22nd Mar2018

GFF 2018 Interview: Director David Freyne discusses ‘The Cured’

by Matthew Turner

The Cured which stars Ellen Page, Sam Keeley, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Paula Malcomson, screened at this years Glasgow Film Festival, where I got a chance to sit down with David Freyne, who makes his directorial debut with the film…

In a world ravaged for years by a virus that turns the infected into zombie-like cannibals, a cure is at last found and the wrenching process of reintegrating the survivors back into society begins. Among the formerly afflicted is Senan (Sam Keeley), a young man haunted by the horrific acts he committed while infected. Welcomed back into the family of his widowed sister-in-law (Ellen Page), Senan attempts to restart his life — but is society ready to forgive him and those like him? Or will fear and prejudice once again tear the world apart? Pulsing with provocative parallels to our troubled times, The Cured is a smart, scary, and hauntingly human tale of guilt and redemption.

Cured-TIFF-Poster

Where did the idea come from, first of all?

I mean, it started back in kind of 2011. I always loved the zombie material and genre films, but it was that question of what would happen next, what would be the film that begins where other films end and would explore a cure. And it was I, Legend, the book the Matheson book which I’m a big fan of – even though it’s more vampiric, it’s about a guy who found a cure and that was the spark. And when I thought of what it would be like if you were haunted with the memories of what you did while infected as a starting point, it just seemed so harrowing, it kind of unspooled from there. And when I started writing it, it was during the height of the recession in Ireland and Europe and everyone was suffering for things beyond their control and losing their jobs and bailing out banks and being blamed for things beyond their control, so that felt like an analogy and it was a way of me working through all that and kind of exercising a lot of personal demons with all that.

You’re a big zombie movie fan, obviously. Which films had a particular influence?

The very first one I saw was the original Dawn Of The Dead, which had a massive, massive impact on me as a kid, I was definitely far too young to see it. But it was – the whole mall setting was incredible for a kid, but the way it kind of became a commentary and what it explored through the genre was huge. 28 Days Later was massive as well, all the Romero films. So in terms of the zombie films, they’d be my favourites.

What is it about the zombie genre that appeals to you?

I don’t know – I’ve been asked that a lot and I’m not sure why they’ve gained such a place in pop culture and in people’s minds. I think there’s just something quite harrowing about this unstoppable infection, and heart breaking about it, that has captured people and I do think that, at its best, it is an incredible way of reflecting society and I think that’s what Romero did so beautifully and films since then and that’s what we tried to do and I think it can be a very visceral way of doing that, rather than any kind of intellectual way.

Had you seen In The Flesh, the BBC Three TV series?

I hadn’t. It’s so funny – I wrote this back in 2012 and I remember getting a call from my agent, going don’t be alarmed, but there’s this TV series… But I think the thing was just to ignore it and make your thing and do your vision. I always think of Tina Fey and it’s very different, but how she wanted to give up on 30 Rock when she heard about Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, because on paper it was the same. But it was just a lesson in having to hold with your vision and make that and know that you have something to say that’s different.

I really like the use of the protest movement, in particular, because you do have a certain level of sympathy for them, even though you don’t approve of their actions. Can you talk a bit about that?

I think I was really conscious with the film, with all the characters, that they were all shades of grey, there was no black and white and understanding and sympathising are different things, and I wanted to make sure that we understood all the sides so we can understand the antagonist, Conor’s point of view, and even sympathise with him, at points. I always love that moment in the film, where people are like, fuck, I’m rooting for the bad guy? And I just quite like that. And even with the main characters, Abbie and Senen, Ellen and Sam, at points they’re quite selfish and at points you can really argue that they were doing the wrong thing and I think it was really important that, yeah, it was all shades of grey. The protest movement was very much inspired by what I was seeing around me at the time in Europe, and the growing anger amongst people, and the way people’s fear was being manipulated by populist politicians in Europe at the time and having their anger being redirected at immigrants or asylum seekers and seeing those people be dehumanised and treated like an infection and treated like contagion in the worst possible way, so that was very much the kind of influence for the protest group, it was a movement, it was kind of very much so based on how I had seen people’s anger and fear being exploited by figures for their own ends. And we never anticipated what was going to happen with Trump and Brexit, but they are a symptom of what was happening then and it’s a part of the same thing. People are being ignored and people are angry, it’s like they just need a match to light them up sometimes.

