Festivals like the Cork International Film Festival, which kicks off this week, are a fantastic avenue for unique storytelling from passionate filmmakers. One of Ireland’s own, Paul Duane is a filmmaker who has always been drawn to unique stories, including following KLF in What Time Is Death?, and the artistic efforts of Bill Drummond in Best Before Death. These docs explored the complex pursuits and motivations of artists, and in Duane’s next feature, that calling takes a dark turn. He’ll be showing his genre fiction debut at the Cork International Film Festival this month, an eagerly anticipated unveiling for Irish audiences. Folk horror All You Need Is Death premiered October 2023 at the Beyond Fest in Los Angeles, and has already picked up buzz and bustle on the festival circuit ahead of its Irish debut down south.
Young couple Anna and Aleks collect folk ballads, the rarer the better, and the more money they can sell them for. Following a tip from a fellow collector, they secretly record a song so ancient that it is in a forgotten dialect. But once they begin to translate the song, they discover the terrifying reason why it was never meant to be passed on.
Duane’s first foray into genre film is a folk horror steeped in the dark mythology of the folk song, bolstered by an outstanding cast and a suitably ominous soundtrack from Ian Lynch of Lankum. The film’s release, which should take place wide in Ireland in 2024, will be handled by XYZ Films, distributor of films like Vivarium, Mandy and many more, most recently Blackberry. Production however, was self funded by Duane himself.
Duane is one of Ireland’s most dynamic and distinct filmmakers, with an off-beat and varied career path that has included work across television, documentary and fiction features.
A true independently-minded filmmaker, Paul will also be in attendance at the festival to discuss his journey as a filmmaker in a Career Interview, hosted by Tara Brady. Duane’s talk, with a focus on All You Need Is Death, is part of the festival’s Industry Day First Take on September 16th, a training and development platform for newly established film professionals, film and media students and the wider film industry. Ahead of the festival, Film In Dublin got some early insights from Duane about his film, the horror genre and navigating the industry as an independent filmmaker.
What kind of atmosphere and tone can horror fans expect from All You Need Is Death?
I’m a huge fan of films that privilege atmosphere over plot. I’m less interested in films that are scare machines, that are there to make you jump every five minutes, so people who go to the film expecting a lot of jump scares and gore are going to be disappointed. What it does, I think, and what people seem to enjoy from the feedback we’re getting is that it’s tremendously creepy, atmospheric, mysterious. All You Need Is Death puts you into a very unfamiliar world, it’s much more a cosmic horror vibe of creepiness, it’s more about getting under your skin than it is about jump scares or gore.
Horror has historically been under-represented genre in Irish film or from Irish film makers. What are some Irish horrors that you’d recommend or would potentially pair with this work?
The only Irish film that I really feel a sympathy with is a very obscure one called The Outcasts, which the Irish Film Archive have been restoring. It’s directed by Robert Wynne-Simmons, who wrote Blood on Satan’s Claw, which is a core folk horror text. It’s an absolutely stunning movie, but unfortunately when it came out, it was a huge flop, largely because the terrifying shaman at the centre of the story is played by Mick Lally, who at the time was best known for playing a good-natured simpleton farmer on Glenroe. I’ve worked with Mick myself and I believe he was one of the great Irish actors, but the soap thing did cause him huge problems.
The Outcasts is a classic piece of Irish folk horror that has been completely forgotten about and I’m really excited about how people are going to respond to it when it comes out again, I think it’ll land really well in 2023 in a way that it didn’t in 1982. I saw it on TV when I was a teenager, it absolutely blew me away and it remained in my mind as the kind of gold standard for what an Irish horror film could be. I’ve never really seen anybody attempt to do what that film did in terms of dealing with the Irish landscape and mythology and paganism genuinely.
My personal influences for horror tend to come from Asian, Eastern European and Italian cinema rather than English language cinema, and I think Irish horror has tended far too much to follow in the kind of template of American and British horror in a way that doesn’t suit us culturally. My film is more in keeping with European dark tales.
What is it about Irish culture that makes it more suitable to those European styles compared to American or British storytelling?
