The Irish psychological thriller The Winter Lake will have its world premiere online at the Galway Film Fleadh on Friday night with director Phil Sheerin telling RTÉ Entertainment that he hopes to have his big screen debut in cinemas at the end of the year.
Written by David Turpin and starring Anson Boon, Charlie Murphy, Emma Mackey and Michael McElhatton, The Winter Lake tells the story of a troubled mother and son (Murphy and Boon) who move from the UK to the family's old farmhouse in Ireland in a bid to start over. But their lives become even more complicated when they meet the father and daughter (McElhatton and Mackey) who live next to them .
Below, director Phil Sheerin talks about making the film.
Harry Guerin: In what ways did this story get its claws into you when you read it for the first time and how soon did you know that you wanted to make it?
Phil Sheerin: It's all about character for me. I really have to care about them and find a way to make the story feel personal. That happened right from the off. There was something in the loneliness of the characters that struck a chord with me, particularly Charlie Murphy's character, Elaine. There was a real depth to her psychology, she felt so real. The writer, David Turpin, did a fantastic job.
What were the touchstone films where you said, 'I want that spirit and atmosphere in The Winter Lake'?
There were two films that weaved in and out of my thoughts throughout the entire process. Boy A by John Crowley and Blue Velvet by David Lynch. They are very different films but each played a huge part in organising The Winter Lake in my head. In Boy A I loved how John Crowley effortlessly got us to really care about the main character, even though that character is so restrained and holds himself at distance to the world around him. Blue Velvet was vital as I wanted the same intense focus on the dark psychology of the characters. I'm far more interested in what psychologically motivates a character then I am in anything else.
Your central quartet all do excellent jobs in their roles. In each case what was the one thing above all others that made you want them on screen?
Anson Boon, who plays Tom, just blew me away in the audition. He was so bright and insightful. He had an idea for who Tom was and he committed 100%. That same level of commitment lasted throughout the entire shoot. He was always so engaged and had great ideas.
Emma Mackey has that incredible ability to communicate so much emotion while doing so little. You really get the feeling that there is so much going on beneath the surface. It draws you in; you can't take your eyes off her. This was vital for her character, Holly. We need to feel how vulnerable she is beneath her brash exterior.
Charlie Murphy is simply brilliant. We both had so much love for her character and Charlie treated her with such compassion. That was what was needed as her character goes through the most complex arc. It needed someone as sensitive and open as Charlie as it would be easy for the audience to judge her character too negatively and I really didn't want that.
Michael McElhatton has a powerful screen presence and is so skilful that I felt incredibly lucky and safe to be working with him. What I wasn't expecting was how playful he was when bringing his character to life. Michael was always trying to find something new. He really transformed the character of Ward. It was a lot of fun to watch.
Did you have much time with the four of them together before filming began?
We had about four days. I don't really do a lot of rehearsing. I prefer the talking approach - one to one, go grab a coffee, chat about the character, the themes, certain scenes etc. I want a back-and-forth happening, asking each other questions. The goal is to find touchstones in each other's lives that ground the character, make it feel as real as possible.
Francis Ford Coppola said in a recent Empire interview: "It's normal when a director is making a film they're in a state of fear." What was your experience of that on The Winter Lake?
Yeah, I've heard that, but I'm actually pretty relaxed on set. I think this comes down to the fact that I've always been surrounded by such amazing people. Development is the part of the process that gives me most nightmares. It always feels like the film is hanging by a thread, that until I'm actually shooting I'm holding my breath.
Did your cast have invaluable advice for you as a first-time feature director?
Not really any advice per se. The cast just impressed the hell out of me every day. I see my primary job to be there for them. Actors will always have an interpretation of the scene and know what their character wants. We then work on that together, finding the moments of raw honesty in the scene, making adjustments for staging and tone etc. As long as we have talked it out in prep I let the actors take the lead on set. This has always worked well for me and actors really like it.
What were the surprising things you learned about filmmaking, and yourself, on The Winter Lake?
This might sound weird, but the surprising thing I learned was how well-prepared making short films makes you for a feature. It's so easy to build up the idea of making a feature film and in the process over-complicate it. But it's the same as making a short: you just do it a little bit at a time. I found that very reassuring. Elsewhere, I learned a lot from the film's writer, David Turpin. His approach to process was very different from mine. He uses symbolism not only to provide context and subtext but as a way to construct the entire narrative. I found it fascinating. John Walters, the editor, was also a great teacher and was the film's greatest ally. What impressed me most about John, and the thing I wish to improve upon myself, is his ability to stay emotionally engaged to the material at all times. It's easy for editing to turn into a technical exercise, but you can't let that happen and John never did. And Ruairí O'Brien, the Director of Photography, he was such a positive presence on set. He loves the process. His ability to adapt and find solutions was really impressive.
Looking back, is there anything you would've liked to have spent more time on or change?
You always want more time on anything that involves vehicles or action in particular, but that's mainly for technical reasons. In terms of things I would like to change, it's more that I would be very curious to see what the pure arthouse version of the film would be like if the film pushed the weirder elements and relationships to an extreme degree. For example, there are these nods to fairytales that David [Turpin, writer] peppered throughout the script. Pushing them to the foreground might have been a lot of fun.
After the Fleadh, when do you hope a wider audience will be able to see the film?
The Fleadh is its premiere. After that it will go on to a few more festivals before it becomes available to the public, hopefully at the end of the year.
What are you planning next?
I'm developing two films. One is a drama that revolves around a missing person, the impact it has on the families involved and the wider implications that has on the community. The other is a high concept witch-hunt/witch trial movie of sorts, set in modern times. They are coming along really well and I'm enjoying writing them.
The Winter Lake will have its world premiere online at the Galway Film Fleadh on Friday, July 10 at 9:00pm. For tickets, visit: www.galwayfilmfleadh.com.