The Hole in the Ground marks a potential global breakthrough for the Irish horror genre. After its world premiere at Sundance and ahead of its release here, we speak to its first time director Lee Cronin and some of his supporting cast and crew.
Lee Cronin – Director
“Hopefully, when the parents come home after seeing the film and let the babysitter go, it’s going to cross their mind when they look at little Timmy in bed!”
Irish film has done well for itself in the last few years, but it’s yet to unleash anything like The Hole in the Ground. Director Lee Cronin’s debut feature is an unsettling, atmospheric work that combines the paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the otherworldly terror of H.P. Lovecraft.
The film follows Sarah, a mother who moves to rural Ireland with her son Chris to escape an abusive relationship. After a bitter argument, Chris’ behaviour starts to change ever so slightly. Soon Sarah begins to suspect that her son has been replaced by a monstrous imposter. Could it have something to do with the huge, foreboding hole located in the forest behind their house?
It’s a tense film that favours creeping dread over cheap jump scares. It’s no surprise then that it finds itself in the perfect position to be the breakout Irish film of the year. Following a premiere at the Sundance film festival, the film will see a wide release in Ireland. Meanwhile, its American release will be handled by A24, the distributors behind recent critical darlings like Hereditary and The Witch.
This has been a long time coming for Cronin and his close collaborators, including producer John Keville and DOP Tom Comerford, who have been toiling away on short films for the past ten years. After their last short Ghost Train gained serious traction, the road was paved to make a feature film.
The initial inspiration came when Cronin read about a sinkhole swallowing a man up in his home in Florida. But it was only when he combined the image with a relationship he’d be developing between a single mother and her child that the project started to take shape. What was it about this relationship that intrigued him?
“I think it’s a really scary notion that you could know somebody your whole life, and then something subtle changes and you question who they are. I think anybody in any relationship has those moments. That’s the core, identifiable thing that you can start to play with to create an entertaining experience. Hopefully, when the parents come home after seeing the film and let the babysitter go, it’s going to cross their mind when they look at little Timmy in bed!”
Cronin himself is not a parent. If one didn’t know better, they might suggest that the film is articulating subconscious fears of parenthood.
“Maybe!” he laughs. “I’m a four-time godfather and I have nine nieces and nephews. I’ve seen plenty of the terror of parenthood. I look at the situations certain members of my family have faced as parents and seen how difficult that can be.”
The film was shot around Dublin and Wicklow over 24 days. As with many independent films, it was a tough shoot but that’s not reflected in the final film, which is incredibly accomplished. That was due to a large amount of pre-production and planning.
“I knew what I wanted it to be. I wasn’t trying to find the film on set. It was very planned, very designed. You sometimes hear about rough cuts of films that were two and a half hours long, but the longest version of this film that exists is 98 minutes long. That’s because we went out having decided everything beforehand.”
That brought its own gambles. A number of scenes in the film were covered in single shots. That meant they had to work for the film. “That adds a lot of pressure on a set, because you’ve to make a call there and then that this is going in your movie or not. You can cut the whole scene out, but you can’t cut parts of it out.”
But if Cronin had a degree of uncertainty when staging the action, he had no such reservations about his two leading actors. In fact, Cronin was so eager to work with Seána Kerslake, star of A Date for Mad Mary, that he re-wrote the part for her.
“I originally wrote the part of Sarah as ten years older than Seána actually is, but when I met her, I was like ‘call off the search.’ It can often sound like a cliché but Seána is just completely committed in what she does. I actually did another pass on the screenplay after absorbing a little bit of her personality.”
And then there’s James Quinn Markey, the cherubic young son whose deep blue eyes hide something more sinister. “When we were casting James was strangely in second place all the way with anyone we compared him to. It was only when we had to make a decision that I realized that it was his ability to be normal, and just ever so slightly to the left, in terms of these slightly sinister aspects.”
Of course, there’s an old adage in film, something about working with children and animals. What were the challenges of working with someone who was eight-years-old at the time?
