Two weeks ago I watched Darkness on the Edge of Town, expecting a run-of-the-mill horror flick. But Patrick Ryan's firstborn surprised me, so much in fact that I wanted to ask him a couple of questions about his first feature film. We talked about looking beyond established scriptwriting rules, the importance of a good score and the difficulties of getting your film made as a first-time director. You'll find all that and more below.
Niels Matthijs: The opening 10 minutes of Darkness on the Edge of Town are pretty spectacular. First impressions are important and for many people it will be the first time they come into contact with Patrick Ryan, the director. Was that a factor, or did you simply feel the film needed an opening like that?
Patrick Ryan: Thank you; it was a little of both I think. At the time I was surrounded, am still surrounded actually, by independent films that just sound like radio. Endless talking. Those silent ten minutes were kind of like, "hey, watch THIS"; a bit of bravado. But I think it's important tonally too, and something I find the most interesting to direct. It also has the benefit of being a throwback to old Westerns; like the waiting on a train at the start of "Once Upon a Time in the West", which fit in with what we were trying do.
There is no dialogue in those first 10 minutes and just 5 minutes in the audience is watching the key scene. Weren't you worried that this might require a little too much focus on the audience's part, leaving them struggling throughout the rest of the film?
That's always a danger, you're right; I think my reasoning at the time was, if they're with us at the opening, we've got them the whole way. If not, they're probably not going to enjoy the rest of the film anyway. But I think some people sit up straight with that scene and think, "that's the murderer? So what the hell's going to happen now"? Which is exactly where you want them. It was a bit of a gamble, but hopefully it paid off for some of the audience.
Give this setup to any other scriptwriter and the film would've ended up a whodunit, with the killer revealed in the final act. I felt it was quite daring to forego all that, even the key scene itself is shot in such a way that any notion of a possible twist is nipped in the bud. Where did you get the idea to structure the film like this?
The film was never structured as a "whodunit", even from the first draft. That approach was totally disinteresting to me. I was more interested in writing about the reactions and the decisions the characters made in the fallout of the murder. It creates a different kind of tension during the events and in the audience. It allows you to control the pace a little more too; the audience aren't going to have much patience and follow you into the quieter moments if they're only concerned with who killed the girl. As a device, it came directly from the Greek Tragedies and Shakespeare, namely "Othello". We were studying them in film school, and I thought, well, that's kind of interesting. How come screenwriters don't do that more?
The structure of the plot probably violates a whole lot of scriptwriting rules and I read that you had to defend your choice more than once. My gut feeling tells me that film in general could benefit more from breaking such rules. Do you feel film schools may be a little too restrictive at times?
I think film schools are what you make them. You take what's useful and discard the rest. I've had teachers say the most useless things to me and also had teachers say the most enlightening. I also think schools are restrictive in terms of conforming you to a certain style, which inevitably involves shaky cameras, plotless scripts, social messages and crying actors. I don't know why, but that seems to be the stuff they favour. I mean, people don't initially go to film school because they want to make that meandering shit, they go because they love Tarantino. I think that initial passion gets lost along the way somewhere for most people.
When I read up about the things that influenced you when making this film I was surprised how broad those influences were. From Shakespeare to Westerns, from the Sopranos to Evangelion. Even so, Darkness on the Edge of Town is a very tight, coherent film. Did you have to keep yourself in check to make sure things didn't spin out of control or did that come about naturally.
I remember there was a lot of spiraling out of control during the script stage; that's when you have to keep a grip on your influences and decide what kind of story you really want to tell. Even so, I think you can see the Sopranos and Evangelion in "Darkness" if you look for them. But once the script was locked, I moved to visual influences, which are much easier to keep in check, because you're restrained by the needs of a scene. The script hardly changed at all during shooting, we couldn't afford to. Also, once you start bringing in the key crew you've got to look like you know what you're doing. These are smart people, and they're not going to follow you into the woods if they sense you don't really know the way back out.
I've seen the film being categorized as 'horror', but there's clearly a lot more going on, from the Western impulses to strong dramatic undercurrents. How would you categorize it?
I think I would call it a neo-Western. But I've seen it called a lot of things; drama, thriller, horror, revenge drama, western; and I kind of like the fact it's hard to pin down. Whatever someone thinks of the film, at least we didn't make something generic.
A lot of first time directors start off by making a horror film, I guess because it's not as demanding a genre (most fans don't mind, sometimes even demand clichés, you don't need A-grade actors, ...). Clearly you aimed a little higher than that. What prompted you to make a dark film like this?
I was hoping to make something that nobody had seen before. Part of the reason for the film's success, I think, is its identity. If you're looking for it, you can see the budget limitations here and there on "Darkness", but I think its identity carries it through. When it comes to your first no-budget film, identity is the only weapon you have, really. I remember about a week into shooting, a few of the crew started making little scenes where they spoofed the film and the two lead characters, just for fun. And I recall saying to Tommy at that time, "I think we've got something here". Because to have someone do an impression of you usually means you're doing something distinctive. So despite the fact that they were ripping my scenes to shreds, I was quite encouraging.
You and Tommy Fitzgerald have your own production company (Lagoon Pictures Ltd), which I guess allows you a certain degree of freedom to make the films you want to make. Money is always an issue though, so how far do you think you'd be willing to go when a big studio comes knocking on your door?
