The dreamers

Ian Hunt-Duffy and Pollyanna McIntosh discuss Irish horror and Double Blind

by Jennie Kermode

Test subjects assemble in Double Blind
Test subjects assemble in Double Blind Photo: courtesy of Belfast Film Festival

Part of the 2023 Belfast Film Festival, Ian Hunt-Duffy’s début feature Double Blind is a horror/thriller film set in a laboratory complex where volunteers are participating in the clinical trial of a new drug which has unexpected side effects. Star Pollyanna McIntosh and I often seem to encounter each other around Halloween, and in this case it was on the day itself that I met up with her and Ian, so we chatted for a while before the interview got started. I explained that I had quickly arranged to see the film when I spotted it in the festival line-up because I feel that Ireland is the go-to place for horror at the moment, and is even giving South Korea a run for its money.

“That's thrilling to me,” says Pollyanna.

Ian agrees. “I think there's some great filmmakers coming out of Ireland and some great horror films. Most recently, Evil Dead Rise by Lee Cronin was brilliantly done and it was such a huge global success. That was really encouraging and exciting for myself and other filmmakers in Ireland, to see the pathway that Lee has kind of carved out for us. I was also a big fan of Kate Dolan's film, You Are Not My Mother. That was a brilliant debut feature, and Kate was actually really good. She gave me some great advice before going into my first feature. She gave me some tips and advice. Are there any other films you like, Pollyanna, that you've seen lately?”

“The thing that's coming to my mind is the Halloween element, as we're doing this on Halloween today,” she responds. “The Irish invented Halloween, didn't they? So we're steeped over here in that history and that scariness. And I think one of the reasons I love living in Ireland is because, like Scotland, it's got that gallows humour? I think that's something to do with colonisation, but maybe something else as well. Maybe just a fundamental understanding that we're all going to die and we may as well have a laugh. It kind of makes sense.

“I'd love to look at the link with South Korea and see what the story is there, because I did an Irish – well, it wasn't really a horror film as such, but I suppose there were quite a few dead bodies involved. I suppose you could call it a horror movie, Love Eternal, which I did ten years ago. It was so interesting seeing how different people around the world reacted to that. I remember in South Korea that people were very willing to talk about the suicide elements of the film and talk about the darker stuff, and they kind of embraced it.”

“I would definitely agree that the Irish were well known for our dark sense of humour,” says Ian. “In Double Blind, there's definitely a vein of dark comedy. Our screenwriter, Darrach McGarrigle, is actually a stand up comedian as well. I always think that comedy and horror lives beside each other, as well actually getting a physical reaction out of an audience.”

I mention that I also saw Pollyanna in Apocalypse Clown this year, and she smiles.

“Yeah, of course, Apocalypse Clown. Would that fall into the horror genre, do you think?”

It’s horror comedy, I suggest, and she and Ian both agree.

“Actually we overlapped, for me, with shooting Double Blind down in Limerick and Apocalypse Clown up in Dublin,” she says. “So that was fun, in those two headspaces.”

So how did they both get involved with Double Blind?

“I mentioned Darrach McGarrigle as a screenwriter,” says Ian. “We went to film school together – the National Film School in Dublin, in Ireland – and we've done a number of short films together with Darrach writing and myself directing. We share very similar sensibilities and taste in films. We’re big horror and genre fans, and fans of high concept thrillers. So we knew for our first feature that we wanted something that would be high concept and grab attention, but that would be, I guess, achievable on the smaller budget that we would be afforded as first timers. So the limitation we put around for ourselves was to set something in one location.

“I love things that are confined and self contained. We have lots of references and touch points to other films where there's a group of mismatched characters trapped in one location, and we can really mount up the pressure and create a lot of suspense and tension. So we wanted to come up with something in one location, and then Darrach had the idea for the high concept of if you fall asleep, you die. When I heard that pitch, I was really excited. I thought that was so memorable and evocative. If you could take something very commonplace and ordinary like sleep and make that terrifying, that would be a really good in for the audience.

“We love horror films or thrillers that have that kind of rule that you can't break. A Quiet Place recently was ‘don't make a sound,’ or The Ring, ‘don't watch the videotape’ – even Tremors, ‘don't touch the ground.’ All these clearly defined rules are a great hook for an audience.”

