Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I Sell The Dead - An Interview With Director Glenn McQuaid

I Sell the Dead tells the tale of 18th century partners in crime Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) and Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden). After years of profitable grave robbing, events take a strange turn and justice finally catches up with the duo. As Arthur is imprisoned and waiting to be beheaded he’s visited by a Irish priest named Father Duffy (Ron Perlman). In exchange for a share in a bottle of whiskey Arthur tells the story of his life and explains how grave robbery isn't always straightforward. It's a quirky horror comedy that keeps pace through the 90 minutes with a nod to old hammer horror movies and i think it has the makings of a cult classic.

I Sell the Dead is the first full length feature film from director Glenn McQuaid. Glenn, who hails from Dublin, Ireland took the time to speak with me recently.

GOE: There’s a strong sense of enthusiasm and love for the horror genre from ‘I Sell the Dead’. What were your favourite films (horror and non horror) when you were growing up?

GMCQ: I've always been impressed with what British horror from the sixties and seventies. Terry Fisher and Freddie Francis being two directors in particular that struck a cord with me. Religion was always at the heart of a lot of those movies and I was quite religious as a kid. The Wicker Man had a profound effect on me because it spoke very elegantly about religion and sexuality. I probably saw that film too young but the themes really resonated with me. There was something about the pagan world that Edward Woodward entered, that to me was very unspoiled and innocent; you could argue that he was the intruder, the antagonist to that world. So I would say that The Wicker Man has long been a favorite and Young Frankenstein really threw me when I saw it and I still love it, what an amazing cast.

Why do you think horror is usually the genre picked when it comes to remakes these days?

Horror has become a giant cash cow for producers and most of them couldn't care less about originality. It's easier to get something familiar off the ground rather than trying to come up with something original which may not be tried and tested. When you look at people like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, and what they were up to in the 70s, it was shocking, it was vital to their times. And now, their work is getting the big buck Hollywood make over treatment and something is missing. The soul is gone, the original intent is missing; what's left is just some grotesque empty spectacle but it sells.

You worked as an extra on several film productions in Ireland when you were in your teens. How did this experience open your eye with regards to film making? Was there any experience in particular that ignited your interest in film making?

I was obsessed with cinema as a kid but was always quite nervous about speaking up about it, cinema was a million miles away from what I felt was my place in the universe. I literally ran away from home to be on the set of The Field, I got there towards the end of filming but spent about two weeks in Leenane. I got to meet some really great people, even watched a game of rugby with Richard Harris. One of the PAs or maybe one of the ADs was a prick, always hassling me, belittling me and one time the costume designer stood up for me and told him to fuck off, it was great!

Working as a visual effects artist before moving into directing. How do you think this has changed the way you direct?

I suppose it gives me an edge that I take for granted. I have a very graphic eye, composition and color are very important to me. On set I tried to collaborate with the actors as much as possible because that was new to me and I sort of relied on my eye for setting up comps. I story boarded and made a few animatics but I was very eager to roll with the punches and scrap what I had planned in favor of something looser.

‘I Sell the Dead’ is based on your 2005 short film 'The Resurrection Apprentice'. Had the story line or idea been around for long prior to production?

I first conceived the story about five years ago. I was doing a bit of research on cemeteries in Ireland and was reading a book by Sarah Wise called The Italian Boy. It was about the murder of a street urchin by body snatchers who sold his body to surgeons. I had a renewed interested in grave robbing stories and started watching films like The Body Snatcher and Flesh for the Fiends. Finally I read a book on Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. So I threw all that into the short film. Tonally it was quite different from I Sell The Dead. My goal was to make a somber little drama set in the world of The Wolf Man and The Mummy but nothing really happens. By the time I came around to writing I Sell The Dead, I wanted to let loose a little and have some fun with the genre. I though it was a good idea to immerse the grave robber into a full on horror situation.

As you were going through this research process, what was the most interesting bit of knowledge that you gained about grave robbing?

The lengths people would go to protect their dearly departed from being resurrected were pretty intense. Some graves were guarded until the body was surly spoiled. Wealthier corpses went down in mortsafes which were made from lead to protect from pilfering.

What music were you listening to at the time?

