As part of our end of year review, we sat down with director Damian Mc Carthy to talk all things Caveat, one of the scariest – and best – films of the year…
I understand Caveat had a troubled journey to the screen. What happened?
In 2016 we tried to raise a small amount of finance for a script I had written. That script had a lot of the elements of what would become Caveat: a traumatized girl in a secluded location with a haunted drumming bunny and a guy in a harness. Looking back now, the script wasn’t all that good – too much going on / no structure – and we failed to get the financing. We even made a short film called Hands to show investors what the film would look like, which was a lot of work in itself as we shot way out in this house in the middle of nowhere. 2016 was a long year of hard work that ultimately came to nothing, so we weren’t off to the best start.
I’d had success with my short films before all this. They’d had long festival runs and won a lot of awards, but I hadn’t made a feature film so it was hard to find investors willing to take the chance on me, even if they liked my shorts. Before Caveat I had come close a few times to financing a film, but never got there so this really felt like my last shot at it.
By the end of 2016 we gave up on the idea of making the film. Or any film really. I went back to work on building sites to lick my wounds. The producer, Justin Hyne, got in touch at the start of 2017 to say we had raised a small amount of money from private investors but we would need a simplified version of the script. I quickly reworked the script into a much cheaper one-main-location production.
We still didn’t have enough money to do it right, but we just went for it as quickly as we could for fear of losing the tiny budget that was now on the table. 2017 was spent in pre-production and every word out of my mouth that year was “Can I borrow your…?” rowboat, apartment, car, dog… whatever thing the person had that I needed, or “Can you get some time off work when we are filming? There’s no pay”. I am not a salesman and I hate asking for things so this was really outside my comfort zone but if I wanted to make the film the way I saw it then I had no choice. I had to pull in favours from everyone I knew and a lot of strangers too. The money we had on the table was for everything we could not beg, borrow, build or steal. My best friend Fintan who built the sets (and starred in my first short film He Dies At The End) and I did a lot of raiding of skips and landfills to salvage anything we could. I had a lot of support from family and friends. We shot in November 2017 for 18 days in Bantry House in the southwest of Ireland where I’m from.
The sets were being finished when the actor we had cast to play our lead told us he would need more money than what we could afford and also a lot more ownership of the film. Like most people on the film he was just starting his career and had no credits of note. It wasn’t possible to give him what he wanted, so he left and we then had a frantic search to find our lead actor. This ended up working out for the best as this search lead to finding Jonathan French. I can’t imagine anybody else in the role now. Jonathan is a very gifted actor and a lovely guy to work with. The shoot had a small crew. Nowhere near enough people to make a film comfortably. Two on sound. Two on camera. One Production designer and the rest of the crew made up mostly of friends and family. Everyone was multitasking and doubling up on uncredited roles.
We shot from 8am to 7pm for 6 days a week and I got 90% of everything I storyboarded and planned for the day. It felt like everything was going fine… then a week into production the drumming bunny went missing. It’s a very long story, but Justin and I had a nightmare getting it back. Failing to get it back would have meant the end of the film as we shot out of sequence with the bunny already in scenes and we needed him for many more. It was incredibly stressful, and for me this event hung over the rest of the production. Once we got it back Justin slept with all the props in his room at night for the duration of the shoot.
I remember an interview with an established filmmaker (I can’t remember who now) that said in his experience every film has someone that will, for their own reasons, try to derail your film, either with a poisonous attitude or hijack the production if they see the opportunity because of greed or jealousy. You have to be very careful with who you let on to your set.
Once filming was complete I spent a few weeks striking the sets and returning borrowed props and going quickly broke eating into my savings. I then went into post-production in early 2018. I had edited and sound designed my short films myself, but a feature is a whole other beast. It took about a year and a half. Because there was no budget for the edit, I’d work on the film for a bit, then go back to my day-job to make my rent, then back to edit a bit more. Every spare minute I had for over a year was spent on the film. I would still be editing now without the support of my parents. I work with my Dad on site so he could see how hard I was trying, so was eager to help.
After about a year of working like this the film really started to feel like a disaster. It made less sense every time I looked at it. By the time I finished it I really hated it and thought I had made an unintentional comedy or a film so bad it would become The Room of horror movies. Films are not meant to be put together this slowly. It’s an open door for self doubt to sneak in. We had this beautiful Irish summer and I’d have to black out the windows in my apartment to edit. At one stage I started writing a voiceover from Isaac’s POV to insert into the film, as the whole thing had become so incomprehensible to me. It would have been like the shit version of Blade Runner if I had done that.
The script I had rushed through and thrown together in fear of losing the budget, was now revealing all it’s problems. The worst part of this was that I was now getting all these ideas of what I should have done. I had better reasons for Isaac going to the island. More interesting backstories and creepy flashbacks that kept the horror going. Creepier scenes with the drumming bunny. Ways to make better use of the harness. It was a big lesson to not rush a script. You need to step away from what you’re writing if you can and let better ideas come to you, or let the ideas you have develop more. A rushed script leads to so many problems later in the edit. I believe now a good script takes at least a year.
