'Seeing zombies running past the Four Courts was just a big childhood dream' - The Cured director on shooting horror in Dublin
David Freyne and lead actor Sam Keeley talk The Cured with Independent.ie
An Irish zombie movie written during the recession and filmed on the streets of Dublin's north inner city has been garnering rave reviews from Toronto to ADIFF thanks to the novel premise it brings to an arguably tired genre.
Director David Freyne's story picks up where most zombie movies end, charting the fate of the Infected as they are treated with an antidote and, as the Cured, are rehabilitated and reintegrated back into a suspicious and resistant society.
Offaly actor Sam Keeley plays protagonist Senan, one of the Cured, who is reluctantly welcomed into the home of his widowed sister-in-law (Ellen Page) where he struggles with PTSD as the memories of the horrifying acts he committed while Infected haunt him.
By his side and in his ear is Conor (Tom Vaughan Lawlor of Love/Hate fame), a fellow member of the Cured contingent who was formerly a barrister but has been assigned a job as cleaner, and whose frustration and rage at his treatment by the state prompts him to stage a rebellion.
It's dark, disturbing and thought-provoking and the parallels with the politics of recent times, and the refugee crisis, are clear. David reveals that the film was written during the recession in 2011 and says it's even more prescient today.
"It's depressing. It's really depressing," he says. "When I wrote it it was during the recession and that really informed the script and I exorcised by own anger and demons as to what was happening in the country.
"Conor, Tom's character, is very much based on some populist figures who were rising through Europe and manipulating that fear. My producers joked that this film won't be relevant by the time we actually make it and, lo and behold, it's even more so."
He adds, "I think it was the day that Ellen [Page] flew in for rehearsal was the day Trump got elected, which none of us expected and it was almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Things are getting more and more doom laden and scary.
"It's kind of what the script is about. It's about what happens when we let fear and anger rule our lives and politics and it's what we've seen with Brexit and Trump. It's that process of dehumanizing people and treating people like a problem and contagion rather than people."
Keeley immediately accepted the offer of the role of Senan, having devoured the script in one sitting of just 60 minutes. It was, he says, an "easy decision".
'Easy' is not an adjective he could apply to his performance, however, given he effectively plays two roles - as the tense, rage-filled, heavy-breathing Infected, and a traumatised, guilt-ridden, PTSD-suffering Cured.
Given The Cured is his first feature, David, made a short film, The First Wave, as proof of concept in 2014. The actress who played the lead role of an Infected turned Cured, Jane McGrath, worked with Sam on perfecting the creepy fast-breathing and general zombie choreography of the Infected.
"The Cured was more of a struggle - having one foot in the door of being someone who was Cured was taxing for sure," reveals Sam. "[There was] a lot of red wine in the evening!"
"David mentioned PTSD very early on and I also looked at people who were institutionalized and were then rehabilitated back into society, like criminals, sex offenders, awful shit like that," he says.
"I guess in our story [the Infected killing and eating people] is the worst crime that the world is facing at the time and I tried to equate that to something that's repulsive in our era as well whereby you can kind of come back and have some semblance of a life, not to humanise anybody in that position, but just to understand it outside of a fantastical element, so it's not just flesh-eating sick people."
Tom Vaughan Lawlor's character is something of a mentor to Sam's but a rather unsettling one whose motives remain ambiguous.
"He goes from charm to frightening like that," Freyne clicks his fingers. "He's amazing at it, even just the way when he's giving speeches how he captivates a room. It's very easy to see how people would fall under him and how [Sam's] character would have been so easily manipulated by this older, charming man. So few actors have the ability that Tom has, that intelligence. You can see him being a politician."
Those familiar with Vaughan-Lawlor solely from his stint as Dublin criminal Nidge on RTE's hit series Love/Hate are surprised to find him playing a character with a south Dublin accent.
"Some people who have seen it are going, 'That's not his accent!' but that is his actual accent," laughs David.
Oscar nominated actress Ellen Page came on board early on to play the role of Abbie and has spoken about being blown away by David's script and the shoot. David says he's still "pinching" himself.
"I think for a first film you don't expect to get that triumvirate in your leads," he says of Page, Keeley and Vaughan Lawlor. "It was just amazing. It just kind of happened and I feel very lucky. We tried them all on a whim, not assuming we would get them, so the fact they responded to the script, it was a huge boost for me personally. They're all very difficult, very challenging roles and I think there are very few actors who could have brought them to life in the way that they did. I feel really fortunate."
Shooting in Dublin was another joy for David, who grew up in Newbridge but moved to the capital when he was 18. Although, like every Irish film crew in the history of Irish film crews, they expected it to bucket rain, they were spared a downpour on all but one day of the shoot.
"I always wanted to do this kind of film in Dublin, a film you would normally see set in New York or somewhere like that, and put it where I essentially grew up, and seeing zombies running past the Four Courts - it was just a big childhood dream!" he says.
"We had a really lovely welcome from the places we shot and the people who wanted to be the zombies. To see those locations on screen in that post apocalypse is cool. You wanted that half recovery, half dilapidation that Dublin has. In the script there were things like the Ilac Centre and Mosney and we wanted those kind of 80s-feeling Dublin places and we tried getting that as much as we could."
While the ending is ambiguous and a sequel possible (David has an outline), he says he is "very happy with where the film begins and ends", adding, "I think I want to do one or two other things before I go near zombies again! But never say never."
Indeed his next project swings a full 180 to comedy, "I've written a comedy set around Newbridge in the 90s. So hopefully that's the next one. And I have one or two other scripts. One's a very epic fantasy thing that's slightly lighter in tone as well. I definitely want to stretch myself."
For Keeley, recovering from the intensity of the role took some time, although he jokes that all his roles since then have also been 'damaged young men'. Next time we'll see him is in WWII drama Peace.
"I took quite a bit of time after this to actually get my weight back up and get my mind right as well," he says. "I took some time off and I was very selective about what I was going to do next. I would love to do a comedy but nobody will have me - it's just damaged young men!
"I shot a film in British Columbia in Canada, a WWII film and it was very tough - minus 15C and a foot and a half of snow every day in the mountains, and it was all exterior shots. Four soldiers get lost in the Italian alps in 1944, led by an Italian man on this mission, and I'm the only one of the group who has post traumatic stress disorder. He has this itch on his arm he can't stop scratching, so it's not looking any better for me on the next film! I go from that to another WWII thing to a famine film."
The 29 year old actor is certainly no stranger to difficult characters. After stints on RTE's Raw and E4's Misfits, he made his film breakthrough in Rebecca Daly's dark drama The Other Side of Sleep in 2011, playing another damaged young man accused of murder. He has worked consistently ever since, although rarely in Ireland these days.
Three years ago he took flight to Iceland on a whim, having spent a year working six projects back to back, and recently bought a house in Reykjavik, flitting over and back from the Icelandic capital and life with his girlfriend to London for work.
"I wanted to go [to Iceland] since I was a kid," he says. "My mum's name is an old Scandinavian name so I'm a bit of a nerd for the history. I came into a place in my life where I had time off and I'd just done six jobs back to back in the space of a year so I took off by myself on New Year's Eve and stayed in a random Airbnb. I'd never been there before. I've been going there the last three years and just love it."
The Cured is in cinemas now.