In tune with the darkness

Paul Duane on music, monstrosities and All You Need Is Death

by Jennie Kermode

All You Need Is Death
All You Need Is Death Photo: Frightfest

One of the most popular phenomena at any Glasgow Film Festival is the Frightfest strand, which draws together some of the very best horror films seen by the larger Frightfest festival team. Unsurprisingly, the past few years of this have seen a strong Irish selection, with Ireland one of the countries currently dominating the international horror scene. This time around there’s Paul Duane’s All You Need Is Death, a real treat for those with an interest in folk traditions, body horror and music.

It focuses on young couple Anna (Simone Collins) and Aleks (Charlie Maher) as they travel around the country in search of old folk songs which might not yet have been captured for posterity. One particular song gives them more than they bargained for. It’s an ancient thing concerned with themes of jealousy and destruction, said to be cursed – and, as it turns out, they’re not the only ones who want to possess it.

“A few years ago, I made a film called While You Live Shine, which is currently on Netflix,” said the director when we met just before the start of the festival. “It's about a guy called Christopher King, who is not a song collector as such, he collects 78 records. But I learned a lot about the strange community of people who obsessively collect old 78s from the 1920s, blues, country, bluegrass, that kind of stuff. And there's something about that kind of got into me. I know people who are involved in folklore collection and all that, but it's not based on anything like that. I think it’s the cutthroat and competitive and ego driven nature of some of the stories that the whole world of 78 record collecting fed into.”

There’s a moment in the film when one character warns our heroine that everything is political. There’s a bit of humour there, but it’s something that's actually very relevant to song collecting.

“It sort of comes from experience,” he says. “I mean, I've worked a lot with Bill Drummond, ex-KLF and artist, and Bill has a very – I wouldn't say political, but he has a very strong point of view about music and use of recorded music and the ethics of different ways of approaching these things. And I suppose, in a way, I do believe everything is political because storytelling is political. When you decide who your hero is, when you decide who your villains are, it's a choice. And, yeah, that character is kind of a hard man, but the phrase, the sentiment of what he's saying does make sense.”

I tell him that it seems to me that there's a tension between two different cultures in the film, with the people who see it as an academic exercise, , or as something that they're interested in for their own purposes, and then the people who it really belongs to...

“...traditionally, yeah. The commodification of music is an interesting one. I mean, in a way, the original sin in the film, it's not that deep. Every horror film has to have a gimmick. Evil Dead has the Necronomicon or whatever. I have the song, but I wanted to make it meaningful within the world of the story, and meaningful to me. So the rules around the song are largely around it's not to be translated, it shouldn't be written. It has to be handed on from mother to daughter to mother to daughter.

“It's coded into the way we tell stories. Breaking those rules is what gets you into trouble. And in a way, yeah, that is a comment on culture where something becomes taken out of its context and used for entertainment. Barry Gleason, who is a very well respected ballad singer in Dublin, and he's Brendan Gleason's brother, has a cameo in the film early on. And when Barry read the script, he responded to it very much on the level of ‘Yes, I hate when I go to a ballad session and I'm singing a song and I may not have got it figured out, and some guy's there recording it for YouTube.’ The fact that he had such a strong reaction to the story kind of proved to me that I was onto something, that there was something there.”

How was the song itself created for the film?

“It was pretty straightforward. I mean, I wrote the song myself, and Ian Lynch of Lankum did the score. We both agreed that the song should be a real song. So I wrote the English lyric, kind of inspired by the Powell and Pressburger film I Know Where I'm Going, and the curse of Corryvreckan, which is a really beautiful element in that film, the idea of a curse. I told the story in English, writing it as if it was badly translated from a different language. I gave the English lyrics to Ian, who, with a scholar of old Irish, worked it backwards into being Old Irish proper – a language that isn't spoken anymore, hasn't been spoken for centuries. And then Ian wrote the tune to go with that. So we approached it very seriously.”

I tell him that I think we feel that in the film, because it does sound very natural.