I’ve seen a few movies about the AIDS crisis recently, like 120 BPM, so it’s been foremost in my mind a little bit. Obviously The Cured isn’t set at a time when the drugs have just been released for the AIDS virus, but it occurred to me that it could be read as people reacting to people who are cured.

No, totally, absolutely, and a lot of people who have seen the film and even at the early script stage, as early as 2011, people have said it has echoes of how people with HIV and AIDS were treated, particularly in the eighties, when it first emerged and there was such a panic and fear, and I can totally see that. As you said, now HIV is very treatable and very often not even transferable, as with the cured, but people still have a stigma there that hopefully is diminishing, but it’s definitely a problem for people. It was definitely not a conscious thing and I don’t want to feel like I’m exploiting that in any way, but I can see that being a factor, and as a gay filmmaker, there are definitely a lot of themes about dealing with your sexuality, struggling with the monster within and stuff like that, so I can see those themes. I guess what I love is people being able to read a lot of different things into the film, so obviously if there’s stuff I brought to it and there’s stuff they brought to it consciously and subconsciously, that’s great. But I guess I wouldn’t want to give the impression that it was exploiting any particular issue. But that is a really valid reading and I think the stigma that still exists for people with HIV is horrendous and completely unnecessary and I can see the parallel.

Obviously, we’re used to seeing zombie movies where the virus itself is a metaphor for something, but I don’t think I’d seen paranoia about the cure before, so that seemed really original to me.

I think what was a big part of the film, as well as people distrusting and feeling that the cured aren’t cured, that Senen, Sam’s character, himself has this big panic that he’s not cured, he can be reinfected and that he’s still sick, and I think that’s quite heart-breaking in the film, that for him, he doesn’t feel like he can be a part of society again and letting that stigma overrule and run his life, which was a big part of the film. And I think that is, for a lot of people with various illnesses, but obviously very stigmatised ones, that’s a factor and that’s societal stuff rather than anything medical.

Ellen Page is a producer on the film as well as an actor. How did that come about and which side came first?

She became involved in a productorial capacity first, she came on board loving the script and saying I’ll do anything to help you get it made, and once we were in pre-production and prep, it was all about the character and just focusing on being an actor and bringing Abbie to life. But she was amazing. It’s such a boost to your confidence to get somebody of her reputation to come on board your first feature and she was such an incredible team player and such a lovely person and positive figure throughout the production and stuck with us for a long time in those precarious final financing days, which is incredible. I’m a huge fan of hers and I was surprised she hadn’t played a mother – outside of Juno and Tallulah – and this wasn’t something I’d seen her do before. And it was a real privilege to work with her on it, she was great.

How did she get involved in the first place?

It’s not a good time to say the word harassment but basically, we wanted her, but we didn’t have a casting director at that point, so we kind of cold called her agent a few times and heard nothing back and emailed them with the script and heard nothing and that went on for a while and I was beginning to try and get my head around moving on from there but I was finding it very hard, once she’d planted in my mind, it was hard to move on. And so we decided to try again but we emailed her manager and I wrote a very fawning letter, just saying how much I loved her and how wonderful I think she’d be and by just a miracle, that got to her. And we got this phone call out of the blue saying Ellen loves the script and would like to chat, which was incredible and it happened at a very low point in the process – there’s so many ups and downs in the financing of a film and that just happened to happen at a point where I was on a low, which is the best time for that kind of thing to happen, because it’s such a [adopts a high pitched voice] “this might be a good script”. And yes, we chatted and she loved it and said she’d do anything she could to help get it made. And she was great. I think she’s one of a kind – she’s very single minded in what she wants to do and what she likes. She’s very passionate about the material.

