In Damian McCarthy’s feature debut, the Irish horror CAVEAT, Isaac (Jonathan French) receives a sinister proposal from his landlord Barret (Ben Caplan), to look after his niece Olga (Leila Sykes). The lure of the money offered compels him to agree but his suspicions that this was too good to be true are soon confirmed when he learns she lives in an isolated house on a remote island. The only access is by boat, and Isaac can’t swim. Once in the house, he’s instructed that he must wear a leather harness and chain that restricts his movements to certain rooms.


In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, McCarthy discussed following in the footsteps of a battle-weary Sam Raimi, and obsessively racing to get the images out of his head and on the screen before anyone else beats him to it.


FRIGHTFEST: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?


DAMIAN MCCARTHY: My parents had a VHS rental store in the south-west of Ireland. This during the 80s, so by the time I was 10 years old I knew PREDATOR and ROBOCOP off by heart. When a new VHS would come in, there would be posters all over the wall of the shop, and I'd take the old posters home. I had a fascination with films from an early age, including a lot of stuff in the 80s like ROBOCOP, that kids shouldn't have been watching.


When I was 15 or 16-years-old, I started writing. This was before digital, so there was no way to make a film then. It was rare for anybody to break into the industry without any contacts. Then when I was 21 I went to film school in Cork, and did a three year course on film making and TV production. The film that would have sent me to film school would have been THE EVIL DEAD 2. It was so entertaining, creative, and crazy. I already loved films, but once I saw that, the obsession with horror and wanting to make films began.


FF: You spoke about the difficulty of entering the industry back then, so from the spark of inspiration, how did you make your film making aspiration a reality?


DM: I started to read everything I could about making films. I’d left school when I was 15 and I was working on building sites. It was just before deciding I had to give film school a go that I got the chance to go to New York for the summer.


My neighbour had been living out there and she was moving out of her apartment. She said you can take the apartment for two to three months. There was no electricity, but I could have it if I wanted it. My best friend and I moved out there and living by candlelight I read everything I could about film making. It sounds very romantic now, but at the time it was terrible.


Reading the NECRONOMICON: THE MAKING OF THE EVIL DEAD and seeing the pictures of them battle worn on the film set, I thought, 'That’s the life for me.’ I came back, did the course, and then made a bunch of short films, but I couldn't get them into any film festivals. They were all terrible failures. I left film school and I went back to working on building sites.


I started watching these very short, almost annoying popup YouTube horror scares, where suddenly there's a stupid face in front of you that frightens you. I thought it would be funny to do something like that, but there's got to be a cleverer way to do it. With the same best friend, I'd gone travelling with, we made a four-and-a-half-minute short film called, HE DIES AT THE END. The first festival I got into was FRIGHTFEST, and that was a huge confidence booster as a film maker.


Coincidentally, there was a guy in the crowd, Justin Hyne, who saw how well the film played. Cut to 10 years or so later, and Justin had been learning how to be a producer. He calls and says, “I've been watching you make short films for the last few years; do you have any ideas for feature films?” I’d been steadily making short films, one every two years, writing feature films, and getting rejection letters. I was trying to get funding from the Irish Film Board, but they had no interest. You start working with a producer on developing a script, and they'll have totally different ideas on how it should go. Justin and I just hit off, and that was the start of CAVEAT.



FF: Your interest in isolated spaces runs through your short films, which connects them with the film that began your obsession with horror cinema and film making. What drives you to set your stories in isolated spaces?


DM: There's safety in numbers, and if a guy on his own, he’s less safe. If you start showing him things that are impossible, a corpse moving, a haunted bunny drumming, he has no one to ask, "Do you see this too? Am I going crazy?” I always found that to be the core of horror and entertainment.


On the other side of that, with your financing and budget, it's easier to get one actor, and let him have it over 90 minutes than it is to hire a group of teenagers that go to a house, because then it's five or six actors that you've got to try to work with. I'm finishing up my next script and it's the same thing again of taking these characters, and isolating them, torturing them, not physically but psychologically.


FF: The audience also doesn’t have another character to look to. This creates a bond with the protagonist, and we wind up feeling that we’re living the nightmare along with them.


DM: I say I like these films where the guy doesn't have anybody to ask, or maybe that's why I do find them entertaining. In THE EVIL DEAD 2, where he has a breakdown and starts laughing, and every piece of furniture and all the props in the room seem to be laughing as well, you do question, 'Is that happening to him? Has everything in the room suddenly come alive, or is he losing it?’



FF: I always think you cannot only create for others; you must do it for the sake of expressing yourself. That gives you a simple pleasure. Before others can connect to whatever it is you’re creating, you must first.


DM: It would be impossible to try to please everybody. CAVEAT took me five years to make, which is crazy if you think about it. I hope I never spend that long working on a film again. I know the first film you make you must put your all into it. You do have to like what you're doing; you must believe in it and must be committed to it because it's going to take a long time.


I'm a big fan of Guillermo Del Toro, and he talks about how even in terms of the scriptwriting, start with an image - think of an image you love and then build out from that. This is where I’ve always come from, and so for CAVEAT, I loved this idea of a girl with a bloody nose being led around a house by a bunny, and I guess for me, a big, bearded man in a leather harness, who willingly puts it on. I had so many images of that in my head that I had a little bit of an obsession and was driven to get them on the screen before someone else did.


Every writer would agree that we’ve all sat down to watch a film and said, “That's my idea. I had that idea years ago; they beat me to it.”


FF: What you’re trying to do is to images on screen that will stay with the audience and be synonymous with your individual film.


DM: It’s usually those strong images that are your way in. There are films that have amazing dialogue, and you remember the conversation, but I don't think it comes to you as quickly as an image does.


FF: I remember hearing Robert Rodriguez talk about how we watch films for certain moments. Cinema like life is about creating memories, which is essentially creating moments.


DM: It’s interesting that you say that because a couple of nights ago I watched the new Terry Gilliam documentary, HE DREAMS OF GIANTS, and he said something similar. This is a misquote, but it was along the lines of he thinks his films are never perfect, but he believes there are a couple of perfect moments. The film has a whole may have failed, but there's a great scene in there. He said he'd rather have a perfect moment. I think it’s true, and one of my favourite films is Richard Kelly’s SOUTHLAND TALES. It’s not well liked, it's a bit of a disaster, and it's a rambling two-and-a-half-hour movie, but it has these incredible moments.


Paul Risker.


CAVEAT is streaming exclusively on Shudder.


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