Britain and America are powerful colonial countries. Ireland’s small. It’s dealt with war and famine in the same way that Poland would have, for instance. When I look at Polish movies, I see much more in common there with our culture, than say, Nightmare on Elm Street or something like that. These are films that come from a kind of a deep history of a peasant class that has not really fully relinquished its Pagan beliefs. I mean, when I was a kid, my parents who were fervent Catholics would have been huge prayers to the Saints, to Saint Anthony, to Saint Luke, that’s a pagan holdover. The Irish tendency to break down religion into the Virgin Mary and the various Saints rather than being centralised on Christ is very like what Polish people do and it’s very Pagan.
I used to play in a fairy fort when I was a kid you know? That world is imbued in me, the songs, the spookiness, the weirdness of Irish ballads when you really listen to them, that’s all something I grew up with, and it’s often forgotten now.
I love a lot of American Horror movies, but they are very different, they’re films of the new world and we’re the old world. I think it serves us best when we embrace that rather than try to be more modern.
Irish music and its storytelling nature can definitely be shifted into horror. Musicians are involved in this film in front of and behind the camera, and you’ve followed musicians previously in some of your docs, how did you fold their experiences, stories and sense of the music into this work as it was being made?
Well, I didn’t really have to. One of the core elements of the film of the film is about people recording songs that they shouldn’t record, and the sense that there are things that possibly might be better off left alone. That’s a very horror movie thing, like the Necronomicon in Evil Dead, but it’s also born out of experience. When I sent the script to Barry Gleeson, Brendan’s brother who is himself a very highly regarded ballad singer, he absolutely related to it on the level of hating when he’s singing at a ballad session, and somebody pulls out a phone and starts recording. He’s often thinking maybe this song is something I’m trying out and I’m not quite sure of, why are these people recording me? Do they even listen? Are they just recording for clout for later? That’s what he saw in it, it wasn’t something that I necessarily put in, but it’s definitely there in the story. He viscerally agreed with the premise of the film, even though it’s a very strange horror and it’s not really about the folk scene, but I was glad that Barry twigged that part of it. The other musicians involved mostly all jumped in because they’re friends of mine and people I hold in high esteem and have worked with on music videos and stuff.
Ian Lynch has also mentioned how much he connected with the script, was that kind of endorsement key for you, that people like that ‘got it’?
Oh yeah, Ian was the first person I sent the script to. I’ve said before, if he had said this is crap I probably would have reconsidered what I was doing. But Ian said to me that he had been waiting a long time for somebody to make a film that taps into the core spookiness and weirdness of Irish folk music. One of the the reasons I wrote it was because this phrase ‘folk horror’ gets thrown around, but nobody had made a folk music horror and it seemed to be an open goal to me because of how creepy and strange those songs are. I mean, Weelia Weelia Walia crops up in the film in a comedic sense. But you know, this is a song about infanticide, and we all sang it as kids. These songs are absolutely steeped in in in child murder, in starvation, in torture, in imprisonment. They’re all there and it’s not difficult to find. Ian said he’d been waiting for someone to make a film that picks up on that and I was the one that did.
As a filmmaker, that’s kind of what you want to hear really, that the stories that you’re telling are stories that people haven’t experienced on screen.
We showed the film at the Sitges Film Festival and there was a guy who worked on the festival, he said he’d been working for them for 17 years and couldn’t compare our film to any other film he’d seen for it. That’s a huge compliment, because one of the things that I hate about the funding model of filmmaking, particularly with genre films, is that they want you to compare it to something else all the time. They ask what is your film like that has been successful in the last few years and I think, if it was just like something that’s been successful in the last few years, why would I fucking bother making it? Why would I spend two years of my life doing a film that’s just derivative of something else? It does make it harder, that’s why I had to self-fund the film, nobody would make it because it’s not easily compared to something that already exists and that scares people. Now it looks tentatively like being a success, I hope that opens the door to other people taking chances and making weird fucked up movies, because the world needs more weird, fucked up movies.
There are enormous challenges with self-funding, but did you find, conversely, that you benefited from the freedom that comes with that?
Oh, absolutely man. It’s incredible because there’s nobody looking over your shoulder, nobody micromanaging, nobody telling you what to do. I was the ultimate boss, and that’s scary, but it also means the responsibility for the film and if it’s good or bad starts and ends with me, nobody else.