What was it that made you think of her for the role in the first place?

I’ve always been a huge fan. I always like having actors do things I haven’t seen before. I always like seeing actors do something new. I had never seen her play a mother before. I think she’s got this incredible intelligence and strength in all the performances in a sometimes fragile-looking package. I thought that was a perfect combination for Abbie. I love the idea with Abbie that she arises through the film almost to become the protagonist, and have this really strong and heartbreaking arc and she’s gone through huge amounts of trauma and is still incredibly, incredibly strong. And it always struck me that Ellen would be perfect for that, but I think it’s very easy to almost take her demeanour and underestimate her and then to see her kind of kick ass. But I always said I wanted Abbie to be my Ripley, where she arises to become the protagonist, and if there were to ever be a sequel, then she would be the lead. So I thought that she would really subvert expectation with that and that she would play it brilliantly, as she did. But it’s one of the things, when you said you want her for the role, when people read the script, they were like, oh, that’s surprising, and I always loved that. But I just thought she’d be amazing. She does so much with so little in her performances that I love and she can go from almost brittle to really intense, really quickly, like at the flip of a switch and I think that’s an incredible gift as an actor.

Where did you find the other two leads, Sam Keeley and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor?

So, Sam is this incredible up-and-coming actor and I’d seen him in things like What Richard Did, the Lenny Abrahamson film. He’s extraordinary and he’s got such a beautiful, vulnerable kind of face and demeanour and I’ve just always loved him as an actor and he struck me as perfect for Senen, so we did a direct approach to him years before we made the film and chatted and I think he was scared by the idea but excited by it. And then with Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, which is really funny – Tom is one Ireland’s most prestigious actors. In Ireland, it’s like shooting with Justin Bieber – he’s a superstar. He was in a TV show there called Love/Hate, which was a massive phenomenon, so he’s hugely famous in Ireland and really respected here in theatre and I think he’s one of the best of a generation, so we approached him and he said yes. He’s incredibly charming and can be incredibly sinister. Again, with Conor, I love the idea that you don’t see the bad guy coming necessarily and you can feel sympathy for him and go with him, and I think Tom just always struck me as perfect for doing that and being able to flip it like that. He’s so menacing when he wants to be menacing. And he’s got so much charm. So yeah, I feel so lucky with the casting because I have two of Ireland’s best actors and Ellen Page, who’s one of Canada’s best actors. It’s really crazy. I didn’t anticipate we would get that lucky with the trio. And it is a trio – we’ve always said it’s about these three broken people dealing with the aftermath of what they’ve gone through and it is very much an ensemble, about the three of them, so you can’t have a weak link in there.

The relationship between Sam and Tom’s characters is really interesting. Are we meant to think that Conor and Senen were together?

Yes, I think that’s definitely subtext – well, it’s not really subtext, it’s text. It’s never explicitly stated. We always wanted the infected to be more like animals and to behave like animals and to have that pack-like mentality so. I think the idea with them was that Tom is the alpha in that relationship and he’s kind of dominant of Sam, but we did discuss a lot in rehearsal what do animals do? They eat, sleep and fuck, so of course that was a part of it. We’d be looking at things like prison relationships and how they can form and then how it changes when you leave prison. And the idea that once he’s released, Senen gets to break away from this toxic person and Conor can’t let go. So yeah that’s definitely in there and it was definitely discussed by the three of us, and I think it goes back to what I was saying about the themes of struggling with growing up and struggling with your sexuality.

Without giving too much away, you’ve left the film open for the possibility of a sequel. Would you do a sequel if the opportunity arose?

I mean, definitely not straight away – I need a long break from zombies and to do something else. I am really happy with the arc of this film in terms of Senen’s journey and if that’s it, I’m very happy. But of course, if the opportunity arose, I would explore that. Or it could be a graphic novel or something. I mean, I think there is another part of this story in which Abbie’s character comes to the fore and it would be lovely to look at that. But it’s definitely not my next move.

Conor has political ambitions in the film, which kind of gives it an extra layer of topicality.

