Out now in Irish cinemas is David Freyne’s debut feature The Cured starring Oscar-nominated Ellen Page (Juno, Inception) along with Irish acting talent Sam Keeley (Anthropoid, What Richard Did) and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (The Infiltrator, Love/Hate).
The film is set in the aftermath of a world ravaged for years with a devastating virus that turned the infected into zombie-like cannibals. While a cure is found, the wrenching process of reintegrating the survivors back into society begins. Among the formerly afflicted is Senan (Keeley), a young man haunted by the horrific acts he committed while infected. Welcomed back into the family of his widowed sister-in-law (Page) he 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?
Scannain caught up with writer/director David Freyne and lead Sam Keeley to talk about the film.
One of the things that I wanted to ask you is where did the name of the virus come from? Why Maze?
David: It was a lot of things. In the script for a very long time there was no name for it and everyone kept saying that we needed a name. So it came from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. There is no major, in-depth thesis written on it. I was like “I’m calling it Maze. It’s a cool name!”. So it was kind of arbitrary. I should come up with a better reason.
Sam: You could have said that the first facility to store infected people was the Maze prison…
David: Dammit that’s really good!
Sam: And then you could say that people just decided to call it the Maze virus after that.
So now we’ve established that why does the disease lead to the infected hunting other humans?
David: The idea was that with an infection there’s an element in which it wants to spread, but in the process it kills as well. We did a lot of research into that. Basically the idea is that the infected choose who to kill and who to infect. So they choose to kill Tom, choose to infect Senan, Senan then decides to infect others who I won’t name. There’s an element of the people subconsciously wanting to kill certain people and infect other people that they might have an attraction to or want to control. So that’s where the idea came from. Like any virus it’s two-pronged kill and spread.
They seem to have heightened senses, or at least there’s definitely an olfactory component to the infection.
David: Totally. Actually that came up in the research with Jane [McGrath] that we did. That part of this was the olfactory bulb would spread and it would give them the senses of a dog. That everything was so heightened and repulsive. Rather than wanting to eat brains it’s almost as if the smell of humans is so repulsive that the only way to get rid of it is by ingesting it. That was part of the idea of why they act like they do. And then the idea that they would behave and act like wolves. And that they would have that pack mentality.
Then Sam how did you approach acting that infected part?
Sam: Jane McGrath and David had done The First Wave, the kind of prequel to our film, and it was such a lovely thing for us as the guys had worked out a complete body of movement, certain breathing, certain types of behaviour, certain types of decisions, and posture and how our necks move. So we had it down to a fine science. If we had any questions about any area about the movements or how we behaved, we had a handbook to go to. Quite literally, Jane had diagrams drawn out. We had a week of rehearsals prior to the shoot and we did a lot of working on our posture and behaviour. The breathing in particular was a great way to root you to a very primal outward performance. So that was really handy.
And the hair and make-up aspect of it. Was that a pain?
Sam: I didn’t mind that so much. The lenses were the worst part. Those lens were the full of your eyes and not just around your iris. You would have to pop them in to your whole eye. They were quite uncomfortable, but really amazing. When you’d look in people’s eyes they were just mental, really veiny and colourful. It was great.
David: And we had a really great makeup designer, Julie-Ann Ryan, who created a brilliant look. Again it was a very heightened human infection. So it didn’t feel supernatural or otherworldly. It was blue veins and skin and that kind of strange saliva-type look around the mouth. She did a great job to enhance that. I think the combination of the movement and the makeup really helped bring them to life.
Did you look to other work as inspiration?
David: Yes absolutely. It is in the zombie genre, so of course you are going to look to what people had done before. And look to see what you can do that it different. I think the big thing for us was that the infection had that wolfpack mentality and heightened intelligence. Of course you look at things, but you don’t want to repeat what somebody else has done, while still playing a sort of homage to Romero. It was about creating our own style, our own creature, that would be synonymous with The Cured. It is a tricky balance. You want to make sure that it is somewhat familiar, because you can’t do the zombie-film that begins when others end if what is there is not in any way familiar to what has gone before. So you need to find what is familiar from those films while elevating it to make it distinct and have your own style. So we absolutely paid homage to the masters.
