Director Ciaran Foy on CITADEL: "In My Scared-Shitless Head, I Just Wanted to Get Rid of Them."

Brian Clark, European Editor
Last September, Ciaran Foy's Citadel scared me very badly. In fact, I still think about it when I walk home through empty streets late at night. Besides the fact that the film itself is incredibly nerve-racking, one thing that made it really stick with me was Foy's personal history, which inspired the film.

Basically, when Foy was 18, he was violently attacked by a group of young teenagers wielding, among other things, a hammer and a dirty syringe. Following the incident, he battled intense agoraphobia for several years. Ultimately, though, Foy found inspiration for this terrifying, psychologically intense film about a seemingly unstoppable gang of seriously evil children. Let's hear it for silver linings!

I discussed the attack and its connection to the film in depth with Foy in part one of my interview, which I recommend checking out (link below) if you haven't before continuing. In part two, I get deeper into Foy's personal experiences and how they related to specific aspects of the film, changes the script underwent, and some of his influences and impressions about the horror genre. There are some definite spoilers this time around, so tread carefully if you haven't seen the film yet. The film opens in the U.S. this Friday, November 9, and my fellow Paris residents can catch it in a little over a week at the Paris International Fantastic Festival.

Click here to read the spoiler-free first part of the interview.

Twitch: I want to talk about the scene where the therapist discusses body language, and how street predators are much more likely to attack you if you look scared. It made me very anxious, more so than I was before, and yet, she was explaining it to someone who was trying to recover from this intense fear. Was that actually part of the therapy you went through? Diving deeper into the fear?

Ciaran Foy: Sure, well -- You discover the nature of how something works and operates. It will obviously cause you to -- no pun intended -- to open up doors inside yourself that were previously closed. You've got to go deeper to come back to the surface.

But yeah, I found that when I was told "these guys see your fear," it made me more freaked out initially.

Right. That was my reaction.

Exactly! Yes, It made me more scared until I started to practice how I moved -- my stance and everything -- and saw first hand that, yes, if I'm not walking around with my head twitching or whatever, people actually don't seem to notice me.

Originally I used to practice in my own neighborhood where I came from -- and of course, Citadel is basically a nightmare version of where I came from. There would be gangs just hanging around in this particular laneway that I had to go through to get to the bus. Every time I'd go through this laneway, even when I was young, I'd always be afraid and I'd slouch. And sure enough they'd always make some remark or spit at the ground or something.

But, then I practiced walking through, head up, marching through like I was really pissed off, and they didn't do anyhting. And I was like, "Yeah, this is helping."

How did you go about deciding how far to go with the fantastic elements and how to integrate those into your real experience?

I guess I approached the script with two things in mind. The first was to make the audience feel the fears that I felt.

I think things become more terrifying for two reasons. First, if you feel empathy for a character, if you emotionally connect with them and there's a good performance there, any emotion, be it wonder or terror will feel much more escalated.

The second is through atmosphere. Creating a creepy atmosphere was something that was paramount to me from the very beginning, so I put a lot of time into conversations with production design department, figuring out how we were going to shoot it, the sound design, music etc.

My favorite horror films are the ones that I'm still thinking about four days later, not the ones where people jump out or you see a head being decapitated or whatever. So the first goal was to put the audience in my head, where I was, and the second was to make a horror film.

Also, I didn't want to make a regular thriller or whatever because, in a strange way, if it's reality-based, I'm saying something. I'm taking a political stance. It has to be set somewhere, has to be about real people. I wanted permission to make these kids a legitimate threat that needed to be destroyed... and if they're real people it's...

Yeah, I was wondering about that. There's a lot of potential for the film to get politically dicey.

Yes, definitely. I wanted to play with the notion of whether it was in his head or if it's real, and then once Maria's killed it's like, "Oh yeah, it's real." And then we transition into the horror territory. The third act in the tower block is about as horror as it gets.

I think that independent, low-budget stuff offers a place where you can try out things, not necessarily just copy things you've seen before. I was curious to see if you could make something that felt like a social-realist drama with paranoid psychological horror elements and transition that into a story of rescue, vengeance and redemption.

But it's really weird reading reviews for Citadel. Thankfully the vast majority of people really like it, but the ones they don't, they boil into two categories. The first feel that they are really invested in the first half of the movie where it's in his head, but then it becomes just a horror film. Then the other half are bored silly at the start and they're like "This guy's just a wimp, what's wrong with him?" Then James Cosmo's character comes in and they're like, "Phew. It's a horror film."

