Victims of the fallacy of the Celtic Tiger myth, a young couple find themselves marooned in a development of never occupied houses and engaged in a clash between humans and nature whilst their sanity slowly unravels in Lorcan Finnegan’s foreboding short, Foxes. Following an impressive festival run, Foxes makes its online debut today so we took the opportunity to sit down with Lorcan for a discussion about Ireland’s ghost estates and the challenges of wrangling vulpine performers.
You began your career as a graphic/motion designer, how did you make the jump to directing?
After college I got a job as a runner with a production company in London who were making comedy content for the first ‘video phones’ to be coming out. I quickly started editing the stuff that we were shooting and designing titles for the sketches. So I learned a lot during that time. I was there for two years before moving back to Dublin and setting up my own production company. The first thing we produced was a 13 x 30 min compilation series of short films from around the world called Wonderscreen for TV3. I had been watching shorts on DVD compilations that came with design and art magazines like Specialten and iDN but this was pre YouTube and Vimeo, so not that many people were getting to see short films.
While producing the show I watched about a thousand shorts, it was very inspiring. After watching so many I really wanted to make one. I wrote three short scripts and sent them to the Irish Film Board for funding. They ended up funding my first short film Changes, a mixture of live action and animation. Making that short was such good fun that I started directing full time.
You founded Lovely Productions with Brunella Cocchiglia in 2004, and along with Foxes you made Conor Finnegan’s Fear of Flying (an animated favorite of ours). Would you say there’s an overriding philosophy behind the personal projects produced at Lovely?
Well Brunella is my wife and Conor is my brother, so we are all very close. When we set up Lovely the overriding philosophy was to only make the kind of work that we want to see.
Foxes began life as a short story Garret Shanley posted on his blog. How did the two of you work together to adapt it for the short?
As a bit of a preamble, Garret and I met in 2007 at Catalyst Project, a series of seminars and workshops aimed at making low budget features. I was looking for a writer and he was looking to hook up with a director. We’ve worked together on stories since then but Foxes was the first project that got made in collaboration. Garret writes a blog called FUGGER and I read it whenever I can. I read a short story he wrote called Foxes.
The story wasn’t very long and was written in the third person so the characters were sort of vague but the idea was there and a strong central theme was evident. I loved it. I called Garret and said we should work it into a short script. We made her a photographer, him a techie guy who has to commute to work and we worked on each scene in more filmic terms. We wanted there to be very little dialogue and to use mostly visual exposition. Garret probably wrote about four drafts in the end and we made a few revisions and condensed scenes while shooting. So inevitably what ended up as the short film was slightly different to the original blog post but not all that far off.
Would you say the foxes in the story are a force for good (freedom) or ill (savagery)?
I see them as a force of nature, how you perceive nature is how you perceive the foxes. Personally, I see them as a force for good and for freedom. Ellen wants to escape.
The ghost estate where James and Ellen live feels like an eternal limbo, devoid of life and impossible to escape from. Is it based on an actual location in Ireland? How much do you see it as a reflection of Ireland’s fall after the country’s economic exuberance during the boom times?
The location is a real ‘ghost estate’. There were about 100 houses in the development but only about 5 were occupied. So many people in Ireland were conned into believing that they had to ‘get on the property ladder’. House prices were soaring and the government was giving grants to builders to build huge developments in the middle of nowhere. People were buying off plans, confident that they would double their money within a few years. When everything crashed the builders pulled out and left hundreds of developments half finished. They litter the country like graveyards. The few unlucky people who bought in these ghost estates can’t sell up, they can’t borrow to move and they still have to pay back the massive loan they took out to buy the house that is now worth very little. They are trapped. So I wanted the place to feel like purgatory, a strange suburban limbo.
The story and film are very much a statement about how we live our lives today, buying into the social contract and the consequences of turning your back on the wild. Garret and I never shut up about that kind of thing, we are like a pair of witches. I made a short film in 2007 called DEFACED about street art vs corporate advertising. There was a character trapped in a poster for a bank advertising mortgages and he wanted to escape and join the street art characters on the opposite wall. The poster that he was trapped in read ‘Get a Life, Get a Mortgage’. At the time it was very much the norm to see advertising like that. People bought into it, they were tricked. Foxes is what happened four years later.