So there was no desire then to set it at Phibsborough Shopping Centre?
David: I would have if i could have got the permission!
Sam: That would have been great. I’d have loved that.
David: We got really lucky with the locations. One of the locations that I really wanted, and that I didn’t get, was that the quarantine centre was supposed to be set at Mosney. But obviously that’s where we have a lot of asylum seekers and people in direct provision. That has its own horror story going on there. It would have been so apt, but unfortunately we couldn’t shoot there. So that was the one location that I wanted and couldn’t get. I had that idea…I had this big image of having a doctor’s examination room in an abandoned pool. Which we did find and had painted. Our incredible production designer [Conor Dennison] had painted all of that childhood stuff. It was an image that I had. I like the idea of taking a resort or a hotel where there are happy memories and turning it into a military facility.
Some of our hotels have become a bit like that with the housing crisis, and that’s something that you hit on a bit with this. That idea of people with nowhere to go due to circumstances beyond their control.
David: I wanted to make sure that it was a complicated picture. Which it would be. That’s why we open with these two characters who are being let out of quarantine. Senan, Sam’s character, is being accepted back by his remaining family, Abbie, Ellen Page, his sister-in-law. And then have Conor, Tom’s character, who is rejected by his. And the idea is that it is a complicated picture. There are those who are of course accepted by their loved ones, and then those that just can’t forgive them for what they have done or are frightened by them, and then those that don’t have any family left to take them home. It is very much a divided society. It’s not a blanket hate or blanket open arms. We are trying to ensure that it is all shades of grey and a complicated picture. Which I think it would be.
You wrote the part of Senan with Sam in mind…
David: Yeah, [to Sam] when I had it written I thought that you’d be great at that!
Sam: What?! This is new to me!
David: I think with all of the actors you have to be open-minded but we were really lucky that we pretty much got our first choices. When you are talking about Irish actors Sam and Tom are up there and they are so good. They both have these qualities that they bring to the screen. Sam has this incredible empathy and vulnerability that brings Senan to life. In many ways that was the biggest challenge, because Senan is struggling with this inner monster and all of this inner turmoil. But the problem with inner turmoil is that it is not verbalised. So there’s very little dialogue to do that with. You have to be able to emote and get into the character and under the skin and portray that with a look, and that was what I thought Sam could and did do brilliantly. Now with Tom, I think again that he’s an incredible Irish actor and nobody can go from charming to menacing quite like Tom. We always wanted that moment where…we wanted people to be behind Conor until halfway through the film when they realise “Christ, I’m rooting for the bad guy!” and I think that Tom does that so beautifully. I’ve said it time-and-again now but I just got so lucky with the casting of this, particularly a first feature. Just to have the guys and have Ellen on-board it really is a dream scenario.
And Sam what did you think of the script when you saw it for the first time?
Sam: It scared me. Not in a sort of jumpy scary sense, but in the sense that the character, portraying that and giving that life and making that real, that scared me. To live with one foot in the door of that world is a lot of work. And it excited me. I was very very flattered that Dave wanted me to do it. It was a challenge and it got me very competitive with myself. And also i just loved it. I just thought that it was an really interesting way to look at a genre that we know so well. It was original and I just loved it straight away. We met very early on in London and during that first meeting with Dave and hearing him talk about it and how invested he was himself it was just like yeah. You’ve got a wonderful script,a nd a great character, and somebody who is obviously very very passionate about it so you can’t really go wrong with that. Then I was in India shooting a film and my agent sent through a press release and he was like “can you sign this? We need this release for a film festival” and I said “yeah, yeah” and it said Sam Keeley and Ellen Page to star in David Freyne’s new zombie film. And I hadn’t spoken to David in a while so this was all news to me! I was lie “Yeah, okay”.
So that was the first time that you knew that Ellen was involved?
Sam: Yeah just through that press release from my agent. my agent didn’t even tell me. he was just “can you sign this and send it back to me?”. When I opened the email up I was just aghast.