I suppose it would depend on the project. I'm certainly not anti-studio; there are a couple of franchises I'd happily take a crack at if the big lads came knocking. But the total freedom we had on "Darkness" was fantastic, and something I doubt we'll have again. I didn't have to implement a single note from anybody unless I thought it was a good idea. In terms of translating a vision, it will probably be the most pure film I ever make.
How important was it for you that you were already familiar with part of your crew before you started shooting?
Pretty important I think, especially in the case of "Darkness", where the whole thing was hanging by a thread; you have to make sure they're people you trust, and in terms of having a shorthand with them, it's invaluable. For example, I've been working with Tommy for years; he doesn't need me looking over his shoulder the whole time, he knows what I like and I know his ideas are more often than not going to be great for the film. I think it led to a more unified, cohesive film. As a director, you have to remain fluid on a low-budget shoot; you've got to confront challenges and obstacles most days and constantly reframe the script around them to see if it can still work. That's a lot easier to do when you're working with people you know and trust.
Did that same familiarity hold you back at times? It's quite a dark, grim film, so I imagine that switching back and forth between shooting and having a laugh in between may not have been the easiest thing to do.
You'd be surprised; we made a "making of", and from that it looks like we were all just fucking about half the time. The crew was holed up together in a couple of houses, so you immediately start to feel like a little unit. A couple of days towards the end of the shoot, people started to fray, but all in all, it wasn't tough to have fun. The crew was full of smart, funny people, and anyway, the amount of stuff that blows up in your face on a day-to-day basis, you've got to face it all with levity. Actually, our van windscreen literally blew up one day. Everyone was still smiling.
Some directors make it into a sport to work with as many different people as possible, others stick with a trusted inner circle for most of their career. Which way do you see yourself evolving?
I'd be more than happy to work with the same key creative team for the foreseeable future. I can't imagine not going to Tommy (Cinematographer), Alex or Conor (Fitzpatrick, Editor) when something comes up. They all bring a lot to the table in terms of creativity and I enjoy working with each of them, so I'll be bringing them along to the next feature, if they're available. In terms of actors, I'd like to work with a large variety, but obviously, certain people stand out. Brian Gleeson is one, and we're hoping to work together again. Brian is world class. I'm hoping to get the next film out of him before Hollywood notices.
I read that you like to write on a train with a song stuck on repeat. Does that mean you already have a score in mind when you're writing, or is the music just needed to put you in the zone?
Not a score so much as just music that triggers something. And that could literally be any song, there's no rhyme or reason that I can tell. But some songs, in my mind, are inherently cinematic. And they're the ones that seem to bring out the good ideas, even though most of the time I know there's no way that specific song will be used in the film. And I should explain that screenwriting, to me, has very little to do with physically writing stuff down, but does have a lot to do with firing up your imagination while staring out of a train window.
Even though Darkness on the Edge of Town is visually striking, it was the score that impressed me the most. I often get the feeling though that most directors consider the score more like a necessary evil instead of a tool to add to their film. How important is the music for you?
I appreciate you saying that, as the music is everything to me; the score gives the film part of its identity. Alex Ryan, the composer, is my brother and wonderfully talented in that area, so I knew going in that the score would be a big part of it all. For me, screenwriting has more to do with music than any other creative art. Editing too. I find it quite hard to separate filmmaking and music.
There's like this semi-hidden connection between Hozier and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Can you elaborate on that a little?
The main connection would be that Alex plays bass with Hozier, and has been on tour with him for the past two years or so. Hozier's a good friend; I remember we were finishing the rough cut of "Darkness" just when all his stuff was kicking off, in Ireland at least, and he still made the time to sit down and go through the first cut with me, tell me what he thought. He's got keen sensibilities. He made the effort to come to our premiere in Galway too; he's a great friend in that way.
There's a lot of doom and gloom when people discuss the future of cinema, even so you managed to write, produce and direct your first feature film. How difficult was it to get this project off the ground?
It was difficult, but I had some fantastic people around me. Everyone who came on board wanted the best for the film, including the actors, who were so great, especially the two lead girls, Emma Eliza Regan and Emma Willis. I think people will always respond to and rally around a good script, but you have to put in the groundwork there. So people know you're not fucking around and wasting their time. It's a long, hard road where you have to learn a lot of things fast and make the rest up as you go along; but if it's in your blood, I think you're going to do it regardless.
One thing that surprised me was Netflix' limited release of Darkness on the Edge of Town. I'm not looking for exact numbers, but is selling global rights to a platform like Netflix so much of a disadvantage compared to selling rights separately for each region?
In our case, we have two different distributors, so Candy Factory, our U.S. guys, made the deal with Netflix. We were shocked when we heard Netflix wanted it, that wasn't in the game plan. And even better, in America, which is where you want to be seen. If the film does well, it's possible Netflix will roll it out to other regions, or pick it up for a second year. I'm very new to all this stuff, but I don't think dealing with regions separately is too bad, you get to retain more control over when and where the film is put out.
I can imagine that getting that first film out there is immensely important for a director, but even then a lot of promising new directors fail to make their second feature. What are your plans for the future?
To have "Darkness" find an audience, especially in America, has been really encouraging and humbling, and it does make you want to go again. My second film is called "Gemini"; it's about a serial killer in Dublin, with Brian Gleeson playing the lead. But, like "Darkness", I hope a lot of what people expect from the serial killer genre will be thrown out of the window in the first ten minutes. The script is done, Brian's read it, Tommy's read it. We're putting the pieces together at the moment. It took me a while to finish the script, but I'm really excited about it, and I hope we get to do it. I think we will. I'm looking forward to getting back on that most unruly of horses.