“I was very lucky,” he says, “because Olwen Fouéré, I didn't know when I approached Olwen that she already had a music record out there. And when Olwen got the song, she put a huge amount into the song that I didn't tell her how to do.”

How did he cast the film, in light of the fact that he needed people who were confident with the languages and could act and could sing.

“Well, the language thing wasn't a big difficulty. I mean, nobody speaks old Irish, so the language thing wasn't a problem. I didn't have money for a casting director so largely I was asking people for advice. And then we didn't do a conventional audition system. It wasn't a flash production, so it was important that people came on board knowing that. And I was very lucky. There’s not a bad performance in the bunch as far as I'm concerned.”

Ireland does have a tradition of some things being handed down the female line, and that really helps to bring female characters to the fore here, particularly older female characters who don't always get much space in horror.

“That was semi-deliberate because I think it's rare to find a very strong role for a woman of a certain age,” he says. “There's two strong roles here. There's Agnes, who’s in her fifties, and there’s Rita, who's written as an older woman. I thought, well, if I write these roles strongly enough, I'll get really talented people who want to play them, because it's not like everybody's competing with the same 35-year-old male leads and 25-year-old female leads. And I was very lucky. I found tremendous actors to play those roles.”

It gives the film a different angle, too. We see an awful lot of films where there are two men competing over a female lead in one way or another. That's where the tension is. And here – without going too much into the plot – that’s turned around. There are a lot of themes of jealousy in there.

He laughs. “I don't have too much insight into it. I think once you create a situation where the story moves in a certain direction, you just have to be as honest as possible with yourself. The core curse of the film is a curse around love, and I had to think about what are the different forms of love: unrequited love, obsessive love, all these dark, destructive forms of something that we're constantly being told is a very positive force. I was digging into that. The best way to do it was to put one of the characters in that situation, and it was an interesting one. Simone is a young actress. I think she's stunning – the arc she had to go through.”

There is also a character who undergoes quite a shocking physical transformation. He credits a lot of this to his VFX supervisor, Suzi Battersby. The character in question, he notes, is played at first by a well built and good looking actor, so a change needed to be made to make the transformation work. In came non-binary actor Ben Stewardson, whom he praises for being able to match the original actor’s breathing and movement so as to create a seamless effect.

“I have to give credit to my collaborators, because what was not that developed on the page, as soon as I brought my collaborators on board – and they're brilliant – they fleshed out every aspect. Ben does some extraordinary kind of Max Schreck, Nosferatu visual acting with their hands in some of the scenes they're in. They just brought that to it in a really beautiful way. My whole philosophy is to have the best possible collaborators.”

We talk about the mysterious black smudges which provide part of the threat within the film.

“They're not the most extraordinarily groundbreaking of special effects,” he allows, “but they just chill. When you're on limited budget, you've got to think of ways to creep people out without showing them too much. The more you try to show, the less effective it can be. The VFX are very sophisticated. There are actually creatures in there. I kept saying ‘Show less, show less! Take out the detail.’ You can see the shape of it. You know there's sort of a thing inside there, which is why all the VFX work paid off. The armature or whatever. The creatures.”

There’s also some fantastic production design in the film, especially in the house where the song is discovered. Where did that come from?

“My brilliant production designer, Ruth Barry. But also, the house is pretty amazing on its own, right? It's an extraordinary falling-down mansion house in the middle of the countryside, in the middle of a very isolated area. The owner was very happy to let us take over and do what we needed to do for the period. It was just a perfect location. We changed the vibe. But actually when I wrote the first draft of the script, it described a house a bit like that. And then when I’d seen the house, I wrote towards it. We made the most of it.”

He found support for the film within the country’s real folk song communities.

“There's a lot of people who play and perform a lot in Ireland,” he observes, “and I felt it was necessary to keep it connected to that. Those guys really loved the notion of it. They loved the idea of a horror film based around the ballad scene.”

And then there’s Frightfest...

“I am very excited to be at Frightfest,” he says, beaming. “I mean, Glasgow is just one of my favourite places to visit.”

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