When we were shooting, people commented that it was the most positive film set they’ve been on in quite a long time and it was largely because people were doing it because they were interested, because they liked the script and the idea. Nobody was doing it for the money because everyone was getting paid a flat basic SIPTU rate. Most films pay way beyond that, but we got a crew that wanted to be there and as a result, we had a fantastically positive experience which helped the film end up being the film it is and the film I wanted it to be.
Is that atmosphere on set and that way of working the priority for you as a filmmaker going forward, where possible?
Oh absolutely. It’s often easier to make a no budget film than a medium budget film. My good friend Andy Starke who produced a lot of Ben Wheatley’s and a lot of Peter Strickland’s films and is one of the best film producers I know, he once said that making a film for 150 grand is easier than making a film for 1.5 million. If you have no money, people are working with you because they want to be there, when you have some money, suddenly the problems start. Everybody knows you have some money, and everyone wants their department to get the money that they need, but there isn’t enough because 1.5 million is often not enough to actually make a film. It’s a strange paradox, but that’s the way it is.
All You Need Is Death has started now on the festival circuit and it will be getting its Irish premiere next week in Cork. How much are you looking forward to showing this Irish story to an Irish audience for the first time?
I couldn’t be more excited; Cork is a fantastic Film Festival. I lived in Cork and I love it there, it’s going to be great to show it there. We’ll have almost the entire cast down for the screening so that’s going to be great.
The first public screening of the film in Ireland means a lot to me because I have to say most of the support I got for this film came from outside Ireland. The excitement and enthusiasm for the script from XYZ Films, who are Canadian and North American based, was astonishing. Whereas the enthusiasm I found from Irish funders was noticeably absent.
I hope to position it as a kind of a wakeup call, to say you don’t have to make films the way that they tell you to. You can make films a different way and make films that you feel happy to make, instead of having to put a script into development for years and then finally make a compromised and broken version of what you originally set out to do. That doesn’t have to happen. You can make a film quickly it; it can have flaws and it can still be accepted. My film certainly has flaws but that hasn’t stopped people from loving it.
I want to be able to say to people, don’t feel that the only one way to make a film is the official way. The excellent director Lance Daly, who directed Black 47, is currently making a self-funded feature film for the same reasons that I did. And I feel like there’s the beginning of a move away from the dependence on official funding sources. Make your own movie, make a success of it, sell it, make another one. That’s what people should be doing instead of waiting for permission and the rubber stamp from above.
It’s great because we see some Irish filmmakers get a feature out and even if it does well, they kind of vanish for a few years or they can’t get new work off the ground. For the festival it’s great for you to have physical evidence that it works, you’re literally showing it.
The whole film in a way is a proof of concept that you don’t have to go through that hell of development, waiting for a committee to tell you it’s okay. There’s a sort of Soviet dead hand about all this stuff, you know, but even the Soviets allowed Andrei Tarkovsky to make movies – they hated them, but they knew that they worked internationally! I think we have a situation that’s worse than that, if we had a Tarkovsky in Ireland, he or she or they would be sitting in their bedroom on a heap of rejection slips from the official funders because they’re too weird. It’s time to start moving away from that and start empowering people to make their own movies, instead of the movies that are officially okay to be made.
And it’s good to be weird, right? having the variety is what makes things more enriching.
In 2023, the middle ground does not exist. You either have massive blockbusters or you have tiny niche films that are made for niche audiences that often are very weird. I mean I’ve been travelling around the festival circuit, so I’ve seen a lot of really amazingly strange small films coming out of France, Chile, Argentina, the South American countries particularly are doing really well making these extraordinary genre films, weird is making money right now. If our funders and the people with the responsibility for Irish film culture were paying attention, they would be seeing that we need our Julia Ducournau, our Titane. We need our Dogtooth. When Yorgos Lanthimos wanted to get his big Hollywood break funded, he came to Ireland, but when he was making his little weird Greek movies, they were funded in Greece. We’re not getting the little weird Irish films that will produce the Lanthimos’ of the future, and we won’t have filmmakers like those in the future unless they change path and I hope they do, absolutely.
All You Need Is Death screens on Wednesday 15th November at the Cork International Film Festival.