I remark that one would think not watching a videotape would be an easy one, but people still managed to get that wrong, and everyone laughs.

“It was one of the things that appealed to me about the script as well,” says Pollyanna of Ian and Darrach’s rule. “When you've been doing this for a minute, you not only are looking for great stories and great characters, and of course checking in on who's going to be making it and their history, but also how someone's going to deal with the budget because you know they're going to be squeezed, and they always are. And it was great set up then to have it all in one place.

“Of course, there was still a lot going on, a lot to cover in those few days, but it reminded me a little bit of shooting Exam, which was a long time ago now. And that was very influenced by Cube, which I'm sure is an influence on anyone who's wanting to do a one location film. It just makes things that little bit easier, doesn't it?”

“The hope is that you don't have to move to multiple locations, and then you're gaining time by staying on location,” Ian says. “But we still only had 23 days to shoot. There are a lot of set pieces and things in the film. So yeah, we were definitely being ambitious.”

I ask Pollyanna what's it like for her, as an established director now, to appearing in someone's first feature. Does she find herself wanting to give advice?

“I just find it really exciting and really cool to work with people who are making their first feature,” she says. “And it being Ireland, you know that nobody gets to do that without having made some really great shorts. I was lucky enough to have been able to see Gridlock and to know Moe Dunford who was in that, and was talking about Ian’s way of working very positively. So you've got to trust your director, whichever perspective you're coming from.

“I've found over the last couple of years that for the first time I'm kind of the older crowd in the film. Not so much in Apocalypse Clown, but doing Vikings: Valhalla, for instance, I was one of the older guys and everyone else was in their twenties and this was kind of like that as well. It was a pleasure to be doing things where you can relax and enjoy it, but also hopefully be of some use. I liked hanging out with the cast a lot and making sure that we were all a crew together.”

“You were the older crowd because they were younger, but I think they looked up to you,” Ian tells her. “You definitely put everyone at ease. I think you coming in with that level of experience and you were very relaxed about it, even though we were up against time and under pressure and everything. That definitely permeated throughout the rest of the cast.

“As a first time filmmaker, it was a pleasure to have someone like Pollyanna who was so prepared. Like, after two takes, I was going ‘I just want to play with it now because I think we've got it already.’”

“I think in my experience with indie films, I generally get about two takes to get it,” she says. “Even on Walking Dead, we would shoot very fast. And at the end of the day, these things only go well if people are having a good time and people are positive about what's being made. I think the best time that I ever had on a set encouraged me to do the same as director. And sometimes this isn't possible for folks making stuff, but it was doing The Woman with Lucky McKee and he would show us footage on a Sunday, we could all come round, or on a Monday sometimes, first thing, he'd show five or ten minutes of what he was making. It just really encouraged us to know that we were making something good and it was all worth it.

“I had the same experience with Ian, even though that didn't happen, but just seeing through the camera, just having looked at the monitor and going ‘Wow, this looks incredible,’ and saying to others ‘It looks amazing onscreen. You're looking really cool.’ And such beautiful close ups and lighting and also very well designed shots. The more angular stuff and the leading lines down those corridors and the light effects, they brought a lot to the film, didn't they? And the reds and the blues.”

“Absolutely,” says Ian. “I think our cinematographer, Narayan Van Maele, did an incredible job. He's actually just won an award for best cinematography at the Newport Beach Film Festival in LA, and I think it's really well deserved. I think he really does a great job. And across all departments, everyone really came together with that singular vision and purpose, from production design to costume, wardrobe, hair, make-up, everything.”

“They had a real commitment and understanding of what was required of them, which spoke to the prep you guys had done together and to your vision as well,” says Pollyanna. “I know that the actors had plenty of rehearsal as well, which was really cool. It's been a long time since I've been called in to rehearse, and that was cool, just to play around with things in the hotel bar in a relaxed environment, but focused. And yeah, the make-up, I thought, was wonderful as well. Madonna Bambino and Roisin Condon. They did amazing work. And so fast, right? That's really fun to see with gore work, because that can be something that really slows down a production often, in my experience.”

“Absolutely,” says Ian. “They were so quick. Obviously, the gore and the blood is great, but even the sleep effects, the deterioration of each character, the guys look wrecked in the film. A lot of that is performance, but I do think the hair and make-up played a huge role in that as well, in helping them find that kind of sleep disorientated state.”

