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Q&A: “THE CANAL” Writer/Director Ivan Kavanagh

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THE CANAL is a film aware. Written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh, the Irish horror story doesn’t wink so much as it is solemnly knowing. Focused on a cinema archivist with fears of betrayal and inadequacy, THE CANAL (opening in theaters this Friday from The Orchard) is mindful and referential of the domestic horror films that came before it.

This is cyclical, the film (which we reviewed here) seems to say. We tell these stories because to some degree, they keep happening. That grim understanding fuels the film’s horror, which finds scares less in jolts than in the dread of inevitability. It’s fitting, then, that THE CANAL’s first scene is so doomy. David (Rupert Evans), that timid archivist, introduces a silent film and, straight off the screen to our ears, declares everyone we’re about to see is now dead. It’s yet another silent’s flicker that seals the deal. Amidst suspicions of his wife’s infidelity, David views a crime-scene film from the early 20th century that documents a grisly domestic murder in the very house where David, his wife and young son reside. Ghastly visuals, psychotic breaks and true horror unspool. Here, Kavanagh speaks to FANGORIA about the layers of this austere, ghoulish picture…

FANGORIA: As a domestic horror story, THE CANAL feels very conscious of cinema history and other similar films. What inspired the story, and the metatextual aspects of the narrative?

IVAN KAVANAGH: The starting point for the movie was the idea of a cinema archivist whose nightmares, or madness, or haunting, or whatever it is that is happening in the house—I don’t want to give anything away!—would be colored and influenced by horror cinema.

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I thought it would be fun and interesting for this character to effectively step into his own horror film—and not only that, but to begin it with a starting point that has been used more than any other in this genre: that of the family moving into the house with a horrific past.

It’s very self-aware in that way. At its heart, it also has a very serious and disturbing theme. More than anything else, though, I wanted to create the atmosphere of a nightmare, with the movie becoming more and more nightmarish as it goes along. This is why some of the imagery purposely feels quite raw and uncensored, just like in nightmares where you have no control over the images that pop into your mind, but they usually have a truth and honesty about them, albeit an unconscious one.

Right from its very beginnings, cinema has always been best at recreating a dreamlike feeling, of literally feeling like dreams caught on camera and portraying the disturbing inner workings of the minds of its characters. Indeed, some of the most inventive silent films were horror films, the most famous being Murnau’s NOSFERATU, Dreyer’s VAMPYR, Epstein’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, Sjostrom’s THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE and even Buñuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU. What’s partly so dreamlike about these early movies is, of course, the quality of the stocks and the cameras they shot them with, which is why I wanted to use an authentic hand-cranked camera from 1915 to recreate the old crime-scene films.

FANG: David’s own suspicions and anxiety feel very authentic. What sort of process went into realizing them visually?

KAVANAGH: [Director of photography] Piers McGrail and I worked for months beforehand planning the look of THE CANAL. My idea was that it should begin with very composed and static shots, but then gradually become more and more erratic as it went along, so that handheld shots, for example, were held back until the very end. This, I thought, would reflect the main character’s state of mind. Also, the very controlled use of color was something we carefully planned as well, with the color scheme becoming more and more overtly stylized as the film progresses and his mind disintegrates.

Some of our visual references were DON’T LOOK NOW and one or two other films from that period. We even used lenses from the 1970s to give us a very distinct look, and we increased the intensity of the colors in grading, so that when it was edited alongside the old black-and-white 35mm footage—shot on that 1915 camera—it would really pop off the screen.

FANG: THE CANAL finds its horror in inevitability and total dread. How did horror speak to you as a movie fan and ultimately a filmmaker?

KAVANAGH: Although it’s great when people don’t guess the end or know what is happening next, the film is also about the dread and the terror of watching the inevitable unfold and being unable to do anything about it, and of watching the main character catch up with the audience in that realization. My tastes in cinema are very wide-ranging, and I think that will be clear to anyone who watches any of my films, but the strongest memories I have are of movies that disturbed and frightened me as a child, which were, more often than not, horror films. I hoped with THE CANAL to recapture that feeling those films had on me. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was growing up, the filmmaker Alex Cox presented a TV show on the BBC where he would introduce a double bill of cult movies, and there were a lot of very disturbing and memorable films in his selection that had a profound influence on me and my filmmaking life.

Looking back on them now, I realize that these movies deal with that feeling of dread and the terror of the inevitable. They all have an overwhelming sense of atmosphere and mood, something I worked very hard to achieve in THE CANAL. I wanted to make a film that was dripping with atmosphere, just like all those that had such a profound impact on me.

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FANG: What was your collaboration like with editor Robin Hill (of Ben Wheatley’s KILL LIST and SIGHTSEERS)?

KAVANAGH: I had cut all of my previous films, so I was a little bit nervous about working with another editor. I decided I would only bring on someone whose work I admired, and in whose work I saw similarities to my own style. When I saw Robin Hill’s incredible work on other films and TV, I knew it had to be him. I have to say it was one of the most pleasant, easiest and most creative collaborations I’ve ever had. What was so great about Robin was that he wanted to experiment with the editing as much as I did. Some of it is really very experimental. There are a lot of single-frame cuts in there, rapidly cut sequences followed by single-shot takes, and we even have single-frame split-screen edits in there too, which I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else.

My references for Robin were the films of Nicolas Roeg, which we both love, and also early-cinema-style cutting, which usually took place in camera and so had a very rough, loose and fractured style, which is harder than you’d think to recreate. Robin is an extremely creative editor, and I hope to work with him again on my future projects too.

FANG: The man who haunts David is brutish, feels representative of an old-world masculinity and preys on David’s fear of inadequacy. Do you think modern men are grappling with changing ideas of masculinity/fatherhood?

KAVANAGH: I tried to explore a very disturbing aspect of the male psyche, that of our propensity for violence—usually perpetrated on those closest to us. I was also very interested in those men, usually husbands or boyfriends, who often appear on TV appealing for information on the disappearance or murder of their wives or girlfriends, and then it always turns out that they were the culprits. And afterward, when it all comes out, everyone always says, “And he seemed such a nice guy,” as if we all really project our true personalities to the outside world, or that looks and charm are somehow an indicator of an innate goodness.

I believe many people expect evil to come in the form of a monster—just like the ghost of the brutish killer in the film—and that we will be able to recognize an evil person straightaway. Yet we know from experience that evil is often banal and ordinary. It is sometimes charming and even outwardly sympathetic and handsome, which is truly terrifying. Also, one of the most terrifying aspects of being in relationships is that no matter how long we live with someone or are married to them, we will never truly know them. We will never, ever know what’s going on in their minds. This I find fascinating.

As for whether modern men are grappling with changing ideas of masculinity, I don’t know. I think maybe some men are. What’s relevant to this film is that all people are capable of both great good and great evil, and it is always worth bearing that in mind, and it is very dangerous to think any of us are above that. I read a great quote just today, by Carl Jung, that I thought was very relevant to THE CANAL: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

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About the author
Samuel Zimmerman
Fangoria.com Managing Editor Samuel Zimmerman has been at FANGORIA since 2009, where fresh out of the Purchase College Cinema Studies program, he began as an editorial assistant. Since, he’s honed both his writing and karaoke skills and been trusted with the responsibility of jury duty at Austin’s incredible Fantastic Fest. Zimmerman lives in and hails from The Bronx, New York where his pants are too tight and he’ll watch anything with witches.
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