16th Apr2018

Interview: Director Elliot Macguire talks ‘The Ferryman’

by Philip Rogers


How did you first get into filmmaking?

I’ve been obsessed with films since I can remember, I’m not sure there was a defining moment. But it was probably a combination of Steven Spielberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger films. Then I can remember getting hold of The Shining (1980) and Poltergeist (1982) taped off TV on VHS and I really started to prefer horror. Horror films always stood out, they always had that scene that would stick in your head because it was so fucked up, especially when you’re younger.
A few years passed, and I got my hands on the script for The Usual Suspects (1995). It came free with a Total Film magazine and was the first script I’d ever seen. I just loved the flow, the format, it all worked for me. I’d tried to be the next Stephen King as his books were pretty much my bedtime stories, but struggled writing in a novel format. The script just connected.

So, I spent a very long time learning the language of scriptwriting, having half-finished scripts here and there, and then started really pushing them. I managed to get a few writing gigs and get my own stuff in front of some great producers, but nothing ever seemed to come of it. Investors drop out, other projects get prioritised, and as the writer you just find yourself say twiddling your thumbs hoping for the best. Eventually I just thought “Fuck it I’ll do it myself”.

The Ferryman is your debut feature, what can the audience expect from the film?

Well the feedback I got before release has been quite varied, so I really couldn’t say! A lot of people have very different interpretations of what it means, particularly the ending, which I’m over the moon about. But look, it is rough around the edges, the behind the scenes of this is very unconventional and even I can admit that that undeniably shows, it’s almost no-budget, so I just hope that they’re engaged in the story and characters enough to forget all that. Oh, and that they’re at least a little bit scared.

What were your influences when you were writing the original script?

The films that scared me most as a child were Candyman (1992) and The Shining. I feel the general mythic feel of Candyman mixed in with the psychological disintegration in The Shining were huge influences. But also, recently there are two directors that just speak to me so much, Nicolas Winding-Refn and Ben Wheatley. So, I tried to imagine a traditional ghost story, but as those two would interpret it. I just wanted to try and be as unconventional as possible while avoiding being pretentious. I’ll let the audience decide if I pulled it off.

I was surprised to find out that The Ferryman was filmed using an iPhone. Why did you decide to film using a mobile devise?

Three reasons. First reason, I already had an iPhone, and I didn’t have any money. Second reason, I had little to no directing experience and needed to shoot on a format that I could master around a 60 hour a week job and family. And thirdly, it’s just an exciting time to do it, with Tangerine (2015) and now Unsane (2018) The technology is there to assist and then once we finished filming I discovered Luma Fusion, and thought, “What if I EDIT the whole thing on a phone as well as shoot it?” I had no other editing software or experience so this all came down to budget and convenience again.

The film has an experimental feel with some of the effects and editing. What were your inspirations for the look and the style of the film?

This actually changed throughout filming if I’m honest. My original vision was very still, cold Stanley Kubrick feel, all wide shots and slow movements. I storyboarded every single shot originally. But once we started shooting I quickly realised I wasn’t going to be able to do that. I had to learn to shoot really quickly, so quick setups, more handheld, and any scenes not 100% necessary getting cut. Then in the edit, I really started to see a different way to tell the story, such as the opening sequence. The deja vu days for Mara weren’t in the script at all. But it felt right. I started looking at it more as a “nightmare-logic” film like David Lynch or Nicolas Roeg, so not worrying about what is actually happening and concentrating on how Mara feels in that moment and editing the footage and sound around that. Those filmmakers are great at putting you in the headspace of someone who is in a very bad headspace. I like the phrase “Nightmare in a Damaged Brain”. That’s what the film is. Mara is being dragged through a nightmare and there is no escape, reality is questionable now. And the audience is right there with her. And so, like you say it becomes much more freeing as a filmmaker, gives you chance to really experiment.

Were there any elements of the finished film which were changed from your original script?

There were a few scenes that we dropped for time and cast and crew availability, which were all more expositional, so it was fine anyway as it went in line with the nightmare logic thing. But the one big change was the whole end sequence with Mara and The Ferryman. Up until well into filming the script had this big confrontation on a lake with a boat and these zombie things in the water and it really would have looked amazing but in terms of the risk and location it was just never going to happen. So, we rewrote, and had this Channel Zero: Candle Cove (2016) type surreal stage play ending, we were all ready to go…and then got kicked out of the location by the caretaker! So, I had to basically rework it to a location which we would have no issue with. Mara’s house. And I think for Mara, it actually works well in the end. But it was originally much more grand.

Did you experience any issues when shooting the film?

Other than getting kicked out of a location, basically all my planning in prep was naive. I did a schedule that was ridiculously tight and left no room for any setbacks or anything. I’d say that was the only real issue, my lack of preparation. And any issue after that was a direct result of it. But I’ve learned a hell of a lot from that aspect.

What was your favourite scene to film?

Definitely the scene when Roland tells Mara he’s her dad, and when they have the confrontation in the kitchen. Just nice two-handers where I just let Garth Maunders and Nicola Holt play out the whole scene in different takes, and the energy and fire they created really made us all step back and think “Okay shit this is actually a proper film isn’t it? These guys are actually killing it here!”

Do you have any other projects which you are working on at the moment?

I actually plan on shooting another this summer. I have a lot of scripts and ideas to pick from but after The Ferryman and all the characters and locations this one just feels like the right one. It’s ten times simpler but will be ten times more complex to make if that makes sense. I don’t want to give too much away but I’d basically describe it as The Wicker Man (1973) meets A Christmas Carol meets High Noon (1952). Absolutely nothing like The Ferryman. I’m very excited for it.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to direct their first film?

Do things your way. I’m an unsociable hermit with no money or experience so didn’t want a big crew and couldn’t have afforded it if I did, and I chose to shoot with equipment I understood. So I wore as many hats as I could using equipment I felt confident with and got the help of a small group of people I absolutely trusted to do other stuff. Because that’s what made me comfortable. And that’s probably how I’d do it again. Probably frowned upon but I couldn’t care less!

Look after yourself. When shooting I lived on coffee and cigarettes and looking back I think it really affected the shoot.

If you think you’re done with prep, do it all again. Prep, prep, prep. And try and be realistic with what you think you can pull off. If you have a backup plan for every scene even better, because you have to be ready for everything to go wrong WITHOUT compromising your vision. But also, to contradict that, you have to be pretty gung-ho or you’ll never get it done.

Other than that, have fun with it, because this is filmmaking, you’re doing it because it’s your dream, so it should be fun!

The Ferryman is available now to download/stream on Vimeo, priced from 99p. Check out the trailer below:


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