Some of that is direction as well, though, I suggest. I had been going to ask Ian if he had his own experience of sleep deprivation that he brought to it, but now, knowing that he has a young child, I think I can take that for granted.

“During the early development of the script we had our first child and yeah, in the first six or seven months there was a lot of sleep deprivation,” he says. “I definitely could draw on that. I was taking notes of how I was feeling and that kind of thing, but I did a lot of research. I looked into medical reports and different things, to look at the physical and mental effects on a person after so many hours of sleep deprivation. There were some really interesting things. You could get physical traits at certain hours or things that happen in the brain. And we made a list of all this, and then I would share this with the cast and discuss it, and discuss their experiences with sleep deprivation. Everyone's had a couple of bad nights’ sleep.

“We also put together a sleep scale, like a one to ten of sleep deprivation and what you would be feeling at each stage, and the side effects. This was a quick reference guide on set. We went through the script ahead of time in pre-production and marked out the scenes for, like, this is a level three sleep deprivation scene. This is a six. We wouldn't be shooting in order or in continuity, so one day we might be shooting a scene from the very end of the film where they're extremely tired, and then the next day it might be something much earlier where they're not. So I found that a quick, helpful guide to locate us in the scene. Then everyone could bring their own thing to that as well. They could improvise a little bit in rehearsals and figure out different things.”

We talk about the location.

“We had a quite a specific location requirements brief,” he says. “It's supposed to be this underground medical facility for a pharmacy company and it’s supposed to be vast and empty and clinical, so ordinarily this would probably be a set build. It would be something that you would build on a studio, but we just didn't have the money for that, so we had to find something physical that we could use. It was a real location that we could then do smaller set builds in for our purposes. So we found a location in Limerick, and it is this empty industrial warehouse.

“The corridors are there and the common room that was there. And then there were other rooms off the corridor that we could build: the dorm room or the MRI room. They were smaller set builds. And then for the lab, that was actually a lab at a university in Limerick nearby, they let us film in one of their biology labs. It was a really great space when we found it because we had scouted for this location for months.

“We tried everywhere in Dublin, and we were looking in the West of Ireland as well. We just couldn't find it. And then when we found this place in Limerick, we thought all our Christmases had come. It was really lucky, and it was great then as well to have everyone down in Limerick. The cast and crew were there for five weeks, staying in Limerick, and that just created the atmosphere as well. It kind of bonded everyone and brought everyone together.”

“It was great to be away on location,” says Pollyanna. “The only issue I remember on those days in the university is you had some smoky effects and the fire alarms started going off.”

“Yeah, we set the fire alarms off a few times,” Ian admits.

We talk about the upcoming festival screening.

“I'm really excited for the Belfast Film Festival,” says Ian. “This is going to be our Northern Irish première, so I can't wait to share it with the audience here and see how people react to it. Belfast is a great festival. I've been there over the years with my short films, so it's a pleasure to return now with my first feature.

“Myself and the writer, Darrach, we have our next feature in development with Film Ireland, so we're just about to deliver the first draft of that. We're excited. It's a sort of genre horror thriller again, just on a bigger scale.”

“Are there any creatures or is it in the real world?” Pollyanna asks.

“It's in the real world, yeah.”

“People are always scarier,” she says, and he agrees.

“I just went to Belfast recently for the first time,” she says. “It was loads of fun and very different, and I’m really excited to see what people think of it up there. I've got a film on the festival circuit moment that I directed called Quicksand, which is a 22 minute short about a woman who's a sex addict. That's by an Irish writer, Siobhán Callaghan. She plays the lead and I play her girlfriend, and Liam Cunningham's in it. We've got a great cast, Philip O’Sullivan, and Kayode Akinyemi from Vikings: Valhalla as well. So we're bringing the old crew together.

“So yeah, we're running around doing festivals and enjoying that. And then I'm in development on a feature called Bride Squad, which is a comedy that I'm doing with Brico Films. We'll shoot that next May, hopefully. It’s a caper comedy. Women on the run, trying to look for a husband that's left one of them at the altar. And they're old friends, but their lives have changed a lot in between, so they're kind of trying to figure out their friendship again. I just thought it'd be really great fun and a great opportunity to work with some wonderful women, so I'm excited about that.”

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