“You have to keep communication basic when you’re working with a young performer, but you also have to treat them equally with respect, as an adult. Shorthands and games are things you can use to put them in a place very quickly. The words ‘Monster mode’ would be said as a little game, so he’d know that meant he needed to change his physicality, stiffen up, blink less.”
When we meet on a January morning, Cronin is a few days away from flying to Sundance to premiere the film. He’s clearly excited, if not a little nervous to share it with the world, but has kept busy by developing a number of projects for film and TV. “We’ve known about Sundance for a while. You don’t stop working really in this business, because if you do you’re dead. You’ve got to keep moving.”
Still, the sheer exhilaration of premiering at Sundance must be pretty special, no?
“I’m extremely honoured by it. For a first time filmmaker to premiere at Sundance is amazing. We’re in the midnight slot, in the Egyptian on the opening Friday night. It’s a real career high. And we hope it’s the first of many bigger ones.
James Quinn Markey – actor
“I’m a very shy boy who’s turned into a monster. It’s quite a big difference!”
Many actors dream of their film premiering at the Sundance film festival. Some spend years, if not decades, chasing that dream. James Quinn Markey on the other hand, will have that feather in his cap before he reaches 6th class.
Unsurprisingly, the prestigious independent film festival was not on 10-year-old Markey’s radar until a couple of months ago. Nonetheless, he’s both thrilled and a little nervous to see his feature debut on the big screen. The Co. Meath native will be travelling to Utah alongside his mother Karen to watch its world premiere.
Neither Markey nor his parents ever intended for his acting career to grow to this level. But after a recurring role in the fourth season of Vikings, he auditioned for the part of Chris in The Hole in the Ground. Now he’s co-leading one of the biggest horror films to ever come out of Ireland. What is it about acting that he enjoys?
“I like stepping into another character.” Markey says. “When I’m at home at the kitchen table, I’m James Quinn Markey doing homework. But when I go on set, I’m Chris O’Neil, a totally different person. I’m a very shy boy who’s turned into a monster. It’s quite a big difference!”
When Markey told his classmates that he was going to lead a horror film, they were delighted for him. Sadly though, it will be a couple of years before they can see it. “Lots of them would like to watch it, but they aren’t allowed. They were asking if it was PG.”
For now, James’ parents want him to have a normal life; after the three day trip to Sundance, he’ll go straight back to school. Markey is eager to act again. One hopes it will be in a movie that his friends can watch without being scared to death.
Tom Comerford – Director of Photography
“We actually couldn’t afford to shoot at night, which is tricky when you’re making a horror film!”
It’s been a busy couple of years for cinematographer Tom Comerford. After shooting various feature films, including You’re Ugly Too and Pilgrimage, Comerford’s work drew wide acclaim with last year’s Michael Inside. Now his cinematography is set to reach an even greater audience with The Hole in the Ground, a project that Comerford has been considering for a long time.
“Lee and I have talked about this film in one form or another for years, so I was thrilled to be involved when the financing finally came together. He was certainly pushing for this film to be as cinematic as possible within the constraints of time and budget. So we did spend a lot of time in pre-production short-listing, sketching storyboards and scouting locations with an eye on getting the most value for money on screen.”
From the beginning, Comerford and Cronin picked a dark colour palette of earthy browns and greens to echo the hole itself. “We tried to create a heavy atmosphere with plenty of darkness in the frame, even in daytime scenes.”
When asked if the crew faced any major difficulties during the shoot, Comerford is coy in case he veers into spoiler territory. But he does give one surprising detail. “We actually couldn’t afford to shoot at night, which is tricky when you’re making a horror film! So whatever exterior night scenes you see were done for an hour or two after sunset.”
Up next for Comerford is Rosie Plays Julie, an Irish film starring Ann Skelly and Aiden Gillen. With The Hole in the Ground set for an American release by renowned arthouse horror distributor A24, it’s likely that Comerford is going to be even busier in the near future.
The Hole in the Ground opens on Friday March 1
Words: Jack O’Higgins
Photo (Lee Cronin): Killian Broderick