Sound design is everything for horror films so I really put everything into making that work. We went through sound designers like Spinal Tap drummers. That’s a slight exaggeration. But the bad luck we had in finding or losing sound designers is the stuff of dark comedy that I hope to see the funny side of someday. At the time it was difficult.
Like the edit, the sound design was done on a 10 year old powerbook laptop which would routinely crash and cause me to Google “can stress cause physical pain”. I started to feel like Rob Bottin at the end of his work on The Thing at this stage. Except he had the timeless FX in a horror masterpiece to show for his burnout and I had a no budget movie about a drumming bunny.
We finally found a studio in Bristol that would mix everything for us which was a big relief. Around this time I started getting messages asking what had happened to the film and did we ever finish it. It’s hard for people to understand that you are still working on it two years later. After this much time spent on the film it’s also difficult to find the film scary or suspenseful in any way so you’re finishing it just to honor all the favors and hard work of other people… not to mention the financial investment. As the director of a no budget film it really comes down to you to solve these problems. The minute you stop dragging the film forward – the film stops. I kept a journal throughout the years of making the film and it really was just one thing after another. The journal begins so positively and optimistic and by the end it’s just these short bleak entries about how bad the film is going and what am I going to do for a living. Despite what I’m saying here, I’m proud of it and relieved it has found an audience as people worked very hard on it. There are some scenes in there that I think work really well. The last 15 minutes and how it ends I think is better than anything in my short films and ideally it’s nice to feel you are progressing as a filmmaker. It’s just hard to separate the experience of making the film from the film itself.
I have since done a lot of reading and listening to interviews with filmmakers talking about their first movies and it seems quite common to not like your own movie or to be a bit sick of it by the time you’re finished the post-production process. Read up on any filmmaker’s first feature and more often than not it’s a story of stress and anxiety and self doubt. Even John Carpenter can find flaws in The Thing which is a perfect film. I watched Hearts of Darkness a lot when this film was over. It become like a comfort blanket as the film looked like such a nightmare. “My First Movie” is also a good book featuring a collection of interviews on first features and how difficult they can be. The Evil Dead Companion is also a solid read on what Sam Raimi and co went through to see The Evil Dead finished. I think it’s just the nature of no budget first features. They are difficult to make.
There are filmmakers that give up after one film and I can absolutely see why. It takes so much rejection to even get a chance to make a film. It’s “NO” 99% of the time when you’re starting out. If you can scrape together the budget to get something made then you have to be prepared to really push yourself to see it finished to the best possible standard and not settle just because you’re tired of looking at it.
The film features the freakiest toy rabbit ever. Where did the bunny come from?
I read a review the other day where the drumming bunny was described as a Ghostbusters PKE meter – the device they use to detects ghosts. I never thought of it like that but it’s a good comparison. It’s an old idea that I never knew what to do with. A drumming bunny that can sense the supernatural. I made a short film called Hatch which features two wind up toys that let the audience know something strange is on its way. The bunny was designed by a very talented designer here in Cork named Lisa Zagone. I hope to work with Lisa again. I have plenty of weird things for her to design.
There are a number of “caveats” to Barrett’s contract with Isaac that read like a list of horror movie red flags: spooky house with sinister past, a relative with disturbing behaviour and not least being locked into a straight-jacket chained to the basement. What inspired this particular combination of ideas?
It’s true there are a lot of horror tropes in the movie. On paper it’s not all that original – the island, the dark basement, creepy wind up toys and paintings – but I wanted to take all these things I’d seen before and see if I could put my own spin on them. The idea being that all of these things are familiar to an audience. So if they feel like “I’ve seen all this before this won’t be scary” I can then use that familiarity against them as their guard will be down. I also wasn’t sure if I would ever get to make another film so I just wanted to get as many visuals out of my head and onto the screen as I could in case this was it. I think all of these things now are out of my system. I’ve put a lot of work into my next script to have scares and horror sequences that I haven’t seen before and in a very odd setting. If I see something similar in another horror film now I either remove the idea from my script or work to improve upon it. But to start out I don’t think there’s anything wrong with following well worn paths.
The there are some incredibly tense sequences throughout. Which films did you draw on as influences? Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs feels like its in the mix.
That’s an interesting comparison. There is a bit of People Under The Stairs in this with the crawl spaces and the general weirdness to the whole thing. I haven’t seen that film in over 25 years. I remember it being on TV a lot and watching it despite not really enjoying it all that much. Wes Craven had an amazing imagination.
Blue Ruin by Jeremy Saulnier is one of my favourite modern movies. That film was a big influence on me in terms of tone and production. Jonathan even had a bit of that shaggy Macon Blair style. They didn’t have a big budget making that film so the film feels very tight in its framing and pacing. In terms of horror there’s a big mix of films influencing it. I don’t know if there’s anything in particular. The film to me was always a ghost story set in one location so there’s probably a little bit of everything from The Wicker Man (the guy going to the island) to Alien (crawling around in dark tight spaces with something otherworldly) to every haunted house horror from The Amityville to The Others. It’s not just horror that influences my writing. I watch everything from romantic comedies to foreign language films to action. If you consume a varied enough diet of all different kinds of cinema hopefully it’ll come back out as something original and interesting and not a pile of shit.