I'm always careful about what music I listen to while writing as it becomes such an influence on whatever it is I'm up to. At the time of writing the short I was listening to an album called Murder Ballads by Mick Harris and Martyn Bates. The mood of that really seeped into the short, very dark minimalist ambient folk tunes. Really beautiful. I even collaborated with Martyn Bates for the score, I've always been a fan of his band Eyeless in Gaza and his solo work. As we got into doing the feature I was listening to a lot of John Williams and Ennio Morricone, two of my favorite composers.

Story telling is something the Irish have done well for thousands of years, albeit aided with Guinness/whiskey and a tongue in cheek attitude :) There is a real balance of humour and dramatics in the way you immerse the viewer in the story. Who have been your favourite story tellers? (film/literature/art /graphic novels etc)

Some of my friends and family are my favorite story tellers. My mum, my mates from college, aunts, drinking buddies. I just take bits and pieces of what they are saying and put them in my stories. I love Alan Moore, there's a pub in I Sell The Dead called The Sinister Duck which is named after a band he was in with a few of the Bauhaus crew.

Hitchcock is probably my favorite cinematic story teller because his work is so calculated, so technical, yet it's all about the audience and feels effortless. Shirley Jackson, James Joyce and Brahm Stoker have crafted some of my favorite stories. Shirley Jackson has a two page story called The Witch about a little boy, his mother and an old gentleman and in those two pages she conveys everything I love about horror. How some people get it and others never will, it's really moving.

The film features some fantastic set design. I was amazed to learn that a huge portion of the movie was filmed on Staten Island in New York. Why did you end up filming there specifically? Did you face any challenges whilst shooting a period film there?

Not really, we had a great art team that got behind what we were trying to achieve. We were also very lucky to find some great locations that we managed to get for reasonable prices. Staten Island was very good to us, over half the movie was shot there, the vampire story, all the cell stuff with Ron and Dom and the cemetery scenes.

Just a taster of what the critics think of the film:

Dennis Harvey of Variety described it as"...droll performances, diverting f/x and handsome B-pic atmospherics ensure a good time for horror fans with a memory past last weekend’s slasher remake."

“Smart, gruesome and inventive enough to more than please niche genre fans who are likely to spread the word to fellow admirers of gallows humor." Jason Coffman - FILM MONTHLY

"A cult hit in the making."R. Emmet Sweeney - IFC

How do you feel about the overwhelmingly positive reception to the film so far?

The reception has been very warm and that's a huge bonus. To be honest, I don't read most of the reviews, if people like it then I am genuinely happy but if they hate it, then fair enough, you know? I love it, warts 'n all. It's my first stab at film making and I think there is much to be improved upon, but as I say, I stand by it and enjoy feeling the love. There have been some really badly written, bitingly critical responses to the film but those people can kiss my arse, I went to the trouble of making the film, you can at least use a spell check.

Larry Fessenden starred in and also produced the film. How did you end up collaborating with him?

Larry and I go back a long way at this stage and I love working with him, especially in the director/actor capacity. We really collaborated on the Willie Grimes character, he's close to both of us, we're like Willie's Dads! I met Larry at the wrap party for a movie he produced called The Office Season and we became friends. He's a hugely generous talent, a great person to have on set because he still has that wide-eyed child like fascination with all aspects of the industry.

Who would you like to collaborate/work with in future?

I'm eager to work with more Irish actors, I think there's a rich history of the arts in Ireland that is somewhat forgotten. Even on the soaps, like Fair City, where you know those actors are getting maybe one take if they are lucky! But the talent is there and the passion is there. I hope to collaborate with Fessenden again, I'd love to develop some more characters with him.

Can you tell readers about the 'I Sell the Dead' Comic /graphic novel collaboration with Brahm Revel?

Yes! Image Comics release it on Wednesday October 7th so you'll be able to pick it up in most comic shops. I just got a box of them and they are beautiful! Brahm did a great job. It's also available as an iphone app from a great crowd called Comixology.

Distribution plans? When will people in Ireland/worldwide be able to watch it?

Anchor Bay are releasing the R2 DVD and Bluray in November, it's a cool package with two commentaries and a couple of Making-ofs.

Future plans?

I am writing up a storm right now and I'm beginning to get excited and passionate about a few things. The next project has to be worthwhile, I will not spend two years working on something I'm not sure about. Hopefully there'll be something on the horizon for me in the new year, we'll see.

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