Coming back to life

David Freyne on zombies, political populism and The Cured

by Jennie Kermode

Loyalties are torn for the cured
Loyalties are torn for the cured

There are any number of films out there about zombie plagues, but how often do we think about what happens afterwards? In David Freyne's Irish horror drama The Cured (which stars Ellen Page, Sam Keeley and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), the epidemic is pretty much over, but those who have successfully been treated for their infection can still remember everything they did whilst under the influence. Society remembers too, making it difficult for them to reintegrate. When the director agreed to chat about his film, I began by asking him about its screening at the Glasgow Film Festival back in February.

“It was great. It was a really good screening," he says. "It was the week we had that kind of crazy weather, so we were supposed to be in Glasgow for, I think, two days, and we ended up being there for seven, eight days, just snowed in, which was like its own sort of mad zombie apocalypse.”

Looking out for trouble
Looking out for trouble

Was the film adapted from his short film The First Wave?

“It’s kind of funny. The feature came first, so the feature started way back in 2011. We realised that I had a catalogue of short films but I had no feature work done, so in order to get this off the ground we needed to demonstrate what we could do, so I then wrote a prequel short film and we made that as a proof of concept, you know, to kind of set up the world and help finance the feature. It was reverse engineering, in a way.”

So how did the idea first develop?

“I love genre films. I've always wanted to make one – a zombie film – and I just loved this idea of a cure.”

He cites Richard Matheson's much-adapted novel I Am Legend as a source of inspiration.

“It was the idea of what that would look like f the cured were haunted by memories of what they did. Once I had that idea, it just swirled around and the world unfolded from there. It was back when we were deep in the recession, in 2011, and there was so much anger and protest in Ireland. People were losing their jobs and bailing out banks. That sense of being blamed for things beyond your control really struck a chord with me. It really felt like a strong parallel with the idea of the cured who were essentially being blamed for everything that’s gone wrong in society… That all became a perfect storm when I started to write it.”

It's a film with a lot of deep references to Irish society. How important is that setting?

“I think it’s very, very relevant for Ireland but I think it’s relevant for what was happening in Europe at the time. It was particularly then that we started to see the rise of these populist figures in Europe who were preying on people’s fear and exploiting it for their own ends. It was people like that – like Farage, who Tom [Vaughan-Lawlor]’s character is specifically based on – he’s essentially a populist politician who is exploiting all that fear and anger for his own ends. So it’s relevant to what was happening in Europe.

Facing the future
Facing the future

“It’s one of those things. Film takes a long time and you assume the world will be fixed by the time you make you film” - he laughs - “but then again, just as we were entering pre-production, literally the first day of rehearsal was when Trump was elected. He’s like the ultimate populist. Which was crazy and unexpected but in hindsight he’s a symptom – as is Brexit – they’re symptoms of what was happening back then, and I think it’s a natural progression, so I think what was happening in Ireland was happening in Europe and America and other places, so it hopefully resonates beyond Irish shores.”

Nobody is innocent in the film and there are some pretty strong populist views expressed on different sides of the argument over what should happen to the cured - and to those who remain infected. Was it important for him to show that nobody is immune to the appeal of populism?

“Yeah, I think so. I mean for me it’s always more frightening when it’s far right – that’s when it’s most damaging – but I think people will exploit anger and fear where it arises. It will appear at any end of the spectrum and I think it’s very often just unbridled ambition by these people, like Connor [Tom Vaughan-Lawlor's character]. For me it was very important in this film that it was all shades of grey and there was no black or white. You know, there’s moments where you can agree with the bad guy and sort of go with him until you realise you’re rooting for him, and moments where you disagree with the protagonists, Ellen and Sam, and think they’re putting their heads in the sand, which is very often what a lot of us do just to get on with life. I think any political leanings can open itself up to that kind of radicalism.”

As for the difficulty the cured have in finding a place in society, with many people unwilling to accept them, was that in part a reflection on the refugee crisis?

“Again, it’s so tragic that it’s still going on, but absolutely, that played in to what was happening in Ireland and Europe at the time. There was all these conversations; it was horrible to see the language that was being used, and it was all in terms of an infestation and in terms of an infection. It was all about dehumanising these people and treating them as a plague – again, like the cured are. So it was that language that we took into the film, more than anything else.

Looking for solutions
Looking for solutions

“Ellen [Page]’s character in the film is American but she’s marooned in Ireland and she can’t go home because America’s closed its borders and won’t let non-US born nationals in, and her son was born in Ireland.”

The film also raises interesting questions about the nature of family as it shows traditional families torn apart and the infected forming packs whose appeal is difficult for the cured to leave behind.

“For me it was really important that our infected had that pack mentality and they behaved more like wolves and there was a higher intelligence there which I think complicated their guilt when they came back. You have the idea of that sense of control… the kind of very creepy bond between Tom and Sam, their two characters, was central to the horror in the film in many ways. I think when you’re shunned from your family you find a family and I think that’s what happens to a lot of the cured. And that’s how people get exploited, very often.”

So how did he develop the characters through which to explore all these ideas?

“The characters came first really, or at least the idea of somebody being accepted back by their remaining family but being haunted by the memories of what they did, and then that remaining family – being Ellen – having to live with that. So it really started with Ellen and Sam’s characters and then the world unfolded around them. It was always about the characters at the heart of it and exploring the world through their eyes and telling their story within this world, rather than building the world first. For me, that’s what I love in a genre film, is when it’s character based, whether it’s Children Of Men or Dawn Of The Dead, it’s about how characters react in that setting, how they respond to things.”

And how did he assemble that amazing cast?

“A lot of wishful thinking and perseverance! We were really lucky. Sam’s got something special and I thought that he’d be perfect for that part. In Ireland Tom’s a national treasure. It’s funny, it’s like, in England people don’t really know who he is and in Ireland it’s like shooting with Justin Bieber, it’s just brilliant. And he’s a genius. And then Ellen – I always wanted her for the role and I loved her work. We never assumed we would get her but we decided to try her on a whim, and after months of cold calling and getting nowhere we finally got this call saying that she loved the script and wanted to chat. It was just aiming high and a lot of ambitious wishful thinking, and we got very, very lucky. I kind of got spoiled for my first feature! It was a lesson in you never know until you try.”

Remembering the way it was
Remembering the way it was

Even then the film had to be put together on a shoestring. Was that a big challenge, in light of his ambitions for it?

“We wanted to create a blockbuster and we wanted to create all the action that you see in films like Children Of Men, but we didn't have their resources," he says. "So it became about always going back to the character and making sure that even if you were having an action sequence it’s through the character’s eyes, so you might have the adrenaline rush but you’re not necessarily seeing the explosion, you’re seeing how they react to an explosion or to explosions in the background or to the infected remaining in the background. A lot of interesting character design and poster design that’s in the background but I think that the audience take it in without really knowing it. So there’s a lot of trickery with that and every penny was squeezed, but I think first and foremost we had an incredible cast and crew who really put their hearts and souls into the production. That’s worth its weight in gold. It was a tough but fun shoot.”

And finally, what's next for him?

“A few things but I think the most imminent one is very different. It’s a comedy drama set in Ireland called Beards. It’s set in the Nineties and it’s about two gay teenagers who decide to be each other’s beards in order to try and stop all the taunting and speculation around them. So it’s kind of a platonic love story about these two teens on the cusp of adulthood. A very, very different film entirely.”

The Cured opens in cinemas across the UK on 11 May.

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