The finale has some of the scariest moments of the year. What moments in horror cinema scare you?
Thanks Tim! I am proud of the last 15 minutes of the film. I think it turned out well. Inma and Jonathan did a great job in that small cramped space. Thankless role for Inma. Inma Pavon played the dead woman. In real life she’s this super athletic trained dancer and I cast her as a corpse. It was still a challenging role that demanded a lot of patience. She was in Hands – the short film we made for the investors. It’s on my website. Inma is one of the most good natured and best people you could have on a set.
Scary moments in horror cinema…
- Ringu: you think it’s all over and everyone is safe as they found her body in the well but later the guy’s TV comes on showing the well. Then Sadako emerges from it and starts making her way towards the TV… I was in my early twenties when I saw that and it deeply unsettled me for weeks. I hadn’t been this frightened by a movie since I was a child. I had a security camera outside my house at the time and I found myself continuously changing to the live feed from it at night. I kept imaging her there on the footpath when I’d change to the channel.
- 28 Days Later: “I promised them women”. That line is still one of the most chilling pieces of dialogue ever written. It just sends the film in a very uncomfortable direction. I have no stomach for sexual violence in movies so that line really put me on edge. Films like The Last House on the Left or I Spit On Your Grave would be one time viewings only. They’re good movies but I find them too tough to sit through. I remember this scene in 28 Days Later in a packed cinema and there was this noticeable change in the room, like… “Oh God… I don’t like where this is going”. One or two people walked out when the soldiers started their attack. But then to see Cillian Murphy kill these guys one by one is so satisfying.
- Don’t Look Now: “Fetch him back!” I don’t know why but the blind psychic woman saying this over and over as Donald Sutherland’s character goes off to chase what he believes is the spirit of his dead daughter has this incredible sense of doom about it and really launches you into that final scene. I find it sad when I rewatch it now.
- Lord of the Rings: when Bilbo’s face changes as he spots the ring again. That’s one of the best jump-scares ever. It comes out of nowhere but it’s not cheap. It adds to the story and the characters.
- The Witches: the original Nicholas Roeg movie. The sequence with the missing little girl Erica appearing in the painting of the farm and getting older as the years pass. Living out her life in the painting. There’s a feeling of hopelessness to it and I remember as a child watching it not being able to stop thinking about it. You never see her parents reaction beyond the initial discovery that she is now in the painting so it leaves you with so many questions as to how they dealt with this. Somebody should make a movie about that!
- The Sixth Sense: the little boy realizes there is a ghost in the house so runs to the tent where he feels safe. One by one the pegs holding the tent together are undone so you assume the ghost is outside the tent but then the camera suddenly pans down to reveal the ghost is in the tent with him. And it’s a little ghost girl. And she’s vomiting! The scene is about a minute long but is a great example of misdirection and camera movement for horror.
Those are a few. I don’t know if any of those movies are necessarily my favourite horror movies but those moments left a mark.
The film is currently available on Shudder, and is also getting a Blu-ray release in February 2022. What’s it been like working with them as a distributor?
Shudder have been brilliant to work with. Sam and Emily there are very enthusiastic, genuine horror fans. It’s made me want to make more movies with them so I hope I get the chance. I had actually sworn off ever making a movie again because of my first experience but talking with them, it’s hard not to get excited about horror and filmmaking again. I was already a fan of Shudder so I couldn’t be happier to have my first film there. If I do get to make more movies I hope it’ll find a home there too.
I did a directors commentary for the Blu Ray and really tried to aim it at filmmakers looking to make their first feature. I used to listen to audio commentaries all the time in the hopes of picking up some tips so hopefully someone will get something out of mine. It’s not 88 minutes of me saying how much I hated making the movie I swear.
What’s next for you?
Caveat was more successful than I thought it would be. I think Shudder getting behind it has a lot to do with this. The film lead to my getting an agent with United Talent Agency which was very exciting and from that I’ve got to meet a lot of producers and have had meetings with production companies I’m a big fan of. I have a script I really love and my agents have been very encouraging with it. It’s creepy and odd. I’ve taken my time with it too so I know it works. I’m talking to a few producers I admire so I’m just waiting to see what comes of it. Nothing might happen, but I’m optimistic the film will get made. Caveat really felt like film school so it would be interesting to take what I’ve learned from my mistakes with that story and see if I can make something bigger and better. And maybe even enjoy the experience. You hear about bands that made their first album in the garage with little resources and it’s universally adored. Then for some reason there’s the ‘difficult second album’ when they have a company behind them. I’m hoping with filmmaking it’s the opposite and it’s the “simple second film”. Ask me this time next year.