But, I don't see the point of making a film unless you're pushing the envelope in some way, be it technically or narratively. Even when I talk to colleagues and friends and people back home, I find that unless there's something personal in a story, it's going to be completely derivative.

Right. When I watch new horror movies made by filmmakers who clearly don't care about anything besides other movies, I get bored pretty fast. Unless the filmmaking itself is on some different level.

You see the references, yeah. It's a valid point because I think anything that feels fresh, new or different... Well, this is a complete side note, but I ended up having dinner with Pat Mills, who created 2000 AD and Judge Dredd. He told me that Judge Dredd comes from something personal in his life. And so, it can be something outlandishly fantastic, but it's more interesting if it has its roots in something real.

For example in Citadel, the setting is something that I know and grew up with. Most horror films are set in the woods or an upper middle class person's house with fifty rooms. And then, there's the idea in the movie of a guy pushing around a buggy alone. I mean I see lots of young fathers in places wehre I grew up, you see them with babies. But in movies, it's always young mothers.

It makes me think about Neill Blomkamp's District 9, which I love. I mean, he grew up in South Africa. He's not just geeking out over Star Wars or whatever.

There's one aspect that works well in terms of the horror aspect, but brings up kind of an interesting contradiction thematically. The movie is basically about getting over a fear, which is, in real life, irrational like you said. But the movie takes this fear and says, "Surprise! It is justified! It is rational!" It's a really fascinating interplay -- How conscious of that were you when you were writing it?

Only insofar as what I said about purposefully wanting to put the audience inside my head. Agorophobia is only irrational from an objective point of view. When you're in it, it is totally real. It's like people who are afraid of balloons or whatever - there are crazy fears out there!

For myself, I had agorophobia brought on by post-traumatic stress. That happens. And some people have an instant where a family member will die and it just shocks the system so much that they become agorophobic. That seems even more irrational in some ways because it's like, "What are you doing? Going outside has nothing to do with the fact that so-and-so passed away." But to them, it's a real fear.

With my scenario, I wanted to put people in the head space where I was, but also, for myself when I was writing, to give myself the fantasy of what I would have wished back then, which was just to destroy this. Yes, I know, you could probably write a book about the socio-economic reasons for why this stuff happens, but in my scared-shitless head, I just wanted to get rid of them. They were always going to be there. They were just committing these violent acts for no reason.

Even in a strange way, and I think the irrational aspect ties into fear and horror and terror in general. When you know the reasons behind something, eventually you can kind of make peace with it. Like, "okay he needed my wallet to get a fix, or these crazy people thought this action would get attention for their political aims or whatever." But when you don't know, that's the definition of terror. It's literally, the lights off. You're in the dark.

I really wanted to never explain where the hoods came from so that some people might think they are really supernatural and some people think they are feral kids. My first draft was something I tried to hold onto, but you know, when you make a movie there's a lot of people backing the project who want different things. In the end we kind of came to a compromise. I put in some in hypotheses and theories about what they are, and I left some breadcrumbs, but there's no explicit map.

I find that a lot of horror films have a really scary and intriguing first twenty minutes because it is, "Why is this happening? Whats going on here? Who are these people?" But then, invariably you get the cheesy explanation. I just wanted to try to hold onto that initial emotion for as long as possible.

On that note, could you talk about some of your influences on this film?

Influence-wise, I guess every movie I've ever watched in some way. More specifically, early Cronenberg, especially The Brood.

That's another intensely personal horror movie that's much more affecting because of its connection to the director's life. [Editor's note: Cronenberg was going through an extremely messy child-custody battle when he wrote the script.]

Yeah, I think a lot of his early movies are like that. Also, Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder always leaves me paranoid. That's kind of the thing I was talking about when a movie gets under your skin and you're still thinking about it a week later.

There's an artist in the UK,  Chris Cunningham. I'm a huge fan of his work. He made a video for Aphex Twin with a similar color palette to Citadel called Come to Daddy. That was an influence. 

And then just, my favorite filmmakers who take fantastic subjects and make them feel as real as an earnest drama like Christopher Nolan. And my favorite horror movies from the 70's like Don't Look Now and The Exorcist
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