Interview: Ciaran Foy, writer/director of the terrifying ‘Citadel’
The Irish filmmaker based the film on his own experience of being attacked and his subsequent agoraphobia
Ever since his pregnant wife was brutally attacked by a group of wild children in their abandoned tower block known as the Citadel, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) has suffered from crippling panic attacks and agoraphobia. He tries valiantly to care for his infant daughter but he finds himself terrorized by the same hooded children who he now thinks are trying to take his child. He gets help from an understanding nurse and a renegade priest, but ultimately comes to realize that in order to be free of his fears, he has to face his past demons and return to the scene of the crime.
Ciaran Foy, one of today’s most promising Irish screenwriters and directors, struggled with agoraphobia in his late teens and early twenties as a result of a violent mugging he suffered at the hands of a gang of youths. While in recovery, one of his counselors brought up the notion that would-be attackers can often sense an easy target—almost as if they can “see” the potential victim’s fear. Foy thought that was a fascinating concept and eventually worked it into the screenplay for his latest film, “Citadel,” a fascinating and scary urban nightmare that won the Midnighter Audience Award at this year's SXSW Film Festival.
I spoke to Ciaran Foy by phone from Dublin.
MSN Movies: I know there are elements in your film that could be interpreted by some as “supernatural,” but what really affected me was the psychological drama and the way the horror was so grounded in reality.
Ciaran Foy: Yeah, for me films are always much more terrifying when I can imagine the events really happening. Seeing a girl with long black hair crawl out of a TV set is scary but it’s not very likely to happen to most people. (Laughs.) But if I can watch something and think, “Jesus, this could really happen to me,” it’s always worse.
I know there’s a big autobiographical element to the story and I’m just wondering how living in that during the making of the film was healing for you. At first glance I’d assume it would be the opposite of that!
It was very healing—big time! But more in the writing of it, I think. We only had 23 days to shoot the film in what was one of the worst winters on record so it was completely chaotic. But the writing of it was different. It took me five years to get the film off the ground and I had to revisit so many things in my head that I would have rather forgotten.
There were times during the writing that I worried that I was taking steps backwards. But by the end of it, I felt strangely empowered. It was extremely cathartic to finally hold in my hand this monster of my own creation and feel some sense of control over that. I think that no matter what kind of fear or phobia you’re dealing with, the solution can only be found by looking at it square in the face. And when I had to do that day in and day out and look at all the stuff that was still very raw with so many bad memories attached to it, it was very good for me. Through Tommy and his journey, I was finally able to find some sort of redemption and hope to that situation. I highly recommend screenwriting as a way to deal with trauma!
Almost like the way we can get control of characters in our own dreams and nightmares.
Aneurin Barnard was so great as Tommy—you really felt his fear and anxiety. Did he rely a lot on your memories of your own trauma?
Yeah! I actually ended up having a nice shorthand with him. I wanted to find a very young guy to play this father. I grew up in a working-class environment and that’s something you see quite a lot, really young people, almost kids, pushing the prams around. But what I found during the casting process was that a lot of actors who are 20, 21, 22 are usually these very good-looking “winners,” they’ve always been winners, and they haven’t lived long enough to experience failure or how life can kick you when you’re down. But when Aneurin entered the room I immediately felt the weight of what he brought in with him, he seemed older than the other guys, and I then found out that he had suffered a similar experience himself. He wasn’t agoraphobic but he had been attacked and that helped a lot with our communication. He did grill me about everything—what was going on at certain moments, like how my eyes would be stinging when I was having a panic attack or my palms would be sweating, and all of that seemed to help him. He spent a lot of time with agoraphobic counseling groups and even visited people who are suffering from chronic agoraphobia—the ones who haven’t left their house in 30 years. Aneurin just threw himself into that whole thing and it helped that we were shooting at such a fast pace. He never really got a chance to come down from that kind of anxiety level.
I bet the grueling nature of the film shoot really helped with everything, as hard as it must have been.
Totally. And we were also dealing with crying infants as well! There was an overall anxious feeling on the set which we could really draw from and use.
Again, I didn’t see this as a supernatural film—I found it to be much more of a statement on poverty and what’s going on in these blighted environments. When you show the film at festivals and other screenings, do people want you to explain it all? Do they ask about the kids and if they are zombies or something otherworldly?
For me it’s sort of twofold. Remember that I come from an area like that and there’s a certain amount of pride in such communities as well as a lot of problems. So first, I was adamant that everyone in the movie had to be basically from the same class. I didn’t want Tommy to be some middle class kid whose Land Rover breaks down in Shitsville and he has to deal with all these poor people. At that point you are saying something very specific about the community. Tommy's salvation comes only through love and from being a father. But second, something that I think about horror films in general is that they often explain too much! When I think of the attack that happened to me—those guys didn’t want anything, they didn’t take anything, and I guess in a strange way, no matter how tragic or terrifying something is, when you know the reason behind it, when you know the whys and the hows, you can eventually make peace with it. But when you never know, when you’re quite literally left in the dark, to me that’s the embodiment of real terror and fear.
Which is why you leave the interpretation of several key events up to the audience?
Yes. I wanted to let the audience leave without a full sense of closure. For me, whenever everything’s kind of neatly tied up in a box at the end, I instantly forget about the film because there’s no overriding anxiety. My favorite horror films are the ones I’m still thinking about weeks later!
I think the religious component is very interesting also—not what you’d typically expect!
I had fun with the idea of taking the generic trope of the Catholic priest who knows all the answers to a supernatural threat. Instead I have a faithless priest who has absolutely no answers! For me, the two main themes of the film are the fear of fatherhood and the importance in believing in yourself. When I was writing the film, I remember thinking a lot about “Dumbo.” That’s why you see a lot of images of elephants in the film! You have this character who has a mentor who gives him a feather to convince him that he can fly. Of course he eventually disovers that the feather was just a placebo, that the belief was inside of him the whole time. Tommy sees the boy Danny as his leaf even though he really has the ability to conquer his own fears. I think everyone, no matter what our belief system, we all have some kind of crutch, something that we lean on. But ultimately, we need to believe in ourselves to find our salvation.
“Citadel” is currently playing in select cities. Click here to find out when it will be coming to your area.