Quiet, moody and methodical in its deliberate march toward terror, A Dark Song is a remarkably self-assured first feature for director Liam Gavin. The film tells the story of an occultist hired by a grieving mother who wants to make contact with her dead son through the use of an ancient—and dangerous—rite. Audiences Everywhere recently had the chance to talk with Gavin about the freedom of working within a genre, and his experiences as a first-time director who set out to make a different kind of horror film.
Samantha Sanders (SS): Part of the film’s plot involves some pretty obscure source material—The Book of Abramelin. Was reading that your first step in coming up with the idea for the film?
Liam Gavin (LG): In case you don’t know, the Abremalin is an arcane ritual to make manifest your Guardian Angel so that you can ask it favours. I actually stumbled on it by accident whilst watching a documentary about Alistair Crowley. In the documentary it focused on a period in his life [when] Crowley actually performed, or tried to perform the Abramelin. He carried it [on] in a house on the shores of Loch Ness. Crowley got bored halfway through and stormed off to Paris. The house has been bat-shit ever since.
So there was a genuine ritual to see your Guardian Angel which takes place in one location and was dangerous—it was a bit of a light bulb moment. Just previous to this I had been speaking to a producer who had been bemoaning the fact that horror films only seem to be about vampires and zombies and exorcisms, no one was doing anything interesting and new. The Abramelin was new.
SS: Did you set out to make a horror film, or do you see horror more as a device or framework for telling this story?
LG: I very much set out to do a horror film. I didn’t and don’t think I was slumming it. One of the great things in genre is that it’s a place where innovation is, by and large, welcomed and where excellence can be sort of calibrated. It’s also somewhere where metaphysics is innate. My film is character-driven and I think that’s the way things seem to be moving, a reaction to ghost train films and jump scares.
SS: Without pressing on your personal beliefs, was there any part of you that was at all anxious about recreating and filming these kinds of rituals? Did you feel spooked at all?
LG: There were indeed some weird, old things that went on. I make use of a dog barking in the film, in the background as a signifier. This came about because whenever I would start typing the script (in the day or in the night) a dog would start barking somewhere in the near distance, even at two in the morning.
The house we filmed the interiors in was also weird. We filmed in July but when we were in the house we would have to have our coats, layers and boots on. Our breaths would be misting. Outside we would step out in to 70 degree sunshine. There would also be a lot of unaccounted for thuds and drafts.
In retrospect it was a bit unnerving, but I was very busy.
SS: I saw the film described as a “slow burn,” and I can’t think of a more apt way to describe the viewing experience. As a director, did you find it challenging figuring out how to pace those tantalizing horror reveals?
LG: Me and Anne Marie, my editor, spent months trying to get it all right. I mean we really spent a lot of time. Initially the script cut (as in the cut where everything in the script is on screen) was two hours forty minutes, which we got down to one hour thirty-five. This meant killing a lot of babies but it had to be done to get that slow burn paced just right. By the nature of it all being in pretty much one location we could really shift stuff around as well. It was very plastic.
SS: Steve Oram’s past work in Sightseers is so different from this role, which is quite a bit darker. How do you manage to get the best work out of an actor who is making a transition like that?
LG: Steve has also appeared in non-comedy roles in the UK and Ireland. He has a very naturalistic style. He came in an actor rather than a comedian and was treated as such. We did four days of rehearsals in which Catherine and Steve really got into the crooks and crannies of their characters. Once they’ve got that inside them the rest kind of looks after itself.
SS: Speaking of Oram’s character, I think one of the most compelling things about the film is that we know so few concrete details about Joseph Solomon—really, what kind of person would willingly commit to a ritual like this?—but, despite that, he’s somehow such a deeply rendered character. Part of that credit must go to Oram, of course, but I wonder how fleshed out this character’s backstory was in your mind, particularly when writing the script?
LG: From writing I had a reasonably clear picture of Solomon’s past. When we were in rehearsals I sat down with Steve and Catherine and went through my version of [each] character’s history together, they then went away and filled in the details. The next day they came in and told me their lives stories in character. It was bizarrely gripping. But after this they were ‘full up’; as actors they carried their characters’ histories and from that came their attitudes, tics, etc. I’m a big believer that when you meet people in real life you meet someone who is ‘full up’, there’s a history, opinions, mannerisms, etc. They are not empty cyphers, but you get a lot of empty cyphers in films.
SS: This film was my first introduction to Catherine Walker, and after seeing her performance here, I’m frankly angry about that. She’s perfection in this role. What was the casting process like to find an actress who would be in nearly every scene (and, essentially, in a single location)?
LG: Catherine is one of Ireland’s leading theatre actors. We were put in contact with her through the Irish Film Board. She had been in some of their films—for instance, Patrick’s Day, which is a piece about mental illness. We had her do a read through and knew within seconds that she was perfect, she had that inner steel. It is a crime that she’s not in more films, she was great in mine.
SS: These two actors were working together very closely and had to experience a lot of raw emotion and navigate some intimate scenes. As a director, how do you create an environment where they can feel safe enough to be so vulnerable?
LG: It wasn’t so hard. There was just two of them so they leant on each other. I didn’t want to get involved in parlour games to further some vague onscreen aims, I wanted them to be comfortable with each other. They were basically two friends playing together. We were a tiny crew, too, which made it all have very family feeling. Actually, the whole shoot was a very amicable affair. I don’t think anyone shouted once. Maybe they did and they kept it from me.
SS: Is your plan to stay in the realm of horror/genre films or move outward and explore? Is there a director whose career path you’d like to emulate?
LG: Yeah, I want to stay in horror and genre in general. I like idea-based/high concept films and that often slips you into genre. I like sci-fi too. And kung-fu films, I’ve got a fair few ideas for kung-fu films.
SS: Any details you can divulge yet about your next feature, The Furious Poets?
LG: Furious Poets is not the next film (although I hope to get to it at some point), my next film is another Horror set in Wales. It’s my take on the undead but is very different from any undead you’ve seen before in the same way that A Dark Song is different from any occult film you’ve seen before. It’s currently called Writ’ in Water (after the Keats epitaph) but I reckon that’s going to change.
Featured Image: IFC Films