forde worked further on our covid safety plan for filming, and we kept updating it as the weeks passed. Trisha did a huge amount of work in this regard in terms of PPE and covid testing planning, and Julianne did extensive research on tech solutions for remote monitoring so that we could minimise the numbers on set. 

“We also had regular zoom calls as a team to discuss the logistical and scheduling challenges, as well as the safety plans. Michael Lavelle (DOP and producer) and Conor worked more on the storyboarding and planning how to capture the essence of a scene with new variables (less crew on set, fewer extras for a ‘busy’ scene, less time on set, etc). 

“Conor also rewrote many scenes in the script to make them safer for filming under Covid restrictions,” Treacy added.

When asked what was key to ensuring productions run safely and efficiently while filming during this period, Ruth said: “I think that preparation and a clear-cut plan, which has contingencies built into it, is the key. It’s like planning a manual - if X happens,  then the resulting action should be Y, and breaking that kind of plan down into intricate detail for many different scenarios is critical.”

“In terms of safety - the plan is vital obviously, but in terms of efficiency, it is also very useful.  It’s about planning for, and managing cast and crew anxieties about health and safety as much as it’s about managing the physical protocols such as PPE and testing that needed to be put in place,” Treacy explained.

The six-month hiatus was put to good use by the production team by making the most of the additional prep time, which saw the shoot run more efficiently. “Everyone was well briefed on the new challenges that would be at play once we began filming, and so everyone massively committed to being prepared for this in advance. Communication between production and crew worked really well and there was a really good collaborative team atmosphere as a result.”

Although the film was low budget and it was not possible to quarantine the entire cast and crew, the production team did implement a colour-coded pod system for set groupings and access, which was defined by wristbands. “We filmed over continuous days and people stopped for short staggered lunch breaks (lunch was delivered in a hot box) and we had a medic and a covid officer on set at all times. Overall it went very smoothly, which is obviously a huge relief and we can attribute this to a very solid plan in advance, but also a degree of luck.”

McMahon believes that the fact that the entire production knew that they were in for a challenge put everyone in a really good mindset. “There was an unspoken acknowledgement that time was more precious and we needed to use it effectively,” Conor explained. “It’s like when we used to shoot on film stock. You just planned more and took more care in what you were filming, because it was so much more expensive. In that way, I found the production ran more smoothly than it often has without Covid. Fewer people on set + Less chatting = More time to shoot.”

Additional costs

The production was faced with significant additional costs when shooting under COVID restrictions in September, but as a Screen Ireland-supported film had the luxury of availing of their COVID Contingency Fund, which assisted in covering a large portion of these additional costs. “I don’t know if it really would have been possible to produce the film with the same level of ambition at all, had it not been for their support,” Treacy admitted.

“Aside from our initial pre-production costs in February and March, there were costs associated with remounting the shoot and resuming prep in August. There were also costs associated with PPE purchases (we used the high-grade FFP2 masks for all crew on set), PCR testing of cast regularly and crew at certain intervals, costs of additional Covid crew on-site (and a medic), costs associated with remote monitoring requirements, cleaning, sanitising, location adjustments, etc. A lot overall!” Treacy explained.

Adapting to COVID

Although COVID has been with us for almost a year, there remains a lot of doubt about pursuing productions in the current environment. “I think we have to learn to adapt to this new environment. Who knows how long this might go on for, so I think it’s important that filmmaking doesn’t stop,” McMahon argued.

“There are always new and inventive ways to approach things. Of course, there are increased risks involved and every production is different, but to some degree, there are always risks to every film we do and we just need to try and minimise them. It’s important that fear and uncertainty doesn’t get the upper hand. Filmmaking is always a step into the unknown. The stakes are just a little higher now.”

Concerns from funders and production teams about pursuing productions at this moment in time are completely understandable, according to Treacy. “Whilst we were under level 5 lockdown for the final ten days of our shoot on Let the Wrong One in, the current lockdown feels like a very different animal and a lot more concerning, due to the increased transmission rates of the UK variant of Covid.”

“If I was starting prep on another production at this moment in time (February), I would likely be more concerned than I was last autumn when the case numbers and hospitalisations were less severe,” Treacy argued. “Having said all that, things do seem to be moving in the right direction, and I would be hopeful that in a month or two, it will feel safer for productions to get back out there filming.”

“I think it’s a very challenging time for the film and TV industry as a whole, that’s for sure. Covid has impacted on small productions all the way through to much bigger ones, who have encountered shutdowns and major disruptions, which cost them dearly too,” Treacy outlined. “There is no ‘golden’ production level that won’t be affected by the challenges of shooting during Covid.”

Optimism and Looking to the future

Treacy believes that attracting crew will be “very tricky” when the industry does open back up fully due to a huge surge of productions looking to shoot. “I can completely understand a producer wanting to be first out of the starting blocks to resume production, once things are deemed safe all round to do so,” Treacy told IFTN.

Although appreciative of the Government's PUP support to those out of work due to the pandemic, Treacy feels that difficulties will arrive when these supports cease and people still struggle to find work. “I think it could be worth looking at continuing additional mentoring and development and company supports, such as the ones that Screen Ireland introduced last year, and maybe adding a new strand of short film funding this year potentially,” Treacy suggests.

“I would be hopeful that when the industry fully reopens later this year (all going well), that there will be a backlog of productions looking to shoot and that crew members will find work quite easily. 

“It will be hard at that point though for smaller productions to compete against the rates that bigger productions can offer, and in this regard, I think it would be helpful if there was some additional industry support to help production teams working on tighter budgets to actually get their film made (maybe some costs to assist in matching crew rates so they can attract crew that they want). It's quite an uncertain time but I am hopeful we will be in a very different place within 12 months’ time.”

Although the current environment is far from ideal for creatives alike, McMahon believes that it is also up to “us as artists to find ways to stay creative, and not get stuck.”

“Maybe that means using the time to develop ideas, make socially distant films. I think as artists we can often fall into the trap of making excuses not to make stuff,” McMahon continued. 

“And we have a great excuse now, but a film like Host is a really good example of people who got together, shared their talents, took advantage of the free time people have and made a really good film. So I think there will always be challenges to making films, and this is just another one. So the same rules apply. You just need the will and creativity.”

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