And this was for an announcement at Cannes?
David: It was the announcement at the start of the summer just before we shot. Once we got Ellen attached then the sales agent was like “this is the next market so we should get i out there” and it was a lovely place to do that. It was really nice. that was when we were on the home stretch and it is such and up and down journey, filmmaking, particularly when you’re a first-timer, and there’s lots of dips and troughs. There are lots of financing up and downs, but that was the point where we knew officially that this film was going to to happen, at Cannes, and we were moving towards that pre-production and that was an exhilaration for us. Finally! It was great.
The Marché [the film market at Cannes] is not quite as glamourous as the main festival…
David: Cannes is not a great place for directors, unless you are in the competition. There’s so many films there, there’s so many films in the Marché, and you just get frightened and petrified by the amount, by the volume of films that are competing to get out there.
You launch amid such glamour and heat and then return home to shoot in cold north central Dublin.
David: That’s what you expect when you’re shooting in winter in Ireland.
Sam: I don’t think that Ellen was expecting quite how cold it would actually get.
David: I think it only rained one day, which was so much a blessing. And you can’t plan for it. You can prep and prep and prep but things just go wrong. We had to go to Belfast for a day of shooting. And that was mad. We were pretty much shoving to days into one as it was the only place that we could get a prison type of location. Then as we were driving back at 6 o’clock in the evening we went to recce this carpark for a scene and we had our unit base out there and everything, and then we get a phone call while we are there saying that they had reneged and we weren’t allowed shoot there. So for the rest of the evening, myself and Rory [Dungan] and Rachael O’Kane my other producer and locations [Karl Daly] just drove around Dublin trying to find a carpark that we could possibly shoot in the next day. And we were literally with Julien [Benoiton] the A.D. going “can we reschedule this?” and he was like “no, we’ve rescheduled everything. We have nothing left to reschedule!”. So we were like “we can’t lose a day” so we ended up finding a carpark and we lost a couple of hours by the move, but we got it done. And that’s what you have to realise, shit goes wrong and you just have to embrace it and go with the madness. in a way that’s part of the fun of filmmaking. The good thing was that we always handled that stuff, perhaps with not a smile, but a slight grin. A panicked grin.
Sam: While they were doing that I was in bed.
David: Everyone came in and were asking “why do David and Rory look so tired?” We had just got in!
Sam: I remember that morning going “oh, we are here” and there was no panic. It was always very calm.
David: Meanwhile it was me and Piers [McGrail, the DoP] running around going “can we shoot this scene in that alley? No we can’t there’s too many needles. Can we use this alley?” so I think that you just have to go with that. You can plan and plan and plan, but the magic comes in that unpredictable moment.
Something that happens a lot when Irish people watch Irish film is that they will critique the geography…
David: I do it all the time! How did he transport from Phibsborough out to Dalkey? You realise particularly when you are shooting that it’s because of logistics. Because we were there that day and we had to. But it’s absolutely the case. Now that I live in London, and the better I get to know the place the more I do it now with London and with British TV. “Wait a second, that’s there and now they are over there!” I think that happenes with any place you know intimately and something is filmed there. You just get to criticise the implausibility of it. That’s the nature of shooting.
It must have been nice to be able to film in that part of Dublin. And show it kind of differently on screen.
David: It was. It was amazing. They were locations that I had written for and the locals were really inviting. And the neighbours were lovely where we shot. It was really nice. There was a real boyhood glee in seeing zombies running down those streets and running past the Four Courts and shooting around those locations. In making this film that you would normally see set somewhere else, set in the city, in Dublin. Dublin is very much a part, a character in this film in many ways, which is something that we are very proud of. It was a great privilege that we got such a welcoming invite from the various locations that allowed us to shoot.
It ends on an open question, so will you return?
David: No more zombies! We always said the film is Senan’s redemption and I think that it is that journey to redemption. It’s slightly ambiguous but it’s a hopeful ending and there’s a sense of redemption, without giving any thing away!