He’s based on populist politicians who exploit anger and fear for their own ends but ultimately have their own ambitions at heart. What makes him the antagonist in the film is that he is a sociopath and ultimately I don’t think he really cares about anything but him getting back to where he was and him becoming politically powerful again and he was using everybody to get there and he created the chaos to get there, not to actually save anybody. I don’t believe he was doing anything altruistic in any way. So yes he’s orchestrating and manipulating and creating this chaos just so he can become powerful again. And me and Tom discussed this a lot. It wasn’t about actually saving the resistance or saving the cure, I think he realised that in this world the only way you can become powerful again is by essentially burning it down. And that’s what Trump does, he doesn’t give a shit about the working class in America. I also don’t think Boris Johnson from Eton gives a shit about the people in the north of England. It’s all about his political machinations and I think that’s what these people do and I think it’s infuriating when you see these wealthy – and Conor, in the script, is wealthy – he doesn’t come from a struggling background but he’s somehow positioned himself as the voice of the people and I think that’s infuriating when you see it and that was what was the model for him. And that’s what all these people do – Farage, he worked in the city! It’s obscene.

So, without wanting to be too flippant about it, Trump and Brexit have actually been quite good for you, in a way, because they’ve given your film a whole new level of interpretation.

Well, yeah. It’s horrible to think that. As I said, he is a symptom of what was happening at the time and he’s no different to the other horrible populist figures around Europe at that time who are exploiting people’s fear, so even though we never saw him coming, it makes sense in a horrible way that he did. I would happily not have Trump, but I’ll take whatever I can get from it. What’s really weird actually, is Trump was elected the first day of rehearsal for us, and it was a really sad, sad day around the office and particularly for Ellen. Well, in the world, there was lots of tears. And Ellen had to go and put a smile on and play with this little boy when her world was crumbling, which actually is kind of what Abbie was going through, so in a weird way, it probably helped her get into the mindset.

What was the hardest thing to get right overall?

I think the general tone. That balance between horror and drama is hard to strike and we wanted to make sure we were hitting those genre moments that I want to see and I want to see the frights and I love those awkward laughs after a jump, and I wanted to make sure I had those moments but at the same time that it is a character piece and it’s harsh and we have their arc and their journey in it. So I think that was the hardest part and a lot of that was teased out in the very long scripting process of just making sure the balance between power and drama was right and that one didn’t overrule the other. And I think actually that’s what particularly old school horror films did really well, like Romero, is you never felt like you were sacrificing the great zombie moments for the political parallel. Everything felt like it worked perfectly and I think very often as much as I love genre films, very often they are more slow boil dramas than they are horrors and I wanted to make sure that we had the horror moments down.

How difficult was it to achieve the special effects you wanted?

It was a small budget and every penny was squeezed and there were lots of tricks to create the scale and create the worlds. And there are points where you really worry that the project’s just going to break under the weight of the ambition of the scripts, so the key was always keeping the focus on the actors and seeing the scale unfold around them and behind them because that helps you get invested in them but also just, I think your eyes can trick you into thinking you’re seeing more than you actually are, which is great. One of my big touchstones for this film was Children of Men, which is an astounding film and achievement, but also you realise how irrelevant it was when you hear that one beautiful tracking shot was twelve days, which is essentially half our entire schedule. It’s an incredible story but it’s irrelevant to us, we don’t have that kind of time. So it was just a lot of tricks and I think you make up for a lack of money with a lot of preparation and we just did a lot of prep and I had it you know an A and B and C plan for everything, so when the inevitable things go wrong and locations fall through or whatnot, you can just quickly move on your feet rather than having a tantrum.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on an Irish coming of age story called Beards, which is in development with the Irish Film Board, which I’m excited about and it’s kind of a comedy drama. It’s set in the nineties and it’s a platonic love story about a teenage boy and girl who decide to be each other’s beards in order to stop all the speculation and taunts around them. So that might be next.
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The Cured is released in UK cinemas from 11th May 2018 and on DVD and Digital from 14th May 2018. You read our review of the film right here.

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