By Ali Moosavi.
Without Name was probably the most oblique kind of minimalist film we’ve done and then obviously Vivarium is a quite surreal film…. With Nocebo it was quite a different challenge where we were basing the story in the real world in a domestic environment and then making that real world feel a little bit off kilter.”
Ireland has a long history of producing very talented film makers. Contemporary examples include Neil Jordan, Jim Sheridan and Martin McDonagh, to name a few. One of the latest directors to join this long list is Lorcan Finnegan. His movies which mix the normal with paranormal include Without Name (2016) in which a land surveyor (Alan McKenna) sent to Ireland by a greedy developer to survey a forest for conversion into commercial property suffers from visions and nightmares which drive him into madness. In Vivarium (2019) a couple, Tom and Gemma (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) go to see a house in suburbia and soon find out that they are trapped there in an alternative reality. Finnegan’s latest film is Nocebo in which a successful London couple (Eva Green and Mark Strong) have a surprise visitor from the Philippines (Chai Fonacier), who initially helps Gemma to relieve the pains that she is suffering by using a kind of shamanism and placebos but later these turn into nocebos. An underlying theme for the movie is western exploitation of cheap labour in third world countries, such as the Philippines, where in the Kentex factory fire in Manila, 72 workers died in 2015. ‘Pugon’, the song over the closing credits of the film, is about this tragedy.
I talked to Lorcan Finnegan about his work.
All your movies to me seem like puzzles in which you supply some information but withhold any logical explanations, preferring to leave it to the audience to make up their own conclusions. In Nocebo however you have provided more than your usual explanations.
Without Name was probably the most oblique kind of minimalist film we’ve done and then obviously Vivarium is a quite surreal film, set in an artificial sort of world, so it is a little bit more abstract in its nature and the ending is maybe a little ambiguous and certainly we don’t give all of the answers about those people who were the antagonists and were trapping Tom and Gemma. All three films have this circular sort of narrative where at the end it comes back to the beginning. With Nocebo it was quite a different challenge where we were basing the story in the real world in a domestic environment and then making that real world feel a little bit off kilter and strange and bringing the supernatural in there rather than bringing the characters into somewhere supernatural. So the kind of strangeness arrives with Diana from the Philippines. We wanted to do that with music as well as her character. So we hired a composer from Manila called Jose Antonio Buencamino who designed the score using indigenous instrumentation to bring the folklore with Diana, the strangeness into this very posh London home.
In all your films there is a socio-political theme, destroying forests, non-descript identical suburbia houses replacing traditional town planning, West’s exploitation of labours in Third World countries. How do you and your regular screenwriter Grant Shanley work together?
We normally start with a theme. The genre films that we liked growing up were dealing with socio-political issues of the time. So, as contemporary film makers we try to make sense of the world around us now by tackling issues that are affecting us and society as a whole. On this project we knew we wanted to delve into exploitation, but our starting point was actually just around the general interest in placebos and nocebos, and how they relate to shamanism first of all and how shamanism has been affected by the arrival of Christianity both into Ireland and into Philippines and how that has been further compounded by the introduction of colonialism and then capitalism and this kind of consumerist culture. But in the Philippines in certain areas like Cubu and Sequijor they have retained a tradition of folk healing. We don’t really have that much left in Ireland and so it was kind of drawing a connection between colonialism neo-colonialism, which is like these corporations, brands now being the masters of people in the developing world and exploiting them from afar and through ignoring human rights and workers’ rights and safety regulations and all this kind of thing. I think that those two things, starting with placebos and nocebos and all of those other things developed in quite an organic way, bringing us to the Philippines for research and teaming up with producers there to do co-production and also a local writer there to help us with the scenes set there. It was slightly unusual but it was still coming from the point of being interested in certain themes and all of those themes stitching together to create the narrative.
Your films are a mix of various genres like horror, sci-fi, drama, without belonging specifically to one of those.
I suppose we were influenced growing up by sci-fi, by horror and but then also by drama arthouse films. So the result of growing up with all of these various influences is that they creep in, there are certain horror elements by the nature of the stories that we’re telling and sometimes there’s an elements of thriller or an element of sci-fi, but they combine. I think it’s just by the nature of the story we’re telling that those genre elements creep in. Also, none of them are set straight in the real world. So, when you’re dipping into kind of the spirit world or the weird limbo kind of strange space like Vivarium or into this kind of enchanted realm like Without Name it kind of allows the narrative to be a little bit freer and lets us to be a little more creative in how we can burrow into people’s subconscious and the psychology of the characters.
In all your movies you insert a lot of images which belong to different time periods and different locations, somehow disorienting the audience. I guess you must work very closely with your editor.
I have worked with the same editor, Tony Cranstoun, on all my three feature films. He is a great collaborator. Tony would normally start by reading the script and he might make suggestions before we shoot of how things may put together or things we might need to shoot or things he thinks we might end up cutting and that we might not need to shoot and then he’ll start editing when we start shooting at the same time. So he’ll be assembling scenes as we’re going and I’ll be able to watch the scenes put together. Every few days I’ll watch something. So you’re getting a sense of the film, how it’s forming while you’re shooting it which allows you to see what’s working well and maybe become a little bolder in how you’re going to do transitions and condense time and stuff like that. We then spend quite a long time editing. On Nocebo we did a block of editing all of the stuff that we shot in Dublin, which substituted for London. Then we had a big gap before we went to the Philippines because the country was locked down due to COVID. We edited all the footage up to that point and left gaps for the flashbacks and that allowed us to think exactly what we needed to shoot in the Philippines.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).