How did you go about casting your two leads Marie Ruane and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor? What did you have them do in the audition process?
I worked with a great casting director and had a very clear idea of what I was looking for when casting Ellen. I was trying to find a woman who looked like a Fox. Not that easy! In the castings I asked them to play out some of the few scenes with dialogue, to laugh and look like they were excited, then look mad, walk around in a dream like state and to act like a fox. The laughing was for the scene when Ellen chases after the Fox. I wanted there to be a childlike wild innocence but also an element of madness. When playing the fox I cornered them in the room with my camera and wanted them to react. I saw a lot of people for Ellen. I cast in Dublin and London and saw both actors and models. Weirdly Marie was actually the first person I saw. I only really continued just to make sure she was the perfect choice. She gave an incredible performance in the casting and when she was on all fours in the corner of the room and suddenly turned and screamed at me as a fox, my blood ran cold.
James’s character was easier. I was really only interested in about five actors for that role (that I could realistically get) and Tom was one of them. Because Tom and some of the others had big agents it was offer only. I knew Marie was going to be Ellen, so I had to find a guy to suit her. So I whittled the list down to two actors, both living in London. The idea was that I meet them for a chat, and then make my decision. Tom is a great guy, he loved the script, completely understood the theme and what was happening to Irish people caught up in this ‘Celtic Tiger’ crap. I knew that he was right for the role so offered him the part.
How did you work with Marie to build the convincing de-evolution of Ellen across the film?
We rehearsed some of the scenes quite a bit but mostly we just talked about the character and what was happening to her. The rest was down to visual language, her fading away and re-emerging as a wilder Ellen. Wardrobe and hair and makeup played a large part visually but Marie was able to adjust her performance for each scene, giving the impression that her character was transforming.
There’s the danger that James could come off as a cold bully. Were there particular measures you and Tom took to ensure James was perceived more as a concerned pragmatist?
There were certain scenes written to give the audience the sense that James was basically a good guy, he was trying to ‘get on with it’ and be pragmatic whereas Ellen was being called into the twilight world of the foxes. James fixing Ellen’s computer at the beginning was important. He fixes things, but he also has compassion. James cuts the grass after Ellen leaves, struggling to control the natural forces around him. He locks the car door when hearing the foxes around him. He also locks the front door of the house. Again, he tries to control what is happening to him.
The trickiest scene was when James finds Ellen sleeping during the day like a nocturnal creature and tries to gently wake her. He soon snaps and decides to take charge of the situation by pulling the duvet off the bed. Ellen then flees and James, unsure what he is going to do, pursues. We rehearsed and blocked that scene carefully and edited it a bunch of different ways to ensure that James didn’t look like he was going to attack Ellen. It was a difficult balance to strike but I think his character works quite well. Again, most of the planning was done through talking about the character with Tom and understanding him.
There are hints of Ellen’s foxlike nature seeded early in the short, such as when she lopes after the fox with her camera. Were accents like that explicitly set out on the page or did they develop through performance?
A little of both really. We wanted to hint at Ellen’s animalistic qualities and her wildness, so some of it was planned through wardrobe and visual language. Like the strange way in which Ellen reacts to the spilt coffee, Ellen picking up the scavenged sandwiches in her bare feet and the way she runs after the fox. Of course Marie’s performance was integral to all of this, she made it work.
You originally planned to use blue as an indicator of the foxes’ presence and techniques such as ‘deep’ and ‘limited’ space compositions to convey the difference between Ellen and James respectively. How did your and Cinematographer Miguel de Olaso’s approach to the visual language of Foxes develop over the course of production?
We talked a lot before shooting, probably for months actually. We both found references for lighting and kept uploading them to a dropbox folder. From treatment to execution things always change around a little, if they didn’t it wouldn’t be a creative process, for me anyway. I realized that I didn’t need the blue lighting for the fox scenes, sound design was enough. Also Ellen’s one blue eye and one brown eye were graded to up the contrast during those moments. In terms of the shooting within limited and deep space I pretty much stuck to the plan. Miguel and I worked very well together; we were both after the same thing. I’m looking forward to working with him again soon.
Did the solutions for tackling the various effects shots dictate the practicalities of shooting Foxes?
My VFX supervisor, John O’Connell is very experienced and generally says that anything can be tracked and not to worry. So the VFX didn’t impede or dictate how we shot, I just kept in mind what I was going to do with shots in post.
How did you get the fox performances needed for the film?
Working with real foxes was both amazing and a nightmare. We had two wild foxes that had been rescued and were in an animal shelter. They were wrangled by the animal handler, Eddie Drew. We also used both full CG foxes and, for the final shot, a mixture of CG and real fox. Initially I was concerned that because the final shot was going to be a close up, we couldn’t use CG as it would look too fake. So I was going to have an animatronic built. But there were risks with the animatronic head too. It would have to match the real fox (which we hadn’t found at the time when the animatronic would have to be built), it risked looking dodgy and it was going to cost €10k. So the best solution was 3D projection onto a real fox. Basically face replacement but tracked onto the living fox. The eyes were reshaped subtly to match the shape of Marie’s eyes.
Getting the performances we needed was crazy. The foxes couldn’t stay still for a second. All crew would have to be far away and very quiet in order for the foxes to relax for a few seconds. They were also on leads that were painted out in post, so there was a lot of tricky wire removal involved too. Some shots, like the fox looking back at Ellen as she gazes down from the window, were shot in plates. Other times we got lucky, like when Ellen was taking photos at sunset and the fox appeared between the two houses, paused and then ran on. We also shot a lot of reference footage for the creature animator and we had a stuffed fox that we used for some reverses and as lighting reference for the CG renders.
Did the film’s structure change much during post? Were there any particular challenges integrating the CG elements?
The structure changed quite a bit. Especially towards the end. We had to torment James more, drive him crazy. There was also a lot of unnecessary repetition in the script that we cut out just before shooting. While shooting the scene with a ghostly Ellen darting across the road in front of James’s car we were rolling while resetting. I used some of the footage and other bits of rushes to create the scene where James hears the foxes all around his car and locks the doors. I cut out his face to create a rear view mirror reflection to give the impression that he was frightened and looking around. So there were a few happy accidents like that. Originally Ellen’s sister came back and helped James clear up the messy studio too, but we felt it was unnecessary to see her again, so we cut her out of the cleaning up scene and moved the scene to just after Ellen runs away. Editing and rearranging is always part of the process. For me shooting is like gathering raw materials; you have to work them into something. So I wasn’t surprised that the structure changed.
Creating fully CG foxes was very tricky. I worked with a great creature animator from the Ukraine, Eugene Mishchenko, who would study footage of foxes and then send mesh animation files from Maya over to us to be rendered through 3D Studio Max. Then John O’Connell added and lit the fur, which presented challenges in itself. Once we got things up and running it was pretty smooth though. The foxes had to have a certain look, I wanted them to be slender and quick, like the real foxes we had on set, so it took quite a bit of time to get the proportions right.
There’s a desolate, ominous quality to the sound design, but when Ellen is with the foxes outdoor sounds make those moments feel open and alive. How did you approach building the sound design? Did you ever consider using music?
I worked with Neil O’Connor (aka Somadrone) and later his friend Gavin O’Brien on the sound design. I always knew that I didn’t want music, per say, but sound design that borders on musical compositions at times. Neil told me about Michel Chion, the French sound designer and writer. I read one of his books on sound design and agreed with Neil that we should use natural sounds and location sound and play with them to create the soundscape for the film. The first thing we did was worked on a ‘fox sound’. Neil did a few tests and we ended up going with a low frequency, deep sound that we would hear when the foxes were close. Like the Jaws theme playing when Jaws is close. The natural elements of wind and rain etc. were used to heighten the element of wildness in Ellen’s character.
Are there still plans for a psychological horror feature based in a Foxes-type world?
Yes! We have written a feature script and will be sending it to a few production companies next week. It is called VIVARIUM. It is about a young couple who follow a strange estate agent into a new development to look at a house. The development is brand new but completely devoid of life. They attempt to leave but soon find that they can’t find their way out of the maze of houses. Their car runs out of petrol and their phones die. A couple of days later a baby arrives in a box. That’s all I can tell you for now, but needless to say, it gets progressively worse for them.
Do you have anything else coming up that we should keep an eye out for?
I am making a new short film called The Hare, which I will be shooting at the start of April. It is a story about a young girl who is becoming a witch. There’s also a giant